Russian authorities are looking for a network of volunteers to help Ukrainians

Volunteers wait at the St. Petersburg railway station before meeting Ukrainian refugees from the Kherson region on January 12. (Ksenia Ivanova, Washington Post)


To evade the authorities, thousands of displaced Ukrainians in Russia rely on a clandestine network of unofficial volunteers – a sort of Slavic echo of the Underground Railroad – to send war refugees through Russia to Europe. I am working to bring you to a safe place.

These volunteers are not linked to each other and are not part of any organization. Often they do not live in the same city and, for safety, most do not meet in person. It’s a risk faced by Russian security forces.

Independent volunteers do all sorts of things. There is also telecommuting to handle help requests. Others take care of pets, collect food, clothing and medicines, or deliver them to makeshift warehouses. Responsible drivers face the most serious risks as they deal directly with refugees and authorities.

None of the volunteer work is illegal, but anything under Russia’s wartime laws that concerns Ukraine and is inconsistent with current pre-war patriotic fervor is classified and disfavored by the security services. is regarded.

“In our country, volunteer organizations and all sorts of attempts at self-organization are like the red cloth of a bull,” says the Ukrainian-born volunteer in his late 50s who has lived most of his life in Russia. And the Russian passport said. She had stopped on a snow-covered highway on her way to take nine Ukrainians from St. Petersburg to the Finnish border.

The Ukrainian-born volunteer says he takes about five trips a month and gambles on each trip. Cars can turn on snow-covered roads, extreme cold can drain batteries and burst tires. Russian border guards may be in a bad mood, refugees may carry large sums of money at customs or do anything to attract undue attention.

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Volunteers recalled one passenger, an elderly man, getting drunk while waiting at the border and trying to burn a cigarette from a Federal Security Service (FSB) guard, jeopardizing the entire operation.

“Unless you are in my car and have not arrived at the Finnish border, you should only listen to me.

It is up to volunteers to help refugees cross borders in many ways.

At the same time as launching the war in Ukraine, Moscow has shown its zero tolerance for dissent by tightening some loose screws throughout civil society and dismantling dissidents and human rights groups.

The Kremlin’s desire for complete control over the wartime environment has targeted the official volunteer movement, forcing some to work in exile or shut down altogether.

Those currently supporting Ukrainians are divided into two contrasting camps. “Official” groups, such as those run by the United Russia Party, and “unofficial” networks with no hierarchy or affiliation.

“Official” groups are helping Russian authorities place Ukrainians in temporary shelters. There, you are persistently offered a Russian passport, which makes subsequent travel to the European Union almost impossible. These groups are providing aid to the occupied territories in eastern Ukraine that the Kremlin is now calling “liberated.”

Having passed the ideology check, they have no problem raising funds or speaking publicly about their work.

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“Informal” volunteers materialized primarily to fill the gaps left by formal aid groups. They have replaced phones seized by Russia at the border, sought vets for sick pets, obtained hard-to-find medicines, and performed a myriad of other tasks. doing. Some are mundane, some are life-saving. They also provide a lifeline for people seeking refuge in countries that have invaded their country. They charter buses, buy train tickets, and drive Ukrainian families to the border. doing.

In some towns, “unofficial volunteers” have been forced to cease operations under pressure from local law enforcement. Last May, police came to a makeshift shelter in Tver, northwest of Moscow. They asked Ukrainians about independent Russian volunteer Veronika Timakina, 20, whether she was “engaged in campaign activities,” asked them to take pictures of them, or asked them to join a political party. I invited Verstka and Mediazona report.

The Tver Orthodox Diocese was in charge of refugees there, and according to Timakina, Ukrainians were treated rather disrespectfully. It was difficult for them to get any help, including the $140 payment promised by Russian President Vladimir Putin to all Ukrainians moving to Russia.

The house of Timakina and two other volunteers were later raided as part of a criminal investigation into whether she was involved in spreading “false information” about the Russian military. All three activists left Russia for fear of further persecution.

Irina Gruskaya, a former economist and activist in her late 60s from Penza in western Russia, was helping people reach the Estonian border from the destroyed Ukrainian city of Mariupol. She soon had to follow the same path as Gruskaya herself.

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late last spring, Someone spray painted her door with “Ukrainian Nazi Enabler”. A few days later, police raided her home following an “anonymous complaint” about supplies she had stockpiled in her hallway. They took her in for questioning, she said mini-documentary By journalist Vladimir Sebrinovsky.

Police wanted to know which organizations were supporting and funding Gruskaya. “I explained that [help comes from] Complete strangers, even pensioners, ”said Gruskaya. “One he sends 100 rubles, the other he sends 30,000 rubles. But it was strange for them.”

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

“They yelled: ‘What do you need Ukrainians for? … Let me sit here. Give me at least one more escort and I’ll find your child,'” Gruskaya said in the documentary. The activists were eventually told to burn the tickets they had bought for the refugees and let them go. Shortly thereafter, Gruskaya fled the country.

Volunteers targeted in Tver and Penza have spoken out against Kremlin policies and criticized the war. This public activity probably made them more likely to be targeted. Most volunteers avoid conversations about politics.

“The whole point is to not have conversations other than the issues they need help with,” said another volunteer helping Ukrainians with paperwork and transportation. That’s the main safety rule.”

“For me, human life is more important than anything else and I will not do anything illegal,” the volunteer added.

Volunteers interviewed for this article said they felt helpless when the war began and that helping Ukrainians in Russia was the only way they could deal with their fear, guilt, despair and anger. My relatives told me I needed to go out to protest. They agreed with me, ”explained the Ukrainian-born volunteer. “So volunteering was the only way out for me.”

“My hope is that I can at least create a small spot of light in this bloody mess,” she said. I feel a glimmer of hope that within the next few days Ukraine will let me see my parents’ graves and my brothers, maybe I still have a chance, maybe Ukraine will see this as a small shred of light .”

A year of Russian war in Ukraine

Portrait of Ukraine: Life for all Ukrainians has changed in ways big and small since Russia launched its full-scale invasion a year ago.They survived and learned to support each other under extreme circumstancesair-raid shelters and hospitals, demolished apartment buildings and ruined markets. Scroll through portraits of Ukrainians as they reflect on a year of loss, resilience and fear.

War of Attrition: Over the past year, the war has transformed from a multi-pronged aggression, including Kiev in the north, to a war of attrition focused mainly on vast territories in the east and south. Follow the 600-mile frontline between Ukrainian and Russian forces and see where the fighting is concentrated.

One year of separation: The Russian aggression, coupled with Ukrainian martial law banning men of fighting age from leaving the country, has forced millions of Ukrainian families to How to balance safety, duty and love, the once intertwined life became unrecognizable.What is this A station full of goodbyes It was like last year.

Deepening Global Fragmentation: President Biden touted a revitalized Western alliance built during the war as a ‘world coalition’, but let’s take a closer look Suggests world is far from united on issues raised by Ukraine warThere is plenty of evidence that efforts to isolate Putin have failed. Sanctions Haven’t Stopped Russiathanks to oil and gas exports.

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