Since the start of the war, thousands of Ukrainians have become “refugees sur place”: news of the war reached them while they were in Russia. It’s dangerous for them to return to their homeland. Some of them have been able to get to third countries, while others remain in Russia. But there is another group of people who wound up trapped: ex-convicts. Their passports are often lost by the police or the Federal Penitentiary Service during the investigation or when they are transported to the penitentiary facilities where they serve their sentences. Once they finish serving their sentences, they don’t walk free but are moved from penal colonies to temporary detention centres for foreigners. Not everyone manages to break out of their new prison. Cherta recounts their stories as part of Memorial Human Rights Defence Centre’s project 30 Years Before.
Olga came to Russia from Ukraine in 2008. She didn’t plan to stay in Russia; she had come to make money. She needed to raise and educate her children: three of her own and two foster children who came to her family after her sister died. She worked as an administrator at a health clinic and met a man there in 2012. She fell in love. They started to live together, then got married. Five years later, Olga murdered her husband.

On that day, she returned from work tired. At home, she cooked dinner in the kitchen, boiling meat dumplings and chopping up salad. Two of her grandchildren were sitting in the room at the time. Her husband Pyotr was already drunk. He had undergone treatment for alcoholism but had fallen off the wagon and been drinking a lot in recent days.

He asked her for money to buy booze. Olga didn’t have any money. “Maybe I needed to leave the house, to go somewhere... But it was evening. The grandchildren were there and I didn’t have anywhere to go at the time,” Olga recalls.

Olga tried to calm her husband down and feed him. He reacted by attempting to beat and strangle her. She doesn’t remember how it all happened, how the knife ended up in her hand, how she wounded her husband as she tried to defend herself. Pyotr was still alive when the ambulance arrived. He died in hospital.

“The worst thing is that I lost a really dear person. It’s difficult to recall. It’s scary. But I got through it,” she says.

She was convicted of negligent manslaughter, as punishable under Article 111.4 of the Russian Criminal Code. There was no mention of self-defence, but considering the details of the case and Olga’s good character references, she was given the shortest sentence possible (as the judge told her when the verdict was read out): five years in prison. Actually, there is no lower sentence limit under this article, only an upper one, a maximum of 15 years. But the judge likely followed established practice.

Olga did her time in a women’s penal colony in central Russia. “I thought I would be released… My kids bought me a little house in the Krasnodar Territory near my sister. They said, ‘Mom, when you get out you will live near your sister. She will be with you.’ I thought everything would be over in five years. And that the trouble would be over.”
Murder and penal colony
The story of Olga’s imprisonment was only beginning. Later, she would again wind up behind bars, but indefinitely and entirely not guilty.

When the ambulance had taken Olga’s husband away, she herself was taken for a medical examination to test her blood for alcohol and drugs (which weren’t discovered) and for an interrogation. At the examination, she wasn’t looked over for signs of battery, although the people who brought her in had seen that her husband had been drunk. She herself didn’t look like a murderer and said right away that she had cut her husband by accident trying to defend herself. “I even still had bruises where he had tried to strangle me,” Olga says.

During the interrogation, the female investigator asked Olga about her citizenship. “I immediately handed over my Ukrainian passport. I don’t know at what stage it was later lost, but I never saw it again.” Since then, a report of her lost passport and an old copy of the passport have been Olga’s only documents.

Having spent exactly five years incarcerated, Olga was released from the penal colony in 2023, during the war in Ukraine. But she did not gain her freedom. Instead, she was transferred straight from the penal colony to a temporary detention centre for foreign nationals.

In Russia, foreigners who are released from prison are deemed so-called undesirables, explains Stefania Kulaeva, an expert at the Memorial Anti-Discrimination Centre. Previously, when a Ukrainian who was in Russia lost their documents and wound up in the detention centre, Moscow would try to contact Kyiv to confirm their citizenship and send the person back to Ukraine.

“Since 2014 it hasn’t always been possible to do that. During the war, the Ukrainian authorities sometimes haven’t been able to verify citizenship. For example, if a person’s documents wound up in territory not controlled by the Ukrainian authorities at the time. In 2022 it became totally impossible. We can’t deport anyone to Ukraine, which means that it makes no sense to hold such foreigners in the detention centre,” Kulaeva adds.

