Russian authorities are hunting for a network of volunteers helping Ukrainian citizens

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


To evade the authorities, thousands of Ukrainian refugees in Russia rely on secret networks of unofficial volunteers – a kind of Slavic echo of the Underground Railroad – who work to get war refugees through Russia to safety in Europe.

These volunteers are not related to each other, and are not part of the organization. They often don’t live in the same town and, for safety’s sake, most of them will never meet in person. A common denominator is the risk they face from Russian security forces, who are suspicious of citizen initiatives and have cracked down on all manner of civil society groups.

Independent volunteers do all kinds of things. Some work from home process requests for help. Others help care for pets, collect food, clothing and medicine, or send them to emergency storage. Hosts who open their doors to Ukrainian citizens or drivers who transport them across the Russian border are at the greatest risk as they interact directly with refugees and authorities.

None of the volunteers’ activity is illegal, but under Russia’s wartime laws, anything involving Ukraine and inconsistent with today’s pro-war patriotic spirit is sensitive and considered unkind by security services.

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

The Ukrainian-born volunteer says he travels about five times a month, gambling every time. A lot can go wrong: the car can turn on snow-covered roads, the battery can die in extreme cold, tires can burst. Russian border guards may be in a bad mood, a refugee may carry too much money through customs or do something else to attract undue attention.

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The volunteer recalls one passenger, an elderly man, getting so drunk while waiting at the border that he tried to light a cigarette from a Federal Security Service (FSB) guard, risking the entire operation.

“As long as you are here in my car and we haven’t reached the Finnish border, you only listen to me,” the volunteer sternly admonished his passengers as a family boarded his minivan at the St Petersburg train station.

Whether refugees make it across borders depends in many ways on volunteers.

At the same time launching the war in Ukraine, Moscow is tightening some of the loose screws across civil society, showing through its dismantling of the opposition and human rights groups that it will not tolerate dissent.

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

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

The “official” group is helping Russian authorities place Ukrainians in temporary shelters, where they are constantly offered Russian passports that make subsequent travel to the European Union nearly impossible. These groups provided aid to the occupied territories in eastern Ukraine that the Kremlin now refers to as “liberated”.

Having passed ideological checks, they have no problem raising funds or speaking openly about their work.

Torn apart by war, a Ukrainian family balances safety, duty and love

“Unofficial” volunteers appear primarily to fill the gaps left by official aid groups: They carry phones to replace those confiscated by the Russians at the border, find veterinarians for sick pets, get hard-to-find medicines, and perform a multitude of tasks. others, some regular, others lifesaving. They also offer a lifeline for those seeking refuge in a nation that invaded their own. They rent buses, buy train tickets, or drive Ukrainian families to the border.

In some cities, “unofficial volunteers” were forced to stop their activities after pressure from local law enforcement. Last May, police visited a temporary shelter in Tver, northwest of Moscow. They quizzed Ukrainians about a Russian independent volunteer, Veronika Timakina, 20, asking if she was “involved in campaign activities”, took their photos or invited them to join any political party, Russian news agencies Verstka and Mediazona reported.

The Tver Orthodox Diocese is in charge of refugees there, and according to Timakina, Ukrainians are treated in a rather dismissive manner. It is difficult for them to get any support, including the $140 payment promised by Russian President Vladimir Putin to all Ukrainians who move to Russia.

The Timakina 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 Russian soldiers, a criminal accusation the Russians had made at the start of the invasion. The three activists left Russia, fearing further persecution.

Irina Gurskaya, a retired economist and activist from Penza in western Russia in her late 60s, helps people from the razed 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 painted “Ukro-Nazi enabler” on the door. Then, a few days later, police searched his home following an “anonymous complaint” about a relief package he kept in his hallway. They took him in for questioning, he recalls in a mini-documentary by journalist Vladimir Sevrinovsky.

The police want to know what organization helped and financed Gurskaya. “I explained that [help comes from] foreigners, even retirees,” says Gurskaya. “One person will send 100 rubles, and the other will send 30,000 … But for them, it’s strange.”

He was released from the police station, but minutes later, two men in balaclavas grabbed him, put a hat on his head, and threw him into the car. The men twisted their arms and shouted, 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, we will find your children,’” Gurskaya said in the documentary. The activist was finally told to burn the tickets he bought for refugees and let him go. Soon after that, Gurskaya left the country.

Volunteers targeted in Tver and Penza outspokenly opposed Kremlin policies or criticized the war. This public activity may increase their likelihood of being targeted. Most volunteers avoid conversations about politics.

“Overall, the main thing is not to have any kind of conversation beyond the issues that need their help,” said another volunteer helping Ukrainians with paperwork and transportation. “Watch your mouth. That’s the ultimate safety rule.”

“For me, human life is above all, and I have not done anything illegal,” the volunteer added.

Volunteers interviewed for this article said they felt powerless when the war started, and that helping Ukrainians in Russia was the only way they could overcome fear, guilt, hopelessness, and anger. “My relatives told me I needed to come out to protest and I said I thought it wouldn’t be easier for you if I was fined and then jailed. They agreed with me,” explained the Ukrainian-born volunteer. “So volunteering is the only way for me.”

“My hope is that we will be able to create at least a small point of light in this bloody mess,” he said. “Somewhere in my heart I have a glimmer of hope that maybe in 20 years, if I’m still alive, Ukraine will let me see my parents’ graves or see my relatives. Maybe I still have a chance. Maybe Ukraine will see this as a glimmer of light.”

One year of Russia’s war in Ukraine

Ukraine Portrait: Every Ukrainian’s life has changed since Russia launched its full-scale invasion one year ago — both big and small. They have learned to survive and support one another in extreme circumstances, in bomb shelters and hospitals, destroyed apartment complexes, and destroyed markets. Scroll through portraits of Ukrainians reflecting on years of loss, resilience and fear.

Battle of attrition: Over the last year, the war has gone from a multi-front invasion spanning Kyiv in the north to a conflict of attrition concentrated mostly along stretches of territory to the east and south. Follow the 600 mile front line between Ukrainian and Russian troops and see where the fighting is concentrated.

A year of living apart: The Russian invasion, coupled with Ukraine’s martial law preventing men of combat age from leaving the country, have forced painful decisions for millions of Ukrainian families about how to balance security, duty, and love, with lives once intertwined beyond recognition. Here’s a look at the train station that was full of farewells last year.

Deepening global divisions: President Biden has touted the revived Western alliance forged during the war a “global coalition,” but closer inspection shows the world is far from united on the issues raised by the Ukraine war. Evidence abounds that efforts to isolate Putin have failed and sanctions are not stopping Russia, thanks to its oil and gas exports.

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