Russian soldiers who fled to Alaska await US asylum decision

Two Russian dissidents defected from Russia before being deployed to Ukraine. After a 5-day journey to Alaska, they now await the result of their asylum claim in the US.

Shoreline in the town of Gambell, St Lawrence Island, Alaska. (photo credit: 176th Wing Alaska Air National Guard via WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
Shoreline in the town of Gambell, St Lawrence Island, Alaska.
(photo credit: 176th Wing Alaska Air National Guard via WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Two Russian dissidents who fled conscription into the Russian army, and faced deployment into the frontlines in Ukraine fled to Alaska via fishing boat and now await the result of their asylum claims in Washington state, Politico reported on Wednesday.

Sergey and Maksim, the AWOL soldiers in their 30s who go only by their first names to protect their identities from the Russian government, are being held in an immigration detention center in Tacoma, Washington. They have been there since October 2022, when they arrived in Gambell, Alaska on a fishing boat.

Local resident Curtis Silook was harvesting ducks when he saw the Russian dissident’s boat creeping closer to shore. Silook, who also serves as the city clerk, said he assumed the boat belonged to a local resident that was bringing it back to shore to protect it from a storm. What locals uncovered was far more surprising.

“I remember their clothing being wet, and the first thing being that we should get them somewhere dry and get them fed,” Silook said.

FISHERMEN PADDLE across Chilkoot Lake near Haines, Alaska (credit: BOB STRONG / REUTERS)FISHERMEN PADDLE across Chilkoot Lake near Haines, Alaska (credit: BOB STRONG / REUTERS)

A treacherous journey

A week before Sergey and Maksim embarked on their trip to Alaska, which can be reached from Russia via the Bering Strait, they were visited by Russian authorities, who knocked on their door. Knowing that Putin’s mobilization of forces was underway, the two refused to answer the door – opting rather to leave behind everything they knew and flee the country.

Sergey and Maksim then traveled nearly 300 miles on a medium-sized fishing boat. After the treacherous, five-day journey, they arrived in the 700-person town. After feeding and sheltering them for a night, the US Coast Guard flew Sergey and Maksim to Tacoma, Washington for processing.

“It’s a horrible and awful process,” Nicolas McKee, a staff attorney at Northwest Immigrant Rights Project and the lawyer entrusted with their case. “When you travel so long, and you’re working through a lot at home, and then you get put into what’s basically a prison and told it’s not a prison – it’s not great,” McKee continued, explaining the horrid conditions commonly found at US detention centers for refugees and asylum seekers.

European refugee crisis

Many around Ukraine and Russia have become displaced since the start of the Russia-Ukraine War in February 2022. Nearly 8 million refugees have fled Ukraine since the start of the war – many of whom moved to Poland, Hungary, or other neighboring countries. 

Meanwhile, nearly one million Russians have fled the country since the onset of the war, as they fear being drafted to fight in a war that has led to the deaths of “well over 100,000 Russian soldiers,” as US General Mark Milley said in November.

Israel alone has welcomed over 30,000 refugees from Ukraine since the war began – over half of which are eligible for citizenship according to the Law of Return – while simultaneously servicing over 5,000 olim from Russia that sought to emigrate to Israel amid the start of the conflict.