The circumstances under which Crimea became part of the Russian Federation are far from simple. But it’s happened and the Russian Federal Migration Service continues to report a steady increase in the number of Russian citizens in the peninsula, lured by a promise of bigger pensions, salaries and study grants; some people have even been promised release from prison.
The town of Krymsk in the neighbouring Russian Kuban region [separated from Crimea by the narrow Straits of Kerch] received its name in the 19th century: immediately after the Crimean War (1853-56) a regiment was christened Krymsk [from the Rn adjective, Crimean, and it in turn gave its name to a fortress and the Cossack village surrounding it, which eventually became a town.
The devastating 2012 flood was not just an act of god; it was also the result of official incompetence.
In 2012 a terrible flood hit the town: the official figure for the number of people who lost their lives was almost two hundred. The flood was not, however, just an act of god, but also the result of incompetence by the authorities. Over many years they had not only failed to set up alarm systems or dredge rivers, but they had turned a blind eye to the creation of illegal artificial reservoirs; more recently their failure to act may have been a matter of just a few hours in the course of one night – the night of the flood – but it resulted in fatalities. The authorities were incapable of either warning their people or saving them. ‘So what were we supposed to do? Go to every house?’ was the question asked by Alexander Tkachev, the governor of Krasnodar Territory for the last 14 years, after the catastrophe.
The Pelipenkos, one of the hundreds of households affected by the flood, are the only family who, almost two years down the line, have still not been paid full compensation. Interestingly, their hopes for justice were directly linked to Russian policies in Ukraine. Were – but not any more.
The Pelipenkos are the only family affected by the flood not to have been paid full compensation. Photo: Vlasenko
Gennady Pelipenko, a builder, his wife Tatyana and daughter Kristina lost everything in the flood. Their neighbour, Granny Nadya, who had helped look after Kristina, died, crushed by the collapse of her own home; their rabbits died and their ducks swam away. Their meagre belongings either disappeared or were ruined. Miraculously, their house remained standing – but it wasn’t really theirs; they just rented it. Which is why the Krymsk authorities considered they were not entitled to compensation for lost property. Their landlord was away from the town at the time of the flood, so he had no rights to compensation either. All the property was lost and everyone has lost out.
Gennady Pelipenko rescued at least sixteen people – but received no compensation for losing his home.
Gennady Pelipenko might have been able to salvage some of his things if he had not started rescuing his neighbours. He had a wetsuit, which he remembered about as soon as he had taken his wife and daughter to a higher part of the town. He left them there and, ignoring their pleas, returned to the flooded area of the town, put on his wetsuit and rescued at least 16 people. Gennady says the suit was a great help – it was easier to move through the cold and muddy black water in it.
The only money Gennady and his family could expect to receive was a so-called ‘single payment of material assistance’ of 160,000 roubles [2660 GBP]: 100,000 from the federal, and 60,000 from the regional budget. President Vladimir Putin promised this compensation to everyone living in the flooded area in his message to the inhabitants of Krymsk published in Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper on 18 July 2012. It was to be given to everyone who had suffered as a result of the flood, irrespective of citizenship; there was a precise deadline for its disbursement –23 July 2012.
Gennady and his daughter Kristina received their money after some considerable time. Tatyana, wife and mother, never received a kopeck - because at the time of the flood she was a Ukrainian citizen.
Ukrainian citizenship, a guarantee of unpredictability
Tatyana received nothing, despite having lived for ten years in Krymsk with her husband and daughter, both Russian citizens. Despite having permanent residence in Russia and having, on the very day of the flood, received a certificate confirming a good pass in her Russian language exam, which would enable her, at last, to be granted Russian citizenship. Despite the President’s promise and even a court ruling. And despite almost having died.
In other words, Tatyana Pelipenko is one of the Russian-speaking population with Ukrainian citizenship whose rights are being violated. Who were, according to the Kremlin, in need of protection in Crimea and are now, apparently, in need of it in Eastern Ukraine. But Tatyana, who actually lives in Russia, has been denied it.
At first the local authorities told Tatyana that the President may have promised compensation to all victims, but the Krasnodarsk Territorial Authority had ordered that only Russian citizens should receive any cash. The lawyers were amazed at the contradiction, because during the last 14 years the governor of the region had very rarely expressed an opinion that differed from his president’s, and there had never been any conflict between them. For some reason local council officials suggested Tatyana should seek help in Ukraine.
Then her name was not in the enigmatic lists of those entitled to compensation.
Then Tatyana’s documents somehow got lost: whole piles of papers proving that she had been living in Krymsk for ten years, was bringing up a daughter there, had almost drowned in the flood and had been just about to receive Russian citizenship disappeared somewhere in the town council building and no one would accept any responsibility for this loss.
