A Frenchman escaped from the clutches of the FSB through Estonia

Priit Pullerits
, vanemtoimetaja
French writer Yoann Barbereau.
French writer Yoann Barbereau. Photo: Yves-marie Quemener
  • Fabricated charges could have brought a long prison sentence in Russia.
  • Sneaking through forests from the Pskov region to Estonia he risked drowning in swamp.
  • Having escaped from Moscow, the Frenchman erred when meeting the Estonian Border Guard.

After the French writer Yoann Barbereau had fled from Irkutsk, Siberia, where all his friends had told him that despite the evidence against him being fabricated, the court would sentence him to a long prison term, and hiding in the French Embassy in Moscow for more than a year, he had two options left.

The first one was to negotiate with the Russian authorities and reach some sort of agreement. Or the second option: to try to sneak out of the country in such way that the Russians would not find out about it.

Barbereau chose the escape option. After several months of researching possible escape routes from Russia, he came to the conclusion that he had to cross the border to Estonia.

Barbereau, who has arrived in Irkutsk a little more than a decade ago to head the French Cultural Center, had so far refused to say in interviews through which country he reached his homeland from Russia. The film “Kompra” released two weeks ago, which tells about his arrest and escape from Russia – but which, according to him, is quite cartoonish and very far from reality, which is why he did not participate in the making of the film – shows that he crossed the Estonian border at the beginning of November 2017.

The 44-year-old Barbereau admitted this fact in his interview to Postimees, and this is confirmed by the protocol of his interrogation in the Võru detention cell.

An agents proposal

Barbereau traveled to Irkutsk, a city of more than 600,000 inhabitants, in 2011 with his Russian wife, Darya Nikolenko, and their daughter, who both hold Russian and French citizenships. The first problems arose three years later, when the Russian customs detained a shipment of books and CDs which was sent him, suspecting whether it was legal. When interviewed in Estonia after his escape, Barbereau said that this was the first sign that the Russian authorities had taken him under close scrutiny.

A few weeks after the incident with the customs, an agent of the Russian security service FSB approached Barbereau’s wife and proposed her to steal and deliver to him the external hard drives of her husband's computer as well as flash drives. Although Barbereau was going through a divorce at the time, she told him about the meeting with the FSB, which the agent had told her to keep secret. She did not hand over anything to the FSB.

In February 2015, a dozen men in plainclothes and masks, who refused to identify themselves, broke into Barbereau's residence in Irkutsk, put a bag over his head in front of his wife and daughter, and took him to an unknown place. “I was also beaten and threatened, demanded to confess,” reads the interrogation protocol drawn up in Estonia with the help of an interpreter. “I did not know what I was accused of.”

He found out about the reason for his detention the same day when he was taken to the police station: he was accused of distributing child pornography via the Internet and was taken into custody.

The arrest was prompted by family photos taken at home with their five-year-old daughter, who had just come from a bath. Barbereau told Postimees that some laws in Russia are deliberately vague, ambiguous in wording, so that judges can interpret them as ordered by the FSB or politicians. For example, according to him, anyone who has a photo of a naked child, including a baby taking a bath, can be accused of pedophilia.

Barbereau speculated that the charge against him may have been a means of trying to exert pressure on the French government because it refused to sell two Mistral amphibious assault ships to the Russians after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.

Escape plans were delayed

Barbereau spent 71 days in jail during the preliminary investigation and then 20 days in a psychiatric hospital. Eventually the judge placed him on house arrest with electronic monitoring.

When the trial began in May 2016, Barbereau presented evidence to the court which was supposed to show that the accusation against him was fabricated. His wife filed a complaint against the actions of Russian investigators. The court was supposed to make a decision in September of the same year, but when friends explained to Barbereau what he was likely to face, he cut the strap of the surveillance device and fled Irkutsk. Ten days later, with the help of a friend, he reached the French embassy in Moscow.

Interpol issued a warrant for him.

Unfortunately, the development of plans to sneak out of Russia with the French special services began to drag on. “Months passed and promises were made all the time, but nothing moved on,” said Barbereau during the interrogation in Estonia. When the news came that a documentary about his situation was being screened in France, and the filmmakers had identified his location in the embassy in Moscow, it became clear that his departure from Russia would soon become almost impossible. Therefore Barbereau had no choice but to escape alone.

