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False promises: Kremlin provides Ukrainian refugees with nothing but Russian passports

In the two years since the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, at least 1.2 million refugees have found themselves on Russian territory. Unlike in Europe, where an effective system of aid to Ukrainians has been in place since the early days of the war, in Russia, The Insider's interviewees from the destroyed and occupied regions of Ukraine are left to fend for themselves: they can count on nothing except modest benefits and survive on the help of volunteers. The alternative is to go back to bombed out homes and register for social benefits. It is impossible for many to get a job or prove they are of pension age when their documents have burned along with the lives they had built for themselves on the democratic side of the Russian-Ukrainian border. In the Russian Federation that supposedly came to liberate them, they are mocked for their Ukrainian accents in part-time jobs and schools.

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Content
  • “I wish we could get a chair”

  • “Nah, Ukraine won't win!”

  • “We and our children are mocked for our language”

  • “It's impossible to stay here without help”

There are no precise statistics on the number of Ukrainian refugees on Russian territory, but it can be roughly estimated by the amount of benefits handed out: the Russian government has allocated 12.3 billion roubles ($133 million) as one-time financial payments for Ukrainian new arrivals, who were to receive 10 thousand rubles (almost $110) each, putting the number of refugees at approximately 1.2 million people. However, it is highly likely that the actual number of refugees, as keeping an official count became impossible after Russia annexed four Ukrainian regions. The annexation also means that a person from Mariupol who arrives in Russia now, for example, is considered to be an internal Russian migrant in the eyes of the authorities.

Refugees who chose to flee to Europe immediately began to receive substantial assistance, though the level of monetary generosity varied by country. In Germany, for example, Ukrainians are entitled to a monthly allowance of 500 euros per person, health insurance, additional funds for food and furniture, social housing, assistance with employment for adults, and education for children. The Russian authorities also promised refugees a warm welcome: official documents, schools and kindergartens for children, and housing (all houses destroyed during the war in the occupied territories, it is said, will be rebuilt so that refugees can return). But having received a Russian passport, Ukrainians become Russian citizens, and according to the logic of the government, they can get all the government assistance they are entitled to by registering with the authorities in their official place of residence — even if that is somewhere in the ruins of Bakhmut or of the recently “liberated” Avdiivka.

Khokhlandiya

“Khokhlandiya” (lit. “land of the locks of hair”; Russian: хохляндия) is a derogatory reference to Ukraine widely used in Russia. It stems from the Russian name for the oseledets hairstyle, “khokhol” (Russian: хохол), and is commonly used as an ethnic slur for a Ukrainian. Oseledets is a Mohawk-type haircut that features a long lock of hair sprouting from the top or the front of an otherwise closely shaven head. The word comes from the Proto-Slavic “xoxolъ” (lit. ”crest,” “tuft”).

According to the logic of the government, refugees can get all the help they need at their place of registration. That is, somewhere in the ruins of Bakhmut or Avdiivka

As a result, all refugee families with whom The Insider was able to speak, two years later, are living a miserable existence without any prospects.

“I wish we could get a chair”

Viktor, Nadia and their son Lesha came to St. Petersburg from Mariupol and live in a communal apartment near the metro station “Ulitsa Dybenko.” Their room is so small (9 square meters) that it only has two sleeping places in it: Lesha's cot under the big window and a folded sofa for Nadia. There is no room for a third person, so Viktor goes to sleep in a night shelter for the homeless and returns home in the morning.

Khokhlandiya

“Khokhlandiya” (lit. “land of the locks of hair”; Russian: хохляндия) is a derogatory reference to Ukraine widely used in Russia. It stems from the Russian name for the oseledets hairstyle, “khokhol” (Russian: хохол), and is commonly used as an ethnic slur for a Ukrainian. Oseledets is a Mohawk-type haircut that features a long lock of hair sprouting from the top or the front of an otherwise closely shaven head. The word comes from the Proto-Slavic “xoxolъ” (lit. ”crest,” “tuft”).

