‘A surreal country’ The mad dash for Russian citizenship in separatist Luhansk
Since April 24, residents of the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics have been able to receive Russian citizenship through a simplified process. On May 1, this option was made available to all Ukrainian citizens with Russian residence permits. A center for issuing Russian passports to DNR and LNR residents has already opened in Russia’s Rostov region. Since early May, people have flocked to these offices, hoping to lay their hands on a Russian passport, even though the process laid out by Moscow requires them to submit their paperwork where they live. Meduza special correspondent Kristina Safonova travelled to Luhansk and the Rostov region to learn more about this dash for Russian citizenship and why people in Ukraine’s Donbas want it so badly.
There’s an executive order, but still no timetable
“Where do we go for the passports, to get citizenship?” asks an elderly man, stopping an official at the Interior Ministry’s Migration Department in Novoshakhtinsk, a mining city in Russia’s Rostov region.
“It’s by your registration location, in your republic,” he explains.
“But they told us that it’s in Novoshakhtinsk!” the old man says, growing nervous. To look the official in the eyes, he has to tilt his head up slightly.
“In Novoshakhtinsk they opened a center [for issuing passports to LNR residents], but documents are received at the registration location. Someone there brings the documents here — they’re collected back where you live.”
“And if we’re here? There was a supervisor here, and he told us to come.”
“We don’t receive documents. Look, go wait in the first office [for the supervisor],” the official says, tired of arguing, before hiding behind one of the doors.
This passport center for residents of the self-declared Luhansk People’s Republic opened on April 29 in Novaya Sokolovka, a village on the outskirts of Novoshakhtinsk. The facility occupies several rooms in a newly renovated community center that local journalists say needed repairs for the last 46 years. Behind the center, there’s an unfinished house, and the fire department is just across the street in a building with a sign above the entrance that reads, “Prevention. Rescue. Assistance.” Except time has nearly erased the letting, and all that remains is the word “Rescue.”
The community center is surrounded by a fence, and nobody’s allowed inside without permission. “It’s a restricted area,” explain two police officers, standing by their patrol car. They say the center is closed to the public, but people show up every day. (On the morning of May 8, when Meduza’s correspondent visits the building, there’s nobody waiting outside.) The officers say they offer advice to these people through the fence.
“Members of the public ask why [their documents] aren’t accepted here, and they want to know the processing timetable,” says Anatoly Ignatenko, a senior official at the Migration Department office in Novoshakhtinsk. “There’s an executive order,” he adds, “but still no timetable.” Ignatenko says everyone who wants Russian citizenship should get it eventually, in theory at least, but they’re supposed to submit their applications at the Interior Ministry’s Migration Department, not at the center issuing their passports.
“We’re here as a transmitting site,” Anatoly Ignatenko continues. “[LNR] representatives and security officials bring us the documents, we receive them, and then pass them up the chain, to the Migration Department’s head office in Rostov.” Ignatenko doesn’t say how many citizenship applications have already been processed.
No visitors today
The office space for the Interior Ministry’s Migration Department in Novoshakhtinsk is a two-story brick building with faded paint at 9 Soviet Constitution Street, 10 kilometers (about 6 miles) from the community center in Novaya Sokolovka. Alexey and Eleonora (who asked Meduza not to release their surnames) say they’ve come here, not for the first time. They haven’t gotten anywhere by speaking to the staff, and now they’re waiting to talk to a supervisor. Alexey periodically walks up to each office, checks the posted business hours, and sometimes tries the door knobs. They’re all locked.
Alexey is 82 years old. Eleonora is a year older. They were both born in Novoshakhtinsk and went to college here together. After graduating, she got married and followed her husband (“he was a miner, they sent him off on assignment”), and left for the city of Makeevka in the Donetsk region, where she received Ukrainian citizenship, after the Soviet Union collapsed.
