Galina Artiomenko has been raising funds for a year and a half to help Ukrainians displaced in Russia due to the February 2022 offensive. Suddenly, in mid-July, her bank cards and those of two other volunteers were blocked. “According to the bank, our collections pursued ‘dubious objectives,'” she says disgustedly, claiming to be able to justify “every ruble spent.”

This blockade shows that their humanitarian commitment is the target of suspicion in a country where repression against those who criticize the attack on Ukraine is in full swing. Together with other volunteers in St. Petersburg (northwest), Galina spreads calls for donations on the Internet. With the money collected she buys clothing, medicines and food products for those who were forced by hostilities to reach Russian territory.

Receives Ukrainians at the St. Petersburg station. It helps them find accommodation, work, or carry out administrative procedures to try to go to the European Union (EU) from Russia. “There are thousands of people who help (Ukrainians) but prefer not to talk about it for security reasons. Although there is no law that prohibits helping people who have fallen from grace,” he says.

In a context of exacerbated repression, many volunteers refuse to speak about the conflict and their help to refugees for fear of attracting the attention of the authorities, who arrest anonymous people accused of collaborating with Kiev or denigration of the Russian army.

According to Liudmila, a 43-year-old volunteer who prefers to keep her last name a secret, many of these Russians are “pacifists” who cannot openly express their positions and ease their conscience by helping victims. “We cannot sit idly by, we have to help those who are in a worse situation than ours and who are suffering,” Lioudmila emphasizes. “It’s the only way to exist that we have left,” says Galina.

According to a UN count from the end of December 2022, about 1.3 million Ukrainians are displaced in Russian territory. Moscow estimates that there are more than 5 million, a figure that NGOs question. Some are in transit, especially in the EU border region. Others say they want to stay in the country.

For its part, kyiv accuses the Kremlin of having deported Ukrainians to Russia and of pressuring them to obtain Russian passports. The International Criminal Court issued a historic arrest warrant in March against Russian President Vladimir Putin and his children’s guardian, Maria Lvova Belova, for the “war crime of illegal deportation” of children. Moscow denies this and assures that the displaced people come voluntarily or were evacuated for their own safety.

In Russia, solidarity networks helping refugees have been actively operating since the beginning of the offensive. The AFP was with Galina on one of her work days. The volunteer buys household products and deposits them at a collection point for essential items for Ukrainians.

The center, called “Gumsklad” and open every day, welcomes up to ten beneficiary families daily. On numerous shelves, there are shoes, clothes, food and household appliances. Then he goes out to buy glasses in a store in the city center for Elena and Igor, who have come from Bakhmut, a city in eastern Ukraine whose conquest Moscow has claimed since the spring, although the fighting is still ongoing.

The Moscow-based NGO has more resources. It currently receives up to 50 people a day, after records in 2022, according to volunteer Yulia Makeyeva, 49. For her, the emotional factor is the most difficult to manage in the face of the suffering of refugees. “To conserve energy and hope I try to keep a certain distance, otherwise I can’t work, I just cry,” she summarizes.

That day, Yulia and her husband Alexander, who fled the Ukrainian city of Kupiansk almost a year ago with their two children, ages 7 and 3, tearfully tell how they had to survive under the bombing. “I just want peace,” says Yulia.