Russians Find Refuge in Ukraine

MTOlga Kudrina holding her 6-month-old baby, Lena, in her one-room apartment in Vinnitsa, 260 kilometers from Kiev.
VINNITSA, Ukraine -- The tiny apartment looks like a safe house except for the crib in the middle of the room.

No carpets on the floors. No magnets on the fridge. No pictures on the walls. No books in the bookcase.

Just a desk with a computer, a large mattress propped against one wall, and a fold-out couch along another. The crib stands in the middle.

Olga Kudrina has been living in this one-room apartment in Vinnitsa, a city in central Ukraine, since she fled Moscow two years ago to escape what she calls a politically motivated prison sentence. A Ukrainian court sided with Kudrina last month, granting her asylum, and she now shares her apartment with her 6-month-old daughter, Lena, and two fellow National Bolshevik activists who are seeking asylum.

Their days are filled with endless hours of typing ICQ instant messages, reading LiveJournal blogs and listening to Ekho Moskvy radio. Kudrina is studying Ukrainian in hope of entering university to continue her education in computer programming. Every so often, the other two sit down with local authorities for interviews about their applications to be declared political refugees.

Dozens of Russians have sought asylum in Ukraine after complaining of political pressure at home, raising the specter of new tensions between the two countries. Russian authorities have been particularly tough on activists with the banned National Bolshevik Party, jailing dozens in recent years for their theatrical, anti-Kremlin protests.

But the Russian Foreign Ministry -- which has sharply criticized Britain and the United States for granting asylum to Russians facing prison terms at home -- seems unfazed that Ukrainian courts are offering asylum to Russians.

Ivan Sekretarev / AP
Kudrina and another National Bolshevik activist scaling the Rossiya in 2005.
Kudrina, 24, was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison for a May 2005 stunt in which she and another National Bolshevik member hung a banner from the now-demolished Rossiya Hotel reading "Putin, Quit Your Job" and for participating in a 2004 break-in at the Health and Social Development Ministry. She failed to show up for her sentencing in May 2006, instead fleeing to Ukraine.

"I had to leave fast. I didn't even have time to go home. I just brought my purse, my documents and some money," Kudrina said.

She said she would only return if President Vladimir Putin and President-elect Dmitry Medvedev drastically changed Russia's course and a court annulled her prison sentence.

"I hope it will change," she said, a sentiment echoed by her roommates, Mikhail Gangan, 24, and Anna Ploskonosova, 19.

"They are all waiting. This is what makes them real refugees," said Dmitry Groisman, head of the Vinnitsa Human Rights Group. A doctor by training, Groisman helped Kudrina win asylum and is now assisting Gangan and Ploskonosova.

To get to the apartment, Groisman, 35, took a tram three stops from the main bus station, down a busy, potholed road, and entered a dimly lit apartment building with green-painted halls. At the door of the apartment, he knocked and, after hearing a noise behind the leather-covered wooden door, he called out, jokingly, "It's the police, open up!"

The three Russians squeezed into the closet-sized entryway of the apartment to meet him. Kudrina, wearing silver-trimmed, cat eye glasses and black clothes, held her baby on her hip. Gangan, a former leader of the National Bolshevik's Samara branch, is tall and lanky with dirty blond hair. Ploskonosova is the most recent arrival, arriving last month to avoid what she calls trumped-up charges of assaulting a police officer. Ploskonosova wore a black scarf around her neck and greeted Groisman timidly.

"They're always thinking about going home," Groisman said. "They are planning their life in this country only because they can't go home."

Planning may be too strong a word. The three seem to be biding their time.

"Life would be different for me here, but now I'm taking care of this one here," Kudrina said, looking down as Lena bubbled and cooed on her lap, "and studying Ukrainian and programming."

Gangan should know by June or July whether he will receive asylum, Groisman said.

Last Wednesday, Ploskonosova went for her second interview with Vinnitsa's migration service. "The hearing went well, I think," Ploskonosova said.

