Russian Dissenters Are Helping Ukrainians Escape Putin’s War

Russia is a different place for dissidents. It should. Protesters are arrested for criticizing Vladimir Putin’s government. Prisons can enact fortress protocols to keep inmates from the outside world under certain circumstances, such as mass protests or arrests. Detainees are not allowed to speak with lawyers or police. Common allegations include threats, torture, and psychological pressure.

For Kultrab — a punk art fashion collective based in Russia — dissent is sometimes cynical, often underhanded. It’s hard to shop their online store without smiling — rainbow band tube socks with “FREE ROSSIA” on one band and “PUSSY RIOT” on the other, “Eat the Rich” on the heels. A pink butterfly vulva mask is available for the pandemic. A coffee mug with a child’s drawing of a smiling sun and orange flowers, “Fuck it” scribbled across the top. A long-sleeve Leotard with an index finger extending from the blurred hand telling you to be still. We are muted. You are muted. This is Russian dissent.

“Putin destroyed the independent press,” Alina Muzychenko, cofounder of Kultrab, says. “So we make our political message through branding.”

Since February 24, 2022 more than 13,000 people were arrested in Russia as a result of protests over the war in Ukraine. This is not a new trend. In January and February of 2021, 11,000 Russians were arrested for protesting the detention of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny when he returned to Russia after being poisoned, which Navalny’s supporters and United Nations rights experts say was the Russian government’s doing. Egor Eremeev, cofounder of Kultrab was taken into custody after he asked police whether it was safe to cross the street. Eremeev managed smuggle a cell-phone into the jail, and recorded the conditions. Detainees tell of being tortured. They are kept in custody by the police, but protesters still show up.

Russians were familiar with fortress protocols and believed open dissent. They understood that Putin would attempt to make Russia a fortress. They saw martial laws on the horizon. Censorship. Mass arrests.

Over 200,000 people are estimated to have left RussiaSince Putin invaded Ukraine. Many of them fled in disobedience. They saw the Russian fortress stretching to Ukraine. Convoys of tanks, artillery and personnel carriers driven by Putin’s aggression.

Muzychenko & Eremeev are two of those self-exiled Russians. Eremeev, however, is Belarusian. They moved to Georgia from Russia.

Muzychenko recalls the chaos of arriving in Georgia: “The first day, we’re all crying. All these people, they’re screaming, it couldn’t be reality. It felt like Putin was manipulating the situation, but it was real. Then the second day, our group, we ask ourselves, ‘Okay, what can we do?’”

Many Russians who have left Russia are artists, creative directors and marketers. They are activists, too.

Putin could exert himself on Ukraine, Muzychenko and Eremeev thought, and they could help Ukrainians escape. Their effort — Helping to Leave — started with three volunteers, Muzychenko, Eremeev and Yulia Lutikova, a 19-year-old Russian artist who moved to Tbilisi a year ago. Telegram allows Helping To Leave to collect information from news sources, warzone maps, and Ukrainians using the app. This information is used to provide up-to-date, safe information to Ukrainians who suddenly find themselves in a conflict zone.

Lutikova began collecting the information and publishing it the same day Russia invaded Ukraine. Muzychenko joined Eremeev the next day.

Helping to Leave’s Telegram-based network has grown rapidly. In the beginning, donors and volunteers were mostly Russians. “Our first donation was from Russia. The Russians feel so ashamed and helpless that they were eager to donate,” Muzychenko explains.

Russian dissenters have begun displaying a white-blue-white flag — Russia’s flag without the red stripe. Emma Volodchinskaia, a Los Angeles-based volunteer, adds, “We take the blood off the Russian flag.”

Helping to Leave raised more than $30,000 in its first week. It grew from three volunteers to more than 300. Most of these people now live in Georgia, Poland and Romania. There are over 90,000 members across their Telegram channels — from Ukrainians needing help to strangers offering help. The chats are constantly updated and information flows quickly. While it may seem chaotic watching the discussion threads expand, it is actually a highly coordinated effort.

Volunteers must undergo five hours training before they can work on the message boards. Users go to the website and follow the prompts to complete an automated survey. This will then direct them to a volunteer who will help them on their journey. Are they safe? Are they alone? Do they have pets or children? Do they need medication, food, or clothes to get them started? Supervisors do basic research by pulling information from active message board boards and then forward it to a fact checker.

Updates to maps, local contacts, and stations for bus and train travel must be done around the clock. A place that appears safe from Russian bombardment may soon be under Russian fire. A shelter that is empty could fill up. A maternity ward might be destroyed.

Volodchinskaia explains, “We can’t give them bad information. They will die. We know which street the bomb shelters are situated. We know who’s giving out food. Medicine is hard. It’s very difficult. It’s impossible. But we find it.” The supervisors and fact-checkers — including supervisor Lutikova — are tasked with tracking down resources and then validating them.

