Women escaping war, finding St. Petersburg
The conflict in Eastern Ukraine has forced thousands of people to leave their homes in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Naturally many of those that are Russian speakers have found their way to the Russian Federation, often relying on family ties. We spoke to three women from Donbass with different stories. These three ladies left Ukraine either alone or with family, they live in either refugee asylums or in expensive apartments, they work as cleaners or for model agencies, they dream about returning or have said farewell to Ukraine forever. The only common thing – their future remains unbearably vague.
Leaving Donbass behind
Margarita Grigoryants’ one-room apartment in the north of the city has been her home since September. The young journalist’s voice is timid when she talks about how she left her native city of Donetsk only weeks earlier, leaving behind her whole family. When Margarita was one year old, they had to flee a war once before – she was born in Grozny, Chechnya. Her parents couldn’t bear starting over another time.
In Donetsk nothing is business as usual. Factories and businesses are closed, grocery stores have to fight to get goods allowed. “Everything is like in the 90s: businesses are pressured, people with guns.” Practicing journalism had become impossible, too. “People who try to inform objectively face resistance and persecution,” she explains. A colleague of hers ended up in the torture basements of Ukrainian Security Service . Another one is detained without a trial in sightwith no hope of a trial in the near future.
Life in Donetsk was restless, was not peaceful for her. She lived in the train station area, a part of town that was continuously bombed in the summer months. The conflict is a tragedy to her because her native city is destroyed senselessly in a war between what she describes as a war between politicians and oligarchs, not a civil war. The young woman strongly identifies with Ukraine, the country that she grew up in and that gave her an education
“I thought about moving to Kiev, but then I realized that it would be the same as setting back the clock on the bomb timer. Sooner or later there will be the same. Leaders of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) unofficially say that they won’t stop until they get to Kiev.”
For the boy
Family is the reason why Natalia Tkachenko left the Donbass. Her four year old son Artur now plays in safety with other refugee children in the house they were assigned to in Krasnoe Selo, a small town south of Saint Petersburg.
But back in Eastern Ukraine, in the town of Amvrosievka, their building was bombed during a shelling in July 2014 while they were hiding in the cellar. “Thank God we stayed alive, but many other houses were destroyed, there were a lot of victims,” she recalls. Natalia just wants her child to be safe, build a new life somewhere in Russia. A better life: “There weren’t any perspectives in Ukraine since the end of the Soviet Union. We were slaves. Corruption was everywhere. […] I love my motherland but I will not come back.”
Seizing the moment
To Vera Garmashova, the war was also something of an opportunity. While in Donetsk she was working as an instructor for the city council’s youth department. Twice in the summer of 2014, her work place building was seized and finally burned to the ground. “When I saw it, for me it was a disaster,” she remembers. But she had wanted to leave the Donbass for a long time, make a living out of the modeling jobs she has been doing next to her regular job for eight years. She supervises and teaches models, organises competition shows. Confidently she says:
“I consider myself one of the best in this area. Ukraine was too small for me.”
Settling in Russia
There are no official statistics about the number of refugees coming from Ukraine to Saint Petersburg. In August 2014, the Head of the Federal Migration Service of Saint Petersburg Elena Dunaeva, said told the city only accepts a certain quota of refugees. Nevertheless, people from Ukraine flock to Petersburg every day by train, regular flights, or special emergency boards. Many of them are struggling for the status of refugee so as they can stay here, others see St Petersburg as temporary shelter.
From Donetsk, Margarita Grigoryants travelled to the city Tolyatti, situated on Volga, where her relatives lived. She stayed there for some time thinking about her future. When she realized that the bombing in Donetsk would not stop and that returning would be too dangerous, she made the decision to move to Saint Petersburg. Several relatives helped her move to the city and find a flat.
Now Margarita lives in a one-room apartment located not far from the metro station “Prospect Prosvesheniya”. The apart-hotel is positioned in a new 16-floor house with long light corridors, big mirrors and guards near the reception. Unlike many Ukrainians, Margarita does not search for status of refugee. Her goal is to leave Russia and return to Donetsk at the earliest possible moment. Her documents only allow for temporary residence here. In the meantime, she wants to get a freelance-type job in her field — events organization or journalism.
“I was asked many times what kind of benefits exist for refugees and people migrating from from Ukraine now. But the answer is absolutely nothing. You can go to the migration service, fill in documents waiting in insane queues, but all these papers will not give you the right to be employed officially or to find a place to live more easily”, Margarita explains.
However, she did not plan to find any kind of paid job just in order to stay in Russia. She admits that in choosing Saint Petersburg, she was thinking strategically: “It is big city, where you can realize your potential. If you go somewhere, you need to choose the most stable region.”
Fighting for the right to stay
A crowd of noisy children is running towards the stairs of the house where Natalia Tkachenko now lives with her son. The modest two-storeу building in Krasnoe Selo, south of Saint Petersburg was designed as dormitories for migrants workers. Now refugees from Ukraine dwell here, most of them came to Petersburg under the direction of the emergency board.
