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"It’s a scary feeling when you land at the end of the earth and you literally know nobody,” said Tatyana Kurlayeva while sipping a cappuccino in a cafe in Magadan, a bleak city in the far east of Russia.
Kurlayeva, 32, fled to Magadan in 2014 from her hometown of Komsomolsk, near Donetsk in east Ukraine. She was one of dozens of refugees from the conflict zone to make a new life in Russia’s former Gulag capital. Across Russia, hundreds of thousands of east Ukrainians have arrived since the conflict started.
Some want to return now the fighting has stopped but many more want to stay. Icy Magadan is more than 4,000 miles from east Ukraine, but Kurlayeva has chosen to make it her new home.
She decided to leave Komsomolsk in August 2014, after her brother was kidnapped by the far-right Azov volunteer battalion. Although he was later released, the experience had shaken up the family and made them unwilling to stay.
Her husband wanted to join the pro-Russia rebel militia, but she persuaded him that the pair of them should take their daughter and flee. She closed down the children’s clothing shop she ran and the three crossed the border, then spent a week in a refugee camp near the city of Rostov.
“It was horrible, I’m not used to living like that. I never thought I would be a refugee. We wanted to get out as soon as possible, and I had always read that Magadan was an interesting and friendly place, so we spent all our savings on tickets from Rostov via Moscow to Magadan. It was the first time I’d ever been on a plane.”
On arrival, Kurnayeva made a video appeal to ask locals for help, and the director of the local television station decided she was camera-friendly and offered her a job. “When people found out where we were from, they immediately helped us. Everyone here is so friendly,” she said.
Now, Kurnayeva reads the news on local television and never wants to return to Ukraine. The family is applying for Russian citizenship. She is thankful to Russia, and to Vladimir Putin personally. “Look at Putin: he’s strong, intelligent, manly. It’s impossible not to be overwhelmed with emotion when you look at him. He’s done so much for us,” she added.
Many other refugees in Magadan also never plan to return home. Alexander Burlakov, 37, Tatyana Spivak, 38, and their son Sergei, 12, left their home in rebel-held Gorlovka in August 2014, and flew to Magadan, leaving their parents behind.
“At the start it seemed cold, depressing and scary, but we soon realised how nice the people are here,” said Spivak, in the kitchen of the small apartment the family rents in Magadan. Working as a supermarket cashier in Gorlovka, she earned about £60 a month; doing the same job in Magadan she earns £300.
“It’s just like in the Soviet Union – everyone is so helpful and friendly. I miss home but I am delighted I am not part of Ukraine,” she added.
While some Donbass refugees feel at home in Magadan, those whose sympathies lie more with Kiev than with the pro-Russia separatists have generally gone the other way.
“I understood I didn’t feel comfortable in my own city,” said Evgeny Vasili, who ran a bar called Spletni in Donetsk. “For me, what was going on in Donetsk was wild, and I didn’t understand it, and was disgusted by the behaviour of rebels. I realised I couldn’t keep living there.”
Vasili moved to Kiev and took Spletni with him. The bar is now open in Kiev, with the same furniture, the same lighting and even the same weathered Soviet hardback books that propped up the bar in Donetsk. He rented a truck to take everything across the frontlines in late 2014 and reassembled the bar in central Kiev.
Many of the clients at the new Spletni are also from Donetsk – internally displaced persons (IDPs) who miss their home town.
“When you leave a place you have feelings of nostalgia, people come here and they feel freer, more at ease,” Vasili said. “It’s hard to rent a flat when you have a Donetsk registration. People are suspicious of you. We have had no help from the government or anyone else.”
Vasili said that even if peace came to eastern Ukraine, he did not see himself returning to Donetsk. “My house has been destroyed, I have nothing to go back for. We will stay here, and try to integrate as well as we can,” he said.
Because of the vagaries of the Ukrainian registration system, there are no reliable statistics on the number of IDPs but NGOs estimate there could be as many as 1.5 million. Around 300,000 are believed to have moved to Russia. Moscow has said it will begin deporting Ukrainians who are in Russia illegally, but will make an exception for those from the conflict zones. Some are able to apply for Russian citizenship if they do not want to return.
The huge number leaving for Russia and other parts of Ukraine has had a huge effect on the Donetsk region.
Enrique Menendez, a businessman in Donetsk, said: “The population profile has completely changed, the small middle class that had just started to appear has disappeared.”
Menendez used to manage an internet marketing company with 10 employees. The other nine have left, and the company has closed. Now, he works on distributing humanitarian aid. “There was a building across the street where 200 programmers work,” he said. “They’ve all gone now. Nobody will need this kind of business for three to five years at least.”
Source: The Guardian