Russian volunteers are helping Ukrainian refugees – here’s how

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 take people to the border with a neighbouring EU country (such as Finland or Estonia), and help them (and their pets) get the necessary documents to leave the country. As of 1 June, 1.1m Ukrainians have gone to Russia, according to the UN.

Russian volunteers, who are not supported by the state, use online chats and groups to coordinate responses to calls for assistance. It is strictly forbidden to discuss politics or news from the front in these groups, or to respond to those who try to start a conversation about the war. A careless word or statement could lead not only to the chats being closed, volunteers believe, but to volunteers themselves being arrested. Many volunteers have ties to protest and opposition circles, where arrests or prison sentences are common.

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As well as the threat of police interest, volunteers face criticism from several sides. 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’.

openDemocracy spoke to several Russian volunteers about their work. We publish their words almost without redactions. The opinions of the people interviewed for this article do not represent those of the openDemocracy editorial team. The interviews were conducted by journalist Natalia Shkurenok.

Sasha Krylenkova, human rights activist

Alexandra Krylenkova is a member of the board of Memorial, St Petersburg, and the founder of “Open Space”, a meeting space

The first weeks after the start of the war were very difficult morally. Nothing was clear about what was happening, what to do, what to do with ourselves. But pretty quickly, everything changed.

I worked in Crimea for many years [documenting human rights violations], where I helped Crimean Tatars who were facing a series of problems. I knew many Ukrainians, and gradually [after the Russian invasion] people began to contact me: would I be able to help someone who wants to leave for Europe or for Russia?

I began to help. I know the law, I can help with legal advice.

Volunteer groups began to form on Russian social media. Some sprang up to support temporary accommodation centres [set up by the authorities, to house Ukrainians], others focused on the logistics of moving [Ukrainians] around Russia or abroad.

Now I mainly help people get documents and relocate. 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.

Compared to the situation eight years ago, there are many more refugees now. 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 pieces of paper. So even if a Ukrainian family has electronic copies of all their documents, they cannot get any of the documents they need in Russia and cannot travel anywhere. This is when volunteers take over – we transport people, help them get at least a few certificates.

If someone has no documents at all, the only option is to get a certificate from the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs confirming their identity as a foreign citizen. With this certificate, they should be able to leave Russia. But often people are told to wait three months. It is not clear where they should wait or with what money, and we are trying to help them find housing, work or some kind of short-term money.

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