“Action is Easier Than Inaction”

How significant is volunteering during the war? Is it difficult to help displaced Ukrainians while in Russia? “Posle” interviewed an anonymous volunteer who helps Ukrainians leave Russia for Europe

— What kind of volunteer help do you provide, and how did you start doing it?

— I am engaged in volunteer assistance to Ukrainian refugees so that they can leave Russia. I buy tickets, book accommodations, look for medical treatment, and provide necessary items, among other things. I started doing this in the spring of 2022, around the end of April. As soon as the full-scale invasion of Ukraine began, I immediately began seeking opportunities to help. All my acquaintances and friends in Europe were volunteering, and I expected that the flow of refugees would start arriving here as well. However, it reached the major cities of Russia a bit later.

— Do you manage to find a balance between your volunteer work and professional life?

— No, I don’t. Probably because of my mental state. Before the full-scale invasion, I worked in sales. I sold things through storytelling and a positive attitude. Some of my customers have disappeared, and the markets have changed, but that’s not the reason my professional life has suffered. Psychologically I can no longer do what I was doing while the war is ongoing.

“I am engaged in volunteer assistance to Ukrainian refugees so that they can leave Russia”

— What difficulties do volunteers helping displaced Ukrainians in Russia face?

— It is always difficult to build trust. Help is based on trust between you and the person you are assisting, and it involves hard emotional labor. I understand that to gain people’s trust, they need to form a connection with me, see that I am a reliable individual who genuinely wants to help without causing harm. However, I don’t have the resources to establish such relationships. I didn’t join volunteering to “become friends” with refugees. Of course, there are still many organizational challenges. I need to remember various details, respond swiftly, locate the necessary items (such as medicines, doctor’s consultations, special food, etc.), but these issues can be resolved through acquired skills and knowing where to ask. Nevertheless, the emotional aspect is probably the most challenging. Volunteering, especially over an extended period, leads to burnout. All volunteers experience a state of enduring traumatic stress. Often, we extend our help beyond our capabilities because someone has to do it. I wish there were more people like that, as it would reduce the burden on me.

— Is it difficult for new people to become involved in volunteer networks?

— Anyone who is searching can always find such networks and become involved. There is no secret knowledge here. Individuals who have been volunteering for a long time might sometimes have a distorted perception of reality. On the one hand, we become overly cautious, and on the other hand, we might overlook what is obvious to newcomers. Therefore, from my perspective, the influx of new people is always welcome.

— Do you feel threatened by the Russian security services or the state in general?

— Personally, I have not received any threats. The most significant threat to me is the feeling of complete powerlessness. Without having violated any of the existing laws of the Russian Federation, I feel vulnerable. The rules of the game can change at any moment. Today, I can help Ukrainian refugees, and tomorrow they might enact a law stating that I can assist only if I hop on one leg and bark. When I wake up in the morning, I don’t know what the evening will bring. It’s exceedingly challenging. Of course, there must be some volunteers who face intimidation from the authorities. However, for me, the most troubling aspect is this unpredictability. I can’t find any logic in many of the events occurring right now, including those related to the issue of refugees.

— Are there things that assist you in your work and provide emotional support?

— The people I interact with, both those I collaborate with and those I assist, are what keep me going. My motivation is fueled by the thought, “If not us, then who?” There are individuals who recognize the need to help and they have enough emotional and material resources to do that. With experience, they acquire knowledge and the necessary skills. For example, they know how to order a cab more efficiently, where to find an affordable hostel, which mobile plan to recommend, which phone command enables roaming, and which food delivery service is punctual. Skills make the work more manageable, but there’s currently a shortage of hope. I continue just because action is easier than inaction.

“The most significant threat to me is the feeling of complete powerlessness. Without having violated any of the existing laws of the Russian Federation, I feel vulnerable”

— What cases in your work do you find particularly difficult?

— As far as I’m concerned, every case is challenging. As Leo Tolstoy wrote, “Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” All the families we work with are suffering. It’s impossible to measure and compare the pain of different individuals. Some cope better, while others struggle more. In my opinion, some people have experienced truly terrible things, but they possess the strength to continue living. The war has impacted everyone. The ease or difficulty of the journey to Europe depends on the volunteer’s skills. For instance, transporting a cat without owners is much more complex than moving a bedridden patient because the former requires contacting a lot more people. To transfer a bedridden patient, you only need money, but for a cat, you need to find not only money but also individuals willing to accompany and care for it. In the realm of volunteering, problems that can be resolved with money are often the simplest ones. Therefore, it’s not accurate to say that it’s harder to transfer the sick than the healthy. Some volunteers are adept at it, and for them, it’s routine. Volunteers come in various forms, each with a different skill set.

— How important is anonymity in your work, and is it difficult to work without being able to acknowledge your efforts?

