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The new life in Spain for the librarian who challenged Putin’s homophobia: ‘The sanctions against Russia affect ordinary people the most’

Six months ago, Vladimir Kosarevsky was about to be made homeless when he asked EL PAÍS for help. Since then, he has become a symbol of the fight against censorship and the removal of rights

Putin Homophobia
Vladímir Kosarevsky in front of the port of Vigo last Monday.ÓSCAR CORRAL
Sonia Vizoso

The penetrating eyes of Vladimir Kosarevsky, 39, looked directly at the camera of the EL PAÍS photographer on February 24. The director of Moscow’s Anna Akhmatova Library, one of the most important in the Russian capital, had fled Russia after disobeying Vladimir Putin’s government order to destroy all books by LGBTQ+ authors, or those that mentioned homosexuality. He was approaching the end of the maximum period he could stay at the shelter that had welcomed him in A Coruña (northern Spain) and was about to be left out on the street. To make matters worse, he had been given a laughably late date for the appointment to process his claim for asylum: May 15, 2025. “I’ve been looking at that photo. My face shows fear and insecurity, I didn’t know what was going to happen to me. Today I feel that I am in a safe place and I have everything that can help me integrate smoothly here.” Six months later, Kosarevsky is celebrating. The NGO Accem has provided him with legal protection, psychological support, training, and most importantly, accommodation in a refugee apartment in Vigo. And he is especially happy these days: he has just been granted a work permit.

The publication of information about his odyssey provoked a wave of sympathy that changed his life. Today he shares a home with five refugees from South America and has completed a digital marketing course. Together with the Galician association (BAMAD) and the Spanish federation of librarians, he has given lectures against censorship at conferences in Santiago de Compostela and Granada. On October 16 he will give another talk in Vitoria. Kosarevsky’s activism goes beyond his native country and resonates strongly in Spain, where “hate speech is spreading,” says Daniel Bóveda, spokesperson for Accem in Galicia. “Vladimir’s testimony is exemplary because he has experienced firsthand a danger that is present due to the advances of far-right parties in Europe,” says Sandra López, spokesperson for Les Coruña, the association for lesbian visibility that first helped to Kosarevsky in Galicia. “In Italy it is already happening and in Spain it will happen if Vox enters the government. “Society has to know that this is not the way.”

bibliotecario ruso
Kosarevsky, in front of the hostel where he stayed in A Coruña. Photo from an interview with EL PAÍS on February 24.óscar corral

Kosarevsky arrived in Spain without speaking a word of any of its languages and ended up in Galicia not knowing the first thing about this northwestern region where Galician is also spoken besides Spanish. Now he is advancing in his Spanish classes and has opened a Telegram channel in Russian to spread knowledge about Galicia among his compatriots, in addition to an Instagram account and a Tik Tok account. He has received help that does not get to all refugees,and yet the difficulties remain many. With a degree in Library Science and a postgraduate degree in municipal, cultural, and educational policies, he is immersed in the complicated procedures to have his university diplomas recognized by the relevant Spanish bodies, which is a “very, very long” process. “It’s a shame that I can’t do what I did in Russia,” he laments. “I know of a case of a refugee surgeon who is working in a canning factory because with[out recognition of] his degree, he cannot even work as a nurse.”

Kosarevsky’s life in exile has improved while the situation in his homeland has deteriorated. “Nearly a million Russians have escaped to places around the world, according to statistics released by the independent Russian press,” he says. Propaganda and repression have tightened. Every Friday, he explains, a list is published of citizens whom Putin’s government declares “foreign agents” and who from that moment on are prohibited from teaching classes or giving public talks. A new history book “laden with hateful ideology” has arrived at schools, he denounces.

Despite being 4,500 kilometers from Moscow, he sees how the Russian exodus has worsened. On the streets of Vigo he hears his native language more and more often, despite the town being an unusual destination for Russians. “What is happening there now is hell, and for the LGBTQ+ community it is unbearable. They have approved more homophobic legislation,” he explains. Putin has now targeted the transgender population, with a new rule that prohibits changing sex. “Recently, two trans people fleeing Russia arrived in Vigo,” he points out. According to data from the Spanish Ministry of the Interior, between January and June of this year, Spain registered 898 requests for international protection made by Russian citizens, which is 214 more requests than in all of 2022. So far in 2023, Accem has helped 504 exiles, of which 110 belong to the LGBTQ+ community.

More book blacklists

Censorship in the Kosarevsky library has also worsened. There are new blacklists of books that the staff must destroy. The works of Haruki Murakami, Michael Cunningham, Danielle Steele, and Sara Waters have been joined by those of Linor Goralik, a writer opposed to the war with Ukraine: “This author is very dangerous for the Putin regime because she has a very large following among teenagers. In a very simple and interesting way, she explains what is happening with the war, with the LGBTQ+ community, and with the curbs on freedom. “It is breaking the ideological patterns that the state wants to impose.”

The librarian who fled from Russia in the port of Vigo.
The librarian who fled from Russia in the port of Vigo.ÓSCAR CORRAL

Kosarevsky receives letters from compatriots asking him for advice on escaping or saving relatives from being enlisted in the army. A distressed mother recently wrote to him because her son is about to turn 18 and may soon be sent to war. She wanted to know what procedures he would have to go through so that he could study a university degree in Spain. But, as Accem says, if being a refugee is complicated in itself, those fleeing Putin’s regime have to overcome many more obstacles, even in a Europe that claims to oppose the Russian leader. Bóveda states that there are exiles who prefer to say that they are Ukrainians so as to avoid rejection from local people and the banks do not even allow them to open an account. The “worst consequences” of the sanctions against Russia are being suffered by “civilians fleeing Putin,” the NGO spokesman laments. “Russians are not held in high esteem, and they are all tarred with the same brush.”

Kosarevsky asks the European authorities “not to make life more complicated for political refugees.” “While the rich Russians who are responsible for what is happening continue to travel, do business, and enjoy their homes in Europe and nothing happens to them, the sanctions hit ordinary people the hardest,” he complains. “My only wish is for the war to end. It is a black hole that is sucking in everything around it, and there are people who are getting very rich from it.”

While looking for work, Kosarevsky spends time writing his memoirs. In the refugee flat he shares a small room where it is difficult to concentrate. So, as he spends the mornings studying Spanish, in the afternoons he usually seeks refuge in the town’s libraries and writes. The plan was ruined in July and August, as the venues closed during the summer. But a curious solution has occurred to him. He has obtained a free voucher to travel by train from Vigo to A Coruña and makes continuous round-trip literary journeys: “The train car is like a capsule that allows me to write quietly. So, along the way, I visit A Coruña, my second city here.”

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