She will have two or three more interviews before a court decides whether to declare her a political refugee, Groisman said. "Anna must be granted refugee status. She fits the textbook definition of a refugee," Groisman said.

In addition to the assault charges, Ploskonosova saw her boyfriend, National Bolshevik member Yury Chervochkin, die of injuries sustained in a beating in the Moscow region in November. National Bolshevik activists say Chervochkin was being followed by police officers and accused them of attacking him. Police deny the allegation.

John Wendle / MT
Mikhail Gangan, a former leader of the National Bolshevik's Samara branch.
Under a 2001 Ukrainian law, a foreigner is eligible for refugee status if he has "reasonable apprehensions" of becoming a victim of persecution in his native country because of his race, faith, nationality, citizenship, social status or political views. In 2002, Ukraine joined the United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention, becoming its 143rd member.

While Ukraine's law is in line with that of Western countries, Groisman said he feared that the decision about Ploskonosova's status would be politically tinged. "If the price of Russian gas would be cut by just 10 cents per 1,000 cubic meters if Ukraine sent back these refugees, they would be sent back like that," he said, snapping his fingers.

Relations have been strained over Russia's insistence on raising the price of the gas it supplies to Ukraine as well as Kiev's aspirations to join NATO and the Orange Revolution election of President Viktor Yushchenko in 2004.

Asked whether offering asylum to Russians wanted on criminal charges might affect relations, a Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman said, "For now, the issue is not being discussed during bilateral political contacts."

"Issues of this type are considered within the court and law enforcement bodies of the two countries," he added.

A Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman also pointed to asylum as a judicial issue. "Granting asylum is not within the Foreign Ministry's jurisdiction," she said by telephone from Kiev.

Last year, 93 Russians applied for refugee status, while four were denied it, six were stripped of it and a single applicant from a previous year was granted it, Ukraine's State Committee for the Affairs of Nationalities and Religion said in an e-mailed statement.

In 2007, Russia placed fourth on a list of 11 countries whose nationals had applied for refugee status in Ukraine. The top country was Afghanistan, with 1,171 appeals, followed by Armenia with 205 appeals and Azerbaijan with 184 appeals. Russia was followed by Congo with 85 appeals, Georgia with 79 appeals and Sudan with 61 appeals.

John Wendle / MT
"They're always thinking about going home," says Groisman, a rights activist.
The only Russian who received asylum last year was Alexander Kosvintsev, a 54-year-old journalist who fled the Siberian city of Kemerovo in late 2006, citing threats from local authorities.

He and other Russian asylum seekers said they picked Ukraine because of its proximity, a visa-free regime for Russians, and the absence of language and cultural barriers. But it is no home, said Kosvintsev, who lives in Kiev with his wife and 7-year-old daughter. "If the circumstances changed, of course I would come back. I love Russia," he said by telephone.

Vinnitsa, a city of 350,000 people located 260 kilometers southwest of Kiev, has considerable experience with asylum seekers. In 1992, during fighting in Moldova's breakaway region of Transdnestr, more than 50,000 refugees flooded Ukraine, and about 20,000 settled in Vinnitsa. With this history, Vinnitsa has become a magnet for refugees, taking everyone from Somalis fleeing Mogadishu to Uzbeks caught in the Andijan massacre.

The city looks like a standard Soviet provincial town, with low-rise office buildings, dilapidated Khrushchev-era apartment blocks, muddy parks and uneven tram lines. It is surrounded by rolling farmland, now coated in a thin film of springtime green.

"I moved from city to city around Ukraine for about three months, working, until I heard about Dmitry [Groisman] and came to Vinnitsa," Kudrina said. "And it's cheaper here."

The Russians seem to be making friends. Kudrina has met people at the three local universities, and Gangan has made friends with students at one university's journalism department.

Though all three have similar interests and beliefs, "it is a few too many people for an apartment of this size," Kudrina said.

She and her roommates are not interested in leaving Ukraine for Europe or the United States.

"Of course it's boring here, [but] it's better than being in prison," Gangan said. "We are living, and we are waiting."

Staff Writer Natalya Krainova contributed to this report from Moscow.