Ukrainian refugees in Russia receive a mixed welcome

Many people took refuge in Russia after fleeing eastern Ukraine last summer. Their experiences are far from uniform. Русский

Dmitry Okrest
28 July 2015

While the West thinks Russia is fighting a war with Ukraine, and Moscow calls the conflict a ‘civil war’, civilians continue to flee the combat zone in eastern Ukraine.

Last summer, many people made their way to the border crossing at Rostov, and from there—across Russia.

Ukrainians have been coming to work in Russia for a long time. If you take into account labour migrants from Ukraine (of which there are 3.6m), there are almost five million Ukrainians living in Russia. And for many Russian-speaking Ukrainian citizens, Moscow was the only place they could move after the outbreak of war in the east.

But how have Ukrainians fared here, in a country where ‘Banderites’ (followers of Stepan Bandera) and ‘supporters of Maidan’ are far from popular?

Give evidence or else

At the start of July, Sergei, 25, who left for Moscow after war broke out in south eastern Ukraine, received a call from the district Prosecutor’s Office.

They invited Sergei to give evidence as part of a criminal investigation into war crimes committed by the Ukrainian military in Donbas. If Sergei didn’t co-operate, they said sternly, he would be issued a summons.


Moscow sky-line. Yuree Markevich / Flickr. Some rights reserved.

‘The questions were like: have you heard anything about the use of weapons, which aren’t sanctioned by the OSCE? Have I, my property or my family suffered as a result of the war?’ remembers Sergei.

‘After every question, I wrote that I didn’t know anything, or if I did, I found it out from the press, and then signed my name,’ explains Sergei, one of many Ukrainians in Moscow who have received these invitations. ‘I was told they want to question as many people as possible, and then send the case to court. Straight off, the investigator said that this was all a formality.’

Sergei comes from the port city of Nikolaev (Mykolaiv) on the Black Sea coast, and he is sure that the prosecutor’s office found his telephone number via the Federal Migration Service (FMS), who have a record of him.

‘They didn’t ask any informal questions, they just asked me what I plan to do next,’ remembers Sergey.

‘I told them [the investigators] the truth: I want to stay here and work. No one asked why I came here. Obviously, no one wants to die in a war. Some people go to Europe, other people come here, and then there are those who are buried somewhere in Odessa. A friend of mine went to fight as a volunteer. He died on his first mission.’

‘There’s no work for us here’

Sergei left his home town of Nikolaev just as the draft was kicking in. Indeed, despite the fact Sergei was a student and is exempt from military service, a draft summons was delivered to his address shortly after he moved to Moscow.

Sergei tells me that many of his acquaintances fled to Moscow to avoid the draft. People are sympathetic to his plight, he notes, when he tells them where he’s come from and why he left.


Nikolaev is a rail and sea transport hub on Ukraine's Black Sea coast. Torpedolov Ukraine / Flickr. Some rights reserved.

However, in a new town, and with Ukrainian citizenship, people aren’t having much luck when it comes to jobs: they have to choose between working as a loader or a courier.

Employers want Russian citizens. For them, Ukrainians are labour migrants just like citizens of Kyrgyzstan or Uzbekistan—the traditional means of low-skilled labour. As a result, Sergey hasn’t managed to find a job, and now makes his money by busking.

‘There’s no work for us here,’ says Sergei. ‘One guy, he’s over 50, left so he didn’t have to fight. He’s an engineer, but the only work for people like us is unskilled labour—bring this, bring that. But still, it’s better than being at the front. At the start, they told us they’d mobilise us for a month, then six months. The lads who wound up in the army last year are still there.’

Regardless of the conflict in Ukraine’s south east, Sergei doesn’t consider himself a ‘traitor’, although he admits that his friends who stayed behind have called him one.

‘They called me a renegade, of course. I had one really unpleasant conversation with a neighbour when he saw a picture of me on Red Square. Another one asked me not to shoot at them after I’m called up to the DPR [Donetsk People's Republic] militia, but I’m not planning on joining them at all.’ Sergei was never interested in politics, and saying that he isn’t planning to return to Nikolaev any time soon.

All of Sergei’s relatives have left Nikolaev, though his mother recently visited home. ‘She went back,’ Sergei tells me. ‘She said that the local television had changed its tune. Before, everyone said they were against Russia, but now they criticise the new government too. The country is in crisis, default, pensions aren’t being paid.'

