Oftentimes, when I’m compelled to explain the Russian policy of deportations to international journalists, I stumble upon some sort of resentment. "I’ve seen the numbers but I can’t quite get who those deported people are", "We can’t mix deportations and evacuations, they are not the same", "We want to illuminate the truths about deportations. Can our Russian journalist interview the victim because we don’t speak Russian?". The last one is just the quintessence of brutal insensitivity towards the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian war of minds along with the war of arms.
Recently, I had a chance to reflect on why the topic of deportations seems so onerous to many international journalists and speakers. My conclusion was simple: the existing model of media coverage is irrelevant when it comes to reporting on something so egregious in the Orwellian sense. There is no second opinion and no possibility to contemplate the situation in comparison to, for example, advances or losses on the battlefield. This is a thing with occupation-in-progress and deportations, there is not even a grave to show to convince that something terrible has happened.
I offer you to go through several most confusing misjudgments about the current situation with unlawful deportations of Ukrainians to Russia and how we should react to them.
1. Those people went to Russia to save themselves from war.
The absence of choice is not a choice. Ukrainians from the occupied areas were not allowed to choose the direction of their evacuation, which, in most cases, would be the country of their origin and the passport of which they hold. Not all the Ukrainians were transferred to the Russian Federation under gunpoint (many of them were, though) but it’s a part of a bigger deportation system. If they were saved then why does Russia refuse to let them go?
"We need to prove first that the deportations were forcible," — this phrase I heard during my conversation with the UN representatives. Their motives were rightful, they wanted to create a joint case of deportations based on individual stories for the UN to inspect the crime more vigorously. However, it shows the wrong approach to deportations on a higher level, at least on the public scale. Deportations should not be considered as separate individual stories but as a planned policy.
Russia has been implementing this policy of deportation since Tsarist times, the tools might have changed, but the context did not.
2. We need to speak to people inside Russia to make sure that there are deported people.
Talking to deported Ukrainians inside the authoritarian aggressor’s state might bring you those possible outcomes: you won’t hear the whole truth and you’ll put the abducted people at risk. The system of deportations doesn’t end with the forcible resettlement of people, it’s only the first step. Others include confiscation of documents that deprives Ukrainian citizens of their civil rights; organized facilities for detaining those people under the pretext of providing aid; pre-planned maps of destinations for deported people to make sure they are scattered around Russia; programs of brain-washing and russification, especially aimed at minors.
The idea of a second opinion is obvious and very often necessary. But is it an opinion if it’s expressed under pressure and threat to the safety of witnesses or their loved ones?
Instead, you can speak to people who managed to leave Russia or who went there to pick up their abducted children and came back.
3. Do you have evidence that Ukrainians are treated badly in Russia?
This sentiment is irrelevant as nothing can justify the occupation of the independent state as well as the resettlement of the citizens to a different country.
It’s also irrelevant because you can’t divide people into the ones eligible to honor and the ones who should be grateful for just being alive. People don’t love their abductors and chains, even if they’re forced to believe otherwise. As one of the victims said about leaving Russian territory after deportation:
I felt captured. Because I had no freedom of movement. I was afraid to go to the border. I thought we would just be detained at the border. Everyone on our bus said they felt like slaves, with whom they could do anything.
4. The guilty ones will be punished at Hague.
The guilty ones are not only high-ranking officials that are eligible for this type of ad hoc tribunals. Many of them are average citizens of the aggressor’s country who went to fight for unexisting values and ideology, the ones who collect money to detain Ukrainian citizens, and the ones who illegally adopt children without previous appeal to the country of their origin. Moreover, Russians don’t even hide their crimes, you can find whole documentaries about families who adopted stolen Ukrainian children and managed to put it as a grand gesture. The website of the Russian Children’s Fund speaks for itself: regular people detain Ukrainian children and provide money for their detention while calling the deported "refugees".
It must be understood that we can bring those people back. Their return and rehabilitation should be the main focus here, not taking symbolic Putin to the Hague. The only way to do so is to keep pressuring the Russian Federation and keep supporting Ukraine so the occupation and, therefore, deportation stop.
5. The number of deported people varies too much to have a clear picture.
The latest data announced by Dmytro Lubinets, the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine, is 2.8 mln people who were forced to leave or were deported to the Russian Federation. The UN relies on the data of 2.5 mln people, human rights NGO Zmina states that from 2.8 to 4.7 mln are potential victims of deportation, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken used the number of between 900,000 and 1.6 million Ukrainian citizens (as of July 2022).
As Human Rights Watch stated in its report:
Although the total number of Ukrainian civilians transferred to Russia – either voluntarily or involuntarily – remains unclear, many were transported to Russia in organized mass transfers, even though they were hoping to go to Ukrainian-controlled territory, in a manner and context that renders them illegal forcible transfers.
It’s important to recognize that people are forcibly transferred from the occupied (not free) territories to the aggressor’s country. It might take a while till the correct numbers and real names are clarified. It doesn’t change the fact that deportations have been happening since the beginning of the Russian full-scale invasion till nowadays.
The history of the Russian Empire and Soviet Russia’s policy of deportations is repeating itself. Times are different, we have more tools to intervene and demand basic decency in regard to the people who became Russia’s prisoners under the nose of the whole democratic world.