How Russian women are helping refugees from Ukraine
Helping Ukrainians trapped in Russia or occupied territories is becoming more challenging. Volunteers who are not affiliated with the Russian authorities encounter obstacles, such as blocked bank accounts, legal pressure, and threats. Donations are decreasing.
Originally published in Russian, Paper spoke to three volunteers and found out how they delivered humanitarian aid under shelling, sent boats to flooded areas near the Kakhovka Dam, and lived in Mariupol — and why they are worried for their safety.
“We felt like we were doing the government’s work.” How Russian women have been helping refugees from Ukraine and what challenges they face.
Helping Ukrainians trapped in Russia or occupied territories is becoming more challenging. Volunteers who are not affiliated with the Russian authorities encounter obstacles, such as blocked bank accounts, legal pressure, and threats. Additionally, donations are decreasing.
“Paper” spoke to three volunteers and found out how they delivered humanitarian aid under shelling, sent boats to flooded areas near the Kakhovka Dam, and lived in Mariupol — and why they are worried for their safety.
How a woman from St. Petersburg lived in Mariupol for a month — burying those she helped and transporting casualties in critical condition.
In the first weeks of the war, Maria (name changed at her request) helped by distributing aid to detainees at anti-war rallies in St. Petersburg. Once the protests ended, she learned about Mariupol refugees arriving near St. Petersburg.
— I called up some volunteers I knew from other areas, we cooperated and started travelling to the refugee camp near Tikhvin. At first, we just brought humanitarian aid, but then we tried to get systematic legal and psychological assistance on the basis of a TAC (Temporary Accommodation Centre — Paper), but it unfortunately didn’t work out,” says Maria.
Her first case was a young man who, unlike his family, did not want to stay in Russia. Maria was able to send him to Europe, where the former Mariupol citizen settled in Vilnius.
Maria stopped working with refugees from the TAC in summer 2022. By then, two or three chat rooms had been formed in the Tikhvin camp, which, according to the volunteer, “turned into a frenzy when trucks brought piles of all sorts of junk,” not all of it useful. Maria also began to receive “difficult cases” through mutual friends. That summer, Maria began working with difficult medical cases and convincing relatives to leave the war zone when necessary. Her volunteer work took her to occupied Mariupol in the spring of 2023, where she lived for a month.
“Volunteers from different regions regularly travel to Mariupol, bringing humanitarian aid. But my trip was long term,” Maria explains. “Our main goal was to see what the situation with medical and social assistance was like. We also wanted to take out people who need help, such as lonely disabled people.”
She went to Mariupol with the intention of assisting three individuals with disabilities. However, unfortunately two of them passed away before receiving medical help. Only one story had a positive outcome – Maria successfully saved a man with cerebral palsy and his sister.
“I buried one of my wards in Mariupol. The woman had cancer even before 24 February. Her house was destroyed and there was no one to take care of her; her alcoholic son was missing a leg. The woman died two days before resuscitators arrived,” said the volunteer. “It always hits me very hard when my charges die. But knowing that I did everything within my power helps me cope.”
Maria said it is not difficult to get to Mariupol with a Russian passport: you just have to pass through customs and answer standard questions from border guards. Volunteers haven’t been threatened or interrogated at the border, she added.
“Mariupol no longer exists. It is just ruins. Without any construction crews, it resembles a ghost town. But the remaining residents have a deep attachment to their home and land. They regularly go on subbotniks (voluntary unpaid work on days off) to clean up, despite the devastation. People exist in a constant mode of survival and apathy. Frankly, they don’t care about choosing sides: Russia or Ukraine. What matters to them is not to be bombed or shot at, to be able to live.
According to Maria, any household activity requires effort. Stores are open, but there are few options and prices are high. Some goods have to be ordered and take about a month to arrive — baby food, for example, is difficult to buy even in pharmacies.
“In essence, it is a quiet humanitarian catastrophe,” says the girl. “Despite all the problems with infrastructure and bureaucracy, most of the population is elderly and ill with complex chronic diseases, traumas, and injuries. There is neither medical nor social assistance for the most defenceless and vulnerable residents. Social services are so overwhelmed that one employee has about a dozen addresses per shift. They don’t carry out serious medical examinations. Ambulances can do nothing.”
Despite her trips to Mariupol and her anti-war sentiment, Maria says she has not faced any pressure or threats. But her closest colleagues — journalist Halina Artemenko and priest Grigory Mikhnov-Vaytenko — had their bank accounts blocked. The Refugee Assistance Centre financially supported Maria’s activities.
“It became harder to work, especially in medical cases. Blocking volunteers’ accounts is like cutting off their air,” Maria said. “Of course, you can go somewhere only with sheer enthusiasm, but not far. In one way or another, everything needs money.”
