Ljudmila Ulizkaja

Ljudmila Ulizkaja
Photo: Wikipedia

What does the term refugee mean to you?

Being a refugee is a status. Every person in this world can act in different roles: a local resident, an owner who has all the rights in his house, city, country, a guest, an exile, a stranger, a refugee... I belong to the people, who for two thousand years has never had a status of full citizenship, has not been an "owner" of the land on which they sometimes lived for several centuries, often going deep into the culture of the host country, but always awaiting the next exile. I haven't only thought about this topic - it is deeply felt by me.

Is flight from poverty less legitimate than flight from war or political oppression?

No, I do not. Every living thing, from a paramecium to an elephant, looks for the best place for its survival and reproduction. But the animal world is more heartless - if a creature can't feed itself and leave an offspring in a new place, then it dies. In nature there is no morality. Human society has morality. It should have it, at the very least, this is one of the characteristics that distinguishes a human being from an animal. Survival at the expense of others is surely a dubious affair and poverty also a relative term. In Ukraine, in 1932-1933 there was a famine, and barely alive people dragged themselves to areas not been affected by hunger - it was not an escape from poverty, but an escape from death. And this boundary is very significant. There is another aspect - an escape from poverty is closely associated both with war and with political oppression. It is very difficult to draw the line here.

And what about flight as a result of environmental problems?

From a volcanic eruption, a fire, a flood and a nuclear contamination of the land - definitely.

When does one cease to be a refugee?

When one accepts the rules of life of the host country, its laws, adapts to the new culture, is able to provide for oneself and the children. It is under these circumstances that one can become a full-fledged citizen of a new country.

Is there a natural right to asylum?

A person has the right to seek asylum, but a country has the right not to grant it. This relation should be at least symmetrical.

If yes: is this right unconditional, or can it be forfeited?

If a person is granted a citizenship, then he can forfeit it in accordance with the laws of the country. I lived in the Soviet Union and know about cases when the country's citizens were deprived of their citizenship and expelled for political reasons. There even invented special laws for this event...

Do you think that the number of refugees a society can absorb is limited?

This question is addressed by each individual country - how many refugees it can accept, so as not to destroy its social institutions. Of course, there are limits. But it is important to remember that with the rise of Hitler to power in 1938-39, Jews massively fled from Germany, bu, the European countries, the USA and Great Britain accepted them with great reluctance. On arrival many Jews were not allowed to enter a country (England accepted 10 thousand Jewish children without their parents in 1938-39, the United States - 85 thousand Jews, Switzerland - 30 thousand, while the same amount was left on the border and subsequently perished). This led to the fact that about 6 million Jews were killed in the gas chambers of Nazi Germany. And this, too, we must not forget today, when there are thousands of refugees accumulating on the borders. What awaits them in their countries? Poverty or death?

If yes: where do you draw the line, and why?

It's a great global problem, and I do not presume to solve it within three lines of an interview.

Are there privileged refugees in your country, i.e. refugees that are more welcome than others? If yes: why?

In the Soviet Union before the war there was quite a significant number of "runaway Communists". All the "Internationale" at some point settled in Moscow in the "Astria" hotel on Tverskaya Street. Later the majority of them died in the Gulag. Today we also know a number of political refugees in Russia - for example, the former president of Ukraine Yanukovich. Currently, there are some activists of the Donetzk People’s Republique and the Luhansk People’s Republique living in in Russia. By chance I found out from an acquaintance who is a real estate agent that one such gentleman has bought a very expensive apartment in Moscow. This is also a type of political immigration.

Do refugees in your country receive fair treatment?

Very cruel. They are ruthlessly exploited, housed in horrible conditions, sometimes employers take passports from these people who come in search for work, mostly from the Central Asia. But there are some social organizations trying to help them.

Would cuts in the social security system in your country be acceptable to you if they were to facilitate the absorption of more refugees?

No. But I would have easily agreed on cuts in the military budget. In times of peace we are spending enormous amounts on war which does great harm to society.

What are the requirements for successful integration?

- on the part of the refugees?
- on the part of the citizens of the host country?

These must be reciprocal commitments, elaborated in great detail by the hosting party: what do we commit to assist with, and what do you agree to comply to. Maybe even with the right to send them back refugees who fail complying to the laws of the host country.

Do you know any refugees personally?

Oh, sure. And more than once. I helped one Chechen family - when crossing the border through the humanitarian corridor they were shot at, and a five-year-old boy and his father were wounded. Now they live in Belgium. They called me a few times from there, everything is all right with them: they have learnt the language, are working. Now I have a woman from Uzbekistan helping me in the house, a wonderful, highly dignified woman, her eldest daughter already graduated from university in Moscow, the boy studies Medicine. We have a very warm relationship.

Do you actively support any refugees?

No. I don't belong to any of the organizations that are engaged in this.

How will the refugee situation in your country develop

a) over the next two years?

In the next two years, I do not foresee a large influx of refugees into Russia - refugees are heading to more financially stable and more humane countries like Germany or Sweden.

b) over the next two decades?

But in the next twenty years, I am afraid, many Russians will also be seeking asylum abroad. This quiet resettlement process of professionals capable of adapting to Western life has already begun, and not recently.

Can you imagine a world without refugees?

It always has been. Why would the world change so radically all of a sudden?

If yes: what does it take?

It will never happen.

Have you or your family ever been refugee?

I'm a Jew. For two thousand years my people have been a refugee nation. We have a huge experience in surviving. And we've paid a heavy price for this experience. And those six million that were murdered in the Holocaust is only the 20th century... And before there were lots of countries and lots of different persecutions. Even without the national culture, the language, the religion and having become a Russian writer I do not feel like a full-fledged citizen of the country that is my homeland. It's tragic, but it has very strong colors of life. Being an outcast, a refugee, an undesirable person is pretty difficult, but it also helps not to become spiritually lazy.

Do you think you will ever be a one?

Anyone can get into such a situation. And for various reasons. You know very well how many agents of the security services, how many millionaires and corrupt people have fled Russia? If I should ever become a refugee, it will most likely be for political reasons than for any other. In general, I don't like to make plans - in my experience, the more one works on them, the less they are likely to come true. I'm not getting ready for emigration. I am 73 years old, and I am much more concerned with moving beyond entirely different borders... This is where our last asylum is, the same for everybody.

How much “home” do you need?*

Every person who lived all his life on the same land is made up of this land's matter. We are all built out of this clay. All that is mine is with me.

*This question was taken from Max Frisch’s questionnaire concerning “heimat”.