Since the invasion of Ukraine in late February, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have been forcibly resettled in Russia.
In interviews with The New York Times, a dozen people who escaped described a process known as “filtration” — part of a Russian campaign to “denazify” and “disarm” Ukraine.
After surviving war, scores of Ukrainians were kicked out of their home city of Mariupol and driven to camps where they were harshly interrogated. Then, they were sent to facilities as far away as Siberia and the Pacific coast, and pressured to take Russian citizenship.
Many said they felt trapped — robbed of a home and forced thousands of miles deep into enemy territory.
Ludmila Lezhayska and her 5-year-old daughter, Masha, were able to leave Russia for a new, temporary home: a ship in the port of Tallinn, Estonia’s capital. They shared the cabins of the cruise liner with about 1,700 neighbors, all of whom had fled the war in Ukraine.
For almost everyone the Times spoke to, the arduous journey to Estonia began in the shelled-out remains of Mariupol, to which Russia laid siege for two months before completely taking over in April.
Lezhayska and her neighbors hid in the cellar of their apartment block for nearly a month, and then Russian soldiers told her they had to leave.
“My child is walking, filthy, 5 years old. This girl lived in a cellar for a month,” she said. “A Russian tank stops dead in its tracks and out comes a Russian soldier and gives my child some bread.
“I can’t describe my feelings, everything that was inside me. I say to him, ‘Thank you.’ But thank you for what? For destroying my home? My life?”
Nadya Ponomaryova described the moment that Russian troops arrived at her building.
“Soldiers came into our basement in the morning,” she said. “They took some of the young men outside. They put them on their knees, blindfolded them, tied their hands.”
Russian forces put special scrutiny on the men, seeing them as potential fighters. There is evidence that Russian troops have routinely detained, and even killed, those they suspected of even a loose affiliation with Ukrainian forces.
“All us men who were there were led out into the yard and ordered to undress,” said Ihor Tarashchiansky. “They were looking for tattoos. Checking if we were military. And we couldn’t even feel that we were undressed in the freezing cold. It was pretty cold then — but it was shock. This state of fear.”
Eduard Mkrtchyan was badly injured when his apartment block was shelled. But Russian forces saw his injury as a sign that he might be a fighter.
“Three giant, 6-foot-tall Chechens point their machine guns at me. I’m laying down and I can’t move,” Mkrtchyan said. “I tell them, ‘Don’t shoot, I’m wounded.’ They probably thought I was a Ukrainian soldier the people had hidden.”
Lezhayska and everyone else the Times spoke to described how residents were driven to the outskirts of Mariupol to the so-called filtration camps. These are sites throughout the Donbas region with the purpose of identifying anyone the Russians consider a potential threat.
Inside the camps, people described interrogation, days of waiting and harsh treatment. Those who make it past this part of the process receive documents stating they have been fingerprinted.
They are brought to a train station in the Russian city of Taganrog, just across the border with Ukraine. Then, they are sent elsewhere. Their arrival is celebrated in front of local TV cameras as an example of Russia’s humanitarian efforts.
The refugees described a system with no personal choice about their final destinations.
Valeriya Kurbonova had the longest journey of the refugees the Times interviewed. She fled Mariupol on foot and passed through a filtration camp in the Ukrainian border town of Novoazovsk. She was sent to the train station in Taganrog, where emergency officials told her to board a train to Khabarovsk, a city on Russia’s border with China.
“We spent a terrible nine days on the train,” Kurbonova said. “Every day, we would wake up to find ourselves still on the train.” She was housed at a large sports facility in Khabarovsk, more than 5,000 miles from home.
Some of the resettlement facilities in Russia restricted the movement of the Ukrainians or banned visitors. Others were so remote that there was no practical way to leave.
Officials strongly encouraged the new arrivals to apply for Russian citizenship. The process required them to hand in their Ukrainian passports.
“I found out it means you can’t leave Khabarovsk for three years,” Kurbonova said. “So I told them, ‘I’m not doing the passport. I’m refusing.’”
After 20 days in Russia, Lezhayska was able to scrape together enough money for train tickets to St. Petersburg, and she and her daughter were driven from there to the Estonian border.
The Ukrainians in Estonia are among the very few who have managed to leave Russia — the vast majority have not been able to escape the country that launched a brutal campaign of conquest against their homeland.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.