Discreetly, And at Peril, Russian Volunteers Help Ukrainian Refugees

Photo for The Washington Post by Ksenia
Volunteers help carry items for a family of Ukrainian refugees outside the Moskovsky railway station in St. Petersburg.

To avoid the authorities, thousands of displaced Ukrainians in Russia are relying on a discreet network of unofficial volunteers – a sort of Slavic echo of the Underground Railroad – working to bring war refugees through Russia to safety in 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 safety, most of them will never see each other in person. The common denominator is the risk they face from the Russian security forces, who are suspicious of citizen initiatives and have cracked down on all manner of civil society groups.

The independent volunteers do all kinds of things. Some work from home processing help requests. Others help care for pets, gather food, clothing and medicine, or deliver to makeshift warehouses. Hosts who open their doors to Ukrainians or drivers who transport them across the Russian border face the steepest risk, as they are ones interacting directly with refugees and the authorities.

None of the volunteers’ activities are illegal, but amid Russia’s wartime laws anything that involves Ukraine and does not fit with the current pro-war patriotic fervor is sensitive and regarded unfavorably by the security services.

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

The Ukrainian-born volunteer said she makes the trip about five times a month, each time a gamble. A lot could go wrong: The car might swerve on the snow-covered road, its battery could die in the bitter cold, a tire could burst. The Russian border guard might be in a bad mood, a refugee might carry too much money through customs or do something else to attract undue attention.

The volunteer recalled one passenger, an older man, getting so drunk during the wait at the border that he tried to bum a cigarette from a Federal Security Service (FSB) guard, risking the whole operation.

“As long as you are here in my car and we have not reached the Finnish border, you listen only to me,” the volunteer strictly admonished her passengers as a family boarded her minivan at St Petersburg train station.

Whether refugees make it across the border in many ways depends on the volunteer.

At the same time it launched the war in Ukraine, Moscow tightened the few loose screws across civil society, demonstrating through dismantling opposition and human rights groups that it will not tolerate any dissent.

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

Those now aiding Ukrainians are split into two contrasting camps: “official” groups, like the one run by the governing United Russia party, and “unofficial” networks with no hierarchy or affiliation.

The “official” groups help Russian authorities place Ukrainians in temporary shelters, where they are insistently offered Russian passports that make subsequent travel to the European Union nearly impossible. These groups deliver aid to occupied areas of eastern Ukrainian territories that the Kremlin now refers to as “liberated.”

Having passed the ideological check, they have no issue fundraising or talking publicly about their work.

The “unofficial” volunteers materialized primarily to close the gaps left by official aid groups: They bring phones to replace those seized by Russia at the border, find veterinarians for sick pets, obtain hard-to-find medicines, and do myriad other tasks, some mundane, others lifesaving. They also offer a lifeline for those seeking shelter in a country that invaded their own. They charter buses, buy train tickets or drive Ukrainian families to the border.

In some towns, the “unofficial volunteers'” were forced to halt their activities after pressure from local law enforcement. Last May, police came to 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,” took photos of them or invited them to join any political party, Russian news outlets Verstka and Mediazona reported.

Tver’s Orthodox diocese was in charge of refugees there, and according to Timakina, Ukrainians were treated in a rather dismissive manner. It was difficult for them to get any support, including the $140 payment promised by Russian President Vladimir Putin to all Ukrainians relocating to Russia.

Timakina’s house and two other volunteers’ homes were later raided as part of a criminal probe into whether they were involved in spreading “fake information” about the Russian army, a criminal charge Russia created at the onset of the invasion. All three activists left Russia, fearing further persecution.

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

Late last spring, someone spray-painted “Ukro-Nazi enabler” on her door. Then, a few days later, police searched her house following “anonymous complaints” about the aid packages she was stocking in her hallway. They took her in for questioning, she recalled in a mini-documentary by journalist Vladimir Sevrinovsky.

The police wanted to know what organization was helping and financing Gurskaya. “I explained that [help comes from] complete strangers, even pensioners,” Gurskaya said. “One person will send 100 rubles, and the other will send 30,000. . . . But for them, it was strange.”

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 yelled: ‘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 the tickets she had bought for refugees and let go. Soon after, Gurskaya fled the country.

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

“Overall, the main thing is not to conduct any conversations outside of the issue they need help with,” said another volunteer who helps Ukrainians with documents and transportation. “Watch your mouth. That’s the main safety rule.”

“To me, a human life is above all else, and I don’t do anything illegal,” this volunteer added.

Volunteers interviewed for this article said they felt helpless when the war began, and assisting Ukrainians in Russia was their only way of dealing with fear, guilt, despair and anger. “My relatives told me I need to go out to protest and I said I don’t think it’ll be easier for you if I’m fined and then jailed. They agreed with me,” the Ukrainian-born volunteer explained. “So volunteering was the only way for me.”

“My hope is that we will be able to create at least a tiny spot of light in this bloody mess,” she said. “Somewhere deep down I have this flicker of hope that maybe in 20 years, if I’m still alive, Ukraine will let me see my parents’ graves or see my siblings. Maybe I still have a chance. Maybe Ukraine will see this as a tiny sliver of light.”

Photo for The Washington Post by Ksenia Ivanova
A Ukrainian boy chooses items in Gumsklad, a humanitarian warehouse, on Dec. 28 in St. Petersburg.