The silent work of Russian volunteers helping Ukrainian refugees

Alexander and Yuria with their children, who fled the city of Kupyansk, northeastern Ukraine, sitting in the humanitarian aid warehouse of the Mayak Foundation in Moscow (Alexander Nemenov/AFP) (ALEXANDER NEMENOV/)

Galina Artiomenko He has been raising funds for a year and a half to help displaced Ukrainians in Russia because of the invasion launched in February 2022. Suddenly, in mid-July, His bank cards and those of two other volunteers were blocked.

“According to the bank, our collections pursued ‘dubious objectives,’” she says disgustedly, claiming to be able to justify “every ruble spent.”

This blockade shows that his humanitarian commitment is the target of suspicion in a country where repression against those who criticize the attack on Ukraine is in full swing.

Together with other volunteers in St. Petersburg, Galina spreads calls for donations on the Internet. With the money raised buys clothing, medicines and food products for those who were forced by hostilities to reach Russian territory.

Receives Ukrainians at the St. Petersburg station. It helps them find accommodation, work, or carry out administrative procedures to try to go to the European Union (EU) from Russia.

“There are thousands of people who help (Ukrainians) but prefer not to talk about it for security reasons. Although there is no law that prohibits helping people who have fallen from grace”, he points out.

Volunteer Galina Artyomenko, 58, reacts during an interview with AFP at the humanitarian aid warehouse
Volunteer Galina Artyomenko, 58, at the “Gumsklad” humanitarian aid warehouse in St. Petersburg (Olga Maltseva/AFP) (OLGA MALTSEVA/)

Millions of refugees

In a context of exacerbated repression, many volunteers refuse to speak about the conflict and their help to refugees for fear of attracting the attention of the authorities, who arrest anonymous people accused of collaborating with kyiv or denigrating the Russian army.

According to Liudmila, a 43-year-old volunteer who prefers to keep her last name a secret, many of these Russians They are “pacifists” who cannot openly express their positions and they ease their conscience by helping the victims.

“We cannot sit idly by, We have to help to those who are in a worse situation than ours and who suffer,” Lioudmila emphasizes. “It is the only way of existing that we have left,” says Galina.

According to a UN count from late December 2022, About 1.3 million Ukrainians are displaced in Russian territory. Moscow estimates that there are more than 5 million, a figure that NGOs question.

Some are in transit, especially in the EU border region. Others say they want to stay in the country.

Volunteer Galina Artyomenko, 58, helps the family who fled the town of Bakhmut, which Moscow captured in the spring, at the humanitarian aid warehouse
Galina Artyomenko helps a family who fled the city of Bakhmut, which was captured by Moscow (AFP) (OLGA MALTSEVA/)

For its part, kyiv accuses the Kremlin of having deported Ukrainians to Russia and to pressure them to obtain Russian passports. The International Criminal Court issued a historic arrest warrant in March against Russian President Vladimir Putin and his children’s guardian, Maria Lvova Belova, for the “war crime of illegal deportation” of children.

Moscow denies this and assures that the displaced people come voluntarily or were evacuated for their own safety.

“I just want peace”

In Russia, solidarity networks helping refugees have been actively operating since the beginning of the offensive.

The AFP He was with Galina on one of her work days. The volunteer buys household products and deposits them at a collection point of basic necessities for Ukrainians.

The center, calledGumsklad” and open every day, it welcomes up to ten beneficiary families daily. On numerous shelves, there are shoes, clothes, food and household appliances.

Then he goes out to buy glasses in a store in the city center for Elena and Igor, who have come from Bakhmut, a city in eastern Ukraine whose conquest Moscow has claimed since the spring, although the fighting is still ongoing.

Volunteer Yulia Makeyeva, 49, speaks with AFP during an interview at the humanitarian aid warehouse of the Mayak Foundation in Moscow on August 9, 2023. For a year and a half Galina Artyomenko had been raising funds to help refugees from Ukraine after the Kremlin sent troops to the pro-Western country.  (Photo by Alexander NEMENOV / AFP)
Volunteer Yulia Makeyeva, 49, at the Mayak Foundation’s humanitarian aid warehouse. She had been raising funds for a year and a half to help refugees in Ukraine after the Kremlin sent troops (AFP) (ALEXANDER NEMENOV /)

The Moscow-based NGO has more resources. At the moment receives up to 50 people a dayafter records of influx in 2022, according to a volunteer Yulia Makeyeva, 49 years old.

For her, the emotional factor is the most difficult to handle facing the suffering of refugees.

“To conserve energy and hope I try to keep a certain distance, otherwise I can’t work, I just cry,” he summarizes.

That day, Yulia and her husband Alexander, who fled the Ukrainian city of Kupiansk almost a year ago with their two children, ages 7 and 3, tearfully tell how they had to survive under the bombing.

“I just want peace,” says Yulia.

(With information from AFP)