Russian authorities hunt network of volunteers helping Ukrainians

A volunteer waits at the St. Petersburg train station before meeting Ukrainian refugees from the Kherson region on January 12. (Ksenia Ivanova for The Washington Post)


To evade authorities, thousands of displaced Ukrainians in Russia rely on a discreet network of unofficial volunteers – a sort of Slavic echo of the Underground Railroad – who carry war refugees to safety via Russia to Europe.

These volunteers are not linked to each other and are not part of an organization. They often do not live in the same city and for security reasons most will never see each other in person. The common denominator is the risk they face from the Russian security forces, who are suspicious of citizens’ initiatives and crack down on all kinds of civil society groups.

The independent volunteers do all sorts of things. Some work from home processing requests for help. Others help care for pets, collect food, clothes and medicines, or deliver to makeshift warehouses. Hosts who open their doors to Ukrainians or drivers transporting them across the Russian border are at greatest risk because they are in direct contact with refugees and the authorities.

None of the volunteers’ activities are illegal, but amid Russia’s wartime laws, anything about Ukraine that doesn’t fit the current pro-war patriotic zeal is sensitive and viewed as unfavorable by the security services.

“In our country, any voluntary organization or any attempt at self-organization is like a red rag to a bull,” says a Ukrainian-born volunteer in her late 50s, who has lived most of her life in Russia. a Russian passport, said. She stopped along the snowy highway on her way to take nine Ukrainians from St. Petersburg to the Finnish border.

The Ukrainian-born volunteer said she makes the trip about five times a month, a guess each time. Anything can go wrong: the car can swerve on the snowy road, the battery can run flat in the bitter cold, a tire can burst. The Russian border guard may be in a bad mood, a refugee may carry too much money through customs or do something else to attract unnecessary attention.

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The volunteer recalled one passenger, an elderly man, who got so drunk while waiting at the border that he tried to burn a cigarette off a Federal Security Service (FSB) guard, risking the entire operation .

“As long as you’re here in my car and we haven’t reached the Finnish border yet, you’re only listening to me,” the volunteer sternly warned her passengers as a family boarded her minibus at St. Petersburg’s train station.

Whether refugees cross the border in many ways depends on the volunteer.

At the same time as it launched the war in Ukraine, Moscow was tightening the few screws in civil society and demonstrating by dismantling opposition and human rights groups that it will not tolerate any dissent.

The Kremlin’s desire for total wartime control has focused on official volunteer movements, forcing some to work in exile or shut down completely.

Those now helping Ukrainians are split into two contrasting camps: “official” groups, such as the one led by the ruling United Russia party, and “unofficial” networks with no hierarchy or affiliation.

The “official” groups are helping Russian authorities place Ukrainians in temporary shelters, where they are insistently offered Russian passports that make subsequent travel to the European Union almost impossible. These groups provide aid to occupied areas of eastern Ukraine that the Kremlin now calls “liberated.”

After passing the ideological test, they have no problem raising money or speaking publicly about their work.

A Ukrainian family, separated by war, balances security, duty and love

The “unofficial” volunteers came primarily to fill the gaps left by official aid groups: they bring phones to replace those confiscated by Russia at the border, find vets for sick pets, fetch hard-to-find medicines and do countless other tasks, some mundane, others life-saving. They also provide a lifeline for people seeking shelter in a country theirs has invaded. They charter buses, buy train tickets or bring Ukrainian families to the border.

In some cities, the ‘non-official volunteers’ were forced to stop their activities under pressure from the local police. Last May, police moved into a temporary shelter in Tver, northwest of Moscow. They questioned Ukrainians about an independent Russian volunteer, Veronika Timakina, 20, asking if she was “engaged in campaigning activities”, taking pictures of them or inviting them to join a political party, Russian news outlets Verstka and Mediazona reported.

