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Dissidents speak out from Lithuania after fleeing Putin's Russia

Putin’s courageous Russian critics speak out
Russian critics of Putin fight for freedom, democracy — even after going into exile 13:27

Today is election day in Russia but there's no suspense. 71-year-old Vladimir Putin will be named the winner as he has been over the last 24 years. This time, as often, his challengers died; one, after an explosion on a plane and, Alexey Navalny, Putin's leading rival, who died last month in an Arctic prison camp. Putin has killed nearly all internal opposition to his unprovoked war in Ukraine. And yet, many courageous Russians continue the struggle outside the country. We met some of them in a city you might think of as the capital of free Russia. 

It's 500 miles west of Moscow, the city of Vilnius, in Lithuania where there is no love lost for Russia. 

Lithuania is a democracy of about 3 million people and a NATO ally. Vilnius, the capital, is clothed in the colors of Ukraine. The city changed the Russian embassy's address to "Heroes of Ukraine Street." And Putin is reminded the international court in the Hague is waiting with his arrest warrant. Since Putin's 2022 invasion, Lithuania has welcomed more than 2,500 Russian exiles.

Mantas Adomenas: It is our policy to provide shelter to all freedom fighters.

Mantas Adomenas served as Lithuania's deputy foreign minister from 2020 until last August. 

Scott Pelley: I haven't seen so many Ukrainian flags since I was in Kyiv. Why do your people feel so strongly about this?

Mantas Adomenas: Our freedom, our independence, our sort of security is being defended in the battlefields in Ukraine. Ukrainians are dying so that we can be safe.

Scott Pelley: There are many more Russian dissidents who would like to come to Lithuania. Can you accept any more?

Mantas Adomenas: Yes, I think we can accept. Of course—  we will accommodate as many as needed and to provide them with possibility to work for the freedom and democracy in Russia.

Mantas Adomenas
Mantas Adomenas served as Lithuania's deputy foreign minister from 2020 until last August.  60 Minutes

One of the Russian exiles, in Lithuania, working for freedom and democracy is a crusading mom. Two years ago, Anastasia Shevchenko fled Putin's regime. 

Anastasia Shevchenko: This is a terrorist regime. They are threatening other countries with oil, gas, nuclear weapon, and grain. They are threatening us with our children, with our parents, with our lives, and so on.

More than anything, it was her daughter, Alina, severely disabled at birth, that made Shevchenko an activist against Putin. Back then, the family was in southern Russia and Alina was in a Russian government nursing home.

Scott Pelley: Alina could not speak, could not communicate?

Anastasia Shevchenko: No. She was like a one-week child, like a baby. She was 17, but even, you know, to feed her, it was a whole science, because she needed blended food. You need to hold her in a special position.

Shevchenko cared for Alina much of the time because the Russian nursing facility was short on staff and supplies. 

Anastasia Shevchenko: I was struggling to get medication for my daughter, begging in the pharmacy that she needed it. It was very important for her health. They said, "No, we just don't have it, because the ministry forgot to order it this month and you need to wait." I decided, I'm not going to keep silence. I'm going to stand out and to speak out.

She spoke out through a Russian democracy group called Open Russia. It was tolerated 10 years ago and Shevchenko organized protests in her hometown. But in 2019, the Kremlin cracked down. Shevchenko was arrested and her lawyer warned her she would be shocked by what the police had already done.

Anastasia Shevchenko: He showed me the screenshots of me-- in my bed. And I realized that they had installed the video camera into the air conditioning unit above my bed. and they have been watching me for six months in my bedroom.

A Russian court ordered Shevchenko into house arrest. She couldn't visit or care for Alina. It wasn't long before her daughter developed pneumonia. By the time a judge granted Shevchenko a pass to the hospital, Alina was unconscious. 

Anastasia Shevchenko: I spent-- maybe ten minutes, holding her hand, because that's what I do when my children are ill. When you hold their hand, they feel better. But this time, she was cold. She didn't feel me. And she died in an hour. 

Anastasia Shevchenko
Anastasia Shevchenko 60 Minutes

In 2021, Shevchenko was given a four-year suspended sentence. But when Putin invaded Ukraine, the next year, she decided to flee Russia. From her southern city, she took her two surviving children on an 1,100 mile drive. A U.S.-based democracy group arranged Lithuanian visas. 

Scott Pelley: What does this tell us about Russia today?

Anastasia Shevchenko: It's enough to write something on social media. Just one sentence, and you can be imprisoned for years. They are listening to your phone calls. They're watching you in your bedroom. They are controlling you. 

Breaking that control is why Sergei Davidis also left Russia for Lithuania in 2022. 

Scott Pelley: You would be in a Russian prison just for doing this interview.