A night shelter for the homeless
A night shelter for the homeless

Lesha is about twelve, sitting on the cot with his legs tucked up and doing his homework on the windowsill, which is completely occupied with textbooks, pencils and small toys. In the morning, Nadya has already returned from her shift: she has taken a job as a nurse in a hospital and receives 50,000 rubles per month (almost $550). Victor, who has not yet arrived from the night shelter, has a urological disease and thus collects a disability pension of just under 5,000 rubles (close to $55). To save money, he cuts each diaper into three pieces.

Khokhlandiya

“Khokhlandiya” (lit. “land of the locks of hair”; Russian: хохляндия) is a derogatory reference to Ukraine widely used in Russia. It stems from the Russian name for the oseledets hairstyle, “khokhol” (Russian: хохол), and is commonly used as an ethnic slur for a Ukrainian. Oseledets is a Mohawk-type haircut that features a long lock of hair sprouting from the top or the front of an otherwise closely shaven head. The word comes from the Proto-Slavic “xoxolъ” (lit. ”crest,” “tuft”).

Viktor's disability pension is less than five thousand roubles — close to $55

Anna, a lawyer who has been helping refugees from Ukraine for two years, accompanies me to visit Viktor and Nadia's family. She has brought Nadia a large bag of food and an umbrella. Nadia appreciates the latter even more than the buckwheat and rice — she’s almost brought to tears. Anna asks if the family needs anything else. “We need to buy Lesha a chair... We need to get one somehow,” Nadia replies, and they both look at the boy. “Maybe he should do his homework in the library for now?” Anna suggests. “Nah,” Nadia rejects the idea, “you have to watch over him.”

As we leave the room, I ask Anna why Viktor isn’t on the social services’ radar:

“He is. He was allowed to sleep in the shelter, but the thing is that Viktor now has a Russian passport, and in it his place of residence is listed as ‘Mariupol, DPR’ [Donetsk People’s Republic]. Which means Russia. Viktor is an internal migrant as far as the social services are concerned. It’s as if he came from Belgorod,” she replies.

Since Viktor has no permanent registration in St. Petersburg, he is not considered a beneficiary here and is not entitled to anything — not even diapers. But he can get them in Mariupol if he returns to his now abandoned house and registers for social assistance.

Khokhlandiya

“Khokhlandiya” (lit. “land of the locks of hair”; Russian: хохляндия) is a derogatory reference to Ukraine widely used in Russia. It stems from the Russian name for the oseledets hairstyle, “khokhol” (Russian: хохол), and is commonly used as an ethnic slur for a Ukrainian. Oseledets is a Mohawk-type haircut that features a long lock of hair sprouting from the top or the front of an otherwise closely shaven head. The word comes from the Proto-Slavic “xoxolъ” (lit. ”crest,” “tuft”).

Since Viktor has no permanent registration, he is not considered a beneficiary

Anna notices the look on my face and says: “It's nothing, I've had a face like that for two years now.” As far as she can remember, refugees from both the Russian-occupied territories and Kharkiv have been provided with free social housing in St. Petersburg only once: a woman with two children (both disabled) was given a “two-room apartment” in a former military unit 30 kilometers from St. Petersburg. The living space was practically ruined — the apartment was located in a barracks with broken floors, had corroded and leaking water pipes, no furniture, refrigerator, stove, or skirting boards. According to Anna, the administration claimed that “the apartment needed light cosmetic repairs.”

“There was also a man with four kids. His wife died in the spring. He was trying to get at least some housing, some benefits, to put his kids in kindergarten. And they told him: ‘We've liberated Mariupol for you, go there, there's a lot of liberated territory [around].” But everyone who had a house in Mariupol returned there long ago! Only those who had their houses burned or destroyed by missiles are [here]. If you have the papers, you can get compensation in the amount of 100,000 roubles ($1,080). But what are you going to do with them?”

