For comedian Alexander Dolgopolov the hints were far from subtle.
First came news authorities were investigating footage of a stand-up gig the 25-year old gave in St Petersburg last February. Then came online threats about his supposedly “sacrilegious” comedy. And then, on Wednesday, two state investigators turned up to one of his shows.
That, Mr Dolgopolov says, was the signal to leave.
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“I’m an opponent of Putin’s politics, an atheist and a supporter of minorities,” the comedian tells The Biorports. “I knew that if they got hold of me, they would put me in jail.”
Mr Dolgopolov left Russia in haste with his girlfriend the same day. The very next day, he announced his escape to an unspecified country on social media. “We have arrived! We are safe for now. Thank you for your support,” read one caption on Instagram.
Leaving Russia was a “frightening” prospect, he recalled: “I’m still hurting at the fact that I was forced to abandon my whole life – my home, my relationships, friends, my comedy, my followers and my income.”
Mr Dolgopolov said there was no point trying to argue his case in Russia’s court system.
“The judges pass the decisions they are told to pass,” he said. The Russian Interior Ministry has since confirmed police have opened an investigation into a possible crime under Russia’s anti-blasphemy laws.
Behind Mr Dolgopolov’s fears is a very sobering reality: over the past decade, the Kremlin has introduced a series of broad-brushed laws that criminalise “extremism” and the “abuse of feelings of religious believers”. The measures are largely arbitrary and have been used to clamp down on dissent and inconvenient voices.
“The threat of criminal prosecution in Mr Dolgopolov’s case is very real,” said Samir Gainutdinov, a lawyer working for the Agora advocacy group. “Just mentioning Jesus in the same sentence as profanity could serve as a pretext to a charge.”
It is not clear exactly which part of Mr Dolgopolov’s routine provoked the complaint. Baza, a publication considered close to Russian law enforcement, blamed profane jokes involving Jesus and the Virgin Mary. In the recording of his February stand-up performance, Mr Dolgopolov certainly does mix themes of God, atheism and profanity – often hilariously. But President Putin, his political system and his supporters also come in for particular ribbing. In one section, the comedian suggests Russians would walk into molten lava in their masses if “the wise leader” Putin told them.
“As far as I know it was because of the religious jokes, but I don’t exclude there being another reason,” Mr Dolgopolov suggested.
The comedian said he was always conscious of the fact his routine touched on taboo subjects. Indirectly, authorities even made their feelings about him known – in one case, police called a venue to warn them “not to joke about Putin like that” after he had performed there. But Mr Dolgopolov also believed his relative obscurity was insurance against the authorities taking a more active interest.
“If you live in Russia, you live in fear but you get used to it,” he said. “When I joked about religion and politics, when I supported LGBT+ communities from the stage, sure I was frightened, but I didn’t think anything else of it. They haven’t picked on the small guys before.
That assumption no longer holds. Over the last week, the comedian says he has become the subject of a campaign of increasing intimidation and pressure, with loyal state media leading the charge.
“I’m frightened about my future,” he says. “I’ve been stripped of everything I ever had – and all because of a joke.”