The Secret Life of Russia’s Remote Freedom Fighter

After being threatened with her life, this democracy activist packed up and fled. Now she’s fighting from afar—with one eye over her shoulder.

The Secret Life of Russia’s Remote Freedom Fighter

On December 27, 2012, Natalia Budaeva punched in the security code of her apartment building and walked in to find her normally lit lobby dark. At first she didn’t give it much thought. Bulbs blew out from time to time, and one evening without light wasn’t unusual; a caretaker would fix it the next day. It was around 10 p.m. and Budaeva was getting home from a day full of meetings. As the director of the Moscow chapter of the International Republican Institute (IRI) a democracy-promotion organization, she’d just participated in IRI’s conference on political parties and local elections, held for the first time since new legislation allowing the opposition to register and appear on election ballots was passed in Russia in April 2012.

The first disquiet surfaced when — still by the front door — she noticed a man loitering near the elevator. His silhouette loomed in the dim light of the street lamp outside. But it wasn’t his presence that set off an alarm in Budaeva’s mind; it was where he stood. “Usually people wait for the elevator in front of [its] doors,” she tells me. “He was to the side — he was waiting for somebody.” Immediately she thought of Anna Politkovskaya, a Russian journalist who in 2006 was murdered in her apartment building. Budaeva’s heart picked up pace, thumping in her chest.

Still, she ignored the instinct to walk back out and wait until the man left — “It was my home after all,” she says — and started up the short staircase leading to the elevator. As soon as she moved, the man moved too, this time toward her. At the top of the stairs, she heard a faint rustle coming from a small space where her neighbors usually left used books. The man near the elevator wasn’t alone.

What happened next happened fast. Whoever was hiding there — sitting or crouching, as the space wasn’t large enough to stand in — grabbed her left arm. His grip was tight enough to cut her circulation even through her thick winter coat; later Budaeva would discover finger-shaped bruises where he’d held her. She couldn’t turn or move, or even, it seemed, take a deep breath. “It was as if my entire body was handcuffed,” she remembers. Pressed against her back was a gun barrel.

“We don’t have time to play any longer,” the man in front of her said. His fishlike eyes darted around as he spoke. “You’re either with us or against us. You’ve got 48 hours to decide.”

The encounter lasted less than 10 minutes. Yet to Budaeva it felt like an eternity in slow motion, like a void in which if there had been any flies she would have heard their buzzing, augmented. There was a mention of the recently passed State Treason law, of making her case the first and loudest one, and of the maximum sentence she’d receive. “Finally I’ll be able to sleep,” Budaeva remembers replying at some point. She’d employed humor to deal with aggressive surveillance for years — it helped calm the nerves and sometimes de-escalated the situation. But this wasn’t one of those times. “Think about where your loyalties lie,” the man said before pushing her toward the elevator. “Otherwise you’ll regret having a son.”

Budaeva’s loyalties didn’t need to be questioned; they had always lain with the country in which she was born. A daughter of teachers, she had grown up in Shibertui village in the Buryat Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. Sharing a border with Mongolia and extending along the eastern side of Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest lake, the republic is home to Buryats, an Asian people, and Russians who began to move there in the 17th century. Her family is an example of that mix — her grandmother was an ethnic Russian from near Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) and her grandfather was a Buryat.

Shortly after Budaeva was born, her mother moved to Ulan-Ude, the capital of Buryatia, for work, and Budaeva was raised by her grandparents. Both instilled the importance of fairness and justice in her; her grandmother became her role model. A strong female figure in what was largely a patriarchal society, she regularly shared stories of challenging men’s supremacy — whether in shooting at a target or questioning her male bosses — and often prevailing. “I wanted to be cool like her,” Budaeva remembers.

Growing up in a house with a large library, Budaeva was an early reader — with the help of her older cousin she learned the alphabet at age 3 and began to read soon thereafter. When she started first grade the teacher complained that there was nothing she could teach her and transferred Budaeva up to the second grade, an almost unheard of move in the Soviet education system. “I was very competitive,” she tells me with a quick laugh. “I wanted to be the best, the most perfect [at everything I did], I always tried very hard.”

Budaeva learned the value of working hard from both of her grandparents and her mother (her parents divorced when she was 4). “They were honest, hard-working, and they helped people — others have said that had all Communists been like them the Soviet Union would have been an ideal place,” she says of her grandparents. Of her mother, a Russian linguist and later a social anthropologist working with communities of Old Believers, a traditionalist faction of the Russian Orthodox faith, she remembers the dedication — “she was always writing something or working with her students” — and the drive for excellence. It’s no surprise, then, that when Budaeva found her calling fighting for freedom and democracy in her homeland she rose through the ranks so fast that within five years of starting at the IRI she became the Russian chapter’s director — the first woman and the first non-foreigner to hold the position.