When her husband died, Eleonora was left on her own. Her only daughter had moved away to Zaporizhzhya, in southeastern Ukraine. “Every five years, the former students would meet on the Don,” Alexey says. “I kinda asked, ‘Where’s your husband?’ and she said, ‘He died.’ My [wife] had also died. And then I looked at her like, ‘Well, how ‘bout it?’” They started living together in 2006, moving between Novoshakhtinsk and Makiivka (east of Donetsk) every three months. But five years ago, when the war broke out in the Donbas, Eleonora relocated to Russia, and she only returns home for a few days at a time, every three months. This is when she started thinking about getting Russian citizenship.
“If we sign, the DNR will stop paying me the [monthly] pension for my [deceased] husband — 8,000 rubles [$125],” Eleonora says. “Last year, I received a DNR passport, but back then there was so much paperwork you needed to submit [to acquire Russian citizenship]. And now on television they’re painting this wonderful picture, saying 400 people from the Luhansk region have already brought their documents. But what for? If no one understands anything?”
“They said there’s no need to go anywhere. A DNR official comes and checks the documents. Just wait three months. But look at this mess. They’re not executing the president’s orders. There’s jack shit, and nobody knows anything. This country is surreal!” Alexey says angrily.
Nina is 72. Four years ago, she left Zimogorye in the Luhansk region and moved in with her sister in Novoshakhtinsk. “That’s right where they were bombing us, at the front line,” she says. “I got out of there because I was left completely alone. Everyone had died. On top of that, I’m disabled, you see?” She holds out a swollen right forearm. It took Nina two and a half years to get a residence permit in Russia, and she expected to wait another five years for Russian citizenship, but President Putin’s executive order means she might get it in just three months.
Like other Ukrainians with Russian residence permits (both temporary and long-term), Nina has to apply for Russian citizenship where she lives. In her case, that’s Novoshakhtinsk. But Nina doesn’t know this, and she has been unable to speak to anyone working in the Migration Department. Officials tell her that the office isn’t receiving visitors today, even though the blue sign at the building’s entrance says otherwise.
Visitors have been trying to get answers from each other for a while: “Where do we go? To Luhansk, Donetsk, or Novaya Sokolova? Which documents do we bring?” But most people leave more confused than when they arrived, only to return on Monday.
Novoshakhtinsk isn’t far from Russia’s “border” with the LNR. The quickest route to Luhansk runs 124 kilometers (77 miles) through the “Dolzhansky” checkpoint, but locals often avoid the bad roads here and go around to the “Izvarino” checkpoint. From there, it’s a straight shot to Luhansk along Highway M04.
Depending on the traffic, you might spend anywhere from 30 minutes to several hours at the checkpoint. Frequent travelers say there was once a time when you could pass without waiting in line, in exchange for a “donation to the LNR.” When this option disappeared, people living in the towns closest to the border started selling places in line. Locals would also come into Russia to buy cheaper gasoline, but that practice largely ended when the cost of fuel in Russia and the LNR became roughly the same. To avoid getting stuck in long lines at the border, drivers now use VKontakte to track the congestion at checkpoints. Travelers post updates about how many cars are in line at any given time, so others can decide if they’d rather take a longer route to another checkpoint.
Two years ago, you could still see destroyed houses and artillery damage in fences along the road from Izvaryne to Luhansk. Today, evidence of this violence is gone almost entirely: the bus stops have been repainted, the pavement and homes in the area have been tidied up, and the only reminders of the war are an enormous billboard showing a humanitarian aid truck and the words “Thank you, Russia!” and a memorial complex atop a small hill, dedicated to the defenders of the Donbas.
On May 7, volunteers arrive at the memorial outside Sorokyne for a Saturday of clean-up work. Women in blue jackets sweep the area and prune the flower beds. 67-year-old Lyubov Tkachenko says the monument was built using public donations, and her family-owned sausage-clip manufacturing business, “Tonpak,” has looked after the site for the past three years.
