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Residents of the unrecognized Donetsk People’s Republic travelling to Russia on a bus organized for voters during the State Duma elections
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‘We all support Putin, tell your friends’ Meduza’s dispatch from Russia’s Rostov region, where residents of Ukraine’s separatist territories cast ballots in the State Duma elections

Source: Meduza
Residents of the unrecognized Donetsk People’s Republic travelling to Russia on a bus organized for voters during the State Duma elections
Residents of the unrecognized Donetsk People’s Republic travelling to Russia on a bus organized for voters during the State Duma elections
Valentin Sprinchak / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

During the State Duma elections, Russian passport holders from the Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics” — two unrecognized territories in eastern Ukraine — cast their ballots in the neighboring Rostov region of Russia. The de facto authorities in the region organized hundreds of buses and a dozen trains to transport voters across the border. Many of the Donbas residents were handed their Russian passports right before they voted — the buses took them directly to the passport office and then shuttled them to polling stations. At Meduza’s request, journalist Gleb Golod traveled to the Matveyevo-Kurgansky district of the Rostov region, where most of the polling stations for Donbas residents were set up. There, he spoke to voters about the candidates they supported, their expectations for the elections, and what they think about the powers that be in Moscow.

It’s the morning of September 18, and the speakers at the entrance to the local administration building in Russia’s rural town of Matveyev Kurgan are blasting Alla Pugaeva’s greatest hits, interspersed with patriotic songs. It’s the second day of voting in the 2021 State Duma elections, and several volunteers are standing right outside the building, waiting for voters to arrive. 

The Matveyevo-Kurgansky district, which sits on the border with Ukraine, has a special role to play in the elections — 11 of its 15 polling stations are allocated to serve residents of the unrecognized Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) who hold Russian passports. Earlier, DNR leader Denis Pushilin announced that the authorities in the region had organized 825 buses and 12 trains to shuttle voters across the border.  

A blue car with Ukrainian plates is parked outside of the polling station. The owners of the car are a husband and wife from Horlivka, Ukraine. “She made me, I wouldn’t have gone myself. I’m not even a citizen of Russia,” the man laughs. His wife insisted they stop in Russia’s Rostov region on their way back from a vacation in Georgia’s breakaway Republic of Abkhazia — she didn’t have time to register to vote online while at the seaside. She received Russian citizenship a year ago and considers voting in the State Duma elections her civic duty (though she declined to say who she voted for). 

But her husband doesn’t feel the same way: “For me, getting a [Russian] passport is like cutting off my own hand. I served in the army in Ukraine since Soviet times and receive a military pension. In Russia, they won’t give it to me [...] so I keep my Ukrainian passport,” he explains. 

As the couple drives off towards the border, a white tour bus with Rostov plates pulls up. About sixty people get off the bus and a volunteer rushes forward to meet them. “Polling station 1120, everyone this way,” a woman shouts from the entrance to the building. They line up, documents in hand and fiddling with their masks. Members of the territorial election commission refuse to let Meduza’s correspondent into the polling station, but offer reassurances that things are running smoothly and there are no electoral violations. 

A volunteer from a polling station greeting DNR residents as they get off the bus in Matveyev Kurgan
Gleb Golod

“I work in the pension fund and at work [we were given] instructions to go vote,” says a Donetsk resident, who declines to give her name. “I wouldn’t have come, Russia still isn’t my country yet. When they integrate us, it will be a different story. The woman adds that her bosses didn’t give any specific instructions about who to vote for — you can vote for whoever you want, she explains, but she doesn’t want to say who she supported. 

A group of people sitting on a bench outside the polling station are more open: there’s six of them, aged 25 to 60. They all came from Donetsk, planning to vote for United Russia. “We want to [be part of] Russia [...] We’re voting for Putin and everything associated with him. We’re patriots of our country and we vote with a pure heart,” they proclaim. 

The bus driver, who’s from Rostov, says this is his second trip of the day. In total, he’s supposed to make the hour-and-a-half drive four times on each day of voting. He isn’t allowed to cross over into Ukraine, so his task is to drive up to the checkpoint and pick up people who have crossed the border. He can take up to 60 people and his bus is usually completely full, with an extra three or four passengers forced to stand.

