Ukrainian refugees in Russia

June 29, 2022
  • Svetlana Gannushkina

    Head of Civic Assistance Committee (Гражданское содействие)

Svetlana Gannushkina, head of Civic Assistance Committee (Гражданское содействие), a charity focused on helping refugees and migrants, was interviewed for the Meduza podcast What Happened (Что случилось?). She discussed the fate of Ukrainian refugees who found themselves in Russia after the invasion. With the kind permission of Meduza, we are publishing a translation of fragments from the conversation.
Svetlana Gannushkina, Head of Civic Assistance Committee (Гражданское содействие), 2019. Source: Wiki Commons
On February 24 we were at a meeting, not in Moscow, and it [the news of the invasion] was a very terrible blow. When I got back, the flow of refugees had begun. For our organization it had already started, it was very intense. I can’t say that the first shock has passed yet, and it hasn’t ceased. We’re getting more and more information about what happened to people, what is happening to them now, how they’re being brought here, how they’re going through this journey.

Was the displacement forced?

Usually the first question asked is whether the displacement is forced? I have to say that I’ve never heard about physical violence, but it’s quite certain that [for refugees] there was no choice. It might be said that people were offered only one way out – to Russia –and of course they took advantage of this opportunity, because when shells are raining down on you and you need to save your life, the lives of your loved ones, your children, you don’t ask if there’s another route when you are offered a place on a bus to go to a safe place.

That said, I should note that many people wanted to end up in Russia. The reasons for this are diverse. One of them is cultural self-identification with Russia, with the Russian language. Another reason, which was really unexpected for me, is highly professional propaganda, our propaganda. Oftentimes people in Ukraine who watched our TV, our official TV channels, and heard speeches by our government officials, they believed them more than we did – and this is understandable, because we see our real life.
"In addition, if they didn’t have close ties with Russian citizens, then they saw our life from their television screens and apparently believed that there was order here."
I heard the same thing in Crimea. In 2014, when I arrived a month after the annexation, part of the population there was dissatisfied, a fairly large part, but in most cases, there was such euphoria. People expected that their pensions and salaries would increase tenfold. When we arrived a year later, in 2015, the mood was completely different, as prices had increased tenfold, and not salaries or pensions at all.

People are without money

There was also the fact that Putin had promised 10,000 rubles, which when you’re penniless seemed like a lot of money for each family member. So a typical family of four gets 40,000 rubles, and this seemed like really insane money. The realization that in Russia that money is not at all the same as in Donetsk came later.
"Besides, out of the thousands of families that our organization has already worked with, I’ve met only two people who received that 10,000 rules."
It is a huge bureaucratic procedure, the money goes exclusively through Rostov Region. There people apply, they are checked, somehow they process the application for the 10,000 rubles. Then it all goes to Rostov, then they check something else too. Until it arrives, a lot of time passes, and people are without money, which of course is a huge problem.

So, when asked what the main problem these people have is, I must say, unfortunately, it is money, because even if they are placed in temporary accommodation centers, a person absolutely can’t do without money in modern society. He needs to buy a pair of underwear, he needs to buy some medicine that he’s used to, something for the children. He doesn’t receive any of that at the temporary accommodation centers. In addition, they came in the cold season and they need different clothes, not just new clothes – different clothes – and it’s a problem for those who ended up in Russia.
Ukrainian refugees crossing into Poland, March 2022. Source: Wiki Commons
Crossing the border

When people come here and cross the Russian border, they are “filtered.” Who handles that? The border is within the purview of the FSB, so it's clear whoever is actually doing it, it’s the FSB. Filtration is experienced differently. There are people who tell me that they had no problems. A family was traveling, and there were young men. For 15-20 minutes, half an hour they talked to the filterers, and they let them through.

But there are other cases when people are kept at the border for three hours. Someone even spoke of six hours. They are treated rudely – they check their phones, take fingerprints. There are instances when information is taken from their phones. For some reason they check tattoos. They strip men naked, but I haven’t heard about women.

And what do they expect? So they undressed a man, what do they expect, that “Glory to Ukraine” will be written there? Unlikely.
“In short, it's more of a procedure to humiliate than a real check for anything."
And then the interview begins, and this interview is also rather pointless, because they ask about relatives, ask whether they saw the location of Ukrainian military units. The fact is most people were actually sitting in basements, what could they see? They didn’t see anything, they didn’t even understand what was happening to their city. The answers to political questions are dictated by who is asking the questions and where they are, so it's easy enough to predict what the answer will be. Even when people talk to us, sometimes you can see that they’re influenced by the fact that they’re already in Russia. They don't know our political views, and they want to be loyal enough to the country where they ended up.

