Passing the border with Russia, in or out, leaves you with a stamp in your passport. The stamp is unique to the border crossing you passed through.* It can be Moscow’s Sherementovo airport or Saint Peterburg’s Pulkovo. When you travel to Crimea from Russia, however, you do not get a stamp – Crimea is seen as part of Russia. As for traveling to Russia by crossing the DNR-border, we also had to make do without a stamp.
It’s not allowed to film at the block post. Just a few hundred meters divide the positions of the Ukrainian army from the positions of the DPR army. This is the border crossing near the town of Debaltsevo. A place where less than a year ago a fierce battle was fought between the DPR and Ukraine forces resulting in capture of Debaltsevo by the Donetsk People’s Republic. The battle has been fought but the atmosphere is still tense. There are big concrete blocks, bunkers, sandbags and soldiers with Kalashnikovs standing on guard.
We would hear later about a woman that wanted to cross the contact line between the DPR and Ukraine. While doing so she was shot dead in between a DLPR and Ukrainian roadblock, supposedly by Ukrainian fire. Her body lay in no-man’s-land for several days before finally having been collected. The story was widely known in the area, but despite that, buses and cars were crossing every minute or so.
“All border crossings to Ukraine are located in ‘hot areas’. For example, in Zaitsevo, Marinka, Stanitsa Luganskaya.”, Yevgenia van Amerongen, owner of a travel company in Lugansk, explains. “There are two ways to go to Ukraine from the ‘Anti-Terrorism zone’: a legal one and a non-legal one.” In the first variant, it is needed to apply at Ukraine for the passage using a special website. However it’s only possible if one has a valid Ukrainian passport and it may be necessary to wait up till two weeks. “Only ‘pleasing Ukrainians’ can arrange for passage. If you are on a list of separatists, then you will not be allowed to pass. Consequently, the first legal variant is dangerous and not always possible.” **
The non-legal variant is traveling to Ukraine via Russia. “If a Ukrainian goes into Ukraine from Russian territory, then it’s legal. But if he comes to Ukraine from the territory of the LPR or DPR it is not legal.” Traveling via Russia means that a Ukrainian needs a valid domestic or foreign passport***. If due to war someone lost his or her passport or never owned one in the case of a child, then it is impossible to travel to Ukraine. This is also the case if the picture inside someone’s passport has not been refreshed at 25 or 45 years of age.
Ukraine sees crossing the border from Russia to the DLPR and to Crimea as a violation of its territorial integrity. Ukraine has therefore enforced penalties for crossing its border without permission. A famous example is when singer Yulia Samoilova was denied entry to Ukraine for traveling to Crimea without Ukraine’s permission. Samoilova was therefore not able to participate in the Eurovision Song Festival on behalf of Russia. (1) More recently Willy Wimmer, former Parliamentary state secretary of defence in German parliament, was banned entry to Ukraine for a period of five years. The reason was visiting Crimea via Russian territory. (2)
Ukrainians living in Donbass that want to travel to Ukraine are faced with similar problems. Van Amerongen explains what happens to a person going from Donbass to Ukraine via Russia. “If Russian customs gives this person a stamp in his passport upon entering Russian, then Ukrainian customs will punish this person with a fine of 1700 Hryvnias (57 euros) for illegally crossing the border.” One should remember that this sum is about equal to the average monthly wage in Donetsk.
Recently, the situation concerning DLPR citizens traveling abroad has somewhat changed. In February, the Russian Federation has recognized most official documents from the DNR, including passports. This means that those citizens owning a DPR or LPR passport are able to travel to Russia. Children that never owned a foreign passport before, or those people who lost their passports are now able at travel at least to Russia.
A line of trucks and cars signals the upcoming border crossing between Russia and DNR. “Normally it’s not that busy here”, our cab driver tells us. “It’s because of the holiday season.” Crossing the border, our passports were checked, vehicles inspected, asked what we would do in Donetsk. When it all checked out we were let through. We were in a different country all right, but the Russian border guards spared us a stamp in our passports.
*Please note: if you want to travel to Russia for the first time: remember to get a visa as well.
**An example of someone fearing to be on such a list is Elena, from an earlier article. She admitted not traveling to Ukraine for several years.
***In Ukraine and Russian there are two passports: a domestic passport and a foreign passport. In the case of traveling to Russia, a Ukrainian citizen can use either of them.