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Samara: ripples from the Ukrainian storm

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Some 5000 people have fled to Samara, from the fighting in Ukraine, but many say they have been victims of Kremlin propaganda.

 

Valery Pavlukevich
12 September 2014

The Samara Region has the highest number of refugees from Ukraine of any area in the Volga Federal District. Refugees have been arriving since March this year, mainly from Donetsk, Luhansk, Mariupol and other south-eastern Ukrainian cities.

Refugees

5,600 people have now come here since the start of the military conflict in south-eastern Ukraine. According to Oleg Fursov, the Samara Region’s acting Minister of Work, Employment and Migration, 2,500 of these have asked the regional government for temporary asylum. Of these, 3,179 are of working age; one in ten is a mother with a child. 46% of the refugees are blue-collar workers; 28%, white-collar workers; and 26% have no recognised skills. 42% of the refugees are unavailable for work – disabled people; women on maternity leave or looking after a small child. Out of the total of 5,600 refugees, only 570 – 10% – have so far found work here.

According to the regional authorities, in June, the regional Ministry for Social and Demographic Policy produced a series of measures aimed at supporting the new arrivals. Fourteen temporary accommodation points (TAPs) have been set up, housing 2,211 people in all. The largest numbers of refugees live in the city itself; and each person housed in one of the TAPs receives an 800 roubles (£13.50) a day subsistence allowance from the municipal authority. Each family is also entitled to a grant of 10,000 roubles (£168) from the regional authority, and so far 810 families have received this aid. In the next three months, each family will also get a grant of 6,000-10,000 roubles (£100-168) towards the cost of renting a flat.

Politics

Out of the total of 5,600 refugees, only 570 – 10% – have found work.

Acting governor Nikolai Merkushkin, a member of the ruling United Russia party, and supporter of Kremlin policy, refers to the city as an evacuation centre, and sees aid to the refugees as a high priority area for the Russian government. Merkushkin never tires of criticising Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, saying that his separatist regime breaks international law, while people in Slovyansk and Luhansk are defending Russia’s interests from the Western threat.

A father and son sit in a convoy of refugees from the violence in Ukraine.

A father and son sit in a convoy of refugees fleeing from violence in Ukraine. (c) RIA Novosti/Yevgeny Yepanchintsev     

Merkushkin says that the Samara Region will be given extra funding at central government level for supporting refugees: this will finance new housing, job creation, student grants, and pensions. It is perhaps no coincidence that he has been making these statements on the eve of the gubernatorial elections taking place on 14 September – he needs to bolster his authority by showing how much he is helping the people from Ukraine, although at the same time he refuses to actually meet any of them.

Meanwhile, the Samaran press, TV, radio, and online media assure us that our new neighbours from Ukraine have no problems: as the pro-government press writes, ‘Samara has become the refugee’s second homeland, thanks to Merkushkin and United Russia.’

Promises, promises, promises

Refugees from Ukraine live in the city in three TAPs, and in hostels in different parts of the city. I visited one at 51 Ruberoidnaya Street. The conditions here can be described as satisfactory: each family is supposedly allocated one 12-square-metre room, but in fact each room houses more than one family. The rooms have no built-in partitions, so people hang curtains on string, making two spaces. Each floor has a communal bathroom. I visited the hostel just before 1 September, the first day of the academic year, so the refugees were busy getting their children ready for school. Thirty children from this TAP would be off to school the next day – a whole secondary class. None of the kids had any of the stuff they would need – textbooks, exercise books, geometry sets, pens, pencils; a ruler was a luxury.

When volunteers arrived with bags of clothing, bedlam broke out.

While I was there, volunteers arrived with a batch of humanitarian aid. Suddenly, bedlam broke out, as the refugees surrounded the volunteers and snatched bags of clothing out of their arms, with young people grabbing first. By the time the pensioners got to the volunteers, there was nothing left. People were asking for toilet paper and shampoo, many families lack basic necessities like cups and plates, pans and kettles any crockery they do have has been brought by volunteers; and they cannot iron their clothes as there are no irons or ironing boards. There are not even any ordinary tables: families dine off bedside tables or window sills. ‘Why do you need tables when we have a canteen?’ ask the hostel managers.

