April 22, 2024

The Registration Lady Can't be Stopped


The Registration Lady Can't be Stopped
Russian passports. The Russian Life files.

On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, migrants queue outside Tatyana Kotlyar's office in Obninsk, Kaluga Oblast, just 100 kilometers from Moscow. Kotlyar registers her office's address under her clients' names so they can access pensions, healthcare, and other essential services. Since the start of the war in Ukraine, the demand for her work has skyrocketed. Yet, the state has forbidden her from registering people until 2025 and has charged her with seven criminal counts.

When you are a migrant in Russia, officially registering at a address is not easy. Foreigners have only seven days to register with the Ministry of Interior. Landlords don't want to register their renters and contact the police. Russian passports cost R200,000 ($2,130). Fake registries cost thousands of rubles. But, Kotlyar registers migrants for free in her office at 2 Leypunskovo Street, Obninsk.

Kotlyar became involved in human rights activism during the eighties; the KGB raided her home in 1982. Yet in the nineties she went on to win multiple terms in the Obninsk City Assembly and the Kaluga Region's Assembly. Her son, Dmitry Neverovsky, was the only Russian conscript to refuse to fight in the war in Chechnya. In 2001, a year after his conviction for his conscientious objection was revoked, Kotlyar's son died in a fire that she suspects to have been deliberate.

Kotlyar has been assisting migrants in Russia for nearly 20 years. In 2014, a criminal case was opened against her for her work. Local newspapers published that she was more interested in helping migrants than her constituents, which made her lose in the 2015 local elections. Kotlyar was fined hundreds of thousands of rubles in 2017, 2018, 2020, 2022, 2023, and 2024 for "fictitious registration" of migrants. Yet, as Takie Dela points out, unlike migrants, Russian citizens are not fined for not living at their registered address.

The 72-year-old Kotlya has now helped over 10,500 migrants register since 2009. In 2023, she noticed migrants and refugees were being asked to sign a contract for military service to receive Russian citizenship. Men were even being told to enlist before registering their addresses. According to Kotlyar, such actions are illegal. 

Nikita Petrov, a Ukrainian refugee from Kharkiv, was told he would have to enlist to receive citizenship. So he ended up applying for a residency permit. Two Tajikistani citizens – Farrukh Tursunov, who has five children, and Abdurakhmon Inoyatov, who has health issues – were ineligible for military conscription. However, authorities tried to draft them anyway, forcing the men to leave the country.

Kotlyar said she has also noticed a rise in xenophobic rhetoric in Obninsk, a city with 30,000 migrants, which she blames on local politicians. She said the war in Ukraine has further intensified tensions in her region. Local newspapers have published mocking cartoons of Kotlyar and her work, but the laughs and the threats have not stopped her.

Despite being persecuted, the immigration advocate's biggest advice to migrants is to reach out to human rights activists and not to "sit, hiding under a broom."

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