‘A neighbour of ours, a school teacher, lost her job after she refused to sign a document saying she would instill a real national spirit in her students, that’s how they got her. On the whole, I don’t miss that Ukraine.’

‘Later that night they started to shell our side of town’

So far, it seems the Prosecutor’s Office is only searching for witnesses in Moscow. Refugees living in other cities have not been questioned.

For instance, Tatyana Sukhinova, 34, who now lives in the small village of Luknovo some 300km east of Moscow. Originally from Amvrosievka, a town halfway between the Russian border and Donetsk, Tatyana is from a mixed Russian-Ukrainian family.


Tatyana Sukhinova with her daughter. Image courtesy of the author.Amvrosievka has been shelled since 15 June 2014 (both sides have blamed one another). 

‘I was at my mum’s dacha [country house] at the time,’ Tatyana remembers, ‘and later that night they started to shell our side of town. There were Ukes [Ukrainians] with guns all over town. You’d be walking along and you wouldn’t know whether you’d get home or not. Everyone was scared, praying that their house wouldn’t be shelled and that they’d remain alive.’

Tatyana decided to evacuate after a shell hit her home. ‘I remember the border crossing clearly, the moment itself. Back then loads of people wanted to get across in time—some by bus, others by car. People, including us, were traveling without even knowing where they were going.

‘When I crossed the border, I felt a pain in my heart: where am I going, what will happen next, how I’m going to look after my children, how will we live. My eyes were constantly full of tears, though I tried not to cry. Not a happy time whatsoever.’

Tatyana arrived in Moscow a month later, and migration service officials requested she fill in a pile of documents. She had to negotiate a place for her children Snezhana and Valentin on her own. ‘It was only thanks to some good people that my children didn’t have to sleep on the street, and I could get my bearings,’ Tatyana recalls. 

‘People say we’re the reason there’s a crisis in Russia’

After the humanitarian catastrophe in Donbas, when thousands of people made their way to central Ukraine or neighbouring regions in Russia, numerous volunteer initiatives were set up to help refugees. For several months, refugees from the war lived in tents while volunteers identified potential housing for them. Several of these projects are also involved in supporting the unrecognised republics in Donetsk and Luhansk.

Today, Sofia, Tatyana’s 14-year-old daughter, is waiting for her mother in Rostov, the largest city near the border between Russia and Ukraine. 

When the refugees tried to cross, the border guards didn’t let Tatyana’s older daughter through: Sofia has her father’s surname, and she didn’t have a document certifying his permission. 

Soon, Tatyana will go to Rostov to collect her daughter, and then on to the border crossing in order to extend her migration card, otherwise she faces a fine. Tatyana also has to travel to Amvrosievka to receive her children’s school certificates: without them, Sofia will have to repeat the seventh grade.

‘If I’m honest, I really don’t know how we’re going to survive’ 

Meanwhile, Tatyana has to receive a temporary residence permit before September. She has to undergo a medical examination and sit exams on Russian history, language, and literature. 

The examination costs 2,700 roubles (£28) per individual family member, and the tests will come to 7,500 roubles (£79) in total: money this family doesn’t have. ‘If I’m honest, I really don’t know how we’re going to survive,’ says Tatyana, a single mother. ‘I can’t find the money we need to continue living in Russia.’


Tatyana earns 5,000 roubles (£52) per month working as a seamstress at a linen factory, and she earns extra, waitressing at two Tatyana at work. Image courtesy of the author. cafes on the highway. Here, she receives 350 roubles (£3.70) a day for waitressing, washing dishes and cleaning.

Tatyana couldn’t find work immediately. She lost her job at a plastic bottle factory due to the economic crisis: her employers prefer to keep the local workers. ‘We are living in another country and among different people, who hate us, and it seems like it’s a bad dream. There are thousands of people like us in every town. You just want to wake up and return to your old life. We aren’t having an easy time of it here, of course, but there’s no way back for us either.'

‘The hardest thing in my life is losing everything: home, friends, family,’ Tatyana reflects. ‘And to find yourself in another country where nobody needs you, apart from your children. Here in Russia, wherever I work, there are people who say we’re [Ukrainians] the reason there’s a crisis in Russia. And now we’ve come in droves, asking for help.

‘At first, even my kids had conflicts with their new classmates—they’d overheard their parents. Some people hate the fact that Ukrainians have come here en masse. They accuse me of being responsible for the unemployment rate, and that Putin is sending truckloads of humanitarian aid to the Ukrainians instead of helping his own people and his own state. Although to be fair, people helped us in the beginning with firewood and getting the kids into school.’