Women, especially young women, feel very uncomfortable because they are alone with armed men, and often we hear from them that these men make all sorts of dirty jokes. And the women don't know how things will end.

People disappearing at the border

And of course the scariest thing is when people disappear at the border. We have several such cases. For example, a mother says that she and her son, 100% a civilian, as she says, crossed the border, they let her through, but he wasn’t allowed, and she doesn’t know where he is. She hasn't known where he is for months now.

She contacted us two months ago, and we tried to find out what happened to him through the office of Tatyana Nikolaevna Moskalkova, Russia's Commissioner for Human Rights, with whom we are cooperating in this regard. We didn't receive an answer. Apparently, she didn’t either, because we were told that an inquiry had been made.
“There was another case when a family of four was going across, three women among them – mother, sister and the fiancée of a young man. He disappeared, and no one knows where he is."
Quite recently, one of the women who reached out to us said that at the point where they had crossed the border (I won’t give the name at this time), they had seen a group of men standing in the same room blindfolded, their hands tied behind their backs. Apparently, these were people who weren’t allowed to cross the border.

I can also tell you – I really hope that this is some stupid joke – but one woman asked about her relative, what happens to those who aren’t allowed to cross the border, and one of our valiant warriors answered: “you know, I myself shot ten with my own hands, then I got tired of counting.” He smiled charmingly… Let's hope that this is how we joke now, though it might turn out not a joke at all.

On crossing the border into Europe. It’s not difficult to pass through into Poland, Estonia and Latvia. They take people who don’t have the documents usually required. They take into account the special situation in which we find ourselves now. But our border is tough to get across. At first, they were saying that they would only accept valid Ukrainian passports, since of course we have an agreement with Ukraine that we both cross the border using a foreign passport, which everyone should have from birth.

When the procedure isn’t outlined, arbitrariness begins

Well, for example, one of our employees, a Ukrainian citizen, wanted to go to Ukraine with his wife and child, who was born here in Russia. The child is less than a year old, he has a Ukrainian internal passport, but they turned them away because formally the child is required to have a foreign passport. There were no problems establishing that this is their child. Ukrainians, as you know, write in Cyrillic, just like us. It's not difficult to read what is written in the internal passport, just as it’s not difficult to understand what is written in Russian on the child's birth certificate.

This man lives here, he has been working with us for 15 years. He married another Ukrainian citizen, never changed his citizenship. He continues to work and live here just as he worked and lived before. Completely understandably the child was born here. But the family wasn’t allowed to cross our border. He said that at that border crossing he was far from the only one, it wasn’t only their family, that ran into such a problem.

It's unclear how the filtering is being conducted, according to what rules.
“We don’t know the criteria to get across the border – it all depends on who specifically is carrying out this filtering procedure."
If it’s being carried out by a person who is calm, levelheaded and not a sadist by nature, he might do it quickly and painlessly for people – well, relatively painlessly, because such things are never completely painless.

But if it’s a sadist, then he can fully realize himself, because no one monitors what he is doing and how. Above him, so to speak, there is no boss and no rules. And when the procedure isn’t outlined, arbitrariness begins.

What Civic Assistance can do

Then people try to start their lives here, to somehow get settled. Some want to go to Europe and face great difficulties. There are a lot of people who want to help them to leave Russia, to organize that, to help materially in all sorts of ways. And we work with these people.

But there are [among the refugees] those who want to stay here and are ready to take Russian citizenship. I hope they won’t regret it later. I would like to wish them that.

Of course, our organization is now swamped with all sorts of problems. We try our best to help in every way. We’ve raised a lot of money. I must say – we’ve never had so many donations from our citizens, who are demonstrating solidarity, as well as from people outside our country, from various foundations. But that money is running out incredibly fast. At first, we distributed 5,000 rubles to everyone who came.
“We’ve raised a lot of money. I must say – we’ve never had so many donations from our citizens, who are demonstrating solidarity, as well as from people outside our country, from various foundations."
Hungarian volunteers assisting Ukrainian refugees. Source: Wiki Commons
Now we can no longer give out this money to everyone without checking their situation. Now we believe that if a mother goes to live with her daughter who is a Russian citizen, then the daughter should be able to feed her. And it might not be necessary to help such a family financially.

Still, people who take in their relatives also need support. Especially if they take in the wounded. We know such cases. They were in the hospital, they underwent the necessary operation, then they were discharged for home care. But where to discharge refugees for home care?