— Personally, I’m generally comfortable with anonymity, but at some point, it would be better to have less of it. I don’t know whether such activities are dangerous or not; I don’t have the data. Many people assist those in challenging situations, including refugees. However, Ukrainian refugees are here due to the ongoing situation between Ukraine and Russia. It pains me that I can’t express my perspective on what’s happening. To continue helping, I have to choose silence. I have to decide between my feelings and thoughts and what I can say, and it’s tough. At the same time, the people I assist and those I collaborate with are aware of my actions.

“In the realm of volunteering, problems that can be resolved with money are often the simplest ones”

It’s essential to understand that volunteering is not an individual’s endeavor and cannot be appropriated. It’s the collective effort of numerous people loosely connected to each other, without superiors or subordinates. The fact that many people engage in it creates a new entity, bridging the gap between reality and humanity. Here, everyone who has contributed even a small part has already done something very significant, so there’s no need for comparisons. Additionally, there are cases where a person doesn’t directly aid refugees but supports someone who does. In general, it’s the sum of these efforts that matters.

— Are there misunderstandings between volunteers staying in Russia and those who have moved abroad?

— Of course, there are misunderstandings. In some cases, individuals who have left and those who have stayed have different perspectives on the same issues. For example, conflicts may arise about publicity or disagreements about what can or cannot be said. While not insurmountable, these conflicts can be quite draining. However, it’s important to note that these conflicts pertain to emotions, perceptions, and values that exist alongside the actual assistance provided. Some of these conflicts can be resolved quickly, while others may take a longer time. But the crucial aspect is that the assistance continues even as these conflicts are being addressed.

— You help Ukrainians leave Russia. What is your attitude towards volunteers and organizations that help Ukrainians integrate in Russia?

— I can say with certainty that I don’t want the people of Oleshky to continue to stay there because the living conditions there are currently unacceptable. Volunteers helping Ukrainians who choose to remain in Russia may have more tolerance than I do. Regardless of who says what, I believe that “good” should not be “imposed.” One should simply help those who have requested it. You can’t decide for a person where they choose to live and why. I may not share their choice, but I have no right to judge. I can only select the individuals I personally assist. I will never claim that Russian volunteers helping Ukrainians here are promoting assimilation or turning them into aggressors. After all, individuals affected by war are deeply traumatized. Their choices often stem from profound fears and pain. These choices are influenced by their personal history and their ability to cope with the harrowing experiences. If they opt to stay in Russia, they may simply be trying to avoid acknowledging their past experiences and fearing the prospect of further upheaval. Assisting people who choose to move to Europe is, in some ways, easier. They have a desire to move forward and a willingness to rebuild their lives.

— What difficulties do Ukrainians who leave Russia for Europe face?

— There are challenges, particularly at European borders, including Estonia, Latvia, and Poland. Russian border guards often conduct rigorous interrogations, and other issues may arise. However, in my experience, the most frequent difficulties occur when entering the EU. Ukrainians are frequently denied entry, as border officers demand proof that they are “real refugees” who were truly in Ukraine when the full-scale invasion began. The fact that individuals have erased data from their phones [to pass through the Russian border] and lack documents for various reasons is not taken into account. In general, determining whether a person is entitled to protection should be the responsibility of immigration authorities inside the country, not border guards. Essentially, this is a violation of refugee rights. In my practice, most individuals can deal with these rejections. Nonetheless, it is emotionally, physically, and financially draining. People often have to cross multiple borders, sometimes even a third one. Unexpected challenges can arise.

“To continue helping, I have to choose silence”

— How do EU rules on animal importation affect refugees, and how have they changed since the beginning of the full-scale invasion?

— Previously, Ukrainian refugees could enter the EU with their pet animals through a simplified procedure. Now, the procedures have been regularized, which, in our case, means they have become more complex. This change is due to the increase in the flow of refugees as a result of the destruction of the Kakhovka hydroelectric plant. The catastrophe resulted in a significant influx of refugees through Russia, and many of them were traveling with their pets. Consequently, people are faced with the difficult choice of either leaving their pets behind or remaining in Russia for an extended period, incurring both financial and emotional costs. This is a tragic situation. Unfortunately, Europeans may not fully comprehend the condition in which refugees arrive at EU borders. While it may seem strange to express discontent toward the EU in this situation, some aspects should be handled differently. The simplified procedures should not have been discontinued; they could have been made more stringent, such as by implementing mandatory quarantine upon entry. There have even been cases of animals being euthanized. Of course, animals should not be left unattended or neglected, but people should not be forced to make such a difficult choice.

— What problems do those who manage to complete this challenging journey face?

— In fact, a substantial amount of effort is being made. However, the scale of the disaster is so immense that no matter how much is done, it’s not enough. There is a need for more supporting organizations and integration procedures. I can outline the logistical issues I frequently encounter. For instance, not all airlines allow passengers with internal Ukrainian passports on board. Additionally, not all ground transportation routes permit Ukrainians to travel with animals; they must carry a stack of documents, or they’ll be restricted to traveling by car. It would be ideal if there were free tickets for Ukrainians from Russia to their final destination in Europe, but subsidies are not available everywhere, and volunteers often have to cover the costs.

“The scale of the disaster is so immense that no matter how much is done, it’s not enough”