Sergei Davidis: Oh, for sure, for sure

In Moscow, Davidis helped lead one of Russia's largest human rights groups called Memorial. It won the Nobel Peace Prize two years ago but now it's banned. He told us…

Sergei Davidis (translation): Almost every day there are more and more arrests. We hear news about new political arrests. And apart from the legal side of it, more often than before, there's violence and torture.

Davidis heads Memorial's project to support political prisoners. He told us he has confirmed 680 in prison today but he believes the actual number is multiples of that. Since 2022, Russians can be sentenced to 15 years just for criticizing the war-- on the street or in the media.

Sergei Davidis (translation): One of the consequences of the war was a complete wipe out of independent mass media, a prohibition of any opinion that's not under control of the government.

Sergei Davidis
Sergei Davidis 60 Minutes

Independent newsrooms in Russia have been forced to close. Government-controlled newscasts report only the absurd lie that the war is self-defense against Nazis. This host says, "we are on the side of good against the forces of absolute evil, embodied by the Ukrainian Nazi battalions."  

Tatyana Felgenhauer: People are scared. So they feel lonely. They feel terribly lonely.

Tatyana Felgenhauer and Aleksandr Plyuschev were talk radio hosts on a prominent Moscow station. They were allowed to speak their minds until the day Putin launched his war.

Aleksandr Plyuschev: It was my morning show. I said, "It's half past 6:00. Good morning. War began."

"War began" and within two weeks, their station was forced to close. 

Now, Plyuschev and Felgenhauer are in Vilnius, streaming, daily, into Russia on YouTube. Putin silenced Facebook, "X" and Instagram but YouTube may be too popular for the Kremlin to block, so far. 

Tatyana Felgenhauer: This is the only chance to talk about the war honestly because the propaganda tries to create this feeling that you are completely alone if you are against the war. 

Scott Pelley: Why does this mean so much to you?

Tatyana Felgenhauer: Really, I would hate myself if I am silent or pretending that everything is OK.

Aleksandr Plyuschev and Tatyana Felgenhauer
Aleksandr Plyuschev and Tatyana Felgenhauer 60 Minutes

If Russian radio and TV stations are allowed only Kremlin talking points… 

…we saw a Lithuanian station telling the truth, not on a channel, but on platform number 5—to a captive Russian audience.

Because part of Russia, Kaliningrad, on the left, is separate, like Alaska from the lower 48, the Moscow-Kaliningrad train must travel through Lithuania.  

The cars are sealed for the transit but at a stop in Vilnius, Russian passengers were confronted by posters of atrocities. Each read, "Putin is killing civilians in Ukraine. Do you agree with this?" The gallery testified as the train waited half an hour. There's no way to know how much truth climbed aboard. And no one is allowed off the train, in part, because Lithuania worries about Russian agents. 

Scott Pelley: Putin is infamous for attempting to attack his enemies in foreign countries. And I wonder if the Russian dissidents are safe here in Lithuania.

Mantas Adomenas: Of course, it is a major concern for us. And we spend considerable-- effort in-- in making sure that-- dissidents are safe here and-- safer than they would be, in fact, in-- in many other countries. 

Scott Pelley: Have there been attempts?

Mantas Adomenas: Well, I'm afraid I can't release that information in more detail. But-- let's put it this way-- that-- that Russia is constantly probing and constantly trying.

And this past week, Russia may have gotten through. Leonid Volkov was attacked with a hammer outside Vilnius. Volkov, on the right, was a top aide to Putin's late rival Alexey Navalny. Volkov's arm was broken. The attacker fled.  

Vladimir Putin's re-election this week will bring him to his fifth term, which will cover the next six years. He enjoys support from nationalists who want to believe that today's Russia is an exceptional nation. But Putin also has weaknesses. It's estimated he's lost 300,000 troops killed and wounded and Russia has a population less than half that of the United States and an economy about the size of Italy's.

Anastasia Shevchenko: My hope is-- a country where a government takes care about citizens.

Anastasia Shevchenko is free in Vilnius but she's wanted in Russia for breaking her probation. These days she's streaming her own YouTube show and sends medicine, food and letters to political prisoners. She's become another voice to the isolated and the lonely and those, like her daughter, who will never escape the new iron curtain. 

Anastasia Shevchenko: She was alone, no one next to her. I really feel very guilty about it. But I wouldn't change anything in my life, I think.

Scott Pelley: Why not?

Anastasia Shevchenko: You know, the society in Russia is based on fakes. We have fake democracy, by constitution it is a democracy, fake news, fake elections And I want to be the opposite. I want to be open. I want Russia to be open. 

Produced by Henry Schuster. Associate producer, Sarah Turcotte. Broadcast associate, Michelle Karim. Edited by Michael Mongulla.

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