‘This is all fascism’ 

Many refugees or the volunteers who help them refused to comment: they’re afraid of ‘provocations’. 

For instance, one woman who left Donestk for Russia has been attacked from the other side: ‘I posted an announcement on the internet. Someone rang me on the pretext of helping me and asked for my address. Then they called us traitors, and promised to come with guns and get my children.’

‘This is all fascism,’ says Anastasiya Bykova. ‘Fascism, that’s the current situation in Ukraine.’ Bykova, 27, left the town of Slavyansk (Slovyansk) with her children after the separatists surrendered the town in July 2014. 

Bikova (in glasses).jpg

Anastastiya Bykova (centre). Image courtesy of the author.

Now, Anastasiya lives with other refugees in Serpukhov, a small town between Moscow and Tula. Despite her Russian sympathies, Anastasiya was denied official refugee status, and as a result she cannot find permanent employment.

But the Prosecutor’s Office decided to get in touch all the same—perhaps given how close Serpukhov is to Moscow. ‘Our conversation started with a request to inform them of the last 10 years of my life, right up to how old I was when I gave birth, who the father was, why we divorced, what I’d lost and how I got here. 

‘They even asked about my previous husbands’ dates of birth. It was like I was at confession for two hours. Well, I told them that I’d realised back in May [2014] that this was real war. But all the same we weren’t ready to leave.’

‘Let’s just say that people don’t want to talk about this’ 

It is not only Ukrainian refugees that are finding life difficult. In late July, Russia’s Federation Council publicised the so-called ‘patriotic stop list’, which declares 12 organisations ‘undesirable’, invites the justice ministries to investigate their activities, and stipulates fines and even prison time for people co-operating with them. 

Aside from Open Society Foundations and the National Foundation for Democracy, the Ukrainian World Congress (Toronto) and the Ukrainian World Coordination Council (Kyiv) were also included on this list. The Ukrainian World Congress has partner organisations in 34 countries, including Russia. 

Vladimir Girzhov. Image courtesy of the author.

These developments have left some people in an uncertain situation. As Viktor Girzhov, co-chairman of Ukrainians of Moscow, explains, the Congress and Council co-ordinate activities all over the world, including a partnership with his organisation. Girzhov says that his group’s relationship with these organisations is no more than a partnership, and as part of this, he travels to meetings once a year. 

Girzhov doesn’t receive a penny from foreign funding, and the last grant was given to hold a cultural festival in 2009. ‘You need to look at things how they really are, we’re not involved in any subversive activities,’ says Girzhov. 

‘But now they’ve searched the library of Ukrainian literature. The Ministry of Justice has refused us registration twice. We don’t doubt that they’ll refuse us again.

‘In the Far East, they sacked a choir manager after she visited Maidan, and in order for the choir to continue, they demanded she come out against the events in Kiev. I haven’t met any “curators”, but some people have had phone calls, and have been invited to meetings. Let’s just say that people don’t want to talk about this.’

‘There’s a tension in society, like before a storm’

Everyone, it seems, has decided to lay low. No demonstrations are being held. Activists say that many people from Ukrainian organisations have left the regions, places like Tatarstan and Ekaterinburg. 

‘People who made their position clear before have gone quiet,’ admits Girzhov. ‘And that’s when you consider that we don’t conduct political activities, which could subvert Russia’s independence. After all, we’re all citizens of Russia. We just identify ourselves as Ukrainians, who speak their native language at home, and who observe tradition.’

Girzhov says that the authorities are yet to demand demonstrations of loyalty from local Ukrainians. Instead, public officials are concerned only with preventing conflict.

Girzhov is a frequent guest on Russian state television. Indeed, it’s thanks to Girzhov that discussion on talk shows is possible: often guests come on with exactly the same position.

‘On an everyday level, it feels like attitudes have gotten worse,’ says Girzhov. ‘There’s a tension in society, like before a storm. People who didn’t say anything against Ukrainians before are now very negative.'

‘They’re pleased that Russia took Crimea. For them, Russia should have taken almost all of Ukraine. You can find people who think like this even among distant relatives of mine. Just imagine: people who’ve lived for centuries together, who’ve fought together, are now at each other’s throats. The war in Donbas, Crimea, both of these events have divided Russian society.'

‘This is an abyss you just can’t cross. Now we have to build bridges. It seems like the search for enemies among Ukrainians has lost its shine. Compared to the annexation of Crimea last year, people are a bit tired of all this now.’

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