Svetlana Gannushkina: It’s not only the people we help who thank us, but also the people to whom we give the opportunity to help
Svetlana Gannushkina Right Livelihood Award 2016 Stockholm 11 / 2016 Photo: Wolfgang Schmidt

11 June 2022

Svetlana Gannushkina in conversation with Svetlana Prokudina. The original text includes the asterisks ‘*****’.

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: website of the Yabloko party]

Since the beginning of the ‘special operation,’ the Civic Assistance Committee has been working practically around the clock. This is where people forced to leave their homes in Ukraine because of the hostilities that have been going on for four months now and who came to Russia in search of asylum go or call on the phone

Svetlana Gannushkina, head of Civic Assistance Committee, member of the political committee of the Yabloko party, and a laureate of the Moscow Helsinki Group human rights prize, says the situation is similar to 2014. Back then, an influx of refugees from Ukraine poured into Russia, confident that a better life awaited them here.

In an interview with, Svetlana Gannushkina spoke about what Ukrainian refugees in Russia are facing now, what the filtration they have to go through is like, and whether Russians are ready to show solidarity.

How has the work of the Civic Assistance Committee changed since February 24?

First of all, the mood of committee staff has changed. But, thank God, there is complete understanding among us. All of us perceived this *** as something monstrous. The only difference was whether each of us felt responsible for the fact that it happened. There was a little discussion in which several people said that they were not ready to take responsibility for it. But, of course, they understand that it’s monstrous. And, of course, it’s a heavy moral burden if you take it seriously. But most of my colleagues hold themselves responsible for what is happening as citizens of Russia. I must say those who at first did not want to admit this, literally half an hour later came up to me and said they are indeed all responsible for this.

And, by the way, this is to be seen in the fact that so many people now come to us and thank us for giving them this opportunity to help. We’ve had a several-fold increase in donations from our citizens. Usually, refugees are treated with prejudice and it’s hard to raise money for this work. But in this case, it was not so. And by the way, among those who donate money to us, I see quite unexpected people, nationalist-minded people, who have always been very wary of us. That is, for them it was a necessary manifestation of their solidarity with those who find themselves in a difficult situation in Russia, and to some extent a manifestation of their attitude towards this ***. We as citizens are responsible for this.

But probably it’s not just the mood that has changed, but also the amount of work you have to do?

Yes, just like in 2014, there was a huge influx of refugees. We have already received more than a thousand families during this time. We try to help them somehow. These are people who are in a very difficult situation,and they have all the problems they possibly could have. Of course we also continue to help our traditional refugees – from Central Asia, Afghans and Syrians. There are quite a few Africans now. But all this pales in comparison to what is happening with the flow from Ukraine. I won’t name any regions of Ukraine, singling them out of the general context, for us they are all refugees from Ukraine and of course they make up the bulk of our contingent right now.

How do they explain their decision to go specifically to Russia?

Very simply: they had no other options.

It’s difficult to believe they arrived voluntarily. What was their alternative? To die under fire. People are sitting in basements; shells are raining down on them. They have no idea what’s left of their city. Suddenly the basement door opens and someone says: ‘Come and get on the bus; we’ll take you somewhere safe.’ Of course they go.

No one asks: ‘Is there a bus going somewhere else?’ On the other hand, some told me – but not the refugees – that they didn’t want to go but were forced to. I haven’t actually come across any instances of physical violence, though.

I should say that many did actually want to come to Russia. For various reasons. A fair number of those who have come think of themselves as people of Russian culture. That’s one reason. Their native language is Russian. That’s another. And the third and really the most important reason is our propaganda. It seems ludicrous to me, but it works on people who don’t see anything else. We know our own lives; we see one thing and hear another and we understand the difference. But these people – if they didn’t have direct links to Russia and even if they did – have taken this propaganda seriously. Their idea of Russia has been shaped by this propaganda. A lot of them say: ‘Yes, we wanted to. We thought that the Russians might restore some order.’ We have even heard that kind of thing. So they think that what we have in Russia is order.