Here is a specific family. Eight people ended up in a 15-square-meter room. What home care? And in the beginning they had to pay a nurse to come and bandage the wounded, and for each dressing (two a day) she took 1,500 rubles. Do you understand how fast their money ran out? So our support was extremely important for them. But most importantly our doctor explained to them how to get this home care for free, they have a right to it. But people often don’t know what they’re entitled to.

We’re working with people who are already here

We are suspected by some of being involved in the forced resettlement of Ukrainians to Russia. I can’t say that this is hurtful or offensive, because of course it’s completely ridiculous. After all, we’re working with people who come to us, they are already here, they already need something.
“We are told that we need to give people the opportunity to leave, that this is the main thing that they need."
Well, if a person decides himself that he wants something else, if he needs help now, right at this moment, if he has nothing to eat, nothing to feed his children, the elderly have no money to buy medicine – and some specific drugs are needed – even those who need some specific food in the temporary accommodation centers, how can you refuse them?! And the flow isn’t slowing down. I suspect that part of the problem lies in the very large number of people. Nobody was ready for this. The system was obviously not ready for this.

UN PORTAL data (as of June 21):

  • 8,007,014 people have crossed the borders of Ukraine to leave since February 24;
  • more than 2,836,563 returned to Ukraine,
  • 1,305,018 people have arrived in Russia (more than to any other country)

I want to point out that the 10,000 rubles per person is not every month, like in other countries, this is a one-time payment.

And people have endless life problems. Currently we’re helping them to solve these problems as best as we can. I want to emphasize: we are in no way involved in politics, in forced transfers, especially the transfer of Ukrainian citizens to Russia.

No one has the right to force anyone to go anywhere

But how do you explain the distribution of refugees across regions, when a person who comes from Mariupol, according to the logic of the Russian system, might end up in the Far East, though, for example, he may ultimately need to go to Europe, he has relatives there?

It happens that a person wants to go to some region, he’s ready to go and they’re ready to host him. But it happens that someone stands in the way, they say: “here is the list and you go there.” This is wrong even in the context of the current situation in Russia and today's rules. No one has the right to force anyone to go anywhere.

It’s clear that the problems of these people won’t end anytime soon.

What we don't do is job-hunting. Getting a job is rather difficult, and we have seen just a handful of successful cases when we sent people from Moscow and they managed to get a job, when they were hired and provided with housing. And then they called us and said everything was OK.
“Overall, it’s very dangerous when someone reports that they need labor – later it turns out that it was just exploitation."
Just as dangerous is accepting offers to host a family, because at first the person takes in these refugees, believing that they are absolutely exceptionally wonderful people with whom there will be no problems. As it turns out, they are ordinary people, their children are noisy…

Sometimes it’s a very noble, indeed, deed when people are helped. Sometimes it doesn’t end well, so you need to be very, very careful here.
Reception of Civic Assistance Committee (Civic Assistance), 2016. Source: Wiki Commons
Leaving for Europe

I think now we’ll talk about reaching an agreement with our government that, if European countries are ready to take refugees, they be allowed to leave for Europe. Yet for that the consent of the West is needed first. Plus, they need to get a visa, but if there aren’t any documents, then Russia must issue them documents or some kind of laissez-passer.

I think that we perhaps could organize such an exit for people who want to leave Russia – if they want. Again, I’ll repeat that not everyone wants to… They say they don't know the language, and it’s difficult for them.
“Meanwhile, they’re used to it here, [they say] they’ve always been here and worked here on a permanent basis."
Here in Moscow, for example, taxi drivers from Ukraine are an absolutely normal thing.

Volunteers are doing a lot, and we’re working with these volunteers, and if one of our clients wants to leave, we contact a volunteer group that is ready to help. In fact, we’re also involved in this, and you know, it's amazing. What a wonderful volunteer network has formed that is helping people!

It's understandable that people want to be useful, they sympathize with everyone who was made homeless, well, by our actions… As a Russian citizen, I believe that I have a responsibility. My individual, personal responsibility, it’s not at all collective.
“We’re responsible both for these refugees and for those boys whom they’re lying about, saying they’re all contract soldiers – that is, they’re drafted into the army and then forced to sign a contract, becoming contract soldiers."
Who needs to send people off and make these boys murderers or murdered? And this is at least the second time in my memory. Before this we had the war in Chechnya, and then there was the movement of soldiers' mothers who went to take their children back from the army. Now there is none of that, and I feel that the reason is simply fear – mainly fear, not even propaganda, but fear.
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