Budaeva’s foray into the Russian opposition movement began with her doctoral thesis in linguistics at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, where she moved in 1999. The focus of her dissertation was the usage of foreign political terms in the Russian language. As a throwback to times when, as a little girl, she took notes while watching the nightly news broadcast with her grandfather, she spent hours monitoring the media and transcribing interviews. “I wanted to quote interesting politicians [in my thesis] and the interesting ones were all pro-democracy,” she tells me. “Irina Khakamada — she was my idol — Boris Nemtsov, Vladimir Ryzhkov.”

Living in Moscow while studying wasn’t cheap, so Budaeva took any freelance job she could find. She tutored students, typed up presentations, wrote textbooks for online courses, and assisted at conferences. One such conference was organized by IRI in October 2004. “I was very impressed when I saw everyone I was quoting — Nemtsov, Ryzhkov, Khakamada,” she tells me. “It was quite something.” Her work at the conference didn’t go unnoticed, and IRI offered her a full-time job. In less than two years Budaeva was promoted to head of two of IRI’s most important projects — party building and youth leadership — and in May 2009 she became IRI’s director in Russia.

Anti-Putin protests outside the United Nations, September 2015. (Photos courtesy Natalia Arno via Free Russia Foundation)

When Budaeva took charge IRI was mostly working in Moscow and St. Petersburg. She decided to expand the number of regions encouraging local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to build coalitions. “We [were] bringing them together so they know each other [and helping them realize] they’re not alone in their fight [but] all together empowering each other,” she says. Her push to mobilize the regions and connect activists throughout Russia earned Budaeva both the respect of her colleagues and the trust of the Russian opposition movement. But it also earned her the ire of President Vladimir Putin’s administration. En route to establishing absolute power and control, the administration saw IRI’s efforts to build democratic institutions, increase transparency and encourage a plurality of views as a definite threat.

After Budaeva got to her apartment that night, after the attack, she went directly to her bedroom. Her mother, who was visiting from Oregon (she had moved there in 2005 after getting married to an American colleague), didn’t ask why. Her daughter often came home from work tired and in need of some alone time. For more than an hour, Budaeva sat on her bed “staring at one spot.” She knew she herself couldn’t remain in Russia, but what about her son? A high school senior, he only had six months left before graduation. Would they really dare to go after him, or could he stay to finish school?

Budaeva was used to surveillance — she’d lived with it ever since she assumed IRI’s leadership in Moscow. Approached by the FSB (Russia’s spy service, the successor to the KGB) almost immediately, she soon became their “regular.” Within months she recognized almost every officer who trailed her: They followed her to the supermarket, to the gym, to the bank, and they waited outside of a language school where she took Italian and Spanish. Sometimes in passing one would mention the color of her underwear, making Budaeva think they’d installed video surveillance in her bathroom. Once, in April 2010, she was grabbed, pushed into a car outside of the U.S. Embassy compound, and interrogated while being driven around Moscow for 20 minutes.

Because she’s calm when she describes this daylight abduction, I ask her if she’s ever felt fear or concern for her safety. “The first several times I was very scared,” she admits. “But then I just got used to it. It was part of my life, part of my job, it was the routine.” Still, until that evening in December 2012, the FSB’s harassment had never extended to her son, her only child, who she’s been raising by herself since she separated from his father in 2007. She knew that they watched him — a member of her surveillance team once reprimanded her for letting him stay out late — but this threat was new. And it was real: Volodya was of draft age. Compulsory for most 18-year-old men, the Russian army is known for its violent hazing culture that operates with impunity — an ideal mise-en-scène for the FSB to harm Volodya and send Budaeva a message.

For months Budaeva had known that she would have to move IRI operations out of Russia. The July 2012 “foreign agent” law required all foreign-funded NGOs involved in political activity to register as foreign agents and, thus, effectively made it impossible for them to operate in the country. The United States Agency for International Development had closed its offices in September 2012, and the National Democratic Institute had moved theirs to Lithuania shortly thereafter. Budaeva’s plan — before that evening’s threats — had been to transfer the office and then go back and forth to Russia while still running IRI’s programs. Her son would have stayed with one of his grandmothers whenever she traveled. Now she knew that plan wouldn’t work: She wouldn’t just be just packing her office — she’d be packing her entire life.