It cannot be confirmed or denied that a person has Ukrainian citizenship without a response from Kyiv. Russian human rights activists have demanded that undocumented Ukrainians be released from temporary detention centres because they cannot be deported to Ukraine. The country simply doesn’t consider them citizens.

“Nor will any other country be able to recognise them as such. The only solution is to release them and stop arbitrarily incarcerating them,” Kulaeva is convinced. “Being held in the detention centre for foreigners is not and should not be a form of punishment. It’s a so-called interim measure. But, until recently, the detention centre was a perpetual prison for people unable to recover their documents. We have always tried to prove that it doesn’t make any sense. It’s cruel and there are no legal grounds when a person can’t be deported.”

There are no statistics that would accurately reflect how many Ukrainian citizens are currently in temporary detention centres. However, in the first months of the war, in 2022, Eva Merkacheva, a member of the Presidential Human Rights Council stated that more than 350 Ukrainians were in Moscow’s pretrial detention facilities and special detention centres. That number could have grown, or at least not changed, over two years of war, considering that all Ukrainians released from prison (whether they serve their time in Russia or were removed from the occupied territories) are taken straight from the penal colony to the temporary detention centre for foreigners.

There’s no way to find out how many of the Ukrainians held there are undocumented. However, while this article was being written a Cherta correspondent managed to talk with six people currently held in or recently released from temporary detention centres. All of their documents were lost either during the investigation or in the penal colonies.
A women’s room in a Russian specialised institution for the temporary detention of foreign citizens (SITDFN). There are six beds pushed closely together in the room. There are no chairs.
An undesirable person
April 2, 2024
This article has been published as part of 30 Years Before, a project by Memorial Human Rights Defence Centre. The views of its authors and editors do not necessarily reflect the views of Memorial Human Rights Defence Centre, and vice versa.
A photo of a shower room in a Russian specialised institution for the temporary detention of foreign citizens (SITDFN). Between 45 and 80 people have to wash themselves in a stall like this three days a week. One tank is enough to wash three to five people, then it needs to be heated again.
The final days of 2023 brought good news for migrants in temporary detention centres. The laws had changed: a new rule limiting detention in the temporary detention centre for foreigners to 90 days, with judicial review of extensions of this term if the Interior Ministry files such a motion. Also, people being held in the temporary detention centre for foreigners now have the ability to petition for expulsion at their own expense and the court is obliged to examine such requests within five days.

Even more importantly, the law explicitly states that people placed in the special detention centre for foreigners are entitled to ask the court to verify the legality of their imprisonment “if there are circumstances indicating [the person] cannot actually be deported from the Russian Federation.”

This event has changed and will continue to change many people's lives. It took human rights activists more than ten years to get these amendments passed. It started with the Roman Kim case.

Roman Kim was a stateless person. He was detained in 2011 and, since he had no documents, he was sent to the temporary detention centre for foreigners in St. Petersburg, where he spent two years. With a lawyer from Memorial Anti-Discrimination Centre, Kim managed to win his suit against Russia in the European Court of Human Rights. The case resulted in the court ordering Russia to amend its migrant detention laws. At a time when even a person convicted of murder could apply for parole and know when they would be able to get out, undocumented foreign citizens languished in prison without a release date.

According to the ECHR ruling, Roman Kim was able to be released and received compensation. However, for migrant prisoners in the temporary detention centre for foreigners the laws didn’t change until the Noe Mskhiladze case.

Georgia native Noe Mskhiladze was a stateless person. However, he lived in Russia with his family. He couldn’t be deported to Georgia because that country wasn’t prepared to give him citizenship. He only had a Soviet passport.

Human rights activists were surprised when, on 23 May 2017, in hearing Mskhiladze’s case, the Russian Constitutional Court for the first time heeded the ECHR judgment in the Kim case, declared unlimited and baseless detention of stateless persons in the temporary detention centre for foreigners illegal, and demanded that amendments be made to the Code of Administrative Offences. That decision released not only Mskhiladze himself, but also other migrants who were being held in centres throughout the country. Human rights activists began to use the phrase “to release [a detainee] using the Mskhiladze mechanism.”
The Mskhiladze mechanism
Olga's life behind bars
As is appropriate following the amendments for stateless persons held in detention, Olga is entitled to have her status reviewed every three months. However, even this isn’t working in her case.

