ukrainian getting off train eastern russia
Ukrainian refugee in Russia tells CNN why she's 'forbidden' to return home
04:32 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

A year ago, Natalia’s life was upended by war. With her family, she fled the fighting in Ukraine’s southeastern city of Mariupol and crossed into Russia.

From there, she and many other Ukrainians were encouraged by Russian authorities to take a 4,000-mile train journey east to the very edge of Siberia, to a coastal town called Nakhodka on the Sea of Japan, a stone’s throw from North Korea. It’s closer to Alaska than to the front lines.

In the absence of a reliable evacuation corridor to Ukrainian-held territory, going to Russia was the only option for many people in Mariupol at that time. Ukraine describes these refugees as forcibly deported, though Natalia says no one forced her to leave. “It was our decision,” she told CNN by phone from Russia’s far east, where she has resettled since arriving last spring.

Now, as Russia’s war in Ukraine grinds into a second year, she and others lead an uncertain existence, unsure if, or when, they will ever be able to return home or be welcome when they get there.

Over the course of many months, CNN has managed to reach a handful of Ukrainians through a group chat run by Russian volunteers for current and former residents of a hotel used as a temporary shelter, where they stayed while searching for longer-term work and housing. CNN is not using their full names in this story for privacy and security reasons.

Many of the new arrivals in Nakhodka, in Russia’s Primorskiy Krai region, were reluctant to say much about their circumstances or share their opinions, but others shared enough to get a clearer snapshot of life in Russia’s far east and how Ukrainians there are adjusting.

Some offered mildly pro-Russian views, others declined to answer questions about the war, while some even gave scathing criticism of Ukraine. No one directly criticized Moscow but, of course, it’s not clear how freely people felt they could speak.

The United Nations estimates more than 2.8 million Ukrainians have taken refuge in Russia over the past year. Some – largely those who could afford it – have transited through Russia to other countries in Europe, and many have even made it back to Ukraine.

International law prohibits forcible transfers of people and stipulates that evacuees should be moved home as soon as hostilities have ceased. CNN requested comment from the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs on Ukraine’s allegation that its citizens have been forcibly deported to Russia, and on the situation for Ukrainians now living in Russia’s far east, but has not received a response.

Their mere presence in Russia is ultimately a win for the Kremlin, according to Nathaniel Raymond, executive director of Yale University’s Humanitarian Research Lab, who has done extensive research on the mass migration of Ukrainians to Russia since the full-scale war began. Russia, he says, needs more people.

“In many parts of the country, they don’t have enough citizens to make those municipalities function,” he said. There is also “a propaganda benefit, positioning these people as somehow, willingly seeking citizenship in Russia, which fits this broader narrative that Putin and the Kremlin [are pushing]… trying to rebrand the war as saving Ukrainians from purported Nazis.”

Russia has tried several experiments to attract people to its resource-rich far east, including from ex-Soviet states. Now, state programs are being repurposed to accommodate fleeing Ukrainians. Those who agree to go to Russia’s far east are promised a cash payment, housing assistance, Russian citizenship and potentially even free land.

The cost of living in Primorskiy Krai, whose main city is Vladivostok, is the 11th-highest in Russia, more expensive even than Moscow and St. Petersburg regions, according to official figures. This is due in part to the rate of new home-building lagging behind the national average.

People who fled contested territory in Ukraine's eastern Donetsk region disembark at a railway station in the Russian port city of Nakhodka. Many had no other option than to enter Russia.

Natalia, who was an office worker in Mariupol, has now found work in a local food-processing plant. She told CNN she’s struggling with the cost of rent. She hopes to find a job that better matches her skills, but for now it’s all she can find. She misses home, but at least the maritime climate reminds her of coastal Mariupol. Her husband and daughter are with her, and she says she has no family remaining in Ukraine.

“Nothing’s changed (in the past year) except the place,” she said. “But I no longer have a job that I love and a home I love.”