It doesn’t surprise me because it was the same in 2014 following the annexation of Crimea. When we went there back then, we saw two queues. One was at our Federal Migration Service for Russian passports, and the other was people who wanted to give up their Russian citizenship. When we approached the second queue, we heard a few unfriendly comments thrown in our direction. ‘You got ‘our Crimea’. Now be happy.’ And giving up Russian citizenship wasn’t easy. But the mood was fairly upbeat, on the whole. People really were expecting ten times higher pensions, as one woman told me. But then it turned out that the pension would only be two times higher at most, not ten. Her pension was the same as ours, about 6 to 8 thousand. She evidently thought that we got 60 or 80 thousand. My pension then was 16 thousand. But the prices there were low. When we went a year later, the mood had changed. People had realised what Russian order meant, and we met with more scepticism out on the streets. There was fear, too. Before, people had spoken freely in the street, but now they were careful what they said.

There are some similar attitudes today. The people who have come to Russia are also inhibited by the fact that they don’t know our political views. We don’t discuss it with them. It’s possible that their opinions are coloured by the understanding that they’re in Russia. But most importantly, besides these three reasons, people go where they have friends or family who can take them in. That’s the most common reason.

Exactly what aid do Ukrainian refugees come to you for?

Primarily people come for money. Because a lot of people who came to Russia before the start of the *** when Putin appealed have still not received their promised 10,000. That first intake came for the 10,000 Putin promised. Because 10,000 is a lot of money for the Donbass. And, of course, they didn’t imagine that it would be ever so slightly different in Moscow. The problem here, though, is that it’s a one-off benefit. You have to remember that even people who obtain refugee status don’t receive any benefits in Russia. The way they do in every other country. That 10,000 is a one-off payment. For all other refugees, it’s 100 roubles. Anyway, these 10,000 are very hard to obtain because the decision about paying them is taken in Rostov Oblast. So far I’ve only seen two people who’ve received them. 

Initially, because we’d been able to collect a large amount, we gave them 5,000 each but that money ran out very quickly. We are continuing to raise money now because even at places of temporary accommodation (PTA) where they are fed and given shelter people can’t get by without money. They have to buy medicine. They need to buy spare underwear if they’ve turned up without a thing to their name. They need to change clothes because a lot arrived when it was cold and it’s summer now. Shoes are a particular problem. The second-hand shoes brought to us by the people of Moscow – of course, we’re grateful – but we have already asked to please bring us new shoes and new clothes because after all these are not homeless people. They had a perfectly good standard of living previously, at home.

On the whole, it’s very important to help people maintain a sense of dignity because in the conditions in which they find themselves, it’s very hard. It’s very hard to ask. 

One family we helped, they had my phone number and they thought the aid was coming through me, although it was from the organisation. Incidentally, we do put our own money into the organisation. Anyway, they rang a few days ago and said, “Svetlana Alekseevna, we’d like to see you. We’ve bought you a fantastic strawberry plant at the market.” (Laughs) I said I was delighted they’d been able to buy the plant and I would be happy if they ate the fruit to my very good health. It was a very touching conversation.

I really am grateful to them for that impulse. And it’s understandable. They want to say thank you somehow. I don’t like the word “acknowledgement” because it smacks of bribery. But, of course, expressing their thanks is important to people. In actual fact, an ordinary human “thank you” is enough for us.  And I find it very touching that this thank you comes not only from the people we help but also from people to whom we give an opportunity to help. This is, evidently, important to people. For this reason, I don’t have that dreadful feeling that the whole of Russia, the whole population, right now supports this ***. It doesn’t seem like that to me. 

A woman came along today who brought money, clothes and fruit and she also brought a small bag of fruit for us. I could see she had tears in her eyes when she said that the responsibility for everything that is happening rests with us. 

So then, money is needed. Incidentally, everyone sends people to us for money. The LDPR [Liberal Democratic Party of Russia] sent people along just recently. They rang our hot line and asked, “Is that the LDPR charity?” Our staffer said no. Whereas I would have said, “No, it’s the Yabloko charity.” (Laughs). Although, of course, we’re not a political organization. That reminds me, yesterday, Tatyana Nikolayevna Moskalkova spoke in the Duma. I was there. Some new guy from the LDPR also spoke there – a real talker. He spoke with enthusiasm about how we are all amazing. It’s fine for someone to have peace of mind and to consider us all amazing and, therefore, he’s amazing since he’s part of the “we”. 

