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‘I dreamed of Mariupol every night’ Why Ukrainian refugees return to their uninhabitable city
Lake Ivan is a scenic lake surrounded by pine forests some 240 kilometers from the northern Russian city of Pskov. Over the lake stands a small village called Opukhliki. Yulia, whose parents have an old house in Opukhliki (we’ve changed her name at her request), calls the village a “dying ghetto”: she says that there’s no life in it, apart from Blue Lakes — a lakeside resort where visitors come to stay in the summer. Last May, Yulia realized that Blue Lakes had been designated a “temporary housing facility” for Ukrainian refugees, and that people from Mariupol were living there, side-by-side with Russians taking an ordinary vacation. Without any money of their own, and subsisting on a daily allowance of about $15, paid by the local Department of Social Services, the refugees lacked even the basic necessities like medications and detergent. Yulia and her friends began to collect and deliver aid to these people — but, to their astonishment, within a few months the refugees suddenly left for Mariupol, on buses provided by the local government. The volunteers believe that Russian authorities manipulate the refugees, enticing them back to Mariupol and other uninhabitable places with free transportation and promises of “compensation” for their demolished homes. But the Ukrainians’ real motives in returning to Mariupol might be more complicated.
To get this story right, we must begin with qualifying the word “refugee.” Although this word is favored by the Russian authorities, some Ukrainian “refugees” in Russia were, in fact, forcibly transported there. Others fled to Russia because they had no other escape from the war. But people in all of these groups find themselves dependent on the Russian social services and the tiny allowance that ties them indefinitely to the “temporary housing facilities” where they’re placed in Russia.
Yulia and her friends in Opukhliki wanted to help the refugees from Mariupol. They began to gather clothing, medications, detergent, and other necessities to bring to the Blue Lakes resort. Although local authorities were supposed to supply all the essentials for the refugees, they weren’t doing it. By August, the volunteers were regularly delivering humanitarian aid to Blue Lakes. But one evening, something unexpected took place there. While the Ukrainians were having dinner together with other tenants, several people from the staff came into the communal dining room and announced that anyone wishing to go back to Mariupol could return there — tomorrow morning. “They told them about this at 9 p.m.,” Yulia says. By 9:30 the next morning, around 60 people had boarded the buses sent for them — and left for Mariupol, on a single night’s notice.
The management had come prepared, with a list of former Mariupol residents who might want to go back. The volunteers were struck by how quickly everything happened, but it turned out that the refugees themselves had appealed to Pskov regional authorities as far back as June, asking for assistance with their return. One of them, Oxana (her name has been changed in this article) told Meduza that they appealed to the Social Services department and the Governor’s office. The local authorities promised to help, but said they needed time — to get funding, to arrange transportation, to get clearance for crossing the border. They warned Oxana and others that the trip might be unsafe.
Later, Yulia and her friends learned that the Ukrainians had packed their bags far in advance, and spent months waiting to be taken back home. When several buses were sent for them at last, it turned out that they’d have to travel without air conditioning. The weather outside was summery — 30 C (86 F). Still, they climbed onto those buses and were gone.
Some of the volunteers working with Ukrainian refugees believe that this kind of determination is not entirely their own, and that Russian authorities are actively encouraging Ukrainians to return to places where conditions are neither habitable nor safe. Natalia, who volunteers at We’ll Help You Move, an organization that helps evacuate Ukrainian people to Europe, is convinced that Russian authorities use promises of monetary compensation for damaged property to entice people back to Mariupol, and that they don’t tell them the whole truth about life in the city. Here’s how Natalia described these manipulative tactics:
They’ll show them a map of the city, marking all the condemned buildings. This is the greater part of all the real estate: the city has been completely destroyed by war. People are returning because they believe that they’ll get at least some financial compensation for their property. I wouldn’t trust occupation authorities. These compensations are a mirage, and probably no one is going to pay them — it’s not worth risking your life and returning to a ruined city.
It’s true that 80 percent of Mariupol’s real estate had been destroyed by the Russian armed forces as of last March. On July 30, Denis Pushilin, the Russian-appointed “head” of the annexed Donetsk region of Ukraine, promised that residents would be compensated at the rate of 36,000 rubles per square meter of damaged property (or about $58 per square foot). To determine the compensation in each case, properties must be inspected by a committee that assesses the damages in the presence of the property owner. Meanwhile, the occupation authorities are promising to restore the city. “They build one house — and present it as proof that Mariupol is being restored,” Natalia says.
Of course, people are hopeful and want to come home. Usually, Ukrainians who leave for Europe understand that the old Mariupol is gone. Those who want to come back are usually the ones who live in a bubble, who believe their TV. They don’t really know what’s happening in the city.