“I’m always staying here [on the message boards]. I did everything on my phone for the first five days. It was very hard,” Lutikova says.

“She didn’t use a computer! [They] are always on their phones,” Muzychenko jokes.

“I’m using the computer now. I wrote a letter to President Zelenskyy,” Lutikova laughs. “Maybe I’m… naivnyy?”

“Naive,” Muzychenko says.

Lutikova continues, “I’m writing to him, he needs to accept a ceasefire. Talk it out. The people in the shelter won’t last forever. But I’m still trying to help them even in occupied territory. I’m making them hold on to hope. I’m hoping, and I’m making them hope, a moment will open up to help them leave.”

Many Ukrainians who use Telegram to communicate with their loved ones are stressed and in need of help. They often get little information from their shelters, which is often outdated and useless. This is the fog.

“To know that there are thousands of people donating to help them, it gives each person a new sense of hope,” Lutikova says. “They can’t believe it.”

While hope is not easy to find in war, it does exist. Muzychenko, for example, recalled a single comment on the main messageboard that caught her attention. In a stream of endless comments, a young woman had simply typed: “help me to leave.” Lutikova reached out. The young woman, Sofiy (name changed for health information privacy), was trying to flee Kharkiv, one of Ukraine’s hardest-hit cities. Sofiy got stuck in a small village on her way to Kherson. Muzychenko reached to Sofiy to find a driver. Sofiy was able to get out. The thread was then filled with news about a bombed bus that was on her evacuation route. There were only two survivors. Helping to leave recommended Sofiy to stay in the village. It was too dangerous to flee. Sofiy wanted to escape war. Her family fled Donetsk eight years ago when war broke out between Russia and Ukraine. Sofiy tried to flee her small village by finding her own vehicle. Sofiy witnessed Russian troops shooting a man in line for a bus when they reached an evacuation point. Sofiy returned to the village and was again stuck. She refused to leave. Helping to Leave created a support chat with Sofiy. It included a psychologist and four volunteers who helped her work through her PTSD. This kept her focused on surviving the war-torn village.

“It’s like a video game where you have to get the hero to safety, but there’s no second life. You can’t make a mistake,” Muzychenko says.

The constantly changing situation inside Ukraine makes the job hard enough, but misinformation and abuse in the message boards raises the stakes — fake phone numbers, fake addresses, a steady stream of threats against the users and moderators. Verifying the identities and locations of users is as important as checking curfews and evacuation routes. Trolls and malicious users are explicitly banned from the chats. Lutikova sometimes messages trolls directly to inform them that they could get somebody killed.

Reading through the message boards, I follow a link to “Fully furnished home, sleeps five, no charge.” Google Maps takes me to the ruins of an old estate, a historic landmark, totally uninhabitable. The link is not available when I try to take screenshots. Helping to Leave’s supervisors are very good at removing bad information.

Ukrainians actively ask for updates from members who have followed the group’s advice, and Helping to Leave has devoted an entire chat to this. They want to share information about what to expect and to show that no two experiences are the same. The majority of users describe the trip out of Ukraine, but not their experience in the new place. Although there is hope for the future, it is important to temper expectations with harsh reality. There are no guarantees that evacuations will be successful. In some cases, people have had to delay evacuating because they missed the curfew for humanitarian corridors, or because there was not enough space in their private cars. People may be restricted in what luggage they can carry (if any), and may need to obtain paperwork for their children. Pets may also be required. Some users believe that evacuation is impossible, but that Helping to Leave’s information has kept them safe.

As Putin’s fortress encloses Russia and bleeds into Ukraine, blocking truth and spreading death, the defiance of the Russian and Belarusian expat dissenters shines through.

“This is Putin’s war,” Muzychenko says, emphasizing that it is not the will of the Russian people she knows.

Despite Putin’s ruthlessness, the activists prioritize hope.

Lutikova believes in the power of hope. “I believe in a bright future. [I]Want the world to rebuild the entire country [of Ukraine] — for the people to get back to their homes, their apartments, their jobs.”

Since February 24, 2022 the Helping To Leave program has assisted in the evacuation of more than 7,000 Ukrainian citizens. It takes selflessness to make evacuation efforts work. Volunteers work 20 hours a days on the project, while others provide out-of-pocket financial aid to evacuees. Volunteers get invested in their cases and keep in touch with some evacuees once they’ve made it out of the country. The dedication of Helping to Leave’s volunteers to the preservation of life amid the chaos of war is hope in the purest sense. After six weeks of war, and counting, hope is the only thing that can save lives.

Helping to leave is seeking Russian/Ukrainian speaking volunteers who will aid in its efforts. They receive hundreds upon hundreds of aid requests every day.