"My husband's passport turned into a bomb."
Dmitry is 26 years old. He lived in Ryazan and worked in the IT sphere. The letter he sent to Eyewitnesses could have been the basis of a screenplay for an acute legal-military drama. The border between warring states has separated two people who love each other. Complicating the situation was the fact that they were of the same sex. Dmitri described the "eye of a needle" he and his partner had to slip through in order to move to a safe country together. We present Dmitri's letter with minor editorial corrections.
- Before the events of 2014 my husband lived in Makeyevka, Donetsk region. He studied at the History Department of Donetsk National University, where he planned to become a teacher and conduct research activities. But after the "liberators," essentially rabble rousers from Russia, entered the city, it became clear that his plans were not going to come true.
"After he left, armed men came for him."
At first, various supporters of the "Russian world" began stopping by the institute and making various demands: for example, not to speak Ukrainian or teach as they say, using the "books" they brought from Russia.
And then it got to the point of absurdity. Some students started coming to exams with guns and demanding an excellent grade. If an instructor refused, they promised to shoot him on the spot as a "dill" or give him to the "Cossacks," who would deal with him.
My husband has always held a pro-Ukrainian position. There was no way he could tolerate that. And the escalation was escalating. So when he received his diploma in early July 2014, he left Makiivka to the sound of shelling, which was getting closer and closer.
It was very difficult to leave the city at that time, he said. Drivers were afraid to go through checkpoints of the so-called "DNR," where they could be robbed blind or, if they were unlucky, shot. The roads themselves were not safe. Cars occasionally came under fire.
My husband's mother, who didn't want to leave at first and stayed in Makeyevka for several more months after he left, said that armed people came for him. They were looking for him, saying they wanted to talk to him. Most likely, it is related to the fact that before his departure he wrote everything he thought about the so-called "DNR" in his VKontakte account and in the institute's groups. And he said the same thing in the face of the supporters of the "Russian world," who ratted on him to the local police.
"Everyone was afraid that "Separatists" would settle in the rented apartment".
He left Makeyevka for Vinnitsa, where he continued his master's studies at the already evacuated DonNU. In March 2015 we met in a pro-Ukrainian chat room. Surprisingly, after a week of communication with him I realized that this is the person with whom I want to live my whole life. Perhaps it was stupid of me. We were in different countries that were essentially at war with each other. I knew our parents would never support such a relationship. But then I made a promise to myself that I would do anything to keep us together.
In September 2015 I left for Ukraine. By that time he had finished his master's degree, and we were going to rent an apartment and live together. At the border between Russia and Ukraine I was "pressed" by both sides. On the Russian side I was interrogated by the FSB because I openly spoke out against Russian policies and participated in anti-war rallies and protests. They already had an APB out on me, so they thought I was going to fight for Ukraine. But on the Ukrainian side, as I realized afterwards, they just tried to bribe me: they spent a lot of time asking me questions and telling me about the difficult times in the country. In the end, the bus was delayed for three hours at both borders.
In Ukraine everything turned out differently than I had imagined. He had a registration in Donetsk, and I had a Russian passport. Even simply renting an apartment became a problem. No one wanted to let a person with a residence permit from Makeyevka move in, let alone me. Everyone was afraid that "separatists" would move in and set up an ammunition depot or the headquarters of the "people's republic.
There were big problems with jobs, too, even without taking into account our propiska. The hryvna had depreciated a lot after the start of the war, and the labor market was severely depressed. After three months of ordeals I realized that the best solution for us was to go to live in Russia.
From December 2015 to September 2022 we lived together in Russia. We decided that he would not take Russian citizenship, because it required him to renounce his Ukrainian citizenship. In fact, he was an illegal alien in Russia, but we were fine with that. He worked remotely, and there was no way to formalize our relationship. I was quite active in protest activities, went to rallies and was not afraid to express my position. I got a couple of administrative penalties and fines for that.
"Sitting on the sidelines like we did before won't work."
Until February 24 last year, we were closely following the events on the border. We thought that all these exercises were a bluff, just a muscle game that would end, at most, with the recognition of the "DPR" and "LPR" and the introduction of troops there. This would have been enough for Putin to have another fit of patriotic fervor. Ratings would have crept up. The army of "liberators and defenders" would have rushed into Donetsk with pathos, where they could have shown footage of people cheering, as they had done with Crimea. But instead, Putin declared war. During his speech, it became clear that this was not just another hybrid war, but the very real annexation of an entire country. I remember shaking when I watched the first video from Ukraine when the news of the shelling of homes and the deaths of civilians began to come in. I realized that this was the beginning of the end, that there was no turning back, and that sitting back like before was not an option.
