Russia Moves to Expropriate Homes in Occupied Regions

Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians left behind apartments and homes in territory that has since been annexed by Russia. The occupying forces are now "nationalizing" many properties – and some Ukrainians are also illegally selling their homes.

Since spring began, Tatyana has often found herself thinking about her garden, her parcel of dark-colored soil in a village in southeastern Ukraine. At this time of year, she would usually have crocuses in her flowerbed, as well as daffodils, tulips and irises, the Ukrainian says. She planted the fruit trees together with her husband, who has since passed away: apples, pears, cherries, apricots and peaches. "I remember every flower, every tree that I planted," says Tatjana, who asked that her real name not be used for this story. A year and a half has passed since she last saw her house and yard.

Vladimir Putin's troops captured Tatyana's home village near the city of Melitopol in the Zaporizhzhia region right at the start of the invasion more than two years ago. Tatyana, who worked in the village administration at the time, says she didn't want to serve the occupiers. "They then came into my house, questioned me for a long time and searched everything," she says. Out of caution, Tatyana makes phone calls using an encrypted messenger service.

Not long after the occupiers visited her home, Tatyana fled with her mother, who requires care, to Ukrainian-controlled territory. The two women now live in a rented apartment in the regional capital of Zaporizhzhia. Tatyana left the keys to her home, the little house with four rooms that her parents-in-law once built, to a friend. The woman was to check in on the building every now and then.

One day she alerted Tatyana that Russians had driven up to the property with a car. Tatyana says her friend hasn't dared to go back ever since. "Because then the Russians sawed off all the locks and moved into my house." She heard from neighbors that the men living in her furnished home worked in traffic enforcement.

A Registry of "Owner-Less" Properties

Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians had to leave their homes, apartments, stores, gardens and fields behind when they fled from the Russian invaders. Russia quickly distributed properties that were attractive or at least undamaged among its own people.

Abandoned workshops, stores and cafés were handed over to new operators loyal to the Kremlin. Soldiers, civil servants and construction workers moved into empty apartments and houses. In occupied cities like Mariupol, Melitopol and Enerhodar, residents have reported that entire families have moved in from Russia – into the fully furnished apartments of Ukrainian families.

Now, Moscow apparently wants to give the criminal expropriation in the four newly annexed regions of Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson a pseudo-legal veneer. At the beginning of April, Russian media reported that the "new regions" were planning "laws" for the "nationalization" of "owner-less property." Real estate and companies were also nationalized on the Crimean peninsula, which was annexed in 2014, including an apartment that reportedly belonged to the family of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

The law on nationalization in the Luhansk region was passed at the end of March. Leaders there claim to have identified 22,000 "owner-less apartments and houses" whose owners have allegedly not paid any utility fees since Russia's first invasion of Ukraine in 2014. In the neighboring Donetsk region, which includes the destroyed city of Mariupol, the occupying forces are said to have classified 30,000 properties as "owner-less."

In Tatyana's homeland, the Zaporizhzhia region, the occupiers are collecting addresses. New "owner-less" apartments and houses appear almost daily in an online register operated by the administration. Place by place, street by street, the occupying forces are staking their territory. It is clear that these lists also include "the homes of people who work subversively against our residents and our state," explained Nikolai Pastushenko, a collaborator from the Zaporizhzhia regional parliament. It sounds as if the expropriation is intended to punish rebellious Ukrainians.

For her part, Tatyana has the impression that this was indeed true in her case.

Unpaid Utility Bills

In the Luhansk region, the occupying forces justified the expropriation on the grounds that the utility companies that supply water, electricity and heat could no longer go without the utility payments from the the abandoned apartments. They also claimed living space was needed since there were too few hotels. A specially appointed commission in Luhansk is supposed to determine whether an apartment is actually "owner-less." The owners are then to be given deadlines to make a claim on their property.

In reality, though, there is nothing that Ukrainians who have fled can do to legally protect their property.

Tatyana tried. A few months after she moved out, her friend found a note on Tatyana's front door. The occupiers had demanded that she report to them and present property documents. Tatyana says she duly made copies, which she then submitted to them. "But my friend was told that I had to appear in person," she says. That was out of the question for Tatyana. "They could have me arrested if I return."

Tatyana says that her daughter tried to have the documents notarized at a Russian consulate abroad. She says that's what the occupation administrators suggested. But her daughter was told at the consulate that Ukrainian documents could not be notarized. "What they are doing is even illegal under Russian law," says Tatyana. She then exchanged e-mails with the occupiers and sent everything she had in terms of proof, but all to no avail. In the end, she gave up and reported the loss of her house and property to the Ukrainian police.

