At the end of our conversation, Andrei paused for a moment, and then says: “I’d like to share with you a thought that’s important to me: Not all Russians are evil.” Andrei is a volunteer who helps Ukrainians fleeing the war, most of them refugees from Mariupol, who are now located in Russia. His full name is being withheld. “What’s been happening in recent months is very difficult for me and I, like all the people who oppose the regime and the war, am caught between a rock and a hard place.”
The 30-year-old Russian volunteer explained to me that “on the one hand, there is the government and its supporters, who may not be the majority, but there are many of them. On the other hand, the whole world is invalidating Russians in every way possible.”
Evacuees reach Russia from other parts of Ukraine too, such as the Kharkiv and Luhansk regions, which are currently seeing fierce battles. Conversations Haaretz held with eight volunteers and refugees illustrated the most common escape route from the ravaged city of Mariupol: residents either leave on their own or are moved in groups by Russian or pro-Russian forces, and then taken by bus to transit and “screening’ camps in areas under Russian control in the “Donetsk People’s Republic.”
The most familiar transit point is the village of Bezimenne, but there are similar sites in the town of Volodarske (Nikolske in its Ukrainian version), in the city of Novoazovsk, in the town of Manhush and in other locations. From there, refugees who’ve passed the screening process are taken to the Russian border, where they are subjected to further checks and “screening.”
'The men were put in one of the tents, having to strip to their underwear. They were checked for tattoos. They were supposedly looking for members of the Azov regiment'
According to Nadezhda Kolobaeva, a 39-year-old TV director from Saint Petersburg, “they all say the same thing: ‘We didn’t know we could leave via Ukraine, we knew they had shot people there and that people trying to leave had been killed, while going to Russia meant humanitarian buses, which we got on.” Unlike most volunteers in Russia, Nadezhda is not concealing her identity.
Vitaly Pendychuk intended to escape Mariupol through Russia. He and his family, a wife and 12-year-old twins, left the occupied city on June 1. He recounts the smell of soot and rot that pervaded the neighborhoods that sustained the most damage. They successfully passed the screening process in the Donetsk People’s Republic, but failed a similar test on the Russian border. “It was humiliating and scary,” says Pendychuk, describing the tests evacuees had to go through in Bezimenne.
“The men were put in one of the tents, having to strip to their underwear. They were checked for tattoos. They were supposedly looking for members of the Azov regiment. When I entered, I saw a young man standing naked, with slightly bent legs, holding a block of wood with outstretched arms. The investigator questioned him while he was standing like that. ‘Did you have such and such a correspondence on the Viber app, did you write such and such, you’re a fascist. In the end they put a piece of printer paper over his face, tied his eyes with Scotch tape, put him in a car and drove away. I don’t know where they took him. My wife also saw three men taken somewhere by car with [tape] over their eyes.”
Later, says Pendychuk, before the interrogation stage, “someone came out and told us: I don’t care if your phones were burnt or buried under the rubble. Anyone without a phone will not pass the screening. Go look for them under the rubble and bring them back. There were two women there who didn’t have phones. They humiliated and insulted them. They told one of them: ‘Aren’t you pregnant yet? Never mind, you’ll leave here pregnant.’ They kept intimidating them with some ‘pit’ – they kept talking about some pit. They also took fingerprints and asked if I’d supported the government before 2014, after 2014, and now.”
Passengers didn’t know their destination until halfway into the trip, which lasted 24 hours. 'We asked the stewardess, who first said she didn’t know where we were being taken'
Pendychuk and his wife passed this screening test successfully, but when they reached the Russian border they had to undergo another grueling examination that included a search of their phones and threats. Ultimately, they had to turn back. They were forced to make a decision: Either sign a document stating they were forgoing entry to Russia, or be handed over to the “national security ministry” of the Donetsk People’s Republic. The main reason for this, Pendychuk said, was that they had lived in Donetsk until 2014, moving to a Ukrainian-controlled area after war broke out there, a move that was interpreted as showing loyalty to the “Nazi” regime in Kyiv.
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They chose the first option. In the end, with the help of a Russian volunteer the family managed to contact, the family left the occupied zone to an area under Ukrainian control. They are now trying to rebuild their lives for the second time in eight years.
Scattered near and far
People with their own cars, or people with friends or relatives in Russia who can drive them, continue on their journey. Some of them reach one of the larger cities near the border with Ukraine, such as Rostov-on-Don, where they look for housing and employment. Some move deeper into Russia; others are quick to cross through toward Europe, usually through the border with Estonia or Lithuania, occasionally via Georgia.
