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Sergei Sviderskii.jpg
Bruce Talley
Sergei Sviderskii stands at the Zocalo in Mexico City before traveling to the border in Tijuana to seek asylum.

Family torn apart by war in Russia, kept apart by US immigration policy

Russia’s war on Ukraine is personal for Bruce and Elena Talley. Elena and Bruce used to live in Russia, and during the conflict, Bruce had been to Ukraine to deliver crucial supplies.

Elena still has family in Russia — family that she said is harassed because they oppose the war.

"If you talk to people, people call you traitor," she said.

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The harassment was bad enough. But then her brother, Sergei Sviderskii, was drafted to the war.

"I do not understand why I should kill," Sviderskii told KPBS in Russian. His sister translated the conversation during a three-way Zoom call, with Talley at her home in Encinitas and Sviderskii speaking from a hotel room in Central Asia. He asked that his location be kept confidential out of fear.

"Russia, I know, will put me in prison," he said, adding that war was never a choice for him. So, he packed a small bag, kissed his mother goodbye and left the only home he’s ever known, planning to stay with his sister in America.

Sergei and family.jpg
Elena Talley
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Elena Talley
Elena Talley poses with her brother, Sergei Sviderskii, and their mother during happier times in Sochi, Russia. Oct. 12, 2012.

"It’s stressful. I never thought I would be in a situation like this. I never thought I would leave and would be escaping," he said.

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The journey would be perilous. Just getting to the Russian border took days. Sviderskii said he saw other young men also fleeing the country. "I saw 20-year-old guys who are crossing the borders. They have white faces from stress and shock. They’re just trying to escape."

Eventually, he met up with his brother-in-law, Bruce Talley, in Mexico City. Their plan: To go to Tijuana and have Sviderskii request asylum in the U.S.

Talley recorded their journey on his cell phone. Shortly before they went to the border, he said of Sviderskii, "He really wants to get political asylum. If he doesn’t get political asylum he’s in big trouble. He doesn’t have a future in Russia."

But Talley said they were stopped by the U.S. Border Patrol before they could even reach the border. "They immediately put a traffic cone in front of the car," he said, "and the Border Patrol officer came over and asked for our documents, so I handed our passports over."

Talley said they explained their situation to a supervisor. "He told me that it was impossible to apply at the border for political asylum, and this was a surprise to me."

Their experience is not a surprise to immigration attorney Lola Zakharova, who specializes in civil rights and Russian immigration cases. She says she never advises clients to present themselves at the southern border because of Title 42, a Trump-era rule that prevents people from seeking asylum at the border. She also noted that it can be dangerous.

"You hear the stories of cartels controlling access to the border. People sometimes have to pay money to a coyote so it’s kind of a last resort," she said. "People choose to present themselves at the border despite all the dangers, which I think speaks to how desperate they are."

Zakharova said people like Sviderskii are caught between a rock and a hard place. "They’re not accepted in Russia for their anti-war stance, they’re not accepted outside Russia because they’re Russian citizens. It's really hard for them to find a place that would be welcoming," she said.

Title 42 is set to be repealed on Dec. 21. But, Sviderskii has already left Tijuana, because of a call from his mother — still in Russia — saying she was having stroke symptoms.

"So this really upset Sergei. He said, 'I’m killing my mother, I’ve come here, spent all my money, I’ve been treated just the way I would be treated by Russia,'" Talley said, "and he decided that evening — against my better judgment — he decided he was going to leave."

But Sviderskii couldn’t go back to Russia. Talley said, "An arrest warrant has been issued against him. The people at his work have been extremely hostile to his mother, the authorities are hostile to them, they’re calling her up threatening them. We’re in a very difficult situation."

Sviderskii flew to Central Asia. More than a month has gone by since then. The Talleys talk to him regularly, and are worried about his mental state.

"He’s depressed. He’s upset. He doesn’t know what to do next," said Elena Talley, who said the American dream she painted for her brother was shattered by a policy that to her, feels like the Russia she left behind long ago.

She said when she talks to her brother now, he talks about maybe going back to Russia, even if it means arrest — or even going to the front lines of a war he does not believe in.

"It’s horrifying when I’m thinking he could still be in the war," she said. "He could still be in danger just because nobody will give him a chance."

Now she just wants someone to help put the pieces of her family back together, saying, "If someone could give us a chance and I would ask, someone, please help us.'"

As a general assignment reporter for KPBS, I'm passionate about stories that bring people together and improve people's lives. I look forward to meeting you and sharing your story.