Another family from a small town in the Zaporizhzhia region reported that they weren't even asked for documents before the Russians moved in. A close relative who wanted to get some of the family's personal belongings from the apartment was threatened by the occupiers. The family of four who fled to Germany not only lost the apartment they had been living in, but also a second one they had rented out as well as the wife's clothing boutique. "I'm 40 now," says the woman, "and I have to start again from scratch." She has little hope of getting her property back or being adequately compensated.

A Legal Dilemma

For many of the refugees from the occupied territories, their apartments and homes were their only security and savings. That's why some Ukrainians are now trying to sell their property despite everything. But how and to who? And what is the legality of those transactions?

Notary Olena Syerova in Kyiv receives many inquiries from desperate refugees. Her answers are also sobering. The sale of real estate in the occupied territory to Russian citizens is illegal under Ukrainian law. In most cases, the sales fail because the necessary certificates are located in the occupied territory and cannot be obtained, says Syerova. Russia also doesn't recognize business transactions with the Ukrainians. "You can't sell your property there or do anything with it without a permanent residence permit from the Russian Federation or a passport from the Russian Federation," says the notary. This is confirmed by checklists that real estate agents in Mariupol publish on social media. There is always mention of a Russian passport.

After 2014, it was still possible for Ukrainians to carry out real estate transactions in the occupied "People's Republics" of Donetsk and Luhansk, the notary explains. But she says things have been different since the annexation in violation of international law. "This subject is painful for everyone," Syerova admits. She says the only thing she can do is inform people of the legal situation. In the end, she says, everyone has to decide for themselves. If people need money, she says, then they sell according to Russian law. And it's a risky business. It's possible that even sellers could be held legally liable in the future. "Ukraine will never recognize these contracts," she says.

A Booming Market

The notary says she doesn't want to explain how an apartment can be sold illegally. Syerova emphasizes that she doesn't handle such transactions herself. Instead, Ukrainian TV journalist Nikolai Ossychenko reports on the booming real estate market in the Donetsk region, which is primarily driven by advertisements on the Telegram messenger service. Ossychenko comes from the city of Donetsk and fled to Mariupol 10 years ago when his home town was occupied by the Russians. He now lives in the area around Kyiv. Ossychenko says he addresses residents of the occupied Donbas on TikTok once a week. "Some people call me a traitor, but others tell me straight up what's going on there now," he says.

Ossychenko, who is 44 years old and wears thick glasses, is driving towards Donbas while talking into his mobile phone over the roar of the engine. He explains how the sale of apartments and homes belonging to Ukrainian owners is carried out using forged documents via straw men. He says they are Russians or Ukrainians who have taken on Russian citizenship. He says the actual owner receives at most 60 percent of the sale price, because he or she has to pay the straw man and all others involved in the illegal transaction. "The notaries, realtors and civil servants are making huge profits from this," Ossytschenko says. The profits are even greater when, especially in Mariupol, apartments are sold by dead people who can no longer demand any money.

But who wants to buy apartments and houses in a war zone anyway? On the one hand, there are Russians who sense a good opportunity for a summer home on the Sea of Azov. On the other, locals were looking for new accommodations with a better quality of life: In large parts of the city of Donetsk, running water has been intermittent at best for the last several years, says Ossychenko. The apartments in Donetsk and the surrounding area, meanwhile, were of interest to military personnel sent from Moscow, who had even worse living conditions back at home in the Russian provinces.

The Ukrainian government has not yet commented on the issue of the property sales. The country wants to recapture the territories – and not further complicate the situation afterward. However, Petro Andryushchenko, an adviser to the ousted mayor of Mariupol who has since become prominent, encouraged his compatriots to sell at the end of February. "If you have the opportunity, do it," the politician wrote on Telegram. "I would happily sell my apartment in Mariupol to the Russians without hesitation," he continued.

When approached for comment, Andryushchenko is somewhat more reserved. He says that he wouldn't be able to sell his own apartment because he is too well known. He says he also doesn't want to set a public precedent of breaking the law. But if companies from the European Union, such as the German plaster manufacturer Knauf, continued to do business with the Russians, it would be difficult to explain to the Ukrainians who had fled why they, of all people, should not be allowed to do so as well.


With additional reporting by Katja Lutska