Officially, there are no refugees from Ukraine in St. Petersburg — from the very beginning of war, three temporary shelters were set up in the Leningrad Region [the area surrounding St. Petersburg still bears its Soviet-era name — The Insider]. The people who were brought there from Mariupol looked terrible: they had quite literally come through the fire; some had lost loved ones, while others were seriously injured. Aid from volunteers was sent to the temporary accommodation centers (TACs) in caravans: tonometers, glucometers, test strips, medicines, pillows, and blankets.

Khokhlandiya

“Khokhlandiya” (lit. “land of the locks of hair”; Russian: хохляндия) is a derogatory reference to Ukraine widely used in Russia. It stems from the Russian name for the oseledets hairstyle, “khokhol” (Russian: хохол), and is commonly used as an ethnic slur for a Ukrainian. Oseledets is a Mohawk-type haircut that features a long lock of hair sprouting from the top or the front of an otherwise closely shaven head. The word comes from the Proto-Slavic “xoxolъ” (lit. ”crest,” “tuft”).

Officially, there are no refugees from Ukraine in St. Petersburg

Refugees were guaranteed a roof over their heads, three meals a day, and — at first — help with paperwork. Doctors made the rounds at the TAC, and children were immediately placed in schools and kindergartens. But you can't live long in a Soviet-built health center (two TACs were organized in such premises). Now the TAC is only home to lonely old people, the handicapped, and mothers with children. The rest have either returned home, gone to Europe, or moved to St. Petersburg to find work.

Khokhlandiya

“Khokhlandiya” (lit. “land of the locks of hair”; Russian: хохляндия) is a derogatory reference to Ukraine widely used in Russia. It stems from the Russian name for the oseledets hairstyle, “khokhol” (Russian: хохол), and is commonly used as an ethnic slur for a Ukrainian. Oseledets is a Mohawk-type haircut that features a long lock of hair sprouting from the top or the front of an otherwise closely shaven head. The word comes from the Proto-Slavic “xoxolъ” (lit. ”crest,” “tuft”).

  • A temporary accommodation center (TAC) in the Leningrad Region
  • A temporary accommodation center (TAC) in the Leningrad Region

Like Nadia and her family, most refugees can only afford a room in a communal apartment in the city or a hostel on the outskirts.

“Nah, Ukraine won't win!”

Tatyana Dmitrievna, 78, lives in a dormitory a 20-minute bus ride from Nadia and Viktor's room. It's a Soviet-era panel apartment block, lined with small squares of off-white tiles. Inside, corridors are rife with commotion. Each ends with a row of toilets and showers.

An elderly woman tells me about the sinkhole in front of the entrance of her house in Mariupol, about how there was nothing to eat, how they cooked in the courtyard, and about a car “that curled up like a fist when it started burning.” “It’s good that my daughter and her husband managed to live in a bomb shelter,” she says. “Our house was half destroyed. Now in Mariupol they have built some houses, the kitchens there are huge! 18 [square] meters! We thought — wow — everyone will envy them now. But a storm came in from the sea and the roofs [of the new homes] were torn off.”

Tatyana Dmitrievna has had a stroke — she wants to step to the left, but she is pulled backwards. “I'm also deaf, after the shelling I can't hear at all,” she complains. “[In Mariupol], as night falls, there is shelling from two to six in the morning…” She is happy to have guests, especially since we brought food. Her room, like the one where Nadia, Viktor and Lesha live, is about 10 meters square, and all the passages between the furniture are also occupied by bags and packages.

The walls are covered with new grayish wallpaper, but it's coming apart at the seams. There's a bare window with no curtains, and pieces of brown linoleum nailed to the door. There's almost no room to stand: there's a table under the window that's completely full of dishes, a bed to the right, and a nightstand to the left where Anna and Tatyana are shoving groceries.

Khokhlandiya

“Khokhlandiya” (lit. “land of the locks of hair”; Russian: хохляндия) is a derogatory reference to Ukraine widely used in Russia. It stems from the Russian name for the oseledets hairstyle, “khokhol” (Russian: хохол), and is commonly used as an ethnic slur for a Ukrainian. Oseledets is a Mohawk-type haircut that features a long lock of hair sprouting from the top or the front of an otherwise closely shaven head. The word comes from the Proto-Slavic “xoxolъ” (lit. ”crest,” “tuft”).

