‘Ukro-Nazi enablers’ Police officers and anonymous bloggers harass Russian volunteers who helped Ukrainian refugees reach Estonia
Up until the end of April, a group of volunteers were working in Penza to help Ukrainian refugees get to St. Petersburg and, from there, to Estonia. However, threats from anonymous Telegram channels and direct pressure from unknown parties — graffitied doors, slashed tires — forced the Penza volunteers to shut down their efforts. Journalist Vladimir Sevrinovsky spent several days with the last group of refugees from Mariupol whom the Penza group was able to help get out of Russia.
Penza to Leonidovka
A taxi with taped-up cracks drove past a triangular billboard with a “Z” emblem and a slogan, “We are not ashamed. The truth is behind us.” Irina Gurskaya sat in the passenger seat. She’s a quiet, middle-aged economist with her eyeglasses on a chain. She was with Igor Zhulimov, a lawyer with salt and pepper hair and animated facial expressions. He’s always gesticulating. Igor has been collecting money to support Ukrainian refugees, while Gurskaya has been buying them groceries and clothes then taking them to a temporary housing camp in the village of Leonidovska, near Penza. Albert was driving. He is a local communist who believes that the Communist Party of the Russian Federation isn’t Leninist enough. Volunteering had brought them all together.
The breakout of war shocked Gurskaya. One day, she was strolling through her native Penza, when she imagined bombs falling on her building, Penzites hiding in their basements and trying to survive there without water or electricity. She decided she needed to help Ukrainian refugees.
While Albert was driving, Irina was scrolling through Telegram channels. A message was spreading through the Ukrainian public channels: “Ukrainian Human Rights Commissioner Lyudmila Denisova said that seven people from Mariupol, including a family with multiple children, have been rescued from a concentration camp in the Penza region. The Ukrainians were in extremely bad condition. They didn’t have clothes, food, or hygiene products, since they had been taken directly from a bomb shelter in Mariupol.” This message was based on a Facebook post from Krasnodarsk activist Ekaterina Gorobets who, according to Irina Gurskaya, had never even been to the Penza region.
The drive was only a half hour, we were already in the village of Leonidovka. In the middle of a clear cut forest, in a giant square surrounded by a barbed wire fence, there was a handful of long, two-story buildings with red roofs.
They parked by the security checkpoint, across from a poster with a portrait of Putin with the slogan, “RUSSIA. We have things to be proud of without chemical weapons!!!” This complex had originally been opened in 2008, as a military toxic substances disposal site. The people who lived here before had been specialists who had neutralized thousands of tons of VX, sarin, and soman from Soviet reserves of chemical weaponry.
Now Ukrainian refugees walk the long corridors of these buildings. They sleep in sectioned-off two-bed rooms with shared bathrooms, push red trays down metal conveyor belts in the giant cafeteria, and watch TV in a common room filled with wide, old chairs. When they found out that the volunteers had arrived, the refugees fanned out outside. Some of them received things they’d requested — toys, cellphones, clothes. Others asked for help, and not just to be evacuated. An