The residents

I got talking to one of the residents, a woman called Marina (she wouldn’t tell me her last name, in case she got into trouble for criticising the place). Maria is 30, and has lived here with her five-year-old son since the beginning of August. Since then she has been constantly looking for work – as a cleaner, hairdresser, shop assistant. But it is impossible if you do not have official residence status in the city. She tells me there are no hot water taps – water has to be heated in a bucket on the gas cooker. There are no washing machines either, so all laundry has to be washed by hand, and washing powder is also in short supply. When volunteers brought soap and washing powder there was nearly a fight over it.

But not all the residents are aggressive; many are very quiet and modest. A lot of the refugees have nothing decent to wear, but are too shy to ask the volunteers to bring them clothes or, say, hygiene products, so the volunteers ask them to write lists of their family’s specific needs. That way it is easier to help people, says volunteer Anton, adding that the authorities and the local United Russia people have just forgotten about the refugees.

One of many lists of essential items written by a family in Samara.

One of many lists of essential items written by a family in Samara. CC Valery Pavlukevich

Marina told me more of her story: ‘We fled from Donetsk with two bags – just our ID papers and a few clothes. We hoped the Russians would help us with clothing, but they didn’t even give us soap and toilet paper, let alone sanitary towels for the women. And we can only dream about things like sheets, blankets and clothes. We also don’t have any medicines, not even aspirin or other painkillers, or Validol for heart pains. It’ll be autumn soon, and we don’t have anything warm to wear.’

‘We want to thank all the good people, who offer concrete help, not like the officials.’

The hostel residents are entitled to a free supper in the canteen, but it is served at six in the evening, and the canteen closes at seven, so men who have managed to find work do not get back in time, and their wives cannot take their meal for them – It is strictly one portion per person. ‘We’re also not allowed to cook food for ourselves’ said Marina, ‘they tell us we get enough in the canteen. But we cook on the quiet anyway; our children’s hunger doesn’t always coincide with the canteen opening times.’ At the same time, she told me, things were even worse in other temporary accommodation. ‘In one place the canteen served bad meat and people, including children, were poisoned.

The refugees’ worst fear, however, is that they would be asked to leave their rooms at the end of September. They do not have any money to rent a place, and say that if they are made homeless they will organise a protest meeting.

The newcomers are grateful for the help they have had from volunteers and ordinary people. ‘We couldn’t have survived without the volunteers,’ they tell me. ‘We want to thank all the good people, who offer concrete help, not like the officials where it’s just empty words. All the bureaucrats ever do is put up posters around the hostel, telling people to vote for Merkushkin as governor. They’d have been better buying us refugees some clothes and food.’

Work

The Beryozka children’s centre in Novokuibishevsk is currently housing 68 people from Ukraine, mostly Donetsk and Luhansk. One of them, Olesya, told me they had been here since the beginning of August. Eighteen of the refugees, all of them strong young men, have managed to find work, but only on a casual basis, working as labourers on building sites, and unloading freight trucks, earning 300-400 roubles (£5-7) a day. The rest live on social security benefits.  

‘From the middle of August, people stopped trying to find work through local job centres,’ says Olesya. ‘We are registered in Samara as foreign workers – we don’t want to claim refugee or displaced person status because we want to go back home when all this fighting stops – so our earnings are taxed at 30% instead of the usual 13%. So we are refusing to look for work through the official channels unless the pay is more than 30,000 roubles (£500) a month.’

‘We are registered in Samara as foreign workers, so our earnings are taxed at 30% instead of the usual 13%’

Beryozka’s manager Oleg Nagornov has offered women 11,000 roubles a month (£228), the going rate for locals, for cleaning work at the centre. They would also keep their rooms and be working near their children. But no one has taken him up on his offer.