The first thing we did was to call my husband's mother. After 2015, having fled Makeyevka, she settled in a small village near Vinnitsa.
She refused to leave Ukraine categorically. "I'm tired of running," she said.- "I'd rather die, but on my own land, in my hut. No amount of our persuasion could change her mind. During the war Russian rockets fell near her village several times. A blast wave knocked out windows in her house and cracked the roof. The lights have been on for a couple of hours a day since the strikes on civilian infrastructure began. There are the same problems with the Internet. But she is not going to leave, she believes in the victory of Ukraine.
In the first days of the full-scale war, I knew I had to get out of the country. Not because I was afraid to go out to protest, but because my husband's passport had turned into a bomb. He didn't even have a passport. Besides, Russia officially annexed Makeyevka, where his passport was registered. Which means that any random document check on the street could either end in forced passportization or (even worse) endless imprisonment in a detention center.
"Finally there is a real chance to leave Russia.
In order to leave Russia, it is necessary to have a valid passport. My husband entered Russia in 2015, when a passport was not required to enter Russia from Ukraine. Then Ukraine broke off diplomatic relations with Russia, which means that now there is no way to help its citizens there and provide consular services. Thousands of Ukrainians are stuck in Russian pre-trial detention centers for indefinite periods of time. According to Russian law, they are deprived of all rights and are in a situation worse than stateless persons. The only chance for them to go free is to obtain a Russian passport.
We called the emergency line at the consulate in Kiev, wrote letters. On the advice of human rights activists, we wrote to the Ukrainian consulates of all the countries neighboring Russia. Everything was in vain: either we were told that we had to wait for the end of the war and believe in a Ukrainian victory, or we were practically told to fuck off. The consulate in Belorussia was still working, but after the start of the war it stopped issuing passports and reduced its staff to a few people.
I tried to write to the embassies of other countries asking for a temporary humanitarian travel document. I wrote and called the UN. I wrote to all the international human rights organizations. All to no avail. The only advice I got from the UN was to ask the FSB for a humanitarian corridor. Of course I didn't do that. It became clear to me that we were on our own and that I shouldn't expect any help with our departure. So I started thinking.
The first thing that came to my mind was to mix with the stream of refugees who had left after the full-scale invasion began through the "Three Sisters" checkpoint, then outside Ukrainian control, into Belarus, and then to try to cross the border into Lithuania, which at that time started allowing Ukrainians in with any document or without any documents at all.
When I contacted the Belarusian organizations, I found out that not everything was that simple. On the Belarusian side of the border with Lithuania there was the FSB. Ukrainians were thoroughly interrogated and found out where they were coming from. Everyone who did not pass the inspection was taken to an unknown destination (probably a filtration camp). I considered this option too dangerous.
On March 17, I learned that the Canadian government has approved a special program for citizens of Ukraine (CUAET). It is possible to apply for it without a passport. The same day we applied for it, but only for him. My passport, which I had ordered on February 25th, was still in the works. I thought at the time that the requirement for a passport was canceled only for Ukrainian citizens. As it turned out later, the rules were the same for partners of Ukrainians. Two days later I received an invitation for biometrics.
On March 22 we are going to Moscow to take biometrics. The staff at the visa center was a little shocked when instead of a foreign passport they were given an internal Ukrainian passport, also of the old type. According to the instructions, you can't even go to the visa center without a passport, but the request for biometrics was real, which means they had to process it.
A week later I get an invitation to paste the visa. But where to paste it, if you have only the internal passport? Then about CUAET on the Internet there was almost no information. By Googling, I found out that Canada can issue a special travel document - Single Journey Travel Document (SJTD) in exceptional cases. It is designed to allow a refugee without a passport or a stateless person with a revoked passport to safely enter Canada where they have already been approved for refugee status. The hitch here was that Ukrainians under the CUAET program are not refugees. But we decided to try anyway.
I drew up a letter in English addressed to the Canadian Consul in Moscow explaining our whole deplorable situation. We took it to the visa center in Moscow. At first the workers refused to accept the letter instead of the passport, but after several calls to their bosses they took the internal Ukrainian passport, letter and photos required for the SJTD and said to wait for the decision.
