Denis Sharonov in the USA Photo: Denis Sharonov personal archive

“I was one way or another a silent participant in that process”. Interview with the Russia's Komi region minister, who asked for political asylum in the USA.

August 18, 2023


Former minister of agriculture of the Komi Republic Denis Sharonov has requested political asylum in the United States. The Barents Observer spoke to the ex-official and asked why he left, whether he feels guilty for what is happening in Russia and why he chose the United States.

How did you end up in the US and what are you doing now?

I work as a truck driver - “a trucker”, I am in a different state every day. I have applied for political asylum in the USA. For this, I traveled a long way and crossed the border through Mexico, the city of Tijuana. At the border, I filled out a questionnaire on the website of the US Border Guard Service, then an officer of the US Border Guard Service invited me to the US territory. Now I’m waiting for the immigration court hearing on my case.



Denis Sharonov in front of his truck in one of the US states. Photo: Denis Sharonov 


Why did you leave Russia?


I worked in the Komi Republic Government from December 2020 to January 2022. I was fired in January. I left Russia at the end of October 2022.

I had to leave Russia because there was a threat of yet another persecution of me. The people with whom I worked were pressured by law enforcement to testify against me. By then, I had already encountered facts of illegal persecution, I know how the law enforcement apparatus, in fact, the punitive apparatus (in Russia), works.

All my initiatives were criticized. For example, a program to restore salmon that live in the northern seas. The so-called “Pechora salmon”, which spawns in the Pechora River, is a unique species, and it disappears due to the economic activity of oil and gas companies. They practically do not compensate for using bioresources in the proper volume.


Denis Sharonov was wearing suits as a minister in the Russia’s north, now he drives drives truck in the USA  Фото: Instagram 


Earlier, in an interview, you mentioned that you left as soon as you received draft papers. 

Yes, I felt the real threat, right after I received the draft papers. The draft papers are now another tool for those at power to get rid of undesirable people.

They tried to hand it over to me at the address where I was registered, but I did not live there. A week after that, I managed to leave the country. It was in October 2022, when there was still confusion in the military registration and enlistment offices. They had not regulated the cooperation between the security forces and customs.

There is a stereotype: if one was a minister, it means that he must have stolen something, saved it up in the offshore accounts and left. In fact, that’s not the way it is. The maximum amount of money I could take out is determined by law in Russia ($ 10,000), this is all I could count on. It wasn’t a matter of whether I had enough money of not. It was a question of whether I wanted to remain free or not. I had a completely different motivation.

Like a Russian proverb says, “a peasant crosses himself only after thunder lightning strike” 

There is nothing surprising, that when a direct threat appears, a person starts thinking in different categories, makes a decision faster, analyzes things faster.

I don’t justify myself. I understand that as an official, even though not for long, also while working in business, I was one way or another a silent participant in that process. I couldn’t believe it, I didn’t understand what it was all leading to. There is a saying: every state has its own mafia, and only we have the mafia that has its own state. This reflects what has been happening with the Russian statehood over the past 20 years.


Denis Sharonov actively shared photos of his work as the minister in Komi. Photo: Instagram 


You were a government official, you were part of this “mafia”. Do you regret it?

Yes, sure. But I was not a part of it. I didn’t take part in anything illegal. I initiated projects that would improve the environment, which would improve the lives of farmers and agricultural enterprises. That’s what I worked for. But the system rejects such people or, from 2022, isolates them. Also a new “tool” has been found now - to draft people, send to war, where you will be forced to kill or be killed, to act against your moral principles. So I have made my choice.

What was your reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?

Rejection. Shock. Until recently, it was hard to believe that they - the government and the state - would take such a step. It was a serious stress. This all is because of the corruption that has infected the entire society. Society - sometimes by silence, by direct or indirect participation - has formed this state apparatus, this machine, which is sheer corruption.

Have you ever participated in any protests in Russia?

I didn’t go to rallies, didn’t fight with the police, wasn’t detained, I have never been thrown in a pre-trial detention center. If I was, I don’t think I would have made it to the minister position. I worked and did the job, that was assigned to me, well. I wanted to change the system not through barricades and protests in the squares, clashes with the riot police, but from within.

I understood what was happening in the country, I have been illegally persecuted twice. Having taken such a position in the government, I thought that something could be changed. Apparently, I was too optimistic.

Those who leave, some people in Russia call “traitors”. How would you respond to such accusations?

Traitors are those who betrayed the Russian people, those who, instead of using all those opportunities after the collapse of the USSR, those democratic reforms, the rudiments that began and which could have lead the country to development into a state with a good welfare - these traitors transformed these opportunities into personal gain through corruption. This group began to defend itself, created a punitive apparatus, killed freedom of speech, freedom to express one’s opinion. They began throwing people into jail on far-fetched charges.


The former official says that he was trying to change the system from within. Photo: Instagram  


Why did you choose to go to the USA and not any other country?

Because USA is one of the few countries where there is a chance for a fair consideration of your case in court. Many write about me something like: “he fled to a hostile country.” I don’t see that the citizens of America are hostile to Russia. Or the Russians are hostile to the Americans. When people communicate directly, this propaganda stereotype immediately disappears. Moreover, I studied in America 28 years ago, I already knew what sort of country it was.

The propaganda machine is something different. All state TV-channels in Russia broadcast from morning till evening that it, turns out, we (Russia) are already at war with the entire West. Each time they come up with some sort of correction, a substitute of concepts that motivates the actions that the state has taken. The aggression that was directed at a neighboring country. How can you put up with this? My moral principles, my political position did not allow me to stay [in the Russian Federation]. I realized that the only country where I could feel at least relatively safe was the USA.

Why, in your opinion, is there such hatred for the United States in Russian propaganda?

Nothing new happened. The image of the enemy is always needed. At some stage, this image of the enemy changes depending on where the state-led propaganda wants to direct us. If economic competition fails, then a political justification must be provided. The explanation for why they lost is not because they could not organize a properly functioning economy, which gives development to the entire population. This development can only take place in a democratic society. Like USA, for example. Of course, there are also many issues and problems here as well. I may be naive now and speak in general terms. I’ve been in the US for a short time, I’m still settling in …

But even after such a short period, did you manage to notice the main difference between the United States and Russia for you?

The main thing that attracts me in the United States is freedom. The freedom of action. If you do not break any law, then at any age you have the opportunity to achieve something simply by doing your job. This is a vast difference. No one here in the US could suddenly out of the blue consider that you “earn too much” and thus a tax audit has to be conducted. Then suddenly find something wrong and force you to pay, thus inciting corruption. Or hinting to “solve the issue” with the participation of inspectors. Some sort of persecution, you know?


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