The Orthodox diocese of Tver was in charge of the refugees there, and according to Timakina, Ukrainians were treated rather dismissively. It was difficult for them to get any support, including the $140 payment that Russian President Vladimir Putin had promised to all Ukrainians who moved to Russia.

Timakina’s home and the homes of two other volunteers were later raided as part of a criminal investigation into whether they were involved in spreading “false information” about the Russian military, a charge that Russia had made at the start of the invasion. had submitted. All three activists left Russia, fearing further persecution.

Irina Gurskaya, a retired economist and activist from Penza in western Russia in her late 60s, helped people from the devastated Ukrainian city of Mariupol reach the Estonian border. Soon Gurskaya herself had to follow the same path.

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late last spring, someone spray painted “Ukro-Nazi enabler” on her door. A few days later, police searched her home after “anonymous complaints” about the aid packages she was stocking in her hallway. They took her for interrogation, she recalls in a mini-documentary by journalist Vladimir Sevrinovsky.

The police wanted to know which organization helped and financed Gurskaya. “I explained that [help comes from] complete strangers, even pensioners,” Gurskaya said. “One sends 100 rubles and the other 30,000… But it was strange for them.”

She was released from the police station, but a few minutes later two men in balaclavas grabbed her, put a hat over her head and threw her into a car. The men twisted her arms and screamed, demanding answers to all the same questions.

“They shouted: ‘What do you need Ukrainians for? … Let them sit here. If you escort at least one more out, we will find your children,” Gurskaya said in the documentary. The activist was eventually told to burn and release the tickets she had bought for refugees. Soon after, Gurskaya fled the country.

The targeted volunteers in Tver and Penza were outspoken about their opposition to the Kremlin’s policies or criticized the war. This public activity likely increased the likelihood of them being targeted. Most volunteers avoid conversations about politics.

“In general, the most important thing is not to have conversations outside of the problem they need help with,” said another volunteer who helps Ukrainians with documents and transportation. “Watch your mouth. That is the most important safety rule.”

“For me, human life is more important than anything else, and I’m not doing anything illegal,” this volunteer added.

Volunteers interviewed for this article said they felt helpless when the war started, and that helping Ukrainians in Russia was their only way to cope with fear, guilt, despair and anger. “My family told me to go out and protest and I said I don’t think it will be easier for you if I get a fine and then jail. They agreed with me,” explained the Ukrainian-born volunteer. “So volunteering was the only way for me.”

“My hope is that we will be able to create at least a small bright spot in this damn mess,” she said. “Somewhere deep down I have a glimmer of hope that maybe 20 years from now, if I’m still alive, Ukraine will show me the graves of my parents or my siblings. Maybe I have another chance. Maybe Ukraine will see this as a small piece of light.”

A year of the Russian war in Ukraine

Portraits of Ukraine: Every Ukrainian’s life has changed since Russia launched its full-scale invasion a year ago – in both big and small ways. They have learned to survive and support each other in extreme conditions, in bomb shelters and hospitals, devastated apartment complexes and devastated marketplaces. Scroll through portraits of Ukrainians reflecting on a year of loss, resilience and fear.

Attrition: Over the past year, the war has moved from a multi-front invasion, including Kiev in the north, to an attrition conflict largely centered along a vast area in the east and south. Trace the 600-mile front line between Ukrainian and Russian troops and see where the fighting is concentrated.

Living separately for a year: The Russian invasion, coupled with Ukraine’s martial law that prevents men of fighting age from leaving the country, has forced millions of Ukrainian families to make painful decisions about how to balance security, duty and love, shattering lives that were once intertwined. were intertwined, have become unrecognizable. This is what a train station full of farewells looked like last year.

Deepening the global division: President Biden has proclaimed the strengthened Western alliance forged during the war a “global coalition,” but a closer look reveals that the world is far from united on issues raised by the war in Ukraine. There is ample evidence that the attempt to isolate Putin has failed and that sanctions have not stopped Russia, thanks to its oil and gas exports.

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