When the war began, Tkachenko says, supermarket shelves emptied of everything but napkins. Pharmacies also ran out of supplies, and even the cash registers suddenly failed. “I cried every time a humanitarian aid shipment arrived,” she recalls. “It was only thanks to Russia that we started getting goods from Russia and Belarus.” Tkachenko says people in the Donbas have nothing to begrudge for the past five years, and they’re very grateful. She doesn’t think of Russia as the aggressor, though she admits she was scared in 2014: “You walked around and there were soldiers everywhere. My daughter came under fire. I went out in gunfire for conifers and seedlings. They were shooting and we were planting trees. It made you laugh, and it reduced you to tears. But what could you do? We didn’t stop work at the factory, and we survived.”
Tkachenko says she was happy to learn that LNR residents will be able to become Russian citizens. “Of course, this step by Putin is especially heartening for us. We’ve been living in uncertainty for five years now.” Because the Luhansk “republic” isn’t officially recognized, Tkachenko had to send her daughter to live with her grandmother in Kharkiv, where she’s studying at a Ukrainian school that will be able to provide her with a valid diploma. With their daughter “abroad,” Tkachenko and her husband can’t get an LNR international passport, though they need these documents to fly to China for work. She says she doesn’t want to move to Ukraine because she’s afraid of “falling in with someone who’s dishonest.”
Tkachenko’s company now only works with Russian banks, and her products are shipped through Russia to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. She says her family is wealthy by local standards, but she doesn’t reveal their income.
According to the LNR’s Social Policy Ministry, the average monthly salaries in 2017 for local civil servants and healthcare workers reached 4,979 and 7,415 rubles ($77 and $114), respectively. Two years earlier, however, the prices of essential goods in the Donbas spiked an average 50-60 percent, according to Human Rights Watch.
Since 2015, retirement payments in the LNR and DNR have been steady. Pensions are set at the pre-war Ukrainian levels, but they’re paid in rubles. Each month, Tkachenko receives 3,200 rubles ($49). Some people in the region manage to collect two pensions, which requires getting temporary registration on Ukrainian territory. “I don’t blame them,” Tkachenko says. “What’s 2,000 rubles [$31]? And after the increase, it’s 3,200? It’s very little.”
Ukrainian state officials say they plan to withhold social benefits from anyone living in the LNR or DNR who obtains Russian citizenship.
According to experts surveyed by the website The Bell, Russia will spend at least 100 billion rubles ($1.5 billion) in additional annual social-security payments to the millions of people living in the Donbas. President Putin says the cost will be significantly lower, arguing that 100 billion rubles will fund the expanded pension coverage for several years, not just one.
“For me, [getting Russian citizenship] means coming home. My parents were in Russia, and my sister stayed,” Tkachenko says. “We weren’t waiting to take part [in Ukraine’s presidential election], but of course we’re very worried. We’d really like to see relations get better. I have a daughter in Ukraine. I’ve got in-laws in Ukraine. We talk on the phone. There’s absolutely no animosity between us or between the people. The fact that the authorities can’t come to a resolution is a separate issue.”
“It’s the same life”
The Leninsky branch of the Luhansk militia isn’t the only station in the city, but at least 100 people line up outside on the afternoon of May 7. Some stand at the main entrance, beside a memorial plaque dedicated to Valery Lipnitsky (who fought with the separatists and died on January 20, 2015), but most of the crowd hides from the sun under the tall fir trees. Everyone here wants to apply for an LNR passport; locals can’t get Russian citizenship without one.
“We could have gotten passports earlier [the LNR started issuing passports in 2015], but we waited until the last minute,” explains 18-year-old Katya Bezkaravaynaya, saying that she can still hardly believe Russian citizenship is within her grasp. Bezkaravaynaya is training in modern dance and she dreams of leaving Luhansk for St. Petersburg, which she’s never seen. “I love my city, but there are no prospects here. I can’t become a dancer here,” she says. Her classmates also want to leave Luhansk: one plans to go to Ukraine, and the others to Russia. Getting Russian citizenship doesn’t require renouncing your Ukrainian citizenship, but Bezkaravaynaya says she doesn’t need it anymore. “I think Russia is better,” she says.
