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“It’s those who are against war that have to deal with its consequences”. How volunteers help Ukrainian refugees in Russia

Russians who don't support the war don't have a lot of ways to help Ukrainians without ending up behind bars. One way is volunteering. When a flood of refugees entered the country, the government provided them with accommodation and food, but most of the everyday issues had to be solved by ordinary people – from providing clothes and jobs to refugees to helping refugees to leave the aggressor country. Volunteers told The Insider there are few people among volunteers who support the war and help from pro-government activists often feels humiliating; they explain how they manage to stay motivated as some refugees genuinely thank Putin for liberating them.

  • «By helping refugees we restore our broken ties with Ukrainians and with one another»

  • «After talking to those who wanted to stay, I decided that I would help those who wanted to leave»

  • «A lot of people have seen terrible things, but they are grateful to Russia. It is very demotivating»

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«By helping refugees we restore our broken ties with Ukrainians and with one another»

Pauline Lurie, a volunteer from a town in central Russia

My first reaction to Russia going to war was that the government was about to collapse. But when I saw the number of people supporting what was happening, I realized it was more complicated than that.

I started waiting for refugees to help and understand what was really going on in Ukraine. The first ones arrived at the end of March. My friend and I went to the temporary refugee shelter (TRS) and talked to a family from the Donetsk region. The picture of the world broadened: the two women assured us that the Russians were saviors, although they were sorry for the people who were dying under bombs.

In mid-April, several hundred residents of Mariupol and other cities in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions were brought in. Any assistance had to be coordinated with a United Russia representative. In order to avoid crossing paths with UR, I gave the necessary items to the Ukrainians and arranged for them to gather contacts from their neighbors. After calling the first families, we realized what people needed. I wrote a post on social media about helping every person. By that time the “humanitarian aid” collected from city residents was lying in unsorted piles, and some of it already in trash cans. Several people responded: some decided to help the families, while others transferred money.

It turned out that any assistance must be coordinated with United Russia

Volunteers now help refugees with health care issues, essential household items and employment opportunities; they arrange additional education for children, get involved in searching for relatives and organize relocation to other cities. We opened a storeroom, where Ukrainians can pick things they need. Local companies are involved in helping: they provide laptops, phones, basic necessities, clothing, food, bicycles, household items, and dental care.

With the money collected in the fund we buy medicines, medical equipment, shoes, underwear and clothes. We are happy with what we collect from individuals. Money for transfers to other cities, medical examinations, wheelchairs, hearing aids, eyeglasses with complex lenses and sphygmomanometers can be collected in a day. Some of the problems are also solved with the help of the local authorities: for example, refugees are given public transport passes and children can rest in a country camp.

People are different. Bright and aggressive, modest and demanding, open-minded and manipulative. A great deal of them are capable of having decent relations with the volunteers. People who are difficult to deal with require much more effort. Most of those who came to our city did not have higher education, they had worked in factories, as salesmen, conductors. Perhaps those who had had access to information, more money and self-confidence abandoned everything and left in the early days, heading west.

Those who had had access to information and more money left Ukraine at the beginning of the war, heading west

Those who waited for the “liberators” were less mobile and more pro-Russian, even pro-Soviet. There were many elderly people who were nostalgic for the Soviet Union. All were Russian-speaking. Ukrainian was difficult for them. The reason why people do not want to go to European countries is that they do not know foreign languages.

Many people want to stay in Russia. Most of them in our city. They get a job here, start a new life. Some move to other cities where they get paid more. After Mariupol was occupied, there were those who wanted to come back to check their houses, to confirm their rights to their real estate, to check on their relatives. We help with that as well. Two families left for Europe with our help.

It took people months before they started to get over the shock. In the first days, we saw the grey, hard faces of people driven into a strange city. Now they are letting go, but in different ways. The more active ones are already working, renting homes, thinking about mortgages. There are those who want to stay in the TRS as long as possible, without getting a job. Some withdraw into apathy, begin to drink.

There are almost a hundred people who’ve personally helped Ukrainians. About a thousand people have been donating money, bringing things, fixing equipment and helping with transportation. They keep up their work. More and more new volunteers join us every time we call for help. Most of them are young people aged under 40 years who perceive the war as a personal pain. Helping refugees is the only way to make it go away, to come to one’s senses.

Helping refugees is the only way to make the pain go away somehow

Volunteers' sincere desire to help their charges at all costs makes us look for new ways to support refugees. We have produced merchandise, held city charity events. We are helping refugees by arranging stage performances, lectures, poetry readings, volleyball tournaments, and book sales. Looking at what's happening in our city, I believe Russia has a future. By helping refugees, we restore our faith in ourselves, restore broken ties with Ukrainians and with one another.