Before getting back on the bus, several DNR residents pour themselves plastic cups of “Russian champagne” and toast to Russia. They say that they voted “for Russia” too — and don’t offer any further explanation. 

* * *

In the center of Matveyev Kurgan, the elections are a full-on, three-day-long holiday. The town’s main street has a stage set up near a monument to Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin; children’s groups, folk ensembles, and local entertainers perform one after another. There’s a polling station located nearby, inside the local House of Culture. 

“I will only vote for United Russia,” a voter from Donetsk fumes in response to questions from Meduza’s correspondent. “Because who else is helping us? Who, huh? Meduza? [...] Come to [Donetsk] and see what we have going on there, damn provocateur!” His comrades cheer as he walks back to the bus. “We all support Putin, so tell your friends, and tell them Ukraine can go belly up,” another voter from the DNR adds.

Buses with DNR plates and the logo of the “Donetsk Republic” political party can be seen driving around Matveyev Kurgan all day long. Ukraine banned the movement back in 2007, long before the outbreak of the war. In 2014, it became the ruling party of the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic,” which is now led by Denis Pushilin.

A party representative tells Meduza that the buses take passengers to pick up their Russian passports and then whisk them directly to polling stations, killing two birds with one stone. He says that the bus trips for picking up passports were organized well in advance. The fact that they’re taking place during the voting period in the State Duma elections is nothing more than a coincidence, or so he claims. 

Having received their Russian passports, brand new citizens were able to vote in the elections to the State Duma right away
Valentin Sprinchak / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

Meduza confirmed this information at the local government services center. The staff said that three buses arrived on Saturday (September 18) and around 100 DNR residents received Russian passports. One of the newly minted Russian citizens holds a passport in each hand — one from the DNR and one from the Russian Federation. 

“I voted for United Russia,” says one woman. “I really hope that they will restore peace in Donbas and finally integrate us. There’s still shooting [where we live]. The day before yesterday, three houses were bombed. There were no casualties, but a mother with two children was left without housing and a car.”

Many of the other voters from eastern Ukraine complained about the shelling. Asked about people being handed passports right before voting, the head of Russia’s Central Election Commission Ella Pamfilova told Dozhd television that residents of the DNR and LNR “took a beating” during the war in Donbas, and so election officials were happy to offer them the opportunity to vote.

Nearly all of the DNR residents Meduza interviews say they voted for United Russia. And almost all of them say they came to Rostov to cast their ballots of their own accord, in the hopes that the new State Duma will be able to help them. At the same time, several admit that they came because their employers told them to, otherwise, they wouldn’t have wasted their weekend. 

Two of the women say that they voted for the Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR). “We’re probably the black sheep, but we decided to vote for [LDPR leader Vladimir] Zhirinovsky. He’s a nice man, he says the right things. [He’s been] in politics for thirty years, after all,” one of them explains.

Voters at a polling station in Matveyev Kurgan
Gleb Golod

Some very young people came from the DNR; they’re voting in their very first election. Many admit that they dream of living in Russia and call what’s happening in Ukraine “unacceptable.” “Honestly, it’s better for me to live in Russia. I’ve lived my whole life in Donetsk, I’ve never travelled outside of it. But after 2014, when Russia came, at least we have something. The utilities are generally up to par, I’m satisfied. It’s become green, clean, and roads are being built. I just wish they’d stop shooting,” says a 20-year-old Donetsk resident.

An older man from Donetsk pipes up in agreement, underscoring that bringing peace to the region is the only thing he expects from Russia’s new parliament. “I have a son, Nikita, he’s eight years old. I asked him what he would like from Grandfather Frost for the New Year. You know what he said?! He said, ‘Dad, I want them to stop shooting’,” the man says with a sigh.

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We won’t give up Because you’re with us

Story by Gleb Golod, reporting from the Rostov region

Abridged translation by Eilish Hart

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