The walls are covered with new wallpaper, but it’s coming apart at the seams

407 houses were earmarked for demolition in Mariupol, of which 321 have already been torn down. But much less has been built in their place: a year ago, Russian state-owned news agency RIA Novosti reported that only 33 buildings were ready, and 60 more were to be constructed by the end of 2023.

Khokhlandiya

“Khokhlandiya” (lit. “land of the locks of hair”; Russian: хохляндия) is a derogatory reference to Ukraine widely used in Russia. It stems from the Russian name for the oseledets hairstyle, “khokhol” (Russian: хохол), and is commonly used as an ethnic slur for a Ukrainian. Oseledets is a Mohawk-type haircut that features a long lock of hair sprouting from the top or the front of an otherwise closely shaven head. The word comes from the Proto-Slavic “xoxolъ” (lit. ”crest,” “tuft”).

  • Destroyed apartment blocks being torn down in Mariupol
  • 407 houses were earmarked for demolition in Mariupol, of which 321 have already been torn down. But much less has been built in their place: a year ago, Russian state-owned news agency RIA Novosti reported that only 33 buildings were ready, and 60 more were to be constructed by the end of 2023.

The new houses on Mariupol’s coast with 18-meter kitchens, the ones Tatyana Dmitrievna spoke about, were built as mortgage properties. The Mariupol residents who thought that a new house would be built in the same place as their old one and that they would move there for free were deeply mistaken. It’s possible to have a passport registered to “Lenina Street, House 2, Apartment 5” — but if the plot is handed to a commercial developer, there’s no chance of getting an apartment there. In exchange, Mariupol residents are offered homes in the suburbs without transportation access or basic infrastructure. And there are only a few such offers.

Those whose house survived but were damaged are no better off. These are painted and plastered from the outside, but remain charred from fires on the inside.

In St. Petersburg, Tatyana Dmitrievna lives alone in her dormitory. Her room is paid for by her son-in-law and daughter. I imagine her sitting silently for hours on a chair with her hands folded in her lap, and I say: “Well, someone will rebuild your house one day. By the way, have you ever thought about the fact that Ukraine might win?” “What do you mean, Ukraine will win!” she retorts. “They fought for eight years in the Donbas, didn't capture it, and surrendered Mariupol in two months.”

Most residents of Donbas, who fled eastward when the full-scale war began, support Russia. So I change the subject: “How is your allowance, your pension? What do the social services say?” She answers, “Well, they gave me 10,000 [roubles] ($108) as a lump sum, but then it took me 15,000 ($165) to get the documents! And they gave me the minimum pension — 13,000 ($141), I can't prove my work history. And everyone I called in Mariupol was given 22,000 ($240).” Yet she does not complain about the Russian authorities.

Confirming one’s work experience can be a problem — the best-case scenario is if one can return to Mariupol with their job still intact. However, if your employment record book has burned and your former office is now a shell crater, you will have to turn to the pension fund. The Russian one doesn't have any data on the occupied territories, while the Ukrainian Pension Fund doesn't respond to such requests. Still, it has continued to pay pensions to its citizens from the occupied territories since 2014. “Almost everyone has gotten used to receiving two pensions: one from Ukraine and one from Russia,” says Anna. “I haven't looked into it, but there are cunning ways [to do this].”

“We and our children are mocked for our language”

In St. Petersburg, humanitarian aid is available in several places. Of course, all of these centers areorganized not by the state, but by volunteers.

I arrive at one of the warehouses: a shelf with crockery and food, two levels of shelves with clothing, and large transparent containers with children's clothes, socks, and hats. There is a lot of new stuff; Petersburgers are bringing in clothes from Bershka, Uniqlo, and Zara for the resettled people. Volunteers are constantly buying bedding, pillows and blankets, socks, underwear, pots and pans, and towels. In a typical month, food and cleaning supplies that would retail for around 200 thousand rubles (not quite $2,200) are collected and distributed.

