On-the-run in France with three of her children, Nadezhda Kutepova fears jail for treason if she returns home to Russia.
She fled amid Moscow’s crackdown on foreign-funded organisations, which critics say is an assault on civil society.
But proponents of the new restrictions say they protect Russia from outside influence and that it is society’s right to know which organisations receive overseas money.
Planeta Nadezhd, the small NGO Kutepova set up 15 years ago, found itself a target of the clampdown.
The charity helped people affected by radiation from the Kyshtym nuclear disaster in 1957.
Kutepova, 43, fled on the advice of her lawyer after her NGO was classified as a ‘foreign agent’.
She says TV reports had accused her of spying and showed the front door of her house.
“I left Russia in complete confidentiality, nobody knew I was going away,” Kutepova told Euronews.
“I am the only representative of my children, they don’t have other relatives. In the case of my imprisonment they would have to go to an orphanage and I don’t want that for them. I packed up and wrote to human rights organisations, they bought the tickets for us.”
Divorcee Kutepova has been in France since July with three of her children, aged 14, 10 and seven.
“In general I’m feeling very bad here in France, I left Russia without money, without anything. I escaped,” said Kutepova, whose French visa will expire at the end of September. She says she plans to apply for asylum and remain in the country.
“Basically we live on charity. People who know me and my work help us. They just feed me and my children.”
“I feel horrible in my own skin”
Vladimir Putin signed a new law cracking down on foreign-funded NGOs at the start of his third presidential term, three years ago. The legislation required organisations that received money from abroad and who engage in ‘political activity’ to register as foreign agents.
Then, in May this year, fresh legislation was passed allowing authorities to shut down organisations deemed ‘undesirable’, namely those posing a threat to the country’s ‘constitutional order, defence potential or state security’.
Kutepova says she opened Facebook in April to learn Russian authorities had labelled Planeta Nadezhd as a ‘foreign agent’.
She says she refused to voluntarily register her NGO, landing a 310,000-rouble fine. Unable to pay the penalty, Kutepova began liquidating the charity in July.
She said: “It was frustrating because I was hoping that they would not recognise us as a foreign agent because we don’t have political activity. It was frustrating and I even felt some resentment because I think I’ve done a lot for the region in protecting the rights of victims from nuclear pollution.
“My feelings are horrible in my own skin. I worked for 15 years and this time is down the pan. I left people with whom I was working with, there are some things I didn’t finish. I have complex feelings and I’m in France alone with my children but without money.”
‘No problems’ with NGO law
Russian MP Alexander Sidyakin, author of the law, said it just requires NGOs to sign a register and label its output as being issued from a foreign agent.
“I don’t see any problems here,” he told Euronews. “Civil society is our right to know.
“The meaning of the NGOs law is to show our civil society there are non-profit organisations that are engaged in political activity on foreign money.
“We do not stop organisations engaging in political activity.”
Sidyakin said he did not know of organisations that had closed because they had to pay a fine related to the law.
He added: “If someone had to go away from Russia, I think it was just an excuse to ask a foreign government to give political asylum or a long visa.
“Being added to the register does not preclude the [NGO’s] activity. You can do the same things as you did. To have a different view is fiction and speculation around the law.”
Main picture: The words foreign agent in Russian on a wall