That evening, together with her son and mother, they came up with a different plan. Within two days, Budaeva had left the country, taking an overnight train to Vilnius, Lithuania, where she’d set up a temporary IRI office. Her mother, meanwhile, would bring Volodya to the United States. Thankfully, his visa was up to date; in Budaeva’s line of work, a valid visa was a must — and having encouraged it for activists, she’d always made sure her son had one too. Her concern, though, was whether Volodya would be allowed out — Russian border control often stopped men of draft age from leaving. To minimize the risk they decided to fly on January 1, when officers would be at their most relaxed — even drunk, she says with a laugh — after the New Year’s Eve celebration.

Still, Volodya was interrogated for a long time. The fact that they were traveling with a cat raised eyebrows — “Why take the cat if it’s just vacation?” the border control agents asked. Luckily, the gamble with the officers being in a good mood paid off: When Budaeva’s mother said Koshka was her cat they didn’t press further. Leaving Koshka behind wasn’t an option. “If they don’t let her through,” Budaeva remembers her son saying, “I’ll stay here with her, I’ll live at the airport.” For him, as for Budaeva, the cat wasn’t only a beloved pet. She was also part of the only home they’d ever known — and, in all likelihood, would never see again.

Budaeva fled to Lithuania with two colleagues — Anastasia Sergeeva, IRI’s program director, and Liudmila Matkheeva, the office accountant. Their first days in Vilnius were disorienting. “We felt lost and confused,” she says. As everyone around them prepared to celebrate the New Year and looked forward to new beginnings, they wondered what was to come. “[Our] life had crashed,” she remembers, “and we didn’t know what [was going to happen to us].”

But it was there in exile that she realized “activism doesn’t end with borders.” First in Lithuania and later in Warsaw, Poland, where Budaeva moved IRI in August 2013, they continued to run workshops on youth leadership, campaign organization and team building, bringing participants from all over Russia. They also organized conferences with the participation of Russian pro-democracy forces, thus giving them a platform to outline their vision for Russia in front of a Western audience. Building upon her strength in creating coalitions, Budaeva now worked to connect Russian activists with their Western counterparts. “We [were] a bridge between the Russian pro-democracy movement and civil society and political leadership and media in the West,” she tells me.

Living outside of Russia also exposed the far reach of Moscow’s influence. Through its embassies abroad and via Putin-controlled media, the Kremlin both generated and spread claims of Western decay while positioning itself to be the defender of wholesome, traditional values. “It was a new [realization] for us to see how huge the Kremlin’s disinformation machine is,” she remembers. Later that realization would become one of the driving forces behind Budaeva’s Free Russia Foundation, the organization she founded at the end of 2014.

Budaeva left IRI in February 2014 to move to the United States. It was a difficult decision, but her son was struggling to adjust to his new life there, and his political asylum application required her presence. For a while, her activism took a back seat to that application and her new life. She married Michael Arno, a former boyfriend with whom she had rekindled her relationship while in Poland, and they made their home in California. But her connection with the world of Russian activism never withered. For months after the annexation of Crimea and the invasion of Ukraine in the spring of 2014, Budaeva — who, since getting married, now goes by Natalia Arno — would wake up to messages from activists. Following brutal crackdowns on protests against actions in Ukraine, they were leaving in droves. “It was political emigration — a Putin-caused wave,” she tells me. “We’re all very active and were active in Russia — we didn’t want to flee. We wanted to change Russia from inside, but when we did flee — unlike [previous] diasporas that [usually] assimilated — we were still Russian. We still want to change Russia, to contribute to this change.”

Arno, center, at the Collision Conference advocating for democracy along with the Free Russia team, April 2016.

The Free Russia Foundation (FRF) is Natalia Arno’s contribution to creating a more democratic Russia. Founded to unite the efforts of exiled activists and to correct misunderstandings the West still harbored about Arno’s homeland, FRF has published close to 30 reports on topics ranging from corruption within Russia to Moscow’s activities abroad. To compile those reports, they use sources on the ground — often either anonymously or under aliases to prevent retribution — or reach out to those who have fled the country but are still in the know. A just-released report sheds light on the informal networks and illicit sources that support the Kremlin’s election interference and mercenary activities. Based on more than 300 interviews with insiders, it is the first report that sources its information from those closely involved in those networks.

But FRF isn’t only a think tank. Considered by many to be a sort of informal embassy for the Russian pro-democracy movement, they help activists, civil society leaders, and independent journalists connect with their colleagues in Western institutions, universities and media. Their global campaigns to free Russian political prisoners are well known, and they are also closely involved in preserving the legacy of Boris Nemtsov, a Russian opposition politician who was slain right outside the Kremlin in February 2015.