«After talking to those who wanted to stay, I decided that I would help those who wanted to leave»

Nadezhda Kolobaeva, a volunteer in St. Petersburg, drives refugees to the EU border

In the first days of the war there was chaos, no one here in Russia knew how to help, how to stop it. I went to all the anti-war rallies. Despite the law on fakes, I decided I was going to write everything I thought on social media, just to stop myself from exploding, from gnawing off my hand, from tormenting my loved ones, from turning my inner anger on them. And then a classmate wrote, “Take up volunteering, it will help you, otherwise you will devour yourself.” He told me about “We Help You to Leave,” which is a chat room that helps Ukrainians to migrate deeper inside the country or abroad. The main thing you can do from Russia is to help informationally: arranging logistics, finding volunteers, selecting routes, ordering buses, shuttle vans, train tickets.

I registered, and they sent me links to Moscow and St. Petersburg chats where they discussed how to help those who were leaving the occupied territories to go to Europe or back to Ukraine via Russia. At the time, Ukrainians were unaware of the existence of that chat room. By chance, word got around through word of mouth that someone had managed to leave. The arrangement evolved for some time, took shape and structure, and now it is a community of volunteers who can offer any assistance and help refugees to travel abroad. You can either help buy tickets or take a refugee by car from Moscow, St. Petersburg or nearby cities to the border, or help in any other way. I chose to transport refugees from St. Petersburg to Ivangorod by car.

Refugees from Ukraine on the Russian-Estonian border
Refugees from Ukraine on the Russian-Estonian border

Sometimes I organized the arrival of refugees on a turnkey basis: they would call me from Mariupol, I would tell them how to get to Russia, I would buy tickets from the temporary refugee accommodation center, where they stayed, to St. Petersburg. I would meet them there and drive them to Ivangorod, where I would hand them over to Rubikus volunteers, an international organization that helps Ukrainian refugees all over the world. Normally, people from our chat room would chip in to buy tickets for refugees to travel from their temporary accommodation center to St. Petersburg or Moscow. Then we would meet them at the train station and take them to the border. It's most convenient to travel to St. Petersburg, because from there it's just 2 hours 15 minutes to the border. They would cross the border, and then Estonian volunteers would meet them and help them get to their final destination.

There are people who concentrate on helping those who want to stay. After talking to those who wanted to stay, I decided I would help those who wanted to leave. In mid-May I learned that there were people among the refugees who wanted to stay in Russia forever. It was a real shock for me. I couldn't believe that a person whose country had just been bombed, who had been robbed of his home, his belongings, his car, sometimes his relatives, friends, acquaintances, who had seen death - would come to a country that was bombing him and say, “I want to stay here forever.” To me, this is equivalent to a Jew from Palestine immigrating to Germany in 1939 saying, “I want to stay here. I know German and I will live here.” I consider them crazy (may they forgive me). Those are people who survived bombings, mostly from Mariupol - they come here, there’s no bombing here, their bodies tell them: “All right, there’s no bombing here, leave me alone.”

After talking to those who wanted to stay, I decided that I would help those who wanted to leave

The second category of people, which is probably the smallest, is people who support the idea of the Russian world. One woman, when the volunteers started apologizing to her for Russia's genocide in Ukraine, said: “What are you talking about? I am ready to kiss the feet of the mothers of all Russian soldiers for freeing me.” Basically those people stay in temporary refugee accommodation centers, and they really believe that the Russian army came to Ukraine to liberate them. I mean, yes, there were excesses on the ground in the form of bombings, but they believe it was mostly the AFU who bombed, that only the Nazis and Banderaites were to blame, and they fully share Russia’s propaganda viewpoint for just one reason - they speak only Russian and have been watching Russian TV all their lives. They don't speak Ukrainian and have never watched Ukrainian channels or read Ukrainian websites, and they say, “Thank you, warriors-liberators, those Nazi bitches shelled us and now we are without homes.”

The third category is elderly people who do not know any foreign language, they speak only Russian, they are terribly afraid of Europe. They share exactly the same Russian prejudice, formed by Russian propaganda, that there is a “Gayrope” and “they hate us,” “Russia is waging a war against NATO.” These are people who are also full of propaganda, they don’t think the Russian world has liberated them, they understand everything, but they also understand that in Europe they wouldn’t be able to assimilate, they have no one there, and it seems to them that in a Russian-speaking environment the atmosphere is kind of friendly for them.

By the way, after speaking with refugees I understood that our system of volunteering is also to blame. They have an illusion that they end up in a friendly environment and they don't realize there are millions of them and only 20,000 of those who are ready to help them and, as a rule, those people are acting against the powers-that-be. They are in contact with people who will provide them with clothes and shoes in 15 minutes and will offer them tea and warmth. They do feel that the atmosphere here is as benevolent as possible.