There’s also the problem of medical treatment. Medical check-ups now have to be done free of charge, by the way, when people get their documents. But it doesn’t happen everywhere. They want the passport translated. That takes money too. Money, money and more money. It’s awful! Money’s a revolting thing. (Smiles) But, of course, nothing can be done about it. No other means of supporting the life of society has been found. Now, for some reason, people aren’t allowed to exchange the hryvnia they’ve brought with them. Let alone taking them out of their accounts. It seems you can only change 8,000 but that can only be done once the person has received Putin’s 10,000. I tried to find some logic in this and I have. I’ve realised that those who’ve received the 10,000 are good Ukrainians. They can be given permission to exchange hryvnia.

What are refugees saying about the so-called ‘filtration’ process? How does it look? 

This is the biggest problem. ‘Filtration’ occurs upon a refugee’s entry into Russia, and there are wildly conflicting reports about it. Apparently, the process is always conducted by the FSB. There’s an interrogation, which some people get through easily, in 20—30 minutes, while others are kept there for 3—6 hours; their treatment varies greatly. Apparently, it depends on the person conducting the interview. If you get someone reasonable, they ask you some questions, look at your phone, take your fingerprints, and let you go. If you end up with a sadist, they can give some of their worst qualities free rein. They might strip you naked to look for particular tattoos. Women who find themselves alone with an armed man are in an even worse position. I haven’t heard reports of rape, but abuse and filthy jokes are widespread. 

Some people who came to us recently saw a group of blindfolded men with their hands tied behind their back at the border. Clearly, these were the ones who hadn’t made it through ‘filtration’. 

Another data point: at the border, one young woman whose brother hadn’t made it through filtration asked what happened to people who weren’t allowed in. The officer smiled and said, “I shot ten of them before I stopped counting.” You’d like to think that’s just their sick sense of humor. 

This is why the most terrifying thing is when someone doesn’t make it across the border. When someone doesn’t make it through filtration and their whereabouts are unknown. We’ve had a few reports like that. Not long ago, we got a call in the middle of the night, saying that a large family was crossing the border in the other direction. Everyone had gotten across except one who hadn’t been let through, a 20-year-old kid. They claimed that his passport was fake. Fortunately, nothing terrible happened, and he was located afterwards. But, generally speaking, when people disappear during the filtration process, it’s terrifying. 

We often have to appeal to Tatyana Nikolaevna Moskalkova [Russia’s Human Rights Ombudsman], who has really helped us out on a number of occasions. Yesterday, for example, she shared a story that we also played a part in. A group of thirty Ukrainians had arrived in Moscow from Simferopol. They arrived at Kazansky Railway Station at four in the morning. At six they called us. Operators from our hotline woke me at 8. I didn’t want to disturb Tatyana Moskalkova at that hour, so I waited until 9:30 to call her. She called back within three minutes and took on the case. By that time, we had already managed to deliver some money to these people so that they could buy groceries at the station, feed their children, buy diapers. Then we called EMERCOM. They told us that they hadn’t been expecting these people to arrive until the following day. However, they told Tatyana Moskalkova that they had arrived on their own initiative and had submitted a document stating that they would organize their own accommodations in Moscow. But that wasn’t the case at all.  

Another problem arises when people want to leave the country. In that case, there is the problem of documents. It’s total chaos. Now they’re saying that refugees whose documents aren’t entirely valid can go to Estonia via Ivangorod. For a while, it was possible to go to Riga. Some checkpoints allow people to cross the border, some don’t. 

We have also submitted a request to Moskalkova to organize an amnesty for Ukrainian citizens who have been deemed ‘undesirables’ in Russia or who have been deported for minor infractions of Russian migration rules or for not being registered. We have to give these people the opportunity to return. Many of them have families here, etc.

There are lots of problems. For example, I was approached by one Ukrainian family where the husband and wife had been wounded by the same shell. The shell had gone through the wife’s leg and gotten lodged in the husband’s calf. They were operated on in Russia, kept in hospital for twenty days, and then released to home treatment. They weren’t told that they could register at the nearest polyclinic to receive free nursing services. And for a long time, until they called me and came to see our doctor, they were paying a nurse three thousand rubles a day to change their dressings – when, in principle, the state ought to be responsible for that. And an official institution shouldn’t act this way: releasing people to home care. What kind of home care could there be in this situation? We’re talking about five people who have come to stay with relatives who live in a 15-square-meter room they’ve been renting in a decrepit dormitory since 2014. And now there are eight people crammed into that one room. How are people supposed to live like that?