Tatyana’s documents disappeared in the council building and no one would accept responsibility for their loss.
The family had nowhere to live. They couldn’t go on staying with friends and what sort of accommodation can you expect when there’s no money?
I highlighted the Pelipenko story in some of my coverage of the flood: Gennady and Tatyana were the central figures of our documentary on the Krymsk tragedy. Fate suddenly blessed them: a Moscow businessman who saw our film gave Gennady and some of the other flood victims 300,000 roubles [nearly 5000 GBP] each. This gift and the partial state compensation meant that Pelipenko was able to put up half the money for a new house. Except it’s not new, actually quite old, empty and in a state of disrepair. It is in fact barely habitable, but prices in Krymsk have shot up so much that a little old house on the edge of town, with no shower, toilet or other conveniences, for one million roubles was quite a bargain.
The vendors agreed to defer payment of the second tranche for one year. The family planned to spend as little as they could of Gennady’s salary, about 20,000 roubles [330 GBP] a month, on food and to take on some debt, but to pay their way. They had not yet lost any hope of Tatyana receiving her compensation, although the town council had still not managed to find her documents.
Then they had a very unpleasant surprise: the vendors demanded the second half of the payment before the year was up. Tatyana told me in tears that they would now have to sell the house to pay for it, ending up on the street again. Money for Gennady was collected painstakingly slowly, bit by bit, but progress was too slow. Once more the Russian businessman came to their aid and lent the family the money they needed. Since then Gennady has hardly been at home at all – he’s away in the regional capital Krasnodar, doing construction work, because the rates there are better than in Krymsk.
Meanwhile, the time for the court hearing arrived. The Krymsk district court took Tatyana’s side and obliged the Krymsk Town Council to include her name in the list of citizens to receive 160,000 rouble compensation payments.
This was in April 2013, almost a year after the flood. And for a whole year this court ruling has not been implemented.
What has changed since then?
Tatyana has at last received Russian citizenship; three months after the court decision the regional budget disbursed 60,000 roubles to her, but all that money had to be used to pay back the Moscow businessman.
Tatyana has experienced great difficulties with her compensation claims as she was a Ukrainian citizen at the time of the flood
Krymsk town council officials said that the remaining 100,000 roubles owing to Tatyana had been mysteriously ‘retained by Moscow.’ The explanation given to her was that it would be too complicated to send this sum of money to Krymsk as an individual payment, so she’d have to wait until there were more people like her due to receive such a large sum from Moscow.
Then the money was once more ‘retained by Moscow’, but this time Tatyana was given no explanation and, in my presence, a town council official threatened Gennady that if he brought the press in, then the case would just be closed. When I tried to remind her about the Mass Media Law, I was firmly told that officials had no intention of reading it.
When Tatyana’s money was ‘retained by Moscow’, the Pelipenkos appealed for help to Vladimir Putin himself.
When it finally became apparent that no court ruling, family drama or injustice contravening even a presidential decree would have any effect on the Kuban officials, the Pelipenkos appealed for help to Vladimir Putin himself. Just as the self-proclaimed leader of Crimea did recently. Gennady gave a brief account of the whole story with documentary evidence and an appeal for help, and they started to wait for a response.
There was a response. Not to the Pelipenkos, but to the whole world.
The Russian speaking population: right and wrong
The response was military intervention in Ukraine, on the pretext of defending the Russian-speaking population, which had been forgotten about up until then, in Krymsk anyway. The situation of at least one representative of that population had certainly been ignored.
As soon as the Maidan protests started and Russian TV began talking about fascists seizing the reins of government in Kyiv, Tatyana lost any hope of justice. She had already been told that ‘a Ukrainian in Krymsk would receive nothing’, and now there was even less hope.
But when the authorities started talking about Russian-speaking people in Crimea, a glimmer of hope appeared at the end of the tunnel.
Did Tatyana realise that it was just talk? Did the inhabitants of Crimea?
Today Tatyana feels that she no longer expects, or event wants, anything. She no longer expects anything because Gennady finally managed to get a meeting with the head of the Krymsk district. He was told that Tatyana would receive nothing – why should a Ukrainian have compensation? And no objections would be considered by the courts.
The Pelipenko family never guessed that they would survive the flood and the red tape but fall victim to the elemental force of their own country’s geopolitics.
Those Crimeans who were rash enough to refuse Russian citizenship will now have to apply for a residence permit. They should remember that this permit will give them very few rights inside Russia. Nor will citizenship – Russian or Ukrainian.