ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — As Russian forces pounded Mariupol with heavy artillery, reducing the city to rubble, Anastasia fled the Ukrainian city with her son to the only destination it seemed possible to reach: Russia.
With little money and few possessions in hand, she looked forward to receiving the 10,000-ruble ($185) payment Russian President Vladimir Putin had promised Ukrainian refugees even before he launched a large-scale invasion of the country on February 24.
The money would help her cover their basic needs for a short period of time while she and her son hunkered down in St. Petersburg, waiting for the war to end. Three months after arriving there, she has yet to receive the payment.
Workers at the local government center handling such issues “said they didn’t know anything,” said Anastasia. Like other refugees RFE/RL spoke to for this story, she did not want her last name published for fear of repercussions.
“[They said], wait, at some point they will give it to you,” she said.
Anastasia is by no means alone in her complaint.
Svetlana Tikhomirova, a St. Petersburg journalist who volunteers to help Ukrainian refugees, said recently that about 90 percent of those who have arrived in the Leningrad region — which surrounds the city of St. Petersburg but does not include it — have yet to receive their promised payment.
In a letter addressed to Putin in mid-June and published on social media, Tikhomirova said Ukrainian refugees in Russia are caught in a vicious cycle.
Without the payment, many don’t have enough money to pay for services — such as document translations — critical for receiving a Russian passport and employment.
Tikhomirova is one of hundreds of people across Russia helping Ukrainian refugees with money, food, and other essentials.
The volunteers as well as the refugees have created their own chats on social media to share updates and concerns, one of which is the payment delay.
“The situation in [provincial Russia] is much more dire than in Moscow and St. Petersburg, according to accounts from volunteers,” she wrote in the letter, adding that in more remote areas “the volunteers themselves are unable to provide support for the refugees due to lower standards of living — people are going hungry in the direct sense of the word.”
When contacted by RFE/RL, Tikhomirova declined to comment on the letter.
Her colleague, Galina Artemenko, said in a Telegram post that the situation is “exactly” as described in the letter.
Their comments would appear to contradict Russia’s Emergency Situations Ministry, which oversees the payments to refugees.
An unidentified ministry official told state media on June 7 that 301,510 Ukrainian refugees — or nearly four out of five of those who the official said applied — had received the 10,000-ruble payment. More recent figures were not immediately available.
There are about 1.3 million Ukrainian refugees in Russia, according to the UN, while the Russian government has put the number at 2.1 million, including 340,000 children. Kyiv has accused Moscow of forcibly taking Ukrainian citizens to Russia.
Most of the Ukrainian refugees are financially vulnerable pensioners and women with children, in part because many of the men in the parts of Ukraine’s Donbas region that were held by Russia-backed separatists long before the February invasion have — willingly or not — stayed to fight.
One expert told RFE/RL that red tape and bureaucratic run-arounds could sap hope. For Natalia Yurchenko, who fled from mainland Ukraine to the Russian-controlled Crimean Peninsula with her husband, that has already happened.
They have been waiting three months for their payment to arrive.
“Our family is no longer hoping for the promised payment,” she told RFE/RL. “We really needed the money. We didn’t have anything to live on and we had to sell some of our possessions.”
A 10,000-ruble payment in any case would not last long in Russia’s largest cities. Use of Moscow’s subway system would eat up a quarter of that amount in a month.
One of the assertions Putin has used to justify the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine is that Russian speakers in the Donbas needed protection from the government in Kyiv, which he has falsely claimed was committing genocide there.
The Russian offensive has destroyed much of the Donbas, leaving many of the Russian speakers who survived the onslaught without a home, possessions, or a job.
Six days before the February 24 invasion, Putin ordered his government to pay each refugee from the Donbas 10,000 rubles to help them “settle in a new place [and] buy all items necessary for now.”
The Russian government allocated 5 billion rubles prior to the start of the war for refugees, implying it anticipated up to 500,000 refugees.
Russia’s failure to make the payments on time despite early preparation may reflect the Kremlin’s expectation of a quick, victorious war that would generate far fewer refugees. It may also be a reflection of a notoriously unwieldy bureaucracy.
At a meeting in early May with 147 refugees staying at Mechta (Dream), a children’s camp outside Moscow, Nina Ostanina, a Communist Party lawmaker in Russia’s lower house of parliament, the State Duma, said she would intervene on their behalf after learning only 32 had received their payments.
Ostanina told the group that after she first raised the issue in the Duma, the Labor Ministry was ordered to assist the Emergency Ministry in processing applications and distributing the money “but still nothing has changed.”
She said the list of refugees from Mechta still awaiting payment had been sent to the relevant authorities “but everything got hung up there again.”
“How long can we talk about this?” she said in exasperation.
For those who don’t have politicians on their side, the process of getting through to officials at the bureaucracy can be daunting.
Alyona arrived in St. Petersburg in early May from the Luhansk region in the Donbas and was told she would be paid 10,000 rubles within 10 days. Two months later, she has yet to receive it.
She said she called the local center handling the distribution of funds to find out when she would be paid and was told to call back in 15 minutes.
“I have been calling for days but no one picks up the phone,” she said.
Ukrainian refugees in other regions, including Moscow as well as Krasnodar and Rostov in Russia’s south, told RFE/RL they too have been waiting months for their payments.
Olena, who arrived in Moscow region from Mariupol with her daughter and mother, said she has yet to receive her payment despite submitting her application in April.
She said she has had to run around Moscow to collect documents and visit doctors, sometimes standing all day in line.
“If you [Russia] are the receiving party [for refugees], then accept us in a normal fashion,” she told RFE/RL. “Behave humanely toward people who sat for a long time in the cold, hungry and under bombardment and who were forced to cook food over an open fire.”
Svetlana Gannushkina, head of Civil Assistance, a Moscow-based rights group that helps migrants and refugees, told RFE/RL that “lengthy bureaucratic procedures” are at the heart of the problem facing Ukrainian refugees.
They have to submit documents, such as their passport, and go through a background check before they can potentially receive their payment and seek a job, she said.
One elderly woman at Mechta told Ostanina that she had been denied the payment because she did not pass the background check for reasons that were not explained to her.
However, they may be required to travel to another region handling their paperwork, or face other hurdles that sap time and energy, Gannushkina said.
“People spend so much time [dealing with the bureaucracy], and it’s not clear how they are expected to survive in the meantime. In short, they lose hope,” she said.
Maria, who fled the Donbas for Krasnodar, was told by the local government office that her case and others like it were being transferred to the neighboring region of Rostov.
“I don’t even know which government office to look for in Rostov,” she said.
Maria said without the money she can’t complete the medical checkup necessary to gain employment.
Gannushkina said about 3,300 refugees have turned to Civil Assistance for help and that “very few” have received the 10,000-ruble payment.
“Of course, it’s very crucial money for these people and it’s important that they receive it immediately,” she said.
Gannushkina said another hurdle for refugees is restrictions on converting Ukrainian hryvnya into Russian rubles and finding employment.
Refugees can’t convert hryvnya into rubles until they have completed their background check and are approved for the payment.
Even so, the refugees can only officially convert up to 8,000 hryvnya ($275).
The two restrictions impact the ability of refugees to buy essential goods upon arrival in Russia though they can also turn to the black market for currency exchange.
“Where is the logic here?” said Gannushkina, expressing frustration.
Written by Todd Prince based on reporting by RFE/RL’s North.Realities
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