A Russian Dissident’s Fraught Path to Canadian Citizenship

When Maria Kartasheva appeared at a Canadian citizenship ceremony last June, she thought she would be cutting up her permanent resident card and taking an oath. Instead, officials blocked her from participating, saying that her criminal charges in Russia, for criticizing the war in Ukraine, might disqualify her from citizenship.

On Tuesday afternoon, she finally took her oath in a virtual ceremony from her home in Ottawa and became a Canadian citizen. But the moment came after what she described as a nerve-racking seven-month saga that included a frenzied effort to garner public support for her case. If she had been returned to Russia, as Canada was contemplating, an eight-year prison sentence awaited.

“I put all that hope in Canada only to be betrayed,” said Ms. Kartasheva, 30. “And so who would care about me? I was very scared that no one would want to support me.”

Ms. Kartasheva was arrested in absentia last spring and was convicted in November by a judge in Moscow for antiwar comments that she posted on social media while living in Canada.

Permanent residents with criminal histories in other countries can lose their immigration status in Canada if an equivalent crime is identified in Canadian law. But after a review, officials decided to grant her citizenship.

Ms. Kartasheva started a petition last month and was overwhelmed by the letters of support she received from Russian dissidents and human rights groups.

“I find it really appalling that we have a bureaucracy that is so rigid, at best, or so utterly obtuse that they would not be clued in that if anything, someone in this situation needs protection rather than persecution in Canada,” said Aurel Braun, a professor of international relations and political science at the University of Toronto and the author of several books about Russian politics.

Ms. Kartasheva and her husband, both tech workers, came to Ottawa in 2019 as permanent residents, reluctant to leave a country they loved. But, she said, the political climate in Russia made even walking to work, under the gaze of the heavily armed police, a daily anxiety. One of her first culture shocks in Canada was the absence of uniformed officers surveilling the capital’s streets.

As she eased into life in Canada, Ms. Kartasheva freely expressed the political views that she had mostly bottled up back home, participating in anti-Putin protests outside the Russian Embassy in Ottawa and sharing her opinions on social media. She also co-founded the Russian Canadian Democratic Alliance, a pro-democracy organization.

Her activism soon caught the attention of the Russian authorities. They arrested Ms. Kartasheva in absentia in April 2023, claiming she had spread “false information” about the Russian Army in statements she made from Canada in social media posts about the massacre in Bucha, Ukraine. The charges were laid under a series of censorship laws introduced as part of Russia’s crackdown on opposition to the war.

[Read: How the Russian Government Silences Wartime Dissent]

Ms. Kartasheva’s arrest was ordered by Elena Lenskaya, a judge of the Basmanny District Court in central Moscow, which is known to hear cases of high-profile opponents of President Vladimir Putin, including Vladimir Kara-Murza and Aleksei Navalny.

Both Judge Lenskaya and the Basmanny District Court were sanctioned by Canada in the past 14 months for human rights violations.

“There are some regimes that do not hesitate to go after their former citizens, even if they have left the country, because these regimes would do anything to stay in power,” said Professor Braun. “They’re absolutely ruthless.”

Ms. Kartasheva believes the Russian Embassy reported her to the authorities in Russia. The embassy did not respond to a question about that claim.

“As far as we know, these kind of crimes are prosecuted in other national jurisdictions, including Canada,” it said in an emailed statement.

Canada’s law against spreading fake news was ruled unconstitutional in 1992, and the Supreme Court noted that other democracies didn’t have such a provision, said Noa Mendelsohn Aviv, executive director and general counsel of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. Even before it was struck down, a federal law commission recommended it be repealed.

“They had said it’s anachronistic because it was intended to protect the lords of the realm,” she said. “And in a democracy, in a free and democratic society, it is public figures in particular who need to be able to withstand criticism and scrutiny.”

In a letter from her immigration officer, Ms. Kartasheva was told that officials had identified a different Canadian law they believed was equivalent to Russia’s, a law prohibiting Canadians from conveying “information that they know is false” and “with intent to injure or alarm a person.”

That Canadian provision falls under the property rights section of the criminal code, Ms. Mendelsohn Aviv noted, and has been used to prosecute people for making false emergency calls and for harassing or alarming others. Officials approved Ms. Kartasheva’s citizenship after considering arguments by her immigration lawyer, Mikhail Golichenko, that the Russian law has no equivalent in Canada.

Ms. Kartasheva, relieved to be a Canadian citizen, intends to return to her activism after the ordeal.

“I still believe that Canada could have prevented that,” she said, adding, “At the same time, I’m very grateful.”

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Vjosa Isai is a reporter and researcher for The New York Times in Toronto.

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