At her last hearing she requested that she be released because her incarceration didn’t make sense and she had serious health problems. But the court denied her request and decided that Olga had been justifiably held in the temporary detention centre for foreigners.

When she feels quite unwell, she asks her jailers to call an ambulance. The doctors arrive. The court decision also confirms the information that an ambulance often comes to the temporary detention centre for foreigners for her. However, in the court decision the need to call an ambulance is considered proof that she has all the medical care she needs.

Kulaeva notes that courts have never found the health of a person held at the temporary detention centre for foreigners grounds to release them. In 2016, Georgia native and stateless person Vepkhvia Sordia died because he didn’t receive treatment at the temporary detention centre in St. Petersburg. A seriously ill person, he was held for almost a year “for expulsion,” which was clearly impossible. Kulaeva recalls how Mskhiladze called ADC Memorial and said that Sordia was dying: “Although we requested urgent measures from the ECHR, which had ordered Sordia released according to Rule 39, even then they didn’t release him.”

Olga hasn’t been examined by a doctor in the six years since her arrest. “I have diabetes, asthma, heart problems, and gynaecological issues. My children bring me medications, but it seems they are out of date for me and don’t help,” Olga says.

She doesn’t complain about the conditions in which she is held. She has a prison-type cell with bars on the windows. The food is plain and there are walks in a small yard. Because of her asthma, Olga has a hard time being in the same yard with smokers. But it’s better than walking alone. Olga sometimes gets cellmates, but she spends most of her time alone.
The exercise yard is the only place people can be outdoors.
One floor of a specialised institution for the temporary detention of foreign citizens (SITDFN) in St. Petersburg consists of prison-type cells that are always locked. People are not allowed to leave them or move around the floor.
Although there is still one border crossing open between Russia and Ukraine, in violation of the law the Russian authorities sometimes try to expel undocumented Ukrainians to a third country. Most often they try to send them to Georgia. Ukrainians are likely to be admitted to Georgia, but they can’t know for sure whether they will be.

Four undocumented Ukrainian citizens are currently living in the cellar of the transit area at the Verkhny Lars border crossing. Just like Olga, they were migrant workers in Russia and wound up in prison. And, as in Olga’s case, their documents disappeared after security officers got a hold of them. Also like Olga, they are undesirables in Russia. They were placed in the temporary detention centre for foreigners as soon as they were released from the penal colony. Russian police brought them to the border with Georgia.

One of them, Alexander, said that he was spending his second week in the transit area. Just like every Ukrainian refugee who arrives at the Georgian border from Russia, he was interviewed, asked to provide photographs or copies of his Ukrainian documents and housed in a “hostel” in the transit area, which is in the cellar.

No one knows in advance how long they will spend there. Some people are able to enter Georgia within two days, while others live in the transit area for another three months. It depends on how quickly the Georgian government is able to establish the person’s identity. The situation is trickiest with refugees from the Ukrainian territories now occupied by Russia. When their documents aren’t available, officials try to contact their presumptive relatives to identify them. Alexander tells of how several days ago someone visited his sister, showed her his photographs taken at the border crossing and asked her whether she knew him.

Finding food is the hardest thing for those living in the transit zone. There are no stores and volunteers can't always bring food. For example, those living in the transit area have had very little food since 22 March. “When all of our stuff ran out, the border guards brought us tinned meat, preserved foods, and flatbread. There isn’t anything else,” Alexander says. On 25 March, he and his fellow guests at the hostel had only macaroni, and the volunteers were unable to reach the border. The section of road between Tbilisi and the Verkhny Lars border crossing was closed due to high risk of an avalanche.

Olga isn’t considering leaving Russia for Georgia. “They just want to kick us out! Come on, give me my document! I didn’t lose it myself,” she says. Olga is worried that, with her health, she wouldn’t make it through the long wait in the transit area, in the cellar. “If I go to Georgia and they don’t let me in... I’ll just have to die there. They won’t let me back into Russia either. I'm barred from entering Russia for ten years due to my criminal record.”

Although the court denied her release last time, Olga’s children and Olga herself hope that she will get a favourable ruling at the next hearing. The hearing will mark one year in the temporary detention centre for foreigners. She also can’t imagine how she’ll live in a country where she is still an “undesirable.”
“Come on, give me my document!”