In the TAC they have no opportunity to talk with pro-Russian citizens, who would offer them their own views shaped by Russian propaganda - they don't see the Z symbols posted all over the cities. They really have the illusion that there are people here who are willing to help them. Russia bombed them and deprived them of their homes, but here they will be helped.

Finally, the most common category of people who stay are those who think that Western countries are overcrowded now, and they're right about that, they only speak Russian and so they wouldn’t be able to find jobs there. And they want to work and get their lives back on track, to live in some kind of a house, not a cabin or a gym. It seems to them that in Russia they will earn more than in Ukraine. The latter, by the way, is a very common misconception. Everyone I drove from the border said that prior to 2014 they had the illusion that Russia would come tomorrow, and wages would grow fivefold, right the next day. And then Russia came to Donbas, and wages didn't grow fivefold, but prices did quintuple.

Russia came to Donbass, and wages didn't grow fivefold, but prices quintupled

It seems to me that everyone I meet and bring to the border is a notch on my body, a visible scar. As I drive them, I listen to their stories: a woman saved her disabled 16-year-old son who was nearly shot by the Russian military; a boy was roasting a stolen chicken on a fire, and two people were killed by shrapnel 15 meters away; people were walking over corpses trying to get out of town; others were standing in line, and at that moment someone was killed by shrapnel. After hearing these stories, I needed to see a therapist.

None of the people I drove made any complaints – all I hear is gratitude. I am happy that they allowed me to help them, to keep the crumbling globe together just a little bit with packing tape. I am always on the side of the victim. In this situation, Ukraine is the victim. Of course, I don't meet refugees with the words “It's all Russia's fault, I'll explain it all to you”. I wait for some kind of initiative from them. If I understand they are in the mood for a conversation or some kind of confession, then I join in. I'm extremely afraid of hurting them with my musings, because they all underwent tremendous trauma.”

As soon as they start talking (especially those who are bound for Europe), it becomes clear that they are resentful, there’s a sense of injustice and life taken away. Because prior to February 24 their children went to kindergarten, school or college, they cooked meals in their kitchens. They were telling me all at once, interrupting one another: “You deprived us of our children, friends, family, homes, and cars. We bought our boy a car, and you shot it. A bomb hit the Mariupol theater before my eyes.” They choked up, someone went into a frenzy of aggression. It all made sense to me.

I'm sitting behind the wheel and there's a hurricane inside me, but I have to stay calm and drive, and after I drop them off at the border, I get in the car and can't move, because I get hit by a tsunami. It recedes, but there are bombs, shells, mangled bodies left inside me, although I see blue sky and Estonia across the river.

«A lot of people have seen terrible things, but they are grateful to Russia. It is very demotivating»

Sergey, volunteer in St. Petersburg

I have a lot of relatives in Ukraine, including an elderly grandfather. When the war started, first of all I was very afraid for them, and secondly, I was afraid to be in this war, because I could be pulled out of reserve after my military service and sent to fight. So, I bought a ticket for the next flight and within a couple of days I flew to Turkey. When it became clear the war would drag on for a long time, I came back and became a volunteer.

A large inflow of refugees occurred when Mariupol was almost completely destroyed. Some managed to get their documents, some didn't, some left by car, some on their own. As regards Ukrainian refugees in St. Petersburg, they were mostly people who had been sitting in basements for two months, feeding on pigeons and water. On the one hand, they had lost everything, but on the other hand, their coming to Russia was not motivated by a desire to relocate here, they just wanted to get to a safe place. Most of them had a choice - either go to Russia or stay in the basements.

Most people had a choice: either go to Russia or stay in the basements

First, they were filtered, and then they were placed in a distribution center in Taganrog or Belgorod, and from there they were transported all over the country. Those were people who had nothing except the clothes they were wearing, and they needed almost everything. When I came back to Russia, I had a desire to do something about what was going on. That was probably the main motivation. I already had some experience as a volunteer before that, and I had an approximate idea of how it worked and an understanding of what people needed and how to communicate with them. Volunteering is most often a thankless thing, and I was mentally prepared for the fact that it would not be easy. I became acquainted with the already existing system of volunteer associations and joined the team.

Volunteers went to the TAC in Tikhvin only once. TACs are closed to visitors, and you simply can't go there: you have to be on a list that's checked by the authorities, those lists are submitted to a security department via Smolny. They don't let people in there to avoid provocation, and they're extremely afraid of civil society organizations. The TAC provides people with food, a roof over their heads, a minimum of hygiene items, and free transport passes. In addition, all kinds of government organizations - social services, migration authorities, tax authorities, and others - come to the TAC and try to help refugees with their documents.