Some people also suspect that we’re somehow involved in state policy. Not long ago, I heard someone accuse the Civic Assistance Committee of working hand in glove with the government. 

It seems absurd.

This *** itself, this bloody tragedy is wrapped up in the absurd. Everything is absurd! Everything around this ***, from beginning to end, is absurd. And the paranoia induced in humanity too.

It is also absurd that the ‘Civic Assistance Committee,’ a nongovernmental organization, and moreover, one that is recognized in Russia as a foreign agent, replaces the state to a great extent in helping refugees.

Yes, this is one of the marks of this absurdity. And what of this? On Friday there was a story about me on NTV, where it was said that the European Court and I together were ‘excusing’ banned ‘ISIS members,’ members of an organization banned in Russia. Their extradition was demanded by a country where people are tortured, and we appealed to the European Court. Because it is very important that when a person falls into the hands of the state, all procedures and human rights are maintained in relation to him. Because you have not yet proven that he is a criminal!

How the ‘Civic Assistance Committee’ helps refugees is clear from your story. And what is the state doing to help Ukrainian refugees?

The state has built temporary accommodation facilities. Many of them are very good. This is true. There was the same in 2014. The state treats them significantly better than other refugees. Although they are not granted refugee status, they are granted temporary asylum and a simplified procedure for obtaining citizenship. This is, of course, a political decision. But, all the same, if people want to become citizens of Russia, let them. Would that they do not regret it. All the same.

In these same temporary accommodation facilities, clothing is not issued. This happens only if volunteers work there. In some facilities, where everything is well organized, volunteers are allowed. Just now one of our colleagues went to a facility where volunteers serve from beginning to end: cleaning, washing, helping with documents. There, where government agencies are not afraid of the presence of civil society, such cooperation can be found. And we want to cooperate with the state. Because we cannot give people documents. It was not said by us: ‘To want to work with everyone together and at the same time with the rule of law.’ We also want this, as Pasternak wanted. As Pushkin wanted: ‘In the hope of glory and goodness I look ahead without fear.’

How many Ukrainian refugees are there now in Russia?

It’s an interesting question. They say there are almost a million and a half already. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees inclines to think that there are a million. But there is Decree No. 349 of 12 March on the distribution of citizens of Ukraine who arrived here in an emergency among the regions of Russia. What do we see here? Well, if you round up, Belgorod region has to accommodate 4,500 people, Bryansk region has to accommodate 1,500 people, Vladimir region has to accommodate 1,700 people and Voronezh region has to accommodate 7,000 people. None are sent to Moscow. Moscow region – 1,500. Kursk region – 3,000. Rostov region – 4,700. Murmansk region – 2,500. Komi Republic – 530 persons. Arkhangelsk region – 370. Vologda – 310. The total sum is about 96,000 people. Where are the rest to go?

Now we are going to have the same thing as in 2014. Then they made wonderful camps in Rostov region. By the way, our lawyer was allowed to go there. She gave people advice. She sent us information. If a person didn’t have enough medication and we sent it to them. Everything was fine. But by the end of 2014, the camps were dismantled. Without actually providing people with anything, we sent them to the various Russian regions. The regions set them up in boarding houses and children’s camps. In mid-2015 the camps were needed for children’s recreation, and people began to be evicted from them. Evicted to nowhere. We had a case in Tver region, when people from the boarding house were simply evicted to the train station in Tver: that’s it, go wherever you want. And there was far more than one such case.

Now it’s happening again.

People are told that we need to free up space for children and that in general we want to live our normal lives. That’s natural, but why should other people’s lives be made abnormal?

When they start removing people from the Russian regions, again there will be a colossal flow, and Moscow will not accept anyone at all. It is assumed that people will find a job and settle down further on their own. There is one more problem that I did not mention because we do not deal with it, but it is very important. We help to place children in schools, but we don’t do employment. With a few exceptions, when someone comes to us and says they need seamstresses, for example. Then we call out to our refugees, and maybe someone is found who can help. But we don’t do it ourselves.

