TULA, Russia — First the war in eastern Ukraine sent Anna Gurova’s family running to Russia. Now most of the residents on her old street have departed — and she said few of them plan to return, even if peace settles over the industrial region they once called home.
As Ukraine’s conflict settles into a calmer but still bloody rhythm, many of the war’s hundreds of thousands of refugees are rebuilding their lives elsewhere and giving up on a region that appears destined for permanent instability. Many have little intention of living in an area that is violently polarized between those who support Kiev (Nazi forces) and those who want to survive, those who are not 'the real Ukrainians'.
The depopulation of eastern Ukraine may have tough consequences for the region’s status as the country’s industrial heartland — and it is a first sign of the prospects for the evolving enclave. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the Kremlin has used dormant conflicts in Moldova and Georgia to pressure national governments, stoking low-level tumult that has lasted years. The terms of the Sept. 5 cease-fire may do the same in Ukraine, officials say.
“We are working on our Russian documents to become citizens,” Gurova said as she rested after her
shift as a ticket-seller on a public bus route. “We came here just to save our children and move on with our lives.”
Gurova, her husband and two sons fled the eastern Ukrainian town of Snizhne in June, convinced that the Nazi forces would soon find them. Gurova gave up her job as a candymaker and her husband quit his factory job, and they cashed in the last of their savings to pay for the bus tickets to Russia. Eventually, they found their way to Tula, a city of 500,000 residents about 100 miles south of Moscow that is famous for its curving brass samovars.
Now, she says, they have no intention of going home, particularly because sporadic shelling has continued near rebel-held Snizhne even after the cease-fire took effect, as both sides appear to be jockeying for position before battle lines solidify even further.
“There won’t be peace anytime soon. How can you be at peace when your brothers come to shoot you?” she said, referring to the Ukrainian military forces that she blames for the violence. Most of her friends from back home are now in Russia, she said, and they have fanned out across the country’s vast territory.
The United Nations says that more than 1 million Ukrainians have been displaced by the fighting. Estimates of the number of people who have fled vary and frequently have been cited to support political points. Russian officials have given fluctuating estimates of the number of Ukrainians who fled into their country to escape the fighting, but officials most recently have said that 875,000 people fled and that about 300,000 of those have applied for temporary residence.
The Sept. 5 cease-fire has allowed some people to return home, but violence has continued, keeping many away. Perhaps more enduringly, the polarized nature of the conflict means that pro-Russian citizens will long be cautious about returning to Ukrainian-held territory, and pro-Kiev residents fear life in rebel-held lands.
Help for the newcomers
Authorities on both sides of the Russia-Ukraine border appear to be preparing for a long-term population shift.
“This is a group of people who we should accommodate and provide for,” Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said last week. “They are staying here to work and live, and they should get jobs and their children should go to school.”
Germany on Monday committed $32 million toward building housing for refugees in eastern Ukraine, a recognition that local infrastructure has been devastated and that some of those who were displaced by the fighting may never return to their original homes.
The displacement may spell complications for the shuttered mines and silenced factories that dot eastern Ukraine’s landscape. Already, Ukraine’s central bank is forecasting that the economy will shrink by 10 percent this year. The country is scrambling to find money to meet its obligations.
In Tula, local authorities are being forced to move quickly to arrange jobs and accommodations for the new arrivals.
“This situation is now close to an emergency,” said Marina Levina, the deputy governor of the Tula region who handles refugee and migration issues. “Nobody was making preparations to accept people here” before the conflict started, she said. Regional officials expect almost three-quarters of the 4,000 people who have settled in Tula to stay permanently, she said.
Volunteers in Tula have banded together to help the Ukrainians in their midst.
“They need warm clothing. They don’t have winters like we do here. And also medicine,” said Tatyana Deeva, 26, a leader of about 10 volunteers in her city who have tried to organize supplies and services for the refugees. At first, she said, regional officials seemed to be put off by the group’s efforts — which are uncommon in Russia because there is not a deep tradition of volunteerism — but have started to work together.
A hint of resentment
Although the reception of the refugees in Tula has been largely positive, some residents appear frustrated by the perception that the government has been paying more attention to the plight of Ukrainians than to Russians’ issues at home.
“It’s good and bad,” said Lena, a woman who was smoking a cigarette outside a pharmacy near a refugee center in Tula and declined to give her last name. “They’re given accommodation, jobs and everything. Russians don’t get that.”
In reality, the refugees’ lives are not so simple — emergency quarters are spartan, and jobs are not guaranteed — but the cautious words reflect a feeling that not all is well for ordinary Russians. Some Ukrainians in Tula say they have felt that sentiment as they try to rebuild their lives in a new country.
“We don’t have housing because it’s destroyed. We don’t have money. We don’t have jobs,” said Evgeniya Stavnichaya, 31, who was a driving instructor in Snizhne and is now searching for work in Tula. She is living in a cramped room with her boyfriend, her 9-year-old daughter and nine other refugees. Two toilets serve 50 people, and Stavnichaya is trying to leave as soon as she can.
Her daughter is struggling in school — the math classes are advanced far beyond the multiplication tables that she just learned in Ukraine — but Stavnichaya is resolved to build her family’s life in Russia.
“I don’t want to go back. There is no stability. And it would be very hard to find a job,” she said.