Two weeks later the Ukrainian passport came back to us by mail, and with it the ready SJTD. There was no end to my joy at the time. Finally I had a real chance to leave Russia. By that time I had already applied for myself and had managed to pass biometrics.
Another problem was that our relationship was not official, and in the case of civil cohabitation it was necessary to collect evidence of our living together, to have it notarized, and to make a declaration online with a Canadian lawyer, swearing that we really lived together all these years.
I scraped together all the evidence we had: a kilo of bank statements over the years, joint photos, affidavits. All of this had to be translated, certified, and then compressed into two pdf-files of no more than 2 megabytes each. I understood that the visa for me was a decision of one person, a visa officer, who would review my case. And, as it turned out later, this review can be very long for a non-citizen of Ukraine. I waited, a month, two, three. There was still no visa. Calls to the Canada emergency line ended with one answer: "You are a priority, wait. All this time my husband stayed in Russia, which meant he was in danger. I suggested many times that he go without me, convinced him that we would meet later. But every time he said no.
His SJTD was ending in September. He had until the end of the month to leave Russia with or without me. At the end of August I managed to convince him and bought him a ticket to Canada for September 22. At that time I had no idea that mobilization would be announced in Russia on September 21. On September 20 I bought a ticket for me to Kazakhstan on the 22nd. I had no desire or energy to stay in Russia after my husband left. I was going to wait for my visa in Kazakhstan.
"He was told that he would go to the DNR instead of Canada to the front."
On September 21, I realized what a needle's eye we would have to slip through. On the one hand, he was without a passport, and on the other, I, who had never served in the army, but had classification B and an illegally affixed indefinite mobilization order. But I believed that everything would work out, and in the end we would definitely be together. It was with these thoughts in mind that I drove to the airport.
I knew the border guards would probably go through the phones, so we cleaned everything up beforehand. His document took a very long time, about an hour, to look at at the check-in desk. Good thing we arrived at the airport well in advance. After many phone calls and a call to his bosses, he was escorted further into the green area. And there all hell broke loose. I nervously paced the airport. My flight was still a long way off. I was very nervous - I knew that he was going to be interrogated. But I hadn't expected that they would do it with such rigor.
I got a call from him. I picked up the phone and heard his excited voice. He only had time to tell me a little: they told him that he was going to the front instead of Canada to the DNR. Then I heard the FSB lady screaming. As I found out later, his phone was ripped out of his hands and the call was dropped. I couldn't find my place. I knew that they had to let him in, but the Russian lawlessness terrified me. I was afraid that, after sighing at all the international norms, they might detain him.
But all ended well. In about 40 minutes he called me and told me that he was standing near the terminal. During the "interrogation," the FSB officers broke his laptop, searched his phone, and forced him to take off his clothes - they were looking for "Nazi tattoos. They asked him about his love for Putin and SVO, and whether he wanted to stay in Russia and get citizenship. They threatened him and told him that his Canadian ID did not mean anything in Russia, that he was about to be torn apart and that he would go to "defend his homeland in the DNR. They let him go 10 minutes before the flight.
I was awfully glad. They let him through. Now I had to get on the flight, too. But luckily for me it was a lot easier. I bought my ticket on September 20, so the questions were standard, except for the eligibility question. But for those who bought tickets on the 21st and 22nd, they asked a lot more questions: about the SSO, about why they didn't want to defend their homeland. Some of them were taken for additional interrogation. My ticket was a transit ticket through Tajikistan. There were a lot of Tajik citizens in line. They were discussing what was going on, saying they weren't going to die for Putin. Some of them had bought a ticket after the mobilization had been announced for 100,000 rubles, just to get out of Russia as soon as possible. There was a record number of Russians on the plane. An elderly Tajik man, with whom I was sitting next to during the flight, said that he hadn't seen so many Russians in 20 years of flying from Tajikistan to Russia.
Well, then our adventure came to an end. I waited another three months for a Canadian visa in Kazakhstan - and on the eighth month of waiting, after re-applying, I finally got the long-awaited requester and was able to fly out to my husband. We met at the Calgary airport on December 24. I believe now we will never be apart. The waiting in Kazakhstan, away from my beloved, was very hard. We had spent seven years together every day, and now we were so far away, so many time zones apart.
Now we just move on with our lives. We feel safe here in Canada, but I constantly feel guilty when I read the news from Ukraine. It makes me feel ashamed. Every time I ask myself, "What did I do to prevent this from happening?" Maybe I'm just a coward who fled the battlefield and should have fought to the last man?