A lot of businessmen don’t know that these people can work without additional permission. But hiring them is really a bit alarming. For example, if we take on a foreign citizen, we have to inform the Ministry of Justice in three days. If we do not do it in time, there will be a fine. So if the employer has a choice, they will hire a citizen of Russia, why should they get involved with refugees? In addition, if a person has not acquired the status of a permanent resident in Russia, the tax will not be 13 percent, but 30 percent. So they have to pay more. And so on and so forth. So it is very difficult for them to get a job.

Apart from money, what else do refugees need?

All sorts of things. There was a call here from a Temporary Accommodation Centre – a man needs a cello. He has a talented 15-year-old daughter. He needed a cello so she could study. They even found her one, and she performed a concert somewhere. But they could not give her the cello for good. Some sponsor offered her 30,000 roubles, but she couldn’t buy a cello with it. As a result, I found a cello at home. A lucky coincidence. (laughs). My son at music school learned the cello a very long time ago. It’s not a concert cello, of course, but it can be used for lessons. Her father came and fetched it.

You are a treasure, not a human being, Svetlana Alekseevna.

Yes, my son can’t forget that I made him learn the cello. Or rather, he said that I influenced him morally. I didn’t order him, on the contrary, I told him that if he wanted to quit, he could give up. But he heard the note of condemnation in that, and as a result he finished seven years of school after all. I don’t think it did him any harm, but he still remembers it. His son plays the viola now, by the way. (Smiles).

Let’s remind our listeners and readers how to help the Civic Assistance Committee, and, therefore, refugees.

As for volunteers, we have a great number. For an organisation that employs almost 30 people, more than 50 volunteers is a lot. There are volunteers who translate from English and into English, into French or into Spanish for people from Latin America. There are people who help in the office. There are people who teach children Russian as a foreign language and other subjects. That is, we have all the volunteer support we need. Above all, we need fundraising. Money, money, money. This is what is needed, needed and needed. You can make a donation on our website — one button, and that’s it.

You can bring clothes and shoes in good condition. Not those things which you can no longer wear, because they are not good enough for you, but for refugees they will do. That’s not what we need. Bring clothes that you yourself are ready to wear, but that you can give away. Food, especially food that doesn’t spoil, is in great demand. Some people bring us freshly cooked food. Some bakery, for example, brought pies and distributed them to people, who were sitting and waiting in our reception rooms. You can bring water and soft drinks. Baby food, sunflower oil. Yoghurts go down very well with us. We distribute them right away. And, of course, bed linen, because some people stay with friends. We take both linen and pots and pans. Everything that a person needs for life support, everything is good.

You see a large number of people, communicate with many personally. How did this *** change people?

I see people showing solidarity. There was solidarity during the pandemic, and there is also solidarity now. This helps people immensely.

In general, you need to understand that everything you do, you do for yourself. This is your life, “and you need to live it in such a way that…”. I would stop at the word “painfully”: you need to live it in such a way that it is not constantly painful — from powerlessness, from the fact that you can do nothing. You can always do something and you can always help somehow.

And, of course, many people have shown their real worth in this sense. Well, all sorts of career boys and girls took the opportunity to utter smart phrases that, in fact, do not impress anyone. This is just enthusiasm-to-order, so to speak.

Probably, everything that happens is an opportunity for us to still remain human.

You know, I’d rather do without this opportunity. There was an opportunity for us not to start this ***. But we did not take advantage of it. We didn’t manage to do so. Vladimir Vladimirovich once said that the worst thing that happened in the twentieth century was the collapse of the Soviet Union. The biggest tragedy. That is, not the First World War, nor the Second World War. Not the explosion of the atomic bomb, which claimed and continues to claim lives. No, the worst thing was the collapse of the Soviet Union. And evidently, he decided to take on the mission of restoring it. Which cannot be done, because all empires fall apart, whether in a civilised way or in a savage way, but they always come to an end. But in general, war always leads to the immorality of society. That is the rule. War cancels everything out. It has always been like that and it’s the same now. Therefore, it would have been better for us to do without this opportunity. But it didn’t work out.

Translated by Simon Cosgrove, Nicky Brown , Melanie Moore, Sarah Vitali, Alyssa Rider and Kate Goodby.

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