THEO PANAYIDES meets a man with an alleged noble past who lost all he had in Russia for the sake of his principles. He’s now struggling to hold it together in Cyprus.
I normally get paid for writing profiles, but Rasul Yagudin’s may be the first where I find myself out of pocket – because, after more than an hour of listening to the story of his life (especially the story of the past two years), I reach into my wallet and pull out a €20 note, which he gratefully accepts. Some might say I got suckered, but I don’t regret it. It was the least I could do.
His story is remarkable and fascinating, and we’ll get to that in a moment – a tale of fleeing for his life, being hunted by the Russian police and the KGB, ending up in Cyprus, living rough for almost a year, almost dying on more than one occasion. The only real question is how reliable his testimony is. Is he exaggerating slightly when he says “I am famous journalist in Russia” (leaving out indefinite articles in the Russian manner)? Is he embellishing the truth for the sake of a better story when he talks of being persecuted by the governments of Russia and (less so) Cyprus? What kind of person is he? At one point, for instance, he directs me to his personal website where I can read some of his writings; the site’s address is www.highness.sitecity.ru.
“‘Highness’?” I repeat, looking quizzically at the url.
“Don’t be shocked,” he replies with a smile. “I am from very old noble Russian family, Yagudins”. Later, I check out the site, translating the Russian via Google: it talks of “His Highness Rasul Yagudin”, and its sections all have titles like “Poems by His Highness” and “Journal of His Highness”. It’s presumably tongue-in-cheek – an elaborate joke – but, without knowing him better, it’s hard to discern whether it’s a self-deprecating joke or a narcissistic joke.
He certainly needs no prompting to embark on his story. He’s 50 years old, unblinking, thin to the point of being birdlike; he’s from Ufa, the capital of Bashkortostan – a republic near the Ural Mountains – and has Bashkir blood, which explains his rather Asian features. “So,” he says, putting his cards on the table as we sit in the offices of KISA, the worthy NGO specialising in migrant issues, “I am Rasul Yagudin, independent journalist. I am member of many journalistical organisations of world. For all my life I was in opposition to modern authorities of Russia, and I wrote very many articles against Putin and state Duma and other authorities”. The authorities didn’t appreciate that, so “very big persons of Russia ordered KGB and Russian police to imprison me.” He pauses. “Imprison and kill me.”
For 20 years, he says, he’s been harassed by successive governments; he’s been writing since Soviet times, getting steadily angrier as Russia went steadily downhill. One night in 2011 the police broke down his door, searched his house, “stole all my computers, all my manuscripts, all my books” and handed him a summons to report for interrogation the next morning. Friends in the know warned him not to go. He was going to be arrested, they said, put on trial, sentenced to five years in prison, then murdered by criminals on the first night. “You must run away immediately,” they told him; so, he recalls, “on the same night I sat in my car, and left my house forever”.
He went to Moscow, then Ukraine, then Moldova; on each occasion, after a few weeks, he was warned that his pursuers were closing in, and advised to move on. He went to Turkey, seeking asylum, then to what he calls the “Turkish zone of Cyprus” where the pseudo-authorities didn’t have a legal framework to deal with refugees and “advised me to come here”. If he’d had money, he’d have tried to go to South America (one of the few places where Russians can enter without a visa) – but by this time he was broke, so he found himself in the refugee camp (or “reception centre”) at Kofinou. This was in April 2012; he applied for asylum, and was told he’d have to wait a couple of years for his application to be processed.
Alas, things got complicated. “Situation is very bad for me,” explains Rasul, “because I am very uncomfortable person for authorities of Cyprus. They can’t keep me here, because Cyprus is best friend of Putin – but they can’t deport me because Cyprus is member of European Union, and rules of European Union forbid to deport asylum seekers. So they decided the best exit for them from this situation [would be] if I would die on the streets. And they managed it that I would be kicked out of Kofinou camp – and I stayed on the streets homeless, without food, without money, without single chance to survive.”
Hold on a minute, though: what exactly had he done to provoke such opprobrium? What kind of articles did he write in Russia, anyway? “I was writing not common articles,” he explains. “Every time I was writing, I was writing about an event”, and every time “I [was] proclaiming that political system of Russia is making situation where event can happen, and naming Putin, Medvedev and authorities, and criticising police and KGB”.
What kind of events? “For example, police beat a person in police station.” Or, for instance, the situation in (some) mental hospitals – a kind of 21st-century gulag, he claims, where authorities turn a blind eye to all sorts of evils. “Authorities need this mental-hospital system because it gives them possibility to place in mental hospital opposition politicians, and journalists too”, so in exchange “they allow attendants to make various crimes in hospitals, for example to rape women, to force children to kiss their feet and etc”. Corruption is rife; abuse goes unpunished.
