‘I crossed the border on foot’ Russian citizens stranded abroad during the coronavirus pandemic tell their stories
To this day, many Russian citizens are still stranded abroad due to the coronavirus pandemic. While some of them are now waiting for specially chartered “export flights” and receiving financial aid, many of Russia’s citizens stuck overseas have yet to receive any help from their government. Meanwhile, others are unable to get themselves to an airport for logistical regions — in some countries, there are simply no available flights. In their own words, Russian citizens stranded abroad tell Meduza their stories.
The interviews below were first published on June 9. This translation has been edited and abridged for length and clarity.
(Mentioned by first name only, at his own request).
At the beginning of March, my wife, son, and I went on vacation to Samui (an island off the coast of Thailand). We were supposed to come back at the end of the month, but decided to fly back early after we found out about what is happening in the world. The airline didn’t change our tickets because of the pandemic. We stayed in Thailand until the scheduled date, but even then we didn’t manage to fly out. They told me right at the airport in Bangkok that the plane had been diverted.
Now we are in Samui and waiting for an export flight. We filed [an application] for financial aid immediately. But we only started to receive it 48 days after the application was submitted. The [government services portal] “Gosuslugi” and the Foreign Ministry didn’t tell us anything, no one could give us information. Now the money isn’t always sent, but it’s the right amount — 2,400 rubles (a little less than $35) per person. We are living hand-to-mouth.
We need to go a long way to get from Samui to Bangkok for the export flight. The plane [from Samui] arrives in Bangkok at one in the morning. The second option was to travel 740 kilometers (around 460 miles) across the sea and over water.
We bought the tickets from Aeroflot, so the airline is responsible for the entire trip to Moscow. But they cancelled all [their] flights from Samui to Bangkok. We found the exact same flights on a skyscanner and with local airlines, and asked Aeroflot to change our tickets. But nothing has been resolved as of yet. Aeroflot doesn’t want to exert itself, even though the whole world is exerting itself.
If Aeroflot had changed the tickets for us, we wouldn’t have to pay for the route to Bangkok. Now it will cost around 40,000 rubles ($573) for three people for a 45 minute flight. In normal times it’s around 15,000 ($215). We shouldn’t be experiencing any inconvenience, since the tickets were purchased in advance.
On June 8, they announced an export flight from Bangkok to Moscow on June 11. We registered. But we need to pay our own way to the airport, on several buses and ferries along an alternate route. The tickets for the airplane were too expensive. Now we are packing our things and getting ready for tomorrow’s ferry.
I came to Almaty (Kazakhstan) to visit a relative on February 25. I got a return ticket to Kamchatka, Russia at the end of March. Late in the evening on March 21, the airline called me and said that the flight was cancelled. By March 22, they had already closed the border.
I started to call the consulate — they told me there were no flights. I called the airline and asked when they were opening the border. All the while I looked at flights and plane tickets, I thought I could fly out, but the flights were cancelled five times. I didn’t know where else to call. I was devastated, since I didn’t have any information. I hoped that I could get a plane out, and didn’t understand why I wasn’t allowed to leave.
I didn’t receive any financial assistance, even though I filed an application. I tried to get a part-time job in Almaty, but failed. All this time I have been living without an income, at a loss. I have continued to rent a chair at a hair salon in Russia for 10,000 rubles (per month) so as not to lose it, while not earning anything. My whole life has already collapsed. I think that if I had waited any longer, then the man I love wouldn’t have waited for me.
I came across a Telegram chat of people stranded abroad. If it weren’t for that chat, no one would have helped me. When they cancelled flights through Minsk in the first days of June, I wrote in the “stranded” group in a panic. They told me you could get out on foot. I opened a map of Kazakhstan immediately, found the city closest to the border, and bought a ticket for a flight to Pavlodar. It’s good that flights within the country were available at this time.
From Pavlodar they took me to the border. I crossed it on foot: there were several checkpoints, they looked at my passport, checked my temperature, and let me into my homeland. Another driver met me in Russia, who took me to the Novosibirsk airport. I’m very happy that I found people who are helping Russian citizens get home, even though it’s not free, of course.
My friend Nona Nikolaevna got stranded in Hamburg and is now living with us. She is 79 years old. Nona Nikolaevna arrived in December to take care of her daughter, who was undergoing chemotherapy. She was supposed to fly back on March 18, but on March 16 the flight was cancelled. We thought she’d managed to fly out in April or May, but they didn’t organize flights from Hamburg.
Nona Nikolaevna’s ticket to Russia is still valid, it’s with Aeroflot. But now they are only offering flights from Frankfurt — that’s 700 kilometers away from us. Nona Nikolaevna is elderly, she can’t get [to the Frankfurt airport] on her own. And I can’t take her myself since I am working. We are waiting for flights from Hamburg, but so far they are only scheduled for August, and there are no guarantees. Now everything depends on Russia — what the situation will be like there. Germany is beginning to open all [its borders].
It’s only thanks to us that Nona Nikolaevna has somewhere to live and eat. On May 6 we filed an application for financial aid. At first it seemed it was approved, but they didn’t send [any money]. Then, on June 4, it’s status suddenly changed to rejected. For more than a month I have been trying to get Nona Nikolaevna the assistance promised by the state: I wrote [complaints] and called the Foreign Ministry hotline many times. But so far, unfortunately, there’s be no results. I am thinking of writing a letter to [Prime Minister Mikhail] Mishustin.