More politics

Refugees from Ukraine who want to live in rural areas in the Samara Region are not finding things any easier. A local woman, Irina Plotseva, decided to help three families (including a widow and her children) to come and resettle in her district, and on her own initiative posted an appeal for money towards their train fares on her Facebook page. She also asked Viktor Makhov, head of her district council, to allocate housing for them. Once she had got the money together for the fares, she then checked with the Russian government’s Federal Migration Service whether there was any official hitch in her plan, and was assured that there was no problem. The refugees duly left Ukraine and set off for Samara, whereupon an official, Vertinsky, phoned Makhov and told him, on behalf, he claimed, of the regional government and United Russia, that the district head had no authority to help refugees without permission from the regional authorities. When the refugees arrived they had to wait several days for accommodation, and only received it thanks to Mikhail Matveyev, an independent member of the regional legislative assembly, who asked acting governor Merkushkin why Vertinsky had banned Viktor Makhov from offering a welcome to refugees. It then came out that Vertinsky had done it entirely off his own bat, without any orders from anyone.

On 13 June, the Samara Region branch of Russia’s ‘National Liberation Movement’ (known by its Russian acronym NOD and chaired by Vladimir Putin) held a rally in the city centre in support of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The event was well publicised in advance, with posters all over the city, and the square where it took place was ringed by police and plain clothes officers from the security services, with vans full of riot police in all the courtyards around it.

A rally by the 'National Liberation Movement' in Samara attracted only about 30 people.

A rally by the 'National Liberation Movement' in Samara attracted only about 30 people. CC Valery Pavlukevich

The rally, in fact, only attracted about 25 people, watched by 30 or so bystanders, who listened to NOD’s Samara Region coordinator Dmitry Gurenkov and other speakers calling for support for the Republic of Crimea, expressing approval for the military campaign in the Donbas area, and describing Ukraine’s president Petro Poroshenko as a war criminal. Behind them fluttered yellow and black St George’s flags and red flags with Soviet-era symbols on them. Patriotic songs were also sung, containing lines such as ‘Russians and Ukrainians are brothers forever!’ Samarans were also urged to join the people’s militia and fight for the Donetsk People’s Republic against the Ukrainian army; and five NOD volunteers were sent off to the Donbas straight from the rally.

Samarans were also urged to join the people’s militia and fight for the Donetsk People’s Republic.

In the VKontakte social network you can find several pages belonging to Samaran ultra-nationalist groups, who call themselves ‘patriots of Russia and Crimea,’ and devote their energy to finding recruits to join battle with Ukrainian troops. One person who took up the challenge was Ilya Guryev, a native of the city of Tolyatti, who was already well known as one of the members of the banned National-Bolshevik Party; in 2004, he broke into an office in the presidential administration building in Moscow, for which he served a year in prison. On his release he returned home and remained an active National Bolshevik. On 14 August this year Guryev died in a burning tank during fighting near Luhansk, leaving a wife and two children.

Anti-war

Not everybody in Samara is in favour of hatred and violence. Lyudmila Kuzmina, coordinator of the ‘Golos’ (Voice) human rights NGO told me that she and her colleagues asked the Samara regional government to ban NOD members from posting anti-Ukrainian material on VKontakte, but their request was ignored. ‘The politicians find it very convenient to use the NOD to incite hatred of an independent Ukraine,’ she said.   

Kuzmina and her colleagues, supported by the ‘Civil Initiatives’ group, members of the liberal Yabloko, and (unrecognised) ‘5th December’ parties, plan to hold their own anti-war rally on 21 September, in protest against Russia’s interference in Ukraine’s politics. This will coincide with an anti-war march in Moscow on the same day. The organisers in Samara have already been warned by the police that their protest will not be looked on kindly. Human rights activist Valery Karlov was summoned to a meeting with the Samara Region’s deputy public prosecutor, who recommended they cancel the event. Even if the authorities refuse them official permission, the activists are determined to go ahead with Samara’s anti-war rally. But until the war stops, those refugees will keep on coming.

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