Russia today “is very bad place,” according to Rasul. “Russia is occupied by enemy. Russia is not liberal country”. It’s worse than in Soviet times, he claims, “in Soviet Union I never saw such terrible events”. Back then, the Party controlled the situation, and low-ranking officials weren’t allowed to run riot – “but now every officer in every district, every police station, every mental hospital, has possibility to make something for himself. To receive money, to receive benefits”. Back then, he says, a journalist had limits (you obviously couldn’t criticise Brezhnev), but at least you could expose low-level abuse, and effect some change at local level. Now, “every little manager, every little director, is doing all that he wants, and you can’t stop him”. Worst of all, it’s a system that leaves many people – those doing the abuse – entirely satisfied, even if the rest are in agony.
Not that his own life was unpleasant in Russia, quite the opposite: “I had very good life,” he recalls fondly. “I earned around $1,000 in a day”. Twice a week he filled a car with books and drove all day, to the villages around Ufa, where he sold the books and came back in the evening with an empty car “but full pockets of money”. Eight times a month translated to $8,000, which was enough to live on and gave him time to write his articles. “And of course, being a journalist, I was very interesting to various women, various girls, because they are interested by this profession. I was sportsman all my life, I was body-builder, I had big muscles” – hard to believe when you look at his stick-like body now, weakened by months of living rough – “and I was almost rich, [so] I was fascinating to various girls and women. So I had a very good life.”
These are the things he must’ve clung to during his year of being homeless, in Limassol and Larnaca. Jobs were scarce, especially after the haircut. Sometimes he slept on park benches; sometimes he slept in a “wasted” (i.e. empty) house that was due to be refurbished. For a while he slept in a little tent which he pitched on a beach in Limassol – but last April “it was very cold time, and I became very sick. Maybe I would die, but one very good woman – she was running every morning for health – she saw me dying on the beach, she ran home, took medicine, took food, ran back, and she saved my life”.
Twice he was beaten and attacked (he claims it was arranged by the Cyprus government, trying to hasten his death), breaking a rib and his shoulder bone. He became sick from bad food, and couldn’t pay the €10 needed for hospital treatment. At one point he was taken in by Jehovah’s Witnesses, but left them when he realised they were “not correct Christian organisation”. Rasul grew up atheist – having been raised in the USSR, in the bosom of the Komsomol – but “my life led me to God,” as he puts it, “and now I believe [in] God whole-hearted. And I am sure that only God saved me these two years. Sitting here, I can’t explain how I was surviving for all this year. Homeless, without money, without food, without any help. Why am I alive until this time? I can’t explain.”
Not that he’s out of the woods yet. Indeed, his plight is pretty desperate. He’s been living in a flat in Nicosia for the past month – but, when we spoke, didn’t have enough for rent money. A return to the streets seems a real possibility – and, he says miserably, “if I will stay homeless again, I think I will die”. Even if he doesn’t, however, what will become of him? It’s hard to see our government approving his application for asylum. Even if he had the money to leave Cyprus (for South America, say), his passport has expired and he can’t go to the Russian Embassy to renew it. His only family is a sister in Moscow, who’s been trying to sell his house (she also tries to send money occasionally) but without success. Buyers are found, then mysteriously change their minds, says Rasul darkly.
Yet, despite everything, there’s a rogue streak of satisfaction – or at least of performance, of drama – that comes through when you talk to him. He seems curiously fulfilled by his troubles. “I’d like to tell your readers something,” he pontificates. “Maybe you will write it, maybe you won’t”. (In the end I don’t, but only because it repeats what he said elsewhere.) It’s as though he’s the man in the website, His Highness Rasul Yagudin, the prince in exile, braving the injustices of life with a sense of noblesse oblige. The website also makes it clear he’s a creative writer, not just a journalist – so maybe he sees his woes as a story waiting to be told, random notes for a Cyprus chapter in the book of his life.
As we talk, he turns philosophical. “I don’t intend to die like dog,” he tells me, “but if the worst will happen with me – if I will die – I think I am leaving honest, brave and good life… I am 50 years old, and turning back and searching my life, I’m proud of my life. I lived good, I lived honestly, and I was making what my heart and soul allowed me”. His only regret is that he never married, he adds with a twinge of sadness – that he’ll die and “even children will not stay after me. That’s why I decided to marry – but for this I need to survive. If I survive, my first task [will be] to marry. To marry, to make children, and in this case I will be able to die calmly.”
‘Why do you write?’ I ask Rasul Yagudin. Why does he write those articles, when he knows it’s dangerous? What motivates him? He looks at me gravely: it’s the look of a man who’s been waiting for this question his whole life – or at least for the past two years.
“Because my soul is burning,” he replies softly. “My heart doesn’t allow me to sit quiet and look on all this dirt in Russia. Maybe my words sound too –” he searches for the word – “solemnly, but I think Jesus Christ was killed on the Cross, Giordano Bruno was burned, Joan of Arc was burned. All previous generations were struggling for our human rights, our liberty, our freedom. I was educated by worldwide literature – and my ideals, my thoughts, my principles did not allow me to stay quiet.”
Sounds like he’s trying to be a martyr, I point out.
“Martyr? Yeah, it’s like this. I feel myself martyr. I almost died three times in Cyprus, and I lost all that I had in Russia for my ideals and principles. And I see that I am walking the martyr’s way – but I am hoping not to die on this way. Usually martyrs are dying, but I hope to survive”. Yes, I gave him money. Wouldn’t you?