I have been living in Samui since 2011. The last couple years I went to Russia in the summer and came back here during the tourist season — I work as a guide. This year, I came back to Samui in December and worked the winter months. I didn’t have a return ticket to Russia: when you work here, you buy a ticket the week before you leave. Then the working season suddenly ended. Now I am living without a job, without a visa, and without plane tickets. It’s easier for me since I know the island and have many friends. I know where you can rent cheap accommodations, where to eat.
There is serious aggression [towards those stranded abroad] on the part of Russian citizens: they say that we are sitting around on financial aid and will be brought back for free. Personally, I was denied financial aid very quickly, since I didn’t have a return ticket. This is the main reason for rejections.
In order to have the opportunity to register for an evacuation flight, you have to go on a whole quest and put yourself on to many lists, which are updated regularly. When information about an export flight appears, you have to register through Gosuslugi. If you aren’t registered there, then you definitely won’t get a ticket. I didn’t register during the peak of quarantine simply because I didn’t understand how to get from Samui to Bangkok, where the plane flew out of. Now I put myself on every list there is. Flights are scheduled about once every two weeks, but at the moment there aren’t any [flights].
The price of a one-way ticket is 400 euros (approximately $450). That’s expensive, usually you can go there and back for this [amount] of money. I could spend 400 euros on a ticket, and then sit in quarantine and encounter people in spacesuits, or live here for another month. I hope that Thailand’s borders will reopen after July 1 and the price of tickets will change.
In September 2019, I came from Novosibirsk to Milan to study. I returned to Russia in the winter [of 2020]. My study visa was supposed to end on March 1, so on February 24, I returned to Italy, in order to extend it and get a residency permit, which I had applied for in November.
I didn’t plan on staying long, because [my] education switched to distance learning. I bought return tickets for April 5. A week after I arrived in Italy quarantine began and all flights were cancelled. I have been sitting here all this time, renting a room and waiting for an export flight.
I applied for financial aid at the very beginning. It was under consideration for a month, after which I began to receive money daily. I applied for an export flight through Gosuslugi — they are compiling a general list of [those who want to leave]. As I recall there have been three flights [to Russia], they’re rare, maybe once per month. I wasn’t put on any of them, even though I am on the waiting list. At first it was because there were no flights to Novosibirsk. Then I changed my destination to St. Petersburg. My parents live there and there is a place [for me] to quarantine. But I didn’t get [put on that flight] either because of the live queue: whoever filed an application first [got to fly out]. It’s also inconvenient that the flights are only going out of Rome. I am in Milan. A notification about a new flight could come in two days and somehow you need to get from the north [of the country] to the south.
So far they aren’t planning any new flights. The last chartered [flight] from Rome to Moscow was in May. When a new one will come up is unclear, and whether or not they will put me on it is even more [unclear]. I can’t influence this in any way.
My wife and I have lived in southern Florida since 2019. On February 25 my wife’s mother, Tatyana Nikolaevna, came to [visit] us. We had plans to go to Cuba, and the whole family had Aeroflot tickets for a plane to Moscow on April 21. But the last regular flight from Miami left on March 15. At first the flight was postponed until May 2, we managed to register for it, but a week later we received a notification that the flight was cancelled, and that all flights out of the US were suspended.
By the end of April, all Russian citizens living in America found themselves in this type of situation. The majority of the evacuation flights are out of New York (once every two weeks), even though this is one of the most infected cities in the world. There was also one flight out of Los Angeles.
When we didn’t fly out, Tatyana Nikolaevna asked if she could apply for financial aid. She registered on the Gosuslugi site on May 8 — it said that the application was complete and everything is in order. Everyone calmed down. Some time passed but there was no money — silence. [Then] Gosuslugi told Tatyana Nikolaevna that she had flown out on a flight from San Francisco, even though there weren’t any flights from there.
I wrote about the whole situation on Facebook, after which I found a letter from [the Russian Foreign Ministry’s official representative] Maria Zakharova in my messages. I sent her all of my messages about what is happening, because it is a bit of a mess. This is no way to treat our citizens. Maria [Zakharova] called me, we explained, and I took a break for about a week, so that the Foreign Ministry [could] answer Tatyana Nikolaevna. A week later there was still no answer, so I wrote to Maria again. After this they called Tatyana Nikolaevna back, and she spoke with someone twice. They told her that the application was approved and that she will receive the money. They only began to deposit it on June 2.
Now I’m following the Gosuslugi site everyday. It says there that there are no flights planned from Los Angeles and Miami in the near future. Russian citizens are flying out of here via multiple flights: from here to London, then to Helsinki, from there to Minsk, and then to Russia. I calculated that this type of route takes around 110 hours, if you stop to rest. We will [take] a similar route, but I am hoping for one connection, I found such a flight. We will buy the tickets [ourselves] — no one is offering compensation for anything. Of course there is the chance of an evacuation flight, if I wake up in the night, see one, and manage to register quickly. But I don’t see [any] options and I am not counting on any kind of help. [You have to] handle it on your own.
Edited and translated by Eilish Hart