The authorities allow entry into the TACs based only on lists and they're afraid of civil society organizations
A migration service mobile office at a temporary accommodation center for refugees
A migration service mobile office at a temporary accommodation center for refugees

In reality, of course, this assistance is inadequate, and a lot has to be procured by volunteers. We have people handing over things requested by refugees via Telegram-bots and chats, and every Sunday a Gazelle truck drove by. Another task is to find money to buy medicines. There is an infirmary in the TAC, and a therapist is on duty there, but there isn't enough specialized medicines. People are sent to the Tikhvin hospital and prescriptions are written there, but they have no way of buying those drugs here. It is not easy to help with that: according to the rules we are forbidden to provide them with prescription drugs or antibiotics.

Another important area is social adaptation. People need instructions on how to rent an apartment, so they won't run into scammers, they need to know where expensive and cheap markets are, where to go, whom to call, and what to do in general. People are in a foreign country with foreign rules, and they have to start their lives all over again.

Those who don't want to stay in Russia, leave almost immediately (they take a week's break at most and then travel West). Not everyone can go to Ukraine because they have nowhere to go, they have no relatives in the unoccupied territories. Poland is already full of refugees, and they are not ready for assimilation in Europe. There are men who want to go back to Ukraine, but they don't want to go back to war.

There is a certain percentage of people, and quite a large one, who support everything that is going on - they have experienced terrible things, but they are grateful to Russia, they are glad that finally they are under the Russian flag, and some of them want to become Russian citizens. It’s a strong demotivation not only for me, but for other volunteers as well. It's hard even to say it out loud, because it doesn't sound like the truth and is hard to comprehend. The Stockholm syndrome comes to mind, as well as people's unwillingness to tell the truth. It is possible that some of them say they support Russia only in order to get support and help here.

I suffer from what my country is doing. I am ashamed, hurt and scared. I try to make a change but I keep encountering people who say everything is fine. Why am I then helping people who think everything is going according to plan? Of course, those worries have no impact on the help refugees receive. Volunteers don't choose who they help. Refugees are in need - in need of survival, and we help them with that. There are different people in the TAC, I wouldn’t have shaken hands with some of them on the street. But when it comes to volunteering, such things should be left out of the equation.

Why would I help people who think that everything goes according to plan?

There is a huge number of people who support the war and generally support everything that is going on, but for some reason they are not among the volunteers. The part of the population that doesn't agree with what's happening has to deal with the consequences emotionally, financially and physically. In order to get to the TAC, you have to drive three hours one way and four back. Most of the volunteers have jobs, families, they have responsibilities, they have their own lives, but everyone faces a choice - either to help or to live as before. It’s those who are against the war that have to deal with its consequences.

In my conversations with volunteers, I understand that many refugees have a rather aggressive attitude toward Ukraine. They often point out that they would like more loyalty to the Russian language, but we agree with them that it's not the price they should have paid for the extra two hours of teaching Russian in Mariupol. Perhaps it's not the price people should have paid to feel like Russian citizens.

Some volunteers suffer from the actions of patriotically-minded activists. In Penza, for example, volunteers made a fuss when they realized that refugees were being held in terrible conditions. The patriotically-minded activists responded by vandalizing their cars, spray-painting their doors and telling them, “One more time and you'll go to jail.” The most active volunteers either left the city altogether or stopped interacting with anyone. The Belgorod region, as a border region, cannot withstand the flow of refugees. Hospitals are jammed, the TACs are full. There is a problem with hunger, many people live in other people’s apartments or volunteers’ homes, because there is not enough space for everyone.

A separate story can be told about the residents of Tikhvin, where the TAC is located. On some occasions Tikhvin residents joined our chat room and said: “Can you help me too? My financial situation is no better than that of the refugees.” Volunteers have been resolving some refugee problems, but we have other problems to solve domestically and we have other people to help.

“Can you help me too? My financial situation is no better than that of the refugees”

I think the hardest and scariest thing for those who will stay in Russia is accepting reality. While refugees receive attention, money is being allocated, the process of obtaining documents has been simplified, you still have to understand that sooner or later it will all come to an end, the flow of support will stop, from both the state and volunteers. Those people will face the reality, and the reality is that the living standards in Russia and Ukraine are roughly comparable - except for Moscow and St. Petersburg. And so, people who come to Russia with an image of Russia as a country with high incomes and heavenly life (and some think it’s really the case) are in for a surprise.

When people start looking for a job they soon realize they won't be earning more than 25,000-30,000 a month in, say, Tikhvin, and that in order to rent an apartment in St. Petersburg they need to make at least three monthly payments and pay a commission upfront, and they still have a family to feed. The process of realization will be painful for many people.

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