On November 2, 2017, Barbereau left the embassy and went to a woman he knew in Moscow. In his soon-to-be-published book in English, “Escape from Siberia”, the manuscript of which he allowed the Postimees representative to read on the condition that no one else would see it, he calls that woman Marta. Marta's residence in the book is apartment 50 at 10 Bolshaya Sadovaya Street (known as Bulgakov's House), where the writer Mikhail Bulgakov's museum is located. (Barbereau told Postimees that the forthcoming book tells the truth about his experiences, but using the means of literature)

Having acquired the necessary equipment for the journey across the Russian-Estonian border and ordered a car through the French online application BlaBlaCar, Barbereau started the journey from Moscow to Pskov on Saturday morning, two days after leaving the embassy. It lasted 11 hours. In Pskov, he took a taxi and drove to a guest house, which is a dozen kilometers away from the state border. He slept for a few hours and started his journey to Estonia on foot through the forest at half past two on Sunday morning. He had a compass and an iPhone with him, which he used as a GPS device. In the thick forest, the phone kept failing.

In the book, Barbereau describes how his heart beat wildly all the time because of stress; how he was afraid that the dogs of the Russian or Estonian border guards would smell him and rush at him; how it seemed to him on the Russian side that someone was watching him from afar, until it turned out to be a wolf (“Wolves are not dangerous to humans,” he told Postimees in his interview. “The real danger was the Russian border guards and men who would have happily delivered my head to Putin.”); how he got almost hopelessly stuck in the swamp next to the border (“I thought I was going to die”).

“The journey across the border was more difficult than I had expected because the planning was more of an estimate,” said Barbereau during the interrogation in Estonia. “There was no shortcut if you wanted to cross the border unofficially. /--/ I think that I might have walked back towards Russia at some moment.”

In the book, Barbereau describes how he walked, heading west according to his compass, for half an hour through tall grass until he reached a wooden lookout tower, where he saw a river (Molozhva River on maps) in the shade of trees, waded through it, and noticed a sign on the other bank stating that he had reached Estonia. The whole journey took about four and a half hours.

Forged ID

In Estonia, Barbereau came to the forest road, walked along it to the Litvina village and then to Saatse. He aimed to reach Võru, where he had reserved an apartment through the Airbnb accommodation platform.

French writer Yoann Barbereau in the disguise he used to escape from Irkutsk.
French writer Yoann Barbereau in the disguise he used to escape from Irkutsk. Photo: Erakogu

He passed a parked Estonian Border Guard vehicle in Saatse, but no one got out of it, he told the interrogator five hours later. It was still dark outside. At Saatse Church, he tried to order a taxi for Võru, but the attempt failed.

Tired and hungry, Barbereau continued to walk towards the bus stop on Saatse-Petseri Road. He was able to walk for a quarter of an hour when five minutes after eight o'clock, a patrol from Saatse border station detained him to check the documents.

Barbereau provided a copy of his brother's ID card. “I had it in case that if the Russian side would check me, I could claim to be a lost tourist, and if the Estonian side checks, I would present myself as my brother," he explained during the interrogation.

The border guards took him to the border crossing checkpoint and left him in a room. “I realized that I had made a mistake by showing the wrong ID,” Barbereau admitted. He called the border guards and told them that he had escaped from Russia and handed out his service passport, pointing out that the passport had expired and that several elements, such as the expiry date, had been changed. He had made these simple changes before leaving Moscow in the hope that if anyone in Russia wanted to check his identity, he might be able to escape.

The Estonian side initiated criminal proceedings for forgery of the ID, but as Barbereau told his whole story honestly, he was released two days later and the procedure was terminated. An employee of the French Embassy in Tallinn came to collect him from the Võru detention facility.

An expedited ruling fined Barbereau 300 euros for the illegal crossing of the temporary control line.

Barbereau told Postimees that he will always remember the Estonian border official (Kalvo Kotkas), who interrogated him in the early hours of the morning. “He understood everything very quickly,” he commended. “When I got out of the detention cell, he came to shake my hand in 48 hours, hugged me and wished good luck.”

Now Barbereau is busy with new problems: he is trying to help his Russian dissident friends escape Russia.

Yoann Barbereau, aren’t you afraid of the FSB revenge for fooling them?

Yes, of course, this was humiliating for them but I believe that they would rather have us forget the whole story.

One thing that protects me in these circumstances is the media coverage. The more people talk about me, the safer I feel.

It must also be said that I do not know any Russian state secrets. I am now of no interest to them and pose no threat. And I believe they have many other concerns right now.

Yes, I am careful about my sense of security and have security systems in my house, but overall I do not feel threatened.