“Of course, this help will make sure that no one dies,” Anya admits, “but it will be difficult [for these people]. They are living in starvation. But here, they give out adult diapers, make eyeglasses, and help with doctors in private clinics. I really don't understand how you can send a person with PTSD, who has lost all his loved ones, to a government clinic to wait in line.”

Up to 500 Ukrainian families come to this warehouse alone, and no matter who you ask, everyone rents a “single room” and lives in it with three or four people. For example, 40-year-old Tatiana has been in St. Petersburg for six months, and a month ago her husband, sister, and daughter came to live with her from Kharkiv, which is being shelled by the Russian army. She went to the warehouse to get at least one set of bed linen. Her husband is just looking for a job, but Tatyana has found work delivering e-commerce orders to pickup boxes around the city for 40,000 roubles ($435) per month. She pays 25,000 roubles ($270) for her apartment, and another 8,000 ($85) for utilities.

Khokhlandiya

“Khokhlandiya” (lit. “land of the locks of hair”; Russian: хохляндия) is a derogatory reference to Ukraine widely used in Russia. It stems from the Russian name for the oseledets hairstyle, “khokhol” (Russian: хохол), and is commonly used as an ethnic slur for a Ukrainian. Oseledets is a Mohawk-type haircut that features a long lock of hair sprouting from the top or the front of an otherwise closely shaven head. The word comes from the Proto-Slavic “xoxolъ” (lit. ”crest,” “tuft”).

Tatyana got a job for 40,000 roubles to deliver online orders

“Four people, four sets of laundry, we wash it, dry it and put it back again,” she smiles awkwardly. Tatiana leaves without the bed linens — each new donated set is always claimed immediately, especially the sheets.

Yevgenia, who looks about 50 years old, is buried in a large plastic container — looking for things for her two grandchildren, who are currently at school. She says her daughter and her children have come to live with her and she needs to find something for them. She goes through the children's T-shirts and can't decide: it turns out that the boys are already mocked mercilessly at school for their random choice of clothes, push button phones, and accents, so Eugenia is afraid of making things worse.

“We get mocked too,” Yevgenia admits. “I got a job as a nurse in a hospital, and my daughter too. At work, you speak Russian, but then once in [a while] you drop something in in Ukrainian. And the patients are like: ‘Oh, Khokhlandiya has arrived!’ It was so frustrating. They could’ve at least thanked me for replacing their bedpans.”

Yevgenia used to work as a ventilation systems engineer, but all her papers and diploma burned in Mariupol, so she can't find a job in her field — and she has to feed her grandchildren. “They work as caregivers, loaders, online store operators,” Anna lists. “If a person has a Ukrainian diploma, it has to be confirmed. But there are engineers who got jobs in the Russian defense industry, at Almaz-Antey, which produces missiles for air defense.”

“It's impossible to stay here without help”

Ukrainians who have fled the war for Europe live very different lives. Olena N., an accountant, also left shell-shocked Mykolaiv for Germany a year ago, almost without her belongings. We spoke to her by phone while she was on the bus, heading home from her free German-language classes:

“Help for refugees from Ukraine is provided very quickly,” Olena says. “First you go to Poland, to a refugee camp. You say there that you need to go to Germany, and they tell you to wait for the bus. The driver will take you to the right city, where you look for the camp, where you write to a staff member in a translator: ‘I am from Ukraine, I am asking for shelter’. After that, about an hour passes, you are entered into a database, and... that's it. After that you are provided with social housing in a town or village and assigned a social worker who will issue you a residence permit and health insurance. He will do everything himself!
Social housing is a one- or two-room apartment; for four people, you get a two-room apartment. The housing is excellent, everything’s new, it’s paid for by the job center. If there is something missing in the apartment (a washing machine, furniture or bedding), they will give you money to buy it. This will be the case until you get a job. But you can't work without knowing the language, so we’re still learning it — for free. In addition, there is an allowance — 500 euros per person.”