Volunteers are at pains to understand why the Russian authorities would encourage and organize the refugees’ return to Mariupol. Some think that this is to make a show of “Mariupol coming back to life.” Others wonder if returned residents might not be exploited by Russia as a “human shield” in the event of a Ukrainian counter-offensive. But a Kremlin insider who spoke with Meduza didn’t know of any measures currently taken by Moscow to preempt a Ukrainian offensive. The Ukrainian army’s General Staff has, in turn, speculated that Russia was sending back Mariupol’s former residents to bolster the “referendum” turnout. This, too, isn’t entirely convincing, given how little care the Kremlin itself invested in making its faux “referendums” even remotely credible.
Yulia thinks that the authorities responsible for assisting the refugees have simply run out of resources:
Russia’s Northwestern region is not the richest of Russia’s “middle belt.” The Pskov oblast is Russia’s uncontested “leader” in poverty. The social workers were told to make sure that these poor refugees get everything they need. The woman in charge said to me: “We’ve handed out 10,000 (about $160) apiece to each of them, and we’re out of money. We have nothing left, but they keep asking for more.” It was the Department of Social Services that most wanted to see them go — since the social workers are expected to help the refugees, but don’t have any resources.
At Blue Lakes, the management informed the Ukrainian tenants that
you can get compensated for destroyed property, but only if you’re there to apply in person. The damage must be assessed in the presence of the property owner. The bureaucracy is complicated, so it’s easy to miss your chance if you don’t hurry. You should go there quickly and get it done.
Stanislava, the volunteer describing these tactics, says that “people give in to emotions,” and go. Several refugees from the facility in Opukhliki wanted to visit Mariupol for a while, to deal with the compensation paperwork and come back to Russia later. Several days after leaving for Mariupol, one of them got in touch with the volunteers. They learned that, when he arrived in Mariupol, he saw that “the city was gone.” In shock, he gave up on the compensation. His family, including his several children, remained in Opukhliki, but he had no means of getting back to them. Transportation from Opukhliki to Mariupol had been organized and paid for by the Russian authorities. Now that he wanted to come back, he was on his own. The volunteers helped him plan an itinerary, and found a place in Moscow where he spent a night on his way back.
Natalia, who volunteers for an emigration service, thinks that what often draws people back to Mariupol is the fantasy of getting back to the city not as it really is today, but as it had been “in the summer of 2021.” People cannot bring themselves to believe that the past is gone forever, she thinks.
Other volunteers point out that the most vulnerable of the refugees — the elderly people and the disabled — have precious few social protections in Russia. People of working age have problems with employment: “A nurse with 20–30 years of experience is offered the job of an orderly paying 17,000 rubles [less than $300] a month; a woman with two university diplomas does manicure,” a volunteer named Larisa describes their predicament in Russia. This dovetails with the fact that the refugees temporarily housed in Russia have no money of their own. Because they depend on their allowance of 900 rubles ($15) a day, they wind up trapped in the subsidized facilities, demoralized, and depressed. Volunteers become their only source of basic necessities. Some of the refugees begin to drink.
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“While in temporary housing, we missed home,” says Oxana, who returned to Mariupol in August.
Everything we loved remained there, and so many of our friends. We were frightened by the situation there, and by the uncertainty. I dreamed of Mariupol every night. We were being bombed, again and again, and it was terrible, even in a dream.
For a while, Oxana considered staying in Russia. Once, all the Blue Lakes residents took a trip to Pskov. The city seemed to her inviting — “quiet, old, and cozy.” But she and her husband were used to a warmer climate, to gardening and growing their own fruit and vegetables. “In Russia, the produce is all brought from afar, and doesn’t taste good,” Oxana muses.
When she arrived in Mariupol last August, she was in shock, and wondered whether she should have left Opukhliki. The bus that took her family home arrived in Mariupol through its demolished Eastern district.
For the first few days, we just set up the basics. We cleared the rubble left from the shelling. We used to have two houses; one of them was destroyed, but the other remained. When we got there, it had no electricity, water, or gas. In a few weeks, there was water again. In a month-and-a-half, the electricity came back. At first, I cooked over a bonfire, then we bought a propane cooker. When power came back on, we got an electric stove. You get used to anything with time. You hardly even notice that the city is in ruins — you just go on your way, getting things done — there’s no time to look around.
When Oxana and her husband need a shower, they visit friends who have a water heater. Central heating, too, has been destroyed all around Mariupol. In the spring, water shortages forced some people to break their heating pipes to get at least the gray water in the absence of potable water in the city. Now they seal their windows with plastic film. Many people still cook outside, over bonfires.
Oxana doesn’t regret coming back, and has faith that everything will be fine in the future. Her retired husband and grown-up son both work in construction. “Two months after we came back,” she says,
we finally felt at home. We met our friends, our old acquaintances — there’re lots of people coming back. And many others would like to as well, but their homes have been destroyed. Some people find empty apartments to live in, some stay with friends or relatives.
Oxana worries about getting her promised “compensation” from the occupation authorities. An official committee came and inspected the site of what used to be her house. They assessed the damage, and she hasn’t heard from them since.
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