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.

A Ukrainian family being welcomed into their new home, funded by donations and assistance from Volunteers Tbilisi (Volunteers Tbilisi). Source:
A Ukrainian family being welcomed into their new home, funded by donations and assistance from Volunteers Tbilisi, a volunteer group from Georgia (Volunteers Tbilisi/Facebook)

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.”