OTTAWA — A Russian woman says she has been denied consular services by her country's embassy in Canada over claims her Facebook activity poses a security threat.
"It totally came as a shock to me," said Elena Pushkareva, who left Russia a decade ago.
Pushkareva said the Russian Embassy, which declined to comment to The Canadian Press, denied her access to its consular service in Ottawa, where she had an appointment to update her children's documents.
Pushkareva left Russia a decade ago for political reasons. She lives in Ottawa and had visited the consular office before, as recently as Dec. 28, and booked an appointment in January to process paperwork.
A few hours ahead of the appointment, she said, she got a phone call from a man who identified himself as a Russian consular officer in Ottawa, but refused to give his name.
"They called me that morning, telling me there was no need to come, that they will not provide me with the service, and that was the personal decision made by the ambassador," she said.
"I don't understand why they decided to call me first, why it was so important for them that I don't even come."
Pushkareva said the official said Ambassador Oleg Stepanov cancelled the appointment because she posed a safety risk to the building, by virtue of being part of a Facebook group.
The group in question advocates for freeing jailed Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny, which Pushkareva said is for people who feel Russia shouldn't jail people for their political views, regardless of whether they support Navalny.
She said the man on the phone said that if Pushkareva didn't believe him, she could show up at the consulate and be told the same thing, which is what she said happened. The consulate sits in a building down the street from the embassy.
She said she recorded the Jan. 18 exchange. In the audio recording, an unnamed official tells her that being part of a specific Facebook page has led the ambassador to verbally ask staff to deny her access to the consulate.
The official says in Russian that the Facebook page included "information with calls for violent actions, to the detriment of the interests of the Russian Federation. For this reason, you're denied admission to the consular department."
In the recording, Pushkareva asks what exactly on Facebook amounted to a threat, but the consulate provides no example.
Instead, the official said she could write a letter to the ambassador, which she has done.
"With this decision you have gone beyond the legal framework of our country," her letter reads in Russian, accusing the consulate of violating Russia's constitution by depriving her of consular access and not providing a written reason.
"I have used the services of consular departments in Canada many times, and none of the parties had any problems in terms of security," she wrote.
Pushkareva noted that the consulate staff seemed to name a public Facebook page and conflated it with a private Facebook group with a similar name. Pushkareva has visited both, but said she is not responsible for what is posted there. She also said she has not seen violence being advocated on either site.
She also noted that Facebook is supposed to delete content deemed to be threatening violence, if moderators don't do so first.
The embassy declined to comment, but the Novaya Gazeta news site said a consulate official insisted Pushkareva had not been denied services, only access to the consulate building. Yet the official did not specify how Pushkareva could be helped without entering the building, which they called an institution with security measures.
"If you don't deny me the service, maybe you'll provide me with the service or on the street? Maybe they'll bring out a desk? So anyway, I took another appointment. I will follow on, because it's kind of interesting," she said with a laugh.
She said she went public with her story out of a sense that keeping quiet wouldn't help resolve the situation.
Yet Pushkareva is worried that being barred from the consulate will later prevent her from getting her children's Russian passports up to date. The thought of them not being able to visit relatives is "very painful," but travel seems impossible in the near term.
"There are not that many people here, who are not afraid to go speak in public," she said.
"With every situation like my case, it's really frightens people."
Pushkareva said she left Russia in 2013 out of concerns the country was increasingly less democratic. Still, she was shocked by Moscow's decision a year ago to invade Ukraine, which she has protested in Ottawa.
"My personal feeling was that it was getting worse, and now it's so sad to witness that it is getting much worse," she said.
"It's important that Canadians know that we exist, that there are Russians who have a different opinion from the opinion of (President) Vladimir Putin and the Russian government."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 3, 2023.
Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press