People without cars or those who cannot afford a railway ticket are usually transported to a transit camp in the city of Taganrog in southwestern Russia, where they stay for a few days. They are then put on trains that disperse them across the Russian Federation, from Siberia to the Leningrad district.
Information obtained by Haaretz indicates that evacuees cannot choose their destinations. This is where volunteers enter the picture. Some of them collect clothes and hygiene products, others help them deal with Russian bureaucracy. Others just want to help them leave Russia. Kolobaeva is one of them. She meets refugees in Saint Petersburg and takes them to the nearest border crossing to Estonia, the city of Ivangorod.
“Volunteers warn them up front: Don’t say you want to stay in Russia, otherwise you may find yourselves sent to Kamchatka,” says Kolobaeva, referring to a peninsula on the Bering Sea in Russia’s east. “There are many such cases – they send people to Vladivostok, Novosibirsk, Chelyabinsk. The first family I took to the border was first sent to Novosibirsk, even though they didn’t intend to remain in Russia.”
There, she says, “They bought tickets to Saint Petersburg with their remaining money. On the way, they discovered a chat group of volunteers whom they turned to. I took them to the border.”
‘A vacation in a concentration camp’
There is also an organization in the Czech Republic called “Helping to Leave,” which focuses on helping refugees leave war zones or Russia, if they get there. Anna, who did not want to give her surname due to security concerns, leads its department that helps people evacuated to Russia. She confirms that upon arrival, such evacuees are indeed sent to remote locations, and have no choice in the matter.
She adds that according to her organization’s information, these people are at risk of interrogation, searches and pressure by Russian authorities. “Investigators frequently intimidate them and say they are searching for terrorists, and at the same time pressure them to declare that they are victims of Pravy Sektor” – an extremist right-wing movement in Ukraine – “or of the Azov Regiment. We’ve had cases of minors who were interrogated like that, without their parents present.”
The organization has had Russian volunteers, but Anna says they decided not to endanger them. Those volunteers help refugees remotely with logistics and buying tickets, among other things.
Refugees evacuated by train to Russia’s heartland are quartered in temporary housing, usually in sanatoriums. There they receive basic medical treatment and food, and are expected to plan their lives from scratch. They have the options of receiving Russian citizenship and looking for housing and work, or trying to leave Russia – in the hopes of being taken in by a European country or returning to Ukraine, a process requiring means and resourcefulness.
Some evacuees remain in these temporary quarters for months, trying to collect the documents required to obtain citizenship or waiting for an opportunity to return home. Some of them, mainly older or ill refugees and those in difficult socio-economic circumstances, simply have nowhere to go. Volunteers often find themselves in a state of helplessness.
“The matter of children is difficult and very painful,” says volunteer Andrei, who is helping people in one of these temporary housing locations. “Imagine a single mother with three small children, who spends all the money she gets on alcohol. What do you do with a woman like that? Do you call in social services and take her children away? That would mean that Russia is taking children away [from Ukrainian refugees]. That aside, children’s homes in Russia are problematic. But what do you do if a child is in a bad situation? What do you do with domestic violence, when a husband beats his wife and child?”
Along with reports of mass evacuations to Russia, there are also rumors that refugees are being imprisoned in camps. The Ukrainian human rights commissioner, Lyudmyla Denisova (who was removed from her post by parliament), said in April that Ukrainian refugees were being held against their will in the Russian city of Penza. Volunteers say that compounds in which evacuees are housed are guarded and hard to access, but that evacuees are not imprisoned there.
“Physically, anyone can leave the compound,” says Andrei. “There is a turnstile at the entrance and residents get a magnetic card they can use to leave anytime they want to. There are shuttles to the nearest city, from which they can take public transportation to the nearest metropolitan center.” However, says Kolobaeva, refugees at these locations often don’t know their rights.
“For example, many people don’t know that they can travel to Europe. Some do, but they say, ‘Where would we go? Everything in Mariupois blown up, we have no relatives.’ In order to leave the temporary housing, you need accommodations, for which you need documents,” she said, which refugees don’t often have. “In short, it’s like a vacation in a concentration camp.”
The location Andrei volunteers in is closed to most outsiders. “A limited group of volunteers can enter the sanatorium, but this was the result of long negotiations,” he says. “Everyone is very cautious about this, including the volunteers and the facility’s managers. Any incautious media coverage could lead to problems.”
Russian volunteers risk being removed from the compound, but there may be a personal price as well. According to a report from the Russian opposition website Meduza, volunteers who helped refugees who were housed near Penza were harassed by police and threatened by anonymous figures. One female volunteer was arrested and later released. A colleague’s tires were slashed, and graffiti reading “A Ukro-Nazi lives here” was painted on his front door. Haaretz tried to contact these two volunteers, but they refused to talk. Indirect sources did confirm the Meduza report.
According to a report from the Mediazona website, a similar story unfolded in the city of Tver. Volunteers who helped Ukrainian refugees and expressed their opposition to the war had to leave the country after their homes were searched.
A warm welcome from Russian intelligence
Oleksandr Hodun left Mariupol with his wife and 22-year-old son in March. They had survived an explosion in their yard, which killed many of his neighbors. “People were preparing food and were torn to shreds, flying in every direction. There were legs scattered…my son and I were lucky. We stayed alive. He took me out of the rubble. I was hit in the head, with a hemorrhage in half of my head. We then tried to understand what had happened. We concluded that it was something that was dropped from a plane. People inside the building were killed as well. After we took the bodies out, I couldn’t stop shaking.”
Hodun says that his family passed the screening relatively easily. They were taken by bus to a transit camp in Taganrog, and from there, by train, to Penza, along with 1,000 other evacuees. Passengers didn’t know their destination until halfway into the trip, which lasted 24 hours. “We asked the stewardess, who first said she didn’t know where we were being taken, but later told us it was Penza. We didn’t care, we just wanted to be far from the war.”
“In Penza, we were welcomed by an orchestra. There was music, and military cadets helped us, taking us to a former military base near the city. They housed us there and fed us well. The volunteers really helped, providing us with things. Our family got two rooms with a shower, bathroom and sink. Everything was good. There were no complaints. There was clean air there. After sitting in a cellar, you can imagine how wonderful it was. The only problem was that we didn’t want to live on Russian soil.”
Hodun’s family stayed in the temporary housing for a month and a half, from March 26 to mid-May. In that time, they were summoned four times to a conversation with the FSB security agency and to an “investigative committee,” another agency that is subordinate to Russian President Vladimir Putin. “They wanted us to say that Ukraine had mistreated the residents of Mariupol. I told the FSB agents: I had a good salary, good work at the Azovstal steel works. They were surprised I had such a salary. They asked me what I thought of them coming to liberate us. I told them: how can you tell us you liberated us when I had a higher salary than yours? How can I respond to that? So they said: let’s write that you respond to it neutrally. I agreed. What could I do in a foreign country?”
Hodun and his family are now in Germany. When asked if he knew how they could leave Russia, he replied, “The truth is, I thought it was unrealistic. There were people who had risked their health and lives for us; I’m just proud of them. They showed us the way.” These are the volunteers, including members of Rubikus, another Russian-speaking group that is based in Germany and helps refugees on the move remotely.
Another volunteer, an activist in Penza, was arrested right after she had bought the family railway tickets to the border. It turned out that the tickets fell into the hands of the FSB. “When she was arrested, we thought it was over, that our path was blocked. But they summoned us to the FSB, presenting themselves as journalists. My wife and I smiled: ‘Yes, we can see by your faces that you are journalists.’ They also smiled and asked where we were going. What don’t you like here? We said that we liked everything except the general situation, I just lived in another country. Then they gave us the tickets,” says Alexander.
Kolobaeva says, “From what I know of the three temporary housing locations, I understood that they allow us to help, quietly. ‘You arrive quietly, leave provisions, and leave quietly, without writing or saying anything, definitely not on social media,’” says. Despite these messages, which come not just from the authorities, but from members of closed groups of volunteers, Kolobaeva has no intention of concealing her actions. She gives interviews and writes about what she does on social media.
She says that through her writing, people seeking help who did not know about any chat groups that could aid them approached her. “Someone once called me by name at a train station. I was surprised. She told me that I had given her a new life. ‘Because of you, I found chat groups of refugees. I joined one of them and now I can finally help, and I’m not destroying myself with my thoughts.’”
Kolobaeva does not dismiss the possibility that she is endangering the aid enterprise by exposing it. On the other hand, she says, “we help ourselves more than the refugees. We help ourselves not go crazy. There is a fine line between treading softly so no one finds out what we’re doing and people needing help but not knowing how to get it.”