According to Olena, people with injuries, or those who have had strokes, are quickly given medical insurance and a family doctor who will refer them to other specialists. “Everything is done faster for them, both housing and documents. If they need a caregiver, they'll provide one. It's free. The job center pays for everything. It is impossible to be left without help here!” Olena says.

Her fellow student Christina explains that, legally, Ukrainians in Germany are not considered refugees, so they don't have to wait long for the authorities to make a decision. In fact, they get help immediately — just like German citizens would.

Russia also provides assistance to refugees from occupied Mariupol, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia regions — the same as it would for its own citizens.That is precisely why volunteers are trying to transport bedridden and wounded refugees from Russia to Germany, Finland, or Norway as quickly as possible.

“Now we’re putting together a disabled team to [send to] Europe,” says Anna, the St. Petersburg lawyer. “Old people over 80 years old after strokes, the blind, the injured, with broken spines, those in wheelchairs. They’re from the flooded zone (after the destruction of the Kakhovka Dam), from the left bank of the Dnipro [river]. Their houses were already damaged, it’s impossible to live there. Battles are raging there now, and they’re crawling out of there with the last strength they can muster.”

According to Anna, these people are not even refugees, but rather evacuees. “Some didn't want to leave because of their house, farm, or livestock. They all thought it would end someday. Many couldn't leave due to the bedridden and the disabled, the elderly, and their families. To get one or two people out, every time they collect 200-300 thousand roubles ($2,170 to $3,260),” says the volunteer.

With a voice full of emotion, she says that “people need to be taken away from the line of contact, but no one’s evacuating them in a centralized way.” Anna cites the example of Ukraine, which evacuates its civilians from danger zones despite the fact that they, too, often prefer to stay in their homes to the last.

Khokhlandiya

“Khokhlandiya” (lit. “land of the locks of hair”; Russian: хохляндия) is a derogatory reference to Ukraine widely used in Russia. It stems from the Russian name for the oseledets hairstyle, “khokhol” (Russian: хохол), and is commonly used as an ethnic slur for a Ukrainian. Oseledets is a Mohawk-type haircut that features a long lock of hair sprouting from the top or the front of an otherwise closely shaven head. The word comes from the Proto-Slavic “xoxolъ” (lit. ”crest,” “tuft”).

People need to be taken away from the line of contact, but no one is evacuating them

Having stopped talking, Anna says: “It was a terrible story for me personally. I met a family from the left bank of the Dnipro in the summer. They came out of the train: the woman's eyes were absolutely white and she looked as if she was losing it. She had a black bandage on her head. Then two more women with a stunned look, a grandfather in his 80s, a boy and a girl. I put them all in cars, took them to the hostel, and in the morning they have to go to the border.”

In the evening, Anna and her boyfriend went to buy the family some food for the road. “It turned out that their father, the woman's husband, was killed ten days ago. Shells had struck their home. And Sasha [the woman’s son] says so matter-of-factly: ‘His brain was leaking out of all the openings — from his ears, from his mouth, from his eyes.’ And we're walking along [St. Petersburg’s] Nevsky Avenue — it's a bright, warm night in August. [Sasha is the] same age as the guys with the skateboards. And he says: ‘I studied computer science in Kherson, I dreamed of coming to [St. Petersburg], but I never thought it would be like this…’”

Khokhlandiya

“Khokhlandiya” (lit. “land of the locks of hair”; Russian: хохляндия) is a derogatory reference to Ukraine widely used in Russia. It stems from the Russian name for the oseledets hairstyle, “khokhol” (Russian: хохол), and is commonly used as an ethnic slur for a Ukrainian. Oseledets is a Mohawk-type haircut that features a long lock of hair sprouting from the top or the front of an otherwise closely shaven head. The word comes from the Proto-Slavic “xoxolъ” (lit. ”crest,” “tuft”).

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