One wintry day, a new Russian immigrant named Artem came to the Minnesota State Capitol to protest the war in Ukraine. Then a police siren sounded afar, and he grew fearful.

Was he really free, even in America?

Artem thought back to that day last summer in his Siberian hometown, when he ambled around the city square holding a sign against the Russia-Ukraine war. It was illegal in Russia to oppose the invasion, but Artem knew his future grandchildren would ask what he had done about it. "I wanted to tell them this is what I've done so my conscience would be clear," he recalled through an interpreter. The Russian police came to arrest Artem, and he fled the country months later.

Now Artem is among a small but growing coterie of Russians who claimed asylum at the Mexican border and resettled in the Twin Cities as they wait for the courts to hear their cases. Custom and Border Patrol agents report encounters with Russians at the southern border jumped from 4,103 in fiscal year 2021 to 26,580 this year.

Longtime Russian American Elena Mityushina organized Russian antiwar protests at the State Capitol this year and was surprised to see newly arrived asylees like Artem, who didn't want his last name published on the advice of his immigration attorney. Mityushina founded the group Russians Against War, and estimates there are at least 50 new Russian asylees in the Twin Cities — with more on the way.

Unlike Ukrainians escaping the war, Russians have no official program to sponsor them in the United States. Instead, they rely on a backlogged asylum system that leaves many in limbo for years, often to be rejected.

A Ukrainian's path to the U.S. "is pretty straightforward — they get [legal] status right away and some sort of understanding of how long it's going to take," said Mityushina, who immigrated in 2000. Russians, by contrast, "are kind of in the air — they don't know when their case is going to be, there's no formal structure to support them. They're just finding people on Facebook and Telegram and ad hoc like that."


A video shows a Russian policeman approaching Artem, 45, as he holds an antiwar sign in a public square. Artem smiles courteously at the officer. Passersby ignore them. Several more policemen come and lead Artem away.

What happened next wasn't filmed.

Artem said they took him to the police station with sirens on ("Like I was a big criminal," he recalled in Russian, with Mityushina interpreting). Officers and Federal Security Service (FSB) agents interrogated him for seven hours, he said. Who paid him to protest? Who else was in his group? By his recollection, they threatened his children's ability to go to school and later, find jobs. Police searched his home. Artem was finally released and ordered to pay a large fine, with the threat of lengthy prison time for another offense. His 42-year-old wife Katya, who shot the video, was fired from her accounting job for Artem's actions.

He saw that most people in his Siberian oil town appeared to support the war, believing President Vladimir Putin's propaganda that Russia was fighting Nazis in Ukraine. Artem, a shopping mall manager, stopped talking to those who backed the Putin regime. His own father shunned him, calling him a criminal for protesting.

"Of course, I did feel very lonely and isolated. … People would call me a fascist or a Nazi," Artem said.

He, Katya and their three children sought refuge in their retirement house on the Russian-Ukrainian border. Within weeks, FSB agents came to ask if Artem planned to break the law there, too. He feared for his family's future.

They hastily sold the house for well below its value. Artem decided against resettling in Europe — he preferred the melting pot of America. In late August, they flew to Turkey and then Mexico, and joined the masses of Russian migrants in Tijuana clamoring for refuge. Artem turned to the messaging app Telegram, where he found Russians exchanging tips on how to cross the border. He unsuccessfully tried nine times before taking their advice to go 2 ½ hours east to cross at Mexicali.

There, American border agents took Artem's family to a detention center in Yuma, Ariz., and split them up. Artem and his son slept on mattresses on the floor. Yet it was a good sleep, his son Kirill recalled: "We slept like two Siberian bears."

They decided to wait out their case in Minnesota after hearing it was like Siberia, and they were released in October with notices to show up for court in St. Paul. A Russian American family they met on social media — among 44,200 Minnesotans of Russian heritage — vouched for the family, hosting them for a few weeks in the Twin Cities until they found them an apartment in Shakopee.


Meanwhile, a new wave of Russians fled upon Putin's announcement of a mobilization of men to fight in Ukraine on Sept. 21.

In Moscow, a woman named Svetlana noticed that she was surrounded by women and the elderly on the train, as the men lived in the dark, afraid to be stopped and given notice to serve in the war. Her husband, Pavel, drove to work and went straight home, trying to avoid police. Two of her co-workers were called to war. One, 18, died weeks later.

The couple's 11-year-old son was forced to attend a pro-war class at school.

"We are against Putin and the war, and it would be crazy for us to go in this conquest war to go fight," said Pavel, who asked that the Star Tribune not publish his family's last name for the safety of relatives in Russia.

The family, including their 20-year-old son, escaped to Mexico. As they waited in the border town of Matamoros, they saw hordes of Russians wandering around with suitcases. Terrifying stories circulated of the cartel, and they heard about a Russian who went for a beer and never came back. Pavel's family crossed into Brownsville, Texas, with 160 other Russians on Dec. 22 and spent hours at an immigration center filling out asylum paperwork.

The family flew to Minneapolis after Pavel talked with a Russian asylee who had posted advice videos on YouTube about moving to Minnesota. Pavel had a Russian friend who had immigrated to the Twin Cities years before and agreed to vouch for the family. The friend co-signed the lease on an apartment for the family in St. Paul. Now they attend English classes in the city alongside Ukrainians. Pavel tells them they are antiwar right away.


In Shakopee, Artem's three children all have Ukrainian refugee classmates. They befriended a Ukrainian family in their apartment complex.

Kirill, 16, used Google Translate to write high school papers lamenting Putin's regime.

"To my regret, I was born and raised in this country and only moved to the USA after the 9th grade. ... This experience is my whole short life and it helped me understand that even a very smart person will be subject to the rot of propaganda over time," Kirill wrote. He said Ukraine must win — if Russia triumphs, "Putin's dictatorial rule will not end, and also Russia will threaten the neighboring countries with destabilization and subsequent war."

Artem was typing up his own story for his asylum case.

"I know that Russia will lose because I lived in Russia, and I know how corrupt the country is. ... With this level of corruption you can't win," Artem told the Star Tribune.

One evening, the family enjoyed an Uzbek dish of rice, beef and carrots, and sipped tea with oregano and apple slices. Then they went for an evening stroll down a walking path in Shakopee, marveling at the stalks of milkweed and stopping to watch a pair of eagles soar.

Artem saw a policeman pull over a motorist next to their path. He felt nervous again. He was accustomed to seeing Russian officers take people away for no reason. But the policeman here paid him no mind, and Artem and his family kept walking.