For Arno, Nemtsov’s murder was “the point of no return” — FRF’s first grant was to translate into English the report Nemtsov was working on when he was assassinated: “Putin. War.” The report exposed Moscow’s role in the military operations in Eastern Ukraine; its presentation in the U.S. was one of FRF’s first public events. Later, when Vladimir Kara-Murza, Nemtsov’s colleague and a Russian opposition politician, spearheaded the initiative to name a portion of Wisconsin Avenue in front of the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C., as Boris Nemtsov Plaza, FRF made sure that the unveiling ceremony happened despite a planned provocation by the embassy.

Unveiling of Boris Nemtsov Plaza in front of the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C., February 27, 2018. The ceremony was attended by senators, members of Congress, Boris Nemtsov’s first wife, Raisa Nemtsova, and Natalia Arno (seen on the far right), among others.

“Arno is one of the most energetic, committed, dedicated and principled people I’ve ever known,” says Kara-Murza, who assumed the role of FRF’s vice president in July 2019. “She can move mountains if she has a goal in front of her.” Her enemies seem to know this too — in its hyped-up, hysteria-laced coverage, the Kremlin media regularly brands Arno as a traitor and FRF as an organization set on destroying Russia. For Putin’s regime, FRF’s wide reach and the capacity to build networks and unify ideas and projects present a danger. Arno’s connections with Western experts, political leaders and decision-makers amplifies that danger.

Although Kremlin-controlled media lies don’t faze her, Arno recognizes the risk inherent in being labeled an enemy of Putin’s regime. Every time she travels to former Soviet republics, her husband keeps a list of contacts to call should she be abducted and taken across the border to Russia. “It’s not only the security services [we] worry about,” Michael Arno says. “It’s also ‘will someone rid me of this meddlesome priest’ kind of thing — someone who maybe wants to curry favor with the Kremlin.”

Arno, left and a FRF colleague with Senator John McCain holding a copy of the report “Putin. War.”

His concern is well founded. Natalia Arno’s trips and events often come with a security detail and extensive discussions about how to protect the people she works with. She remembers how, in 2016, during a conference in Brussels devoted to Boris Nemtsov’s legacy on the anniversary of his murder, she felt like “a bodyguard” for the Russian opposition leaders in attendance. “I didn’t know what [Kremlin infiltrators] were going to take out of their pockets: a camera or a gun,” Arno says. It was at that time that Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen leader widely believed to be implicated in Nemtsov’s murder, posted a video of Kara-Murza and Mikhail Kasyanov, another Russian opposition politician, in crosshairs on his Instagram account. “Kadyrov is Putin’s hit man,” Arno says. “[That video] was a very clear message, a warning.”

In June 2019 the Russian government declared Free Russia Foundation an undesirable organization — 16th on a list that already included the National Endowment for Democracy, the Open Society Foundation and IRI, Arno’s former employer. This designation makes it significantly more dangerous for FRF partners in Russia — and even for Arno herself. Putin “has a very deep paranoid streak about the West and about democratic activists like Natalia,” says Michael McFaul, who was U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014. With the justice system beholden to the Kremlin, those who work with “undesirables” can face long sentences — and exiled activists can be targeted via Interpol on trumped-up charges.

Natalia Arno, left, at a “Nemtsov Bridge” action in Atlanta, February 2016. The actions were organized all around the U.S. by the Free Russia Foundation to commemorate Boris Nemstov, a murdered Russian opposition politician.

But neither Natalia Arno nor her colleagues are backing down. “These [are] incredibly brave people committed to ideas that are bigger than their own self-interests,” McFaul says when speaking about Arno and other activists. Remembering the Martin Luther King, Jr. quote Barack Obama had had woven into the Oval Office rug — “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” — he continues: “It doesn’t [bend] toward justice without people like Natalia.”

FRF has filed an appeal in a Moscow court contesting the undesirable designation. Having been kicked out of her homeland personally, this second de facto exile — this time for her foundation — has strengthened Arno’s resolve even more. Her ultimate objective is a free and democratic Russia and that means a Putin- and Putinism-free Russia. It’s a lofty goal, especially considering the recent July 1, 2020, nationwide referendum, the official results of which have paved the way for Putin to remain in power until 2036. But Arno isn’t giving up. “When you’re in this fight, you don’t care about [yourself] any longer — you have this feeling you’re fighting an evil force,” says Arno. “We’re on the right side of history, and we should prevail.”

To read our Storyteller Spotlight interview with Margarita Gokun Silver, click here