This March, Bogdan Goncharov, along with his wife and 7-year-old daughter, was forced out of their hometown in Mariupol after Russian forces heavily bombed the city. Anxious that Russian authorities might send them to Siberia, Goncharov and his family got help from an unexpected group of volunteers – Russian civilians.
“It’s a miracle we got out,” said 26-year-old Goncharov. “It’s thanks to the volunteers.” He worked as a builder in Ukraine before the invasion started and is now setting up a new life in Sweden.
Mariupol was once a bustling port city with over 400,000 inhabitants. Sadly, it has been at the forefront of heavy Russian bombing since the first few weeks of the conflicts. Many have fled the city. Those left behind suffer from food and water shortages and the constant anxiety about when the next attack might strike. However, it is important to note that evacuations of civilians and Ukrainian forces held up within the Azovstal Iron and Steelworks plant are currently underway.
To address these problems, several networks of Russian civilians have been working in the shadows to provide much-needed aid for refugees. These groups provide financial assistance, transport, and even travel route advice to Ukrainians.
“We all have this constant feeling of guilt,” Russian native Maria Belkina said. She runs Volunteers Tbilisi, a volunteer group that has helped over 300 Ukrainian refugees escape Russia. The group also provides humanitarian aid to refugees that fled to Georgia.
“Many people from Russia are writing and asking: ‘In what way can I help?’” she said.
One activist shared that there was a vast grassroots movement inside Russia.
“There are groups that collect clothes and toys for children. Others put people up in their homes for a few nights, buy train tickets and take them to the station. We are sharing messages and passing people on to groups in other cities, who are helping them get over the border.”
“Helping to Leave,” the volunteer group that helped Goncharov and his family, said that their work has helped over 1,000 people to leave Russia as well. The group has also cooperated with other volunteer organizations, including Volunteers Tbilisi.
The group is run by Russian natives and Russian speakers abroad, along with around 100 people that help the organization despite not being members. These people open their homes to Ukrainian refugees “so that they can gather themselves a bit, and then we evacuate them from Russia,” Co-founder Naturiko Miminoshvili said.
Since Russian President Vladimir Putin began his so-called “special military operation” in Ukraine on February 24th, millions have been forced to flee the country to escape the bloodshed. Moscow has continued to deny that the Russian forces are targeting civilians despite mounting evidence that says otherwise.
Putin has even claimed that his government has helped about 140,000 Ukrainians that were stuck in the crossfire of Mariupol.
“They can go wherever they want: some want to go to Russia, some to Ukraine,” Putin said. “we are not detaining them. We are providing them with all possible help and support.”
However, volunteer groups like Helping to Leave have logged instances where Russian officials will coerce refugees to travel to locations they do not want to go to or were told that they were prohibited from leaving the accommodations given to them by the Russian military.
SOFREP has recently reported on these instances, where we uncovered that there were 1 million Ukrainians who have been forcibly deported to Russia (or kidnapped) and were allegedly sent to “filtration camps.” People who were forcibly deported were allegedly given two options: Go to Russia or die. Therefore, most of these Ukrainians did not have a choice when it came to their safety and evacuation. Once in these filtration camps. the prisoners are assessed as to whether they are loyal to Russia or Ukraine. Those deemed loyal to Russia are being assimilated into the Russian population, while those expressing pro-Ukrainian sentiments are being sent to settlements in Siberia.
Anna, a volunteer only known by her first name for security reasons, said that most of the requests come from people fleeing Mariupol. Given its relative distance to the border, many refugees end up in Russia or a Russian-controlled area. Many survivors say that the path through Russia is the safest way out of the conflict.
Dire Consequences for these Russian Civilians
The Kremlin and the Russian emergencies ministry, which deals with refugees, and is supposed to answer queries about the treatment of the aforementioned refugees, have refused to respond to the allegations against their country. Some of these allegations include forced deportations of Ukrainian refugees to far-flung Russian cities. On the other hand, the Ukrainian government also opted not to answer questions regarding these reported volunteers.
Conducting such activities carry significant risk to the volunteers. According to political watch groups inside Russia, those who openly oppose the war face fines and even imprisonment.
Irina Gurskaya, a woman who has helped dozens of Ukrainians pass through Russia, was forced to stop her volunteer work after the police summoned her for questioning. According to two of her fellow volunteers, the authorities held Gurskaya for several hours without access to a lawyer before she was released. They do not know what questions the police asked her.
Gurskaya did not respond to a request for comment regarding her arrest, likely because of security concerns.
Despite the risk, Russian volunteer networks continue to grow and work under the watchful eyes of the Kremlin.
“People around the world are against Russia. It’s sad, but it’s understandable,” one activist in the country said. “But there are good people everywhere, and we are doing what we can.”