A temporary accommodation centre where evacuees, including residents from the Ukrainian city of Mariupol, take shelter at a former sports hall in Taganrog in the Rostov region, Russia on March 21 2022
Evacuees, including residents from the Ukrainian city of Mariupol, take shelter at a temporary accommodation centre at a former sports hall in Taganrog in the Rostov region, Russia © Fedor Larin/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Tatyana, her husband and three children escaped the horrors of Mariupol several weeks ago, but relief only began to sink in when they made it to Estonia with help from an ad hoc network of Russian volunteers.

The network, among them antiwar activists and general volunteers, is operating largely through word of mouth and groups on the Telegram messaging app. It is helping thousands of Ukrainian refugees to get out of Russia, crossing land borders to neighbouring countries such as the Baltic states.

In a country where security services have stepped up their targeting of independent NGOs and activists since the war against Kyiv started in February, the Russian volunteers know that assisting Ukrainians can carry risks.

“Telephone numbers are passed from person to person,” said one activist, who asked to remain anonymous in order not to jeopardise her work. “Unfortunately, considering the conditions in which we’re working right now, it’s not exactly possible to hang up some big poster.”

Many of the refugees they are helping did not want to end up in Russia but were transported there from areas of intense fighting in Ukraine. Kyiv has accused Moscow of forcibly deporting Ukrainians from places such as Mariupol. Russia says it is simply evacuating civilians.

People leave the Lux Express bus from St Petersburg at the Tallinn Bus Station in Tallinn, Estonia
People leave the Lux Express bus from St Petersburg at the Tallinn bus station in Tallinn, Estonia © Janis Laizans/Reuters

Once in Russia, Ukrainians are offered places in displacement camps across the country. Though ostensibly free to leave, many find themselves trapped, facing problems with money and paperwork after hurriedly fleeing the war and struggling to organise travel out of Russia.

This is where the volunteer network steps in: offering information and advice, co-ordinating cars and drivers, paying for train tickets and offering overnight stays for families passing through Moscow and St Petersburg on their way west.

Estonia is the most popular choice of exit destination as it lets Ukrainians enter even if they do not have all the correct international identity documents, volunteers said. Almost 20,000 Ukrainians have crossed into Estonia from Russia since the war began, according to local border police.

In the case of Tatyana, an engineer who asked that her surname not be given because of safety concerns, she and her family spent a month sheltering from artillery strikes in a basement in Mariupol. Unable to find a way to evacuate by travelling west into Ukraine, the family agreed to be transported to southern Russia.

They were taken first to a filtration camp in the Donetsk People’s Republic — part of Russian-occupied eastern Ukraine — where Tatyana said men were strip-searched and interrogated by separatist fighters. They then travelled by train to a displacement camp in the central Russian city of Penza.

The displacement centres are typically dormitories or repurposed holiday camps and sanatoriums scattered across Russia, including in places as remote as Vladivostok, 10 time zones away from Moscow. Ukrainians brought to Russia are given a choice about where they will be taken, activists said, but many agree to whatever they are offered or don’t know the cities in question.

“Clearly, some people just threw up their hands and said: ‘take us wherever, so long as we’re not being bombed, we’ll figure it out later’,” said Father Grigory Mikhnov-Voitenko, a clergyman and activist in St Petersburg, who works with the network, visiting local displacement centres.

“It’s important to understand that all of the people with whom we are speaking . . . they’re all suffering from pretty serious post-traumatic stress disorders, to varying degrees,” he said.

Author and volunteer Evgeny Bakalo, who has organised a support network for about 600 Ukrainian refugees staying in the Russian city of Belgorod, 40km from the border with Ukraine, said some people were fearful of going to official displacement centres and tried to sort out their own accommodation instead.

But in Belgorod there are many evacuees and housing is in short supply. Bakalo once picked up a priest and his family who were preparing to spend the night on the side of the road.

Often, he says, he helps evacuees get access to healthcare or do simple things like fix glasses or feed pets. “People are really responsive. Sometimes we’re raising 5,000-6,000 roubles for a train ticket . . . Sometimes people just ask for [evacuees’] passport details and buy train tickets for them themselves.”

While Tatyana said conditions in the displacement camp in Penza were “fine”, they wanted to get out of Russia as soon as they could. “We heard one of the volunteers asking people: ‘would you like to leave to Europe?’ So we threw ourselves at the chance,” she said.

The activists bought them tickets to St Petersburg and took them to the station. In St Petersburg, another group of volunteers arranged a minibus to take them and other Ukrainians to the Estonian border.

Tatyana said at the busy border her husband was interrogated for about an hour by Russian police but that everyone was allowed to cross. The activists waited with them until they did, while other volunteers met them on the Estonian side. From there, Tatyana and her family have now made their way to Sweden by boat.

In general, independent Russian volunteers have been able to co-ordinate with local authorities and gain access to displacement camps, and volunteers helping Ukrainians to exit Russia have not been expressly targeted for their work, the activist said. But many of her friends have been detained for protesting the war, with one currently in jail, facing a lengthy sentence.

Voicing opposition to the war, or offering support for Ukraine, has been criminalised by Russian authorities, with some acts punishable with a prison sentence of up to 15 years.

“Of course, we live in Russia, so we’re constantly thinking, who could be next,” she said.

Tatyana said she was now waiting to go home to a city “that no longer exists”. But she said she and her family would remember the volunteers who had helped them get to Sweden.

“They did everything they could to walk in our shoes and understand our situation,” she said. “I don’t know how it would have all gone if we had not met them, how we would have got out . . . it would have been some sort of labyrinth.”

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