The small entrance of their flat is full of shoes and jackets. Natalia lives in this flat with eleven other people. Though she admits that sharing is sometimes annoying, she acknowledges that they have no other choice and are happy with what they have.
“Thank god we have roof over the head. Conditions do not matter, we just need it now. later we will stand on our own feet again.”
Natalia went through a tough bureaucracy processes, receiving of the necessary documents, standing in queues, getting medical insurance. She also managed to find her son a kindergarten – pretty far from their home, but better than nothing. Additional help came from volunteers, who supported refugees with clothes, toys and other necessities.
The Federal Migration Service tries to help refugees find official employment, however the few offers Natalia got came with an impossibly low salary. For Ukrainians like her, it is an earn money on a cash-in-hand basis. She does cleaning jobs and sometimes finds other side jobs. Recently she worked as a nurse for disables child, for example. “I needed money — the child needed care. So we helped each other”, tells Natalia.
Now the biggest issue for her is accommodation. The term she was allowed to stay in the refugee asylum in Krasnoe Selo has come to the end and dwellers fear to be resettled every day. But according to Natalia there was no time to earn enough to afford renting an own flat.
“To rent a flat you need pay the agency, then pay the rent and somehow manage to survive for a month. This needs a lot of money. That’s why we ask, just put yourself in on our place, we are in another country. On whom can we rely on and ask for help?”
Losing everything and starting from zero
For Vera Garmashova and her husband coming here was difficult financially as well as psychologically. They left Donetsk with a small amount of cash and for the first weeks lived with their relatives in Schlisselburg. “Many people ask me why St Petersburg? My answer is not because it is big city, but because here we had a place where we could live for free for some time”, explains Vera.
She spent the first two months after arriving crying — leaving home, having no work, suffering from the uncertainty of their new life life. Her husband who was a prominent TV anchor back in Ukraine and could have been employed to several TV-channels or video production studios, but he was told that he must have Russian citizenship.
“My husband and I have a lot of skills with which we can enrich our professional fields here in Russia. But the problem is when you lose everything you need to start over from the beginning like when you were 18. But we are not 18 anymore, we do not have the same health, ambition and dreams as back then.”
Now she sits in a modern white room of a modelling agency and feels proud of having overcome these extraordinary troubles. Vera found the job of her dreams in St Petersburg — working as coordinator of a model school and organizer of fashion shows. However, says Vera, she went through the unimaginable to get this position: two month she worked without any salary, finishing late at night.
The couple does not live with her relatives anymore — they rent a flat. After the first month in Saint Petersburg, they stopped telling people they are Ukrainians. Though they support Russia and Novorossiya, they are fed up with discussing the conflict all the time.
“I do not like being pitied, I am a strong person. When people found out that we are refugees, they started bringing us old stinky clothes. But this doesn’t work for me. I prefer not to sleep or eat enough, but at least earn everything myself”.
Where to from here?
Margarita now understands that the conflict will drag on for a long time: “There is no ideology in this war – it is war for the capitals, power, resources. My view has changed only in one respect: earlier I thought that it was going to finish soon but now I understand that it will continue.”
Donetsk already lies in ruins, the history museum, the stadium built for the European Championship, factories and residential areas.
“After military actions are over people will have to deal with the consequences of this war for at least five years. Businesses, destroyed buildings – who will restore all this? And with what money?”
Margarita doesn’t have an answer to those questions, but what she knows is that she will be there when it finally happens. As soon as it is safe to go back to Donetsk she will. What kind of place it will be by then, and whether she can practice her profession there, remains to be seen.
To Natalia those questions matter very little. Her past may be Ukrainian, but her future is Russian. “Russia is huge country with an amazing president. I love this country, there are a lot of nice people, the infrastructure is good. We always were like brothers with Russia.” Although she had not planned to come directly to Petersburg before, she is thinking about staying here. However Natalia is not opposed to moving to another region within Russia. The refugees always hear migration services talking about sending them to the Far East or Siberia. At the same time those are nothing but empty words and after long hard way here Natalia wants to be certain that she will find work and a place to live. “We are adults, we can take care of us ourselves, just give us guarantees.”
Vera will not return to Ukraine either. She transformed herself from refugee of war to a successful businesswoman in the modeling business in just a few months. For now she might be tied to the shiny, but small modeling agency just behind the Nevsky Prospect metro stationut the day will come when this place is too small for her, too. The Victoria’s Secret fashion show is what she dreams of, the fashion hubs in Europe and America, or Moscow at least. While travelling around the world, as Vera imagines it, she and her husband would finally get Russian citizenship.
Though to her the future is bright and glamorous, she speaks sarcastically about the possibility of buying a flat or having children after they had to start life from the very beginning. “
I feel I’ve become hardened a lot. It is almost impossible to make me cry now. I believe this is our government’s fault — that young girl became a dry old stick instead of cheerful, happy and beautiful woman”. As for the conflict, Vera has moved on: “I have stopped to follow events and stopped being emotional about it.” If she returns, it will only be for sentimental reasons, and memories of the place she once called home.
(Cover picture: Flickr user "HelloBlanco")