Armed with a brush and a bucket of grey paint, the Russian anti-war activist Ilya Zernov walked through Belgrade until he reached a large mural that said “Death to Ukraine” on the side of an apartment block.
As Zernov, 19, started painting over the mural, he said he was cornered by three Serbian men who ordered him to stop. “One of them pulled out a knife … He then punched me in the right ear,” Zernov, who fled his hometown of Kazan shortly after Vladimir Putin’s troops invaded Ukraine, told the Observer.
The attack left him with a perforated eardrum, but Zernov said he was glad he managed to at least partly cover the mural. “As a Russian, I felt it was my responsibility to do something. The graffiti glorified violence.”
Zernov is one of the estimated 200,000 Russians to have left for Serbia since the start of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, making the Balkan country one of the main exile destinations for those fleeing the consequences of the Kremlin’s war.
Unlike other parts of Europe, Russians do not need a visa to enter Serbia and have largely been welcomed in Belgrade given the historical ties between the two Orthodox Christian countries.
The new emigrants have opened cafes and galleries, registered more than 2,000 new businesses and even giving a boost to the property market.
But in a country where Putin’s regime enjoys significant support under an increasingly assertive nationalist government led by prime minister Aleksandar Vučić, activists like Zernov have faced harassment and expulsions.
Belgrade has long performed a delicate balancing act between its EU aspirations on the one hand and its centuries-old ethnic and religious ties with Russia. Vučić has refused to introduce sanctions against Russia for its aggression against Ukraine, while Moscow continues to serve as Serbia’s main ally in opposing the independence of its former province of Kosovo.
Feeling unsafe in Belgrade, Zernov has since left the city for Berlin. Before his departure, he was an active member of the Russian Democratic Society (RDS), an anti-war organisation founded last year to bring like-minded Russians together.
“There is a graffiti battle on the streets of Belgrade,” said Pyotr Nikitin, the founder of RDS, listing other murals in the city that hail Russian troops in Ukraine and the infamous Wagner mercenary group.
“We paint over pro-war murals, but then new ones spring up,” Nikitin said over lunch at TT Bistro, a recently opened Russian restaurant.
Nikitin said he founded RDS shortly after the start of the war in Ukraine when he saw that many fellow countrymen were looking for a way to voice their opposition to it. The group has since organised a series of marches in Belgrade.
As RDS’s membership ballooned following Russia’s mobilisation in September 2022, which saw thousands of Russians flee to Serbia to avoid the draft, the group came to the attention of the Serbian authorities.
“First, we saw an organised media campaign against us,” Nikitin said, referring to negative coverage his organisation got in pro-Vučić tabloids.
Several Serbian far-right politicians also spoke out against the influx of anti-war Russians, who they claimed were trying to destabilise the country.
“It is a real revolution of liberals,” Miša Vacić, the leader of the ultra-nationalistic, pro-Kremlin Serbian Right political party, told Politico magazine last March. “They think they must liberate Serbia from Serbs, from traditional Serbian values,” Vacić added.
Nikitin, who has rejected claims that his organisation was interested in influencing Serbian politics, said the situation got significantly worse by this summer.
He said RDS meetings had been routinely disrupted and that Serbian banks had refused the group’s request to open an account that would allow it to raise funds for anti-war charities.
In July, Serbian police banned Nikitin from entering the country, citing national security concerns.
Nikitin, who has a valid long-term resident’s permit, is married to a Serb and has two children who were born in Serbia, was eventually let into the country after spending a night at the airport. Soon after, Vladimir Volokhonsky, an opposition councillor in St Petersburg who co-founded RDS in Belgrade, had his Serbian residency permit cancelled on similar grounds, ie that he was a national security threat.
Nikitin and other Russian activists have said the attacks against them were supervised by Serbia’s intelligence chief, Aleksandar Vulin, who is widely believed to be close to Russian security services.
Serbian media have also reported that Vulin’s Security and Information Agency (BIA) wiretapped a 2021 meeting of Russian opposition members in Belgrade.
Vulin allegedly took the recordings of the conversations to Moscow and handed them over to Nikolai Patrushev, the head of Russia’s security council.
“By targeting the leaders of the anti-war movement in Belgrade, the Serbian authorities are trying to force others to stay quiet,” Nikitin said. “It is demoralising when the state works against you. But still, we try to come together and voice our opinions.”
Concert venues and lecture halls in Belgrade have emerged as vibrant gathering spots for Russians. Ever since the start of the war, dozens of prominent Russian artists have fled the country, instead touring in cities across Europe.
“I thought it was extremely important to bring people together who are united by their opposition to this war,” said Yevgeny Irzhansky, a Russian citizen who has organised concerts by anti-war bands and arts events in Belgrade. “We hoped to cultivate a tight-knit community here,” Irzhansky added.
But he too has run into trouble with the Serbian authorities.
In June, Irzhansky was questioned by the local police about his views on Russia and the war.
Two months later, he was summoned by Serbian immigration officials, who informed him that his residence permits had been cancelled and that he had seven days to leave the country. “I have no doubt they decided to kick me out because of my views and my role as a concert organiser.”
“Most of the Russian musicians and speakers who are invited are on the blacklist in Russia and most of them live outside of Russia because they could be arrested there,” said Irzhansky, who has since moved to neighbouring Montenegro.
But despite the pressure, many Russians in Belgrade remain defiant. On a recent Sunday, about 5,000 people gathered at the MTS Dvorana arena to listen to Bi-2, a popular Belarusian-Russian rock band that stopped performing back home after its lead singer criticised the war.
As the concert came to an end, a group congregated outside.
“It feels good coming to concerts like these and talking to people who think the same way,” said Anton, who left Moscow shortly after the war started. “It is important that the world knows that many Russians are against the war.”