Kyiv says hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have been forcibly transferred to Russia, echoing Soviet practices

By Matthew Luxmoore

Oct. 4, 2022

The Wall Street Journal


VILKHIVKA, Ukraine—As Ukrainian forces closed in on this village in northeastern Ukraine in spring, Russian soldiers rounded up dozens of locals and told them to march along a dirt track toward the Russian border some 20 miles away. More than half a year later, only a few have returned. After being taken to Russia without prior warning, they spent weeks traversing the country and making their way westward into Europe, where most still live as refugees. With Vilkhivka liberated but in ruins, they don’t know when they will make it home.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has killed thousands of civilians and left behind evidence of widespread torture and executions. What happened in Vilkhivka, recounted by a dozen villagers, is a less visible but still devastating consequence of the invasion. Millions have been uprooted by the war, including hundreds of thousands who Ukrainian officials say have been coerced into going to Russia.

As Ukraine pushes Moscow’s troops out of its territories, the trauma of these people’s dislocation and the destruction of their homes underscores how hard it will be for many to rebuild their lives. “I traveled thousands of miles to leave a place I never wanted to go to,” said Serhiy Holovin, who now lives with 16 other Vilkhivka residents in a shelter for refugees in Germany. “But what choice do you have when a soldier with a gun tells you to leave?”

Evidence of the practice of forced transfers to Russia is mounting. A report by international nonprofit Human Rights Watch, based on more than 50 interviews with people affected by it, called such transfers a war crime and documented treatment at so-called filtration camps where Russia examines Ukrainians for evidence of pro-Kyiv sympathies or ties to the military, and sometimes holds them for weeks. Moscow has denied forcibly transferring Ukrainians and claims that some four million have voluntarily arrived in Russia since February. Many Ukrainians have relatives in Russia and choose to go there instead of fleeing west.

The forced resettlement echoes, on a smaller and less violent scale, the way the Soviet Union transferred millions from their homelands to remote corners of the Communist empire as a way to control national minorities seen as restive, including Ukrainians. Poles, Chechens and Crimean Tatars who were also among those packed into cattle cars and shipped to Siberia and Central Asia. Russian invading forces took over Vilkhivka so swiftly in February that the village’s 1,500 residents didn’t even have time to flee.

Russian troops set up base in the school and used it as a supply hub, warning locals to stay away. But by late March, Ukrainian forces had pushed Russia away from the regional capital, Kharkiv, and were moving to recapture surrounding villages. Vilkhivka was under heavy bombardment, and most residents were hiding in basements with no cellphone connection.

It was shortly after 10 a.m. on March 28 when two Russian soldiers, clad in tattered uniforms, began visiting homes and ordering people to leave. They walked from house to house, knocking on doors, the villagers said. People crowded into the street, holding whatever possessions they had grabbed. One carried an infant and a spare set of diapers. Another was tending to his cows when the soldiers came, and stood in his wellies and wool jacket, dirty with manure. “We didn’t know what awaited us on the road, or where we were going,” said Marina Sabada, who left that day with her husband, Viktor, and 14-year-old son, Danil.

Watched over by Russian soldiers smoking atop tanks and armored personnel carriers, they marched 4 miles to the village of Verkhnya Rohanka, some with pets in tow, the elderly and infirm struggling to keep up. “We were covered in dust, the children wailing, and some of us limping the whole way,” said Olha Volynkina, 49, who ran Vilkhivka’s grocery store. “It was a horrible sight.”

When they reached Verkhnya Rohanka, they were told to wait in the center of town. Around 20 people managed to slip away. The rest were driven to the highway in military trucks and then boarded three yellow buses waiting by the roadside.

The buses took a long diversion across fields and marshland as the main crossing point over a river had been destroyed. The route over the bridge they did cross was narrow and precarious due to damage from airstrikes.

Russian border guards questioned the arrivals about ties to the military and rifled through their phones. Vilkhivka residents said they had wiped their phones before the journey, afraid that any content could incriminate them.

When they reached a refugee center in the Russian city of Belgorod the morning after they left Vilkhivka, Vita Kravchenko, a retiree, was finally able to speak with her children. Her daughter cried on the phone when she heard her mother’s voice. “We were afraid. We didn’t know why they had brought us to Russia, with what aim or goal,” Ms. Kravchenko said. “We just had one thought: to get home.” With Russia’s officially recognized border with Ukraine’s Kharkiv region not operating, the only options for Ukrainians taken there against their will was to remain in Russia or leave for a third country. In Russia, they received help from an informal network of volunteers who assisted them with finding temporary homes, applying for residence permits or arranging travel abroad. Vita Kravchenko, a retiree, said she didn’t know why she was taken to Russia.

Many are housed at accommodation centers that process arrivals and offer expedited Russian passport applications. Others are transported to vacant resorts and schools across the country.

From Belgorod, some of the Vilkhivka evacuees took a free shuttle bus to the neighboring Voronezh region, where they were housed in a school. Others turned to Russia-based relatives, staying with them before leaving for Europe by train via the Baltic states. Mr. Holovin went to

Moscow to stay with a cousin, then boarded a train to St. Petersburg and was later driven by volunteers to the border with Estonia. “How can you stay as guests in the home of people who destroyed your life and destroyed your house? This is not hospitality,” he said. “I couldn’t remain in Russia and pretend nothing had happened.”

Those who had left without their documents had the toughest ordeal. After two days in temporary accommodations, Anatoly Shkuro, 68, went to the town of Gubkin, 70 miles northeast of Belgorod, to stay with his cousin and her husband and son.

They spent their evenings watching Russian political talk shows that portrayed Ukrainians as Nazis and suggested that the Ukrainian army was killing its own people as Russia sought to liberate them, Mr. Shkuro said.

On July 15, a friend of his daughter’s who drove to Russia from Lviv delivered Mr. Shkuro’s documents. Nine days later, he left Gubkin by bus for Moscow, where he was met by a friend of his nephew, and took a bus to Latvia. “I was enormously relieved to leave,” he said.

In a lightning offensive, Ukrainian forces recaptured most of the Kharkiv region last month. But officials in Kyiv are advising evacuees from war-torn areas not to return home until after winter, which is set to be particularly harsh in towns where gas and electricity are cut off. Much of Vilkhivka lies in ruins.

At a monastery in Fockenfeld, Germany, that has been converted into a shelter for Ukrainian refugees from Mariupol, Kherson and other Russian-occupied areas, 17 of the Vilkhivka residents who left on that March day are now reluctant tenants.

Their village lies largely in ruins. Whole streets have been destroyed by Russian artillery, the houses buckling under collapsed roofs as the remains of cluster bombs dot the streets. On Vilkhivka’s outskirts, Russian military ration boxes and ammunition crates lie beside charred husks of Russian tanks against the backdrop of a pastoral landscape.

Of all the Vilkhivka residents taken to Russia, only Ms. Kravchenko and her husband, Oleksandr, have returned home. They receive packages of humanitarian aid from the Red Cross as they wait for basic services in the village to be restored. “If there had been a choice to stay in Ukraine, if I had known the ordeal we would have been put through, I would never in my life have boarded that bus,” she said.