Before submitting their documents, people have to wait — in the longest and slowest-moving of all the lines — to be fingerprinted. “They said everyone today will [get through] in time,” Elena, 45, says. She was born and raised in Luhansk, but she moved to Nizhny Novgorod in 2015. “I had to save [my] child.” Elena already has Russian citizenship, but she’s in line for her elderly parents. “If they wanted to move, they would have done it a long time ago. They’ve lived here throughout the blockade, and all the shelling. But you can’t compare now to 2014. The republic is slowly recovering: the grocery stores are packed with food, they’re paying some kind of pensions again, and the prices generally are the same as in Russia. Everyone understands perfectly that people in Luhansk and across the Donbas are set on uniting with Russia. I think it’s the next step. At least people here hope so.”
Today isn't 62-year-old Alexander's first attempt to get an LNR passport. In 2015, he was told to keep using his Ukrainian documents, after the office ran out of forms. That’s when he says he first got the idea to become a Russian citizen. Before the war, his father-in-law left him a house in the Rostov region’s Tarasovsky district. When he saw the long lines at the passport center in Russia, however, he quickly abandoned the idea. “[At the Migration Department in Tarasovsky] there were three times more people than here,” he says. “I had to get up at five in the morning to catch the bus. Even here I arrived at six, and only half the line has gone through. But I want to apply for Russian citizenship. We are brotherly people — we are one. It's no picnic in Russia, either. It’s the same life, whether you’re here or there.”
“Surviving however they can”
There’s a crowd just as big outside Luhansk’s Migration Service office, but these people are waiting to apply for Russian citizenship. A young man loudly reads out the numbers of those who can now submit their paperwork, but most have given up and gone home, so only two or three people come forward, of the five numbers called.
65-year-old Lyudmila (Meduza is not revealing her real name, at her request) sits near the entrance in a folding chair. She’s been here since five in the morning, but she first got in line yesterday, on May 6, when the office started accepting applications for Russian citizenship. Her number is 435.
Lyudmila’s grandparents died in 2006, leaving her their apartment in the Krasnodar region. Since then, she’s been trying to get a temporary residence permit in Russia: “Oddly enough, only the war helped. When it all started, everyone came to stay with me [in the Krasnodar region]. My daughter was living with her boyfriend. He went to fight in the militia, and later he got Russian citizenship. [According to Russian law, foreign citizens who have participated in armed conflicts are ineligible for Russian citizenship.] When he moved in with us, he and my daughter got married, and they finally granted me RVP. Before, they’d told me: ‘Private property does not give you grounds for becoming a citizen of this country.’ But this is my historical homeland. It’s where my grandmother, my grandfather, and my mother were born and raised.”
Suddenly there’s shouting from all sides:
“Sir, where do you think you’re going?”
“Hey, check yourself in at once!”
“What’s your number?”
The ruckus breaks out because a man, either by mistake or sneakiness, decides to step a little closer to the entrance. The police officers on duty manage to restore order, and everyone falls silent again, their eyes fixed on the front door.
“It’s just a madhouse,” says Marina, who traveled more than 60 kilometers (almost 40 miles) north from Rovenky to submit her paperwork. In the two hours she and her husband have waited in line, the office has admitted just 20 people. But Marina’s husband, Vasily, says it’s even worse back in their hometown: only five applicants get through every hour.
Five years ago, their daughter left for St. Petersburg. She later managed to get Russian citizenship and found a job. Her parents also want to move to Russia. They say there’s nothing to do in the LNR.
“There’s work, but the salaries?” Marina complains. “I’m an accountant, and I get 5,000 [rubles per month — about $77]. Is that enough to pay for an apartment, food, and clothes? Our utilities alone are 2,000!” She says people “survive however they can” in the unrecognized republic. “The retirees collecting two pensions can still manage, and so can the miners. But here we are, unable to help our children or grandchildren.”
Another commotion interrupts Marina’s story, and the police narrowly avert a fight in the crowd.
“Are they open again tomorrow?” a middle-aged woman asks her husband.
“They said to stay until the end. Then they’ll say about tomorrow. I hope to God they’re open, so we can at least get inside.”
Translation by Eilish Hart and Kevin Rothrock