Maria says that it costs 30,000 roubles to transport seriously ill patients from Mariupol to Rostov and 160,000 roubles to transport them from Rostov to St. Petersburg. More than 100,000 roubles more are needed for hospitalisation and medicines.
Maria hopes volunteers and benefactors are not being directly targeted:
“This is most likely due to the new law, which our dear lower house of parliament passed without taking into account all the banking system’s nuances. Apparently, the bank’s automated systems have started to go crazy. We’ve been hit, and it will take a long time to explain and prove all this to the banks.”
Maria tries to remain anonymous — she did not disclose any information about herself or whom she helps: “the fewer references there are to specific people, the easier it is to work.” After all, she soon may have to return to Mariupol.
How volunteer Nadine distributed “humanitarian aid” in a war zone and fled Russia.
28-year-old Belgorod resident Nadine Rossinskaya fled Russia in May because of threats. For more than a year she supervised and travelled with a group of volunteers “to document everything”: first to the Kharkiv region, then to other territories of Ukraine occupied by the Russian army. Her activities attracted the attention of law enforcers and Z-activists.
“I didn’t volunteer at the beginning of the war,” Nadine says. “I, like many people in Russia, just scrolled through anti-war Telegram channels, waiting for a miracle.”
In early March 2022, an acquaintance from Kharkiv wrote to Nadine and asked her to shelter a homeless woman from the city. The girl invited the woman to Belgorod, but several other families joined the refugee. So one morning, eleven people and four dogs stood on the doorstep of Nadine’s one-room Belgorod apartment.
“I was horrified: I met emotionally broken and physically injured people who had spent weeks in basements. They were hungry, frozen, dirty. Telling me all the horrors they had experiences since 24 February. It turned my life upside down. I realised that I couldn’t be silent. I had to do something,” Nadine explains.
A few days later, Nadine and her sister, dressed in yellow and blue, handed out flowers on the main Belgorod square. They were arrested after 10 minutes: the police considered it a rally and fined the sisters 15,000 roubles each.
Not long after, other Ukrainians wrote to Nadine asking her to feed refugees and dozens of cats and dogs that were hiding in an animal shelter near Kharkiv. This was when she made her first Instagram video to try to collect humanitarian aid.
But the two sisters couldn’t keep up with the thousands of people who needed help. Fortunately, volunteers from Moscow and St. Petersburg came to Belgorod — Nadine formed a team and moved into a rented warehouse. In April, Nadine found out that it was still possible to cross the border between the Kharkiv and Belgorod Oblasts and started travelling to record and raise awareness online.
“I took all their requests personally. I heard dozens of mothers not just crying, but screaming their eyes out because their children had died. Sometimes they asked me to pick up their son in the evening, but I ran out of time and was late by a few hours — by then, the son was dead,” said Nadine. “I was preparing myself that at any moment the security forces might come for me, or that I might die on the road. Shelling comes from both sides.”
Alongside distributing humanitarian aid, the volunteers helped evacuate civilians. To ensure that people did not get lost when they were taken to Russia, Nadine stood at checkpoints, met evacuation buses with lists, put people in hostels, and connected them with relatives. After that, refugees were usually sent to St. Petersburg, where they are met by the volunteer organisation Helping to Leave.
Volunteers often must find and pay for medical assistance and help restore refugees’ identity documents. All of this with donations. According to Nadine, she spent her personal savings on the first Ukrainians back in March 2022.
The AFU (Ukrainian Armed Forces) recapturing the Kharkiv Oblast in September “was a turning point” for the volunteers, Nadine said. Police started coming by the warehouse, and the girls had to move. Nadine was often denied entry at the border. The Ministry of Justice refused to officially recognise her foundation — “they always didn’t like something in the documents.” Nadine and her sister’s Sberbank accounts were blocked, as were their Tinkoff accounts, where they received donations.
“I understand why they allowed me to go to Kharkiv,” explained Nadine. “First of all, we were the very first there and had been vetted several times by men in balaclavas. Everyone knew that there was a crazy woman with purple hair running around checkpoints, yelling that Ukrainians were starving and grandmothers were without insulin. It also used to be profitable for the state: we supplied the Kharkiv region with tons of humanitarian aid every month. When the AFU returned, what good were we? We had seen too much.”
Because of this attention from law enforcement, Nadine changed the name of her volunteer movement several times and made sure every post she made on Instagram did not “discredit the army.”
“The most difficult period was the spring of this year. Shots were fired at my warehouse, volunteers were chased around Belgorod, and their calls and social networks monitored. I received messages from incomprehensible people. I realised that I would either be legally discredited and silenced, or I would simply disappear,” recalled the volunteer.
When Nadine’s parents’ greenhouse caught fire “on the flick of a switch, without any wiring short-circuiting,” she began to worry about her loved ones’ safety and criminal prosecution. In May 2023, Nadine delivered the last of her humanitarian aid, closed the warehouse, disbanded the volunteer movement, and left Russia. Ukrainians who had settled abroad took her in.
“When I left, I did not know where I would end up: I had no money, no belongings, nothing. But it turned out that I had Ukrainian friends in almost every country. I came to them hungry, tired, scared, and very uncomfortable, but they accepted me,” says Nadine. She did not disclose where she currently was.
Already in exile when the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant was destroyed, Nadine again assembled a team of people from Russia and Ukraine — to help civilians under AFU control and those under the control of the Russian Armed Forces. Now she pays more attention to the volunteers’ safety:
“When I started, I had to work publicly to make sure my activities weren’t silenced. Now you can’t do that. None of our volunteers receive money or instructions from me directly so that they can work in peace and not disappear into a basement with a bag over their heads. Recently, I was told that people in Russia had been questioned because of donations made to my personal bank account in 2022. It was ridiculous — only 300 roubles transferred. So now none of the donations go to my accounts.
How a St. Petersburg woman helped Ukrainians from the Kakhovka Dam flood zone and faced blocked accounts
“Volunteering is my form of protest,” says Diana Ramazanova, a lawyer at the Refugee Assistance Centre. “Even though it hurts and is morally exhausting, it’s how I show my support. It’s an opportunity to influence the situation, to not feel like a nobody — because that’s how we all felt on 24 February, when we weren’t asked if we wanted a war.”
Diana was a member of the Human Rights Council of St. Petersburg when the war broke out. She and her colleagues monitored rallies for offences by law enforcement officers. When street protests died down in March 2022, Diana became a coordinator to distribute assistance to Ukrainian refugees.
“Everyone was in turmoil when the war started. Then Grigory Aleksandrovich Mikhnov-Vaitenko [a St. Petersburg priest] suggested helping Ukrainian citizens who were in Russia. We received 60 requests for help in the first week, including for legal assistance: policemen went to Ukrainians in Russia, some of whom they had not checked at the border. We took people from the war zone to Europe. Then the first refugees came, brought to Russia by the government.”
In spring 2022, the volunteers formed the Refugee Assistance Centre at Mikhnov-Vaitenko’s church, the Orthodox Community of the Apostolic Tradition in the Name of the Holy Trinity. They rented a space at 49 Kurlyandskaya Street in August 2022 and opened a humanitarian aid station there, known as Gumsklad. Diana began counselling volunteers on legal issues.
She now specialises in helping refugees from the Kakhovka Dam area. During the first days of the tragedy, the Russian authorities on the Dnieper’s left bank did not allow volunteers into flooded areas. So Diana decided to cooperate with the occupying government agencies. Through the Ministry of Emergency Situations, a team of volunteers distributed boats and contacted the Russian Deputy Minister of Social Protection for the Kherson region to deliver a truckload of humanitarian aid, including washing machines, hygiene products, household chemicals, and underwear.
“I am anti-war and understand everything that’s happening: the occupied territories and so on. Many have criticised me for choosing to work through government agencies. But if the choice is between just talk and helping people, I will always choose the second. I don’t want to leave people to die, starve, and walk around in dirty underwear,” Diana explained. “Ukraine, unfortunately, could not help [people in the occupied territories of the Kherson region] at that moment. But they still needed humanitarian aid. It is completely unsanitary there — there’s no drinking water or clothing. Many people remain in the flooded areas, waiting for the Ukrainian forces to return.
Today, Refugee Assistance Centre focuses on medical care. They pay for ambulances to take Ukrainians with wounds, amputations, and chronic diseases from the warzone to St. Petersburg, and then on to Europe. Diana says this kind of assistance requires large sums of money, which is difficult to raise because Sberbank has frozen volunteers’ bank accounts. Mikhnov-Vaitenko’s church, which is a legal entity, has also had its accounts frozen.
— There are more and more complex medical cases, but our funding is only a third of what it was. We have almost no donations: people are less willing to help: everyone is used to the war and are tired. Plus, they blocked our accounts. Organisations that used to support us are afraid to transfer funds. All this has significantly reduced our abilities and consequently, assistance to people affected by the war. We do not have enough money for even basic humanitarian aid.
Sberbank blocked their accounts because of a law (115-FZ). It was adopted in the autumn of 2022 to combat money laundering.
— We felt like we were doing the government’s work. If the accounts being frozen were deliberate, it’s the first sign that they will soon come after us. Even though they haven’t touched me much yet, I suspect that they might tap my phone, especially since my friends go to prison from time to time. But for now, we do what we can and accept the risks.
The Refugee Assistance Centre now collects funds through other channels and plans to organise an auction: “It’s just not possible to just receive donations as before.” Diana and her colleagues will probably be left without salaries in July because of the frozen accounts. But she says the organisation is trying to stay afloat: “We don’t think the war will be over soon, and we know there will be more people who need our help. The most important thing is for us to not stop our work.”