Meet the Russians helping Ukrainians stranded in Russia

Many Ukrainians have fled the war to Russia itself, where they need help finding housing, work and schools – or leaving the country

While Russia’s military has decimated Ukrainian towns and cities, killing thousands in its attempt to take control of the country, some residents in the Russian city of St Petersburg are helping refugees fleeing Ukraine.

After making their way under Russian bombs and through the Russian military’s so-called ‘filtration camps’, Ukrainians require assistance in their new temporary, forced shelter in Russia.

Russian volunteers meet the refugees at railway stations, host them in their apartments, help them find medicine and clothes – as well as housing and work. Others accompany people to the border of a neighboring EU country such as Estonia or Finland and help them (and their pets!) obtain the necessary documents to exit the country. According to the UN, 1.1 million Ukrainians have fled to Russia.

Russian volunteers who are not supported financially by the state use online chats to coordinate responses. It is strictly forbidden to discuss politics, news from the front, or to reply to those trying to start a conversation on the war in these chats. Volunteers can be arrested for making a mistake or saying something that could lead to chats being shut down. Many volunteers have connections to protest and opposition circles where imprisonments are common.

Volunteers are also subject to criticism from many sides, including the threat of police investigation. Russians who have left the country accuse them of ‘collaborating’ with the Kremlin – e.g. by accepting the consequences of the invasion, while Russians who support the war claim volunteers are ‘betraying Russia’s national interests’ by ‘helping the enemy’. Equally, there has been criticism from Ukrainians, who say the volunteers have failed, as a part of Russian society, to stop Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine, and that they are now just trying to make amends with ‘handouts’.

Open Democracy, an independent media outlet based in the UK spoke to several Russian volunteers about how they do their work. The interviews were conducted by journalist Natalia Shkurenok, and are published below.

A total of 1.1 million Ukrainian refugees fled Ukraine in search of Russia. Image: Nextvoyage

Sasha Krylenkova is a human rights activist

The first few weeks after the war began were difficult morally. It was difficult to understand what was happening and what to do. All that changed was quickly reversed.

For many years, I lived in Crimea. [documenting human rights violations]I was able to help a group of Crimean Tatars with a variety of problems at a local hospital. I became acquainted with many Ukrainians and slowly began to know them. [after the Russian invasion]People began to contact me asking if I could help them to leave Russia for Europe. I started to help. I’m a lawyer and can provide legal advice.

On Russian social media, volunteer groups started to form. Some formed to support temporary accommodation centres. [set up by the authorities, to house Ukrainians]Others were more concerned with the logistics of moving [Ukrainians]Russia and abroad

I help to buy tickets and get people on a train if there’s no help available at the station

Now, I help people move and get documents. I either transport people myself, or help with logistics to transport individuals or groups – for example, a person who cannot walk or a large family. I help to buy tickets and get people on a train if there’s no help available at the station.

Many more refugees are now available than in 2008, compared to eight years ago. The volunteer network is now much more serious – it has more people and a better structure.

One unexpected problem is that Ukraine has a highly developed digital system of official documents, whereas Russian officials don’t digitise much. Russians love paper. Even if a Ukrainian family has digital copies of all their documents, they can’t get any documents in Russia and can’t travel anywhere. This is when volunteers take over – we transport people, help them get at least a few certificates.

If someone does not have any documents, the only option is to obtain a certificate from Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs that confirms their identity as a citizen of another country. This certificate will allow them to leave Russia. People are often told to wait three months. We are trying to help people find housing, work, or some type of short-term financial assistance.

Russian volunteers help Ukrainian refugees flee Russia by navigating public transport. Peter Herrmann

Natalia Prokofieva, IT specialist

Right now, I drive Ukrainian refugees into Ivangorod on the border to Estonia. As I have several rooms in my apartment, I can host people. I have a large car, so I can transport people with their bags.

Volunteers in St Petersburg set up a chat group for coordination, and that’s where I look for tasks, to see what I can do. I believe that people need the most basic things, peace and quiet. When you ask Ukrainians, ‘What do you need?’, they say first, ‘Take us to a place where it is quiet, peaceful.’

I still remember a young Ukrainian woman who stayed beside me and kept asking me not closing the curtains. She had spent three weeks in subway. [sheltering from bombs], did not go outside, and now kept saying to me – don’t draw the curtains! Now, we are trying help another Ukrainian woman find work in the city. I’ve asked all my friends to help.

I constantly think about what is happening in Ukraine, you can’t abstract yourself from the situation

Anyone who is going through this horrible story needs to volunteer their help. [the war]It’s very hard to feel guilty or responsible for what happened. I try to involve all my friends. They were captivated by the horrible news from Ukraine up until recently. It was a vicious circle of watching TV and feeling guilty. Now they’re helping refugees and their life has some sort of meaning – one of my friends bakes pies for refugees, another looks for accommodation, a third takes people to Ivangorod.

I constantly think about what is happening in Ukraine, you can’t abstract yourself from the situation. I am not trying to rehabilitate the Russian state, I’m just helping. We help everyone – both those who are staying in Russia, and those who want to leave. If they are unhappy with the state and want to leave, we must do everything possible to help them.

This is the first time I’ve volunteered actively. I got involved because we haven’t had this kind of situation before, and I’ve never felt personally responsible for something like this before. Volunteering, in part, probably, is an attempt to make amends – for not declaring my position before.

Many Ukrainians fled to Russia in desperate times. Image: Marjan Blan Marjanblan

Tatyana Orestova, teacher

German teachers are my specialty. I have many former students now living in Europe, in particular Germany. I was able to help the Ukrainian refugees who needed it. We found technical support and a tow truck for one woman – she was driving in Bavaria, the car stalled, and we helped her fix the car. Half of Hamburg donated clothes and other goods to a woman I knew from Ukraine. We helped her settle in. I don’t know if this is called volunteering, I call it networking.

My main task now, as I see it, is to help people integrate into the life that they’ve found themselves in against their will, and that they will have to continue living for a while – to work, earn money, get children into school, acquire a circle of acquaintances.

I was recently asked by Iryna (a Ukrainian woman from Mariupol) to help her. She is a conductor. She doesn’t want to be a burden to anyone, she wants to make her own money. Friends offered to help her with a CV. She has students now. She was even invited to be a teacher replacement in a music school for one week to help prepare children to perform at an upcoming concert.

But then more complex problems arise – for example, with children’s education. There are many Mariupol refugee kids who studied in their native Ukrainian but are now being tested in Russian. [as part of the process of joining a school]. As a result, their scores are low and they are placed in a class with a grade or more lower than they should. This creates even more stress. Here’s where we can help: There are always students who want to be successful. [Russian-language]While tutors are essential, it is also important that you find people who can afford this work. Now we’ll ask for help online to find sponsors.

This article is published under Creative Commons license. The original versionappeared on Open Democracy.

Main image: iStock

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