Polina Sardaryan sobs when she speaks in front of the court on April 26, 2023. She does not yet know that in several minutes, she will become the second Russian citizen in Ukraine whose right to a Ukrainian passport is supported by a court decision.
Thousands of Russian citizens are living in Ukraine amid the full-scale Russian invasion launched over a year ago. Many of them are ethnic Ukrainians whose parents were sent or went to work in Russia when it was still the Soviet Union. Because they were there after December 1991, when the USSR was dismantled, they got Russian citizenship. Many others are spouses of Ukrainian citizens who have been living in Ukraine for ages. The rest immigrated for political reasons.
In 2022, their Russian IDs became toxic, and many found themselves unwelcome in Ukraine. Since the invasion began, more and more are seeing their legal documents expire.
“They are not going to let anyone exit”
When Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, there were a couple of hundred former Russian citizens in the end stages of getting Ukrainian legal documents. They had temporary Ukrainian citizenship IDs, a special form of a document provided to a person who has already been granted citizenship but still needs to renounce their Russian citizenship to get a Ukrainian passport. Ukrainian law prohibits having more than one citizenship.
The temporary ID is valid for two years. During this time, the holder needs to collect certain documents from the Russian state and municipal structures and apply to a Russian consulate for a special certificate renouncing their Russian citizenship. Officially, it takes up to six months to get the Russian certificate. In reality, the response from the Russian consulate could be delayed or the request for renouncing Russian citizenship could be rejected entirely. And if the certificate from a consulate is not provided within two years, the Ukrainian migration service revokes the person’s Ukrainian citizenship.
Polina Sardaryan, who was born in Ukraine, applied for Ukrainian citizenship in 2019, got a positive answer in 2020, but obtained her temporary ID with a year-long delay because of a mistake of the Ukrainian migration service. There were still COVID-related restrictions when she started the process of renouncing her Russian citizenship. Then, all the Russian consulates in Ukraine closed amid the full-scale invasion.
In 2022, Russian citizens who were granted Ukrainian citizenship but haven’t got Ukrainian passports yet were left in a state of limbo. Many of them have been engaged in Ukrainian war efforts and publically expressed anti-Moscow sentiments — which means that they cannot travel to Russia without risk of being arrested and jailed. Any attempted correspondence with the Russian foreign ministry led nowhere. In an interview with Global Voices, Polina said:
Мені дещо знущально відповідали, що щоб подати документи на вихід з російського громадянства я маю чекати відкриття консульств Росії в Україні. Вони взагалі не збираються нікого випускати зі свого громадянства, особливо тих, хто хоче замість російського громадянства отримати українське.
I was somewhat mockingly told that in order to apply to withdraw my Russian citizenship, I have to wait for the opening of a Russian consulate in Ukraine. They are not going to release anyone from their citizenship, especially those who want to get Ukrainian instead of Russian citizenship.
United to help each other
The position of the Ukrainian migration service is that the current holders of temporary IDs haven’t done enough to get the Russian certificates. Polina and Kira Jafarova, another former Russian citizen, said that some of them have asked the officials what else they should do and have been told to either sit quietly or travel to Russian consulates in neighboring countries.
Those who traveled found that they needed a residence permit in those countries to apply for a citizenship renouncement there. Some who waited — still reserving some trust in the migration authorities or hoping for the laws to be changed — found their citizenship revoked by the Ukrainian migration service, which is notorious for mistreating migrants.
The apparent shift, however, happened suddenly in recent months, with three court decisions recognizing the rights of Russian citizens who already received Ukrainian citizenship but cannot renounce their Russian one, for the so-called declarative exit, without any certificates from the Russian government.
“The state migration service deals with the most helpless: Afghanis, Syrians, Palestinians, etc. The worst is that they cannot unite to protect their rights. But we united and started to help each other: share information and advice,” said Kira, who won two court cases in different cities in Ukraine recently and is about to receive her official Ukrainian ID.
Like many others, she believes that Polina’s process, which suddenly attracted attention, will lead to the success of other would-be citizens with Russian passports. Previously, it was almost impossible to get the media to cover their struggle, Kira and Polina told GV. “We have been unpopular,” Kira said. “And people did not want to look deep into details.”
On the brink of despair
In social media, news and initiatives related to the struggle of Russian citizens in Ukraine drew mixed reactions. In the petitions section of the presidential website, calls to protect certain Russian citizens with legal status are mixed with calls not to accept any citizens from Russia.
Since 2022, there has been a popular meme about “good Russians” — those citizens of Russia (no matter their ethnicity) who claim to be anti-Putin. Though this is primarily to protect themselves — many still proved to be deeply chauvinistic or ignorant of sensitive Ukrainian issues. Many in Ukraine have also taken to labeling dead Russian soldiers this way: “To become a good Russian” has been widely used as a euphemism for a killed fighter of the invading army.
In February 2023, Natalia Naumenko, the head of the Ukrainian migration service, said in an interview with a national online media outlet that “we are trying to limit access of Russian citizens to all the procedures [of obtaining any Ukrainian legal status]. As for me, this is absolutely normal despite tons of criticism from the side of human rights organizations and international organizations as we had floods of applications for refugee status from Russian citizens. I do not believe in ‘good Russian citizens,’ almost entirely, with a few exceptions.”
Given this position, court proceedings remain, more or less, the only option for a Russian citizen seeking to obtain or protect a legal status in Ukraine. Still, not everyone can afford a lawyer. Like everyone in Ukraine, Russian citizens living there have also been affected by the war. Many lost their homes and jobs. Additionally, for each individual case, court decisions can vary.
“Many are on the brink of despair. What can I do if I think that I am a good citizen, but my state does not need me,” said Kira, who has lived in Ukraine for 33 years. “I cannot work, I cannot travel, I cannot donate blood to the soldiers because it requires a passport as well. I cannot even talk about it because this is perceived as shameful.”
Even for Polina, with her triumphant court win, after all those struggles she endured, it is too early to celebrate. “I cannot even cheer about it,” she told GV. “I am in a state of constant stress. It seems to me that they [the state migration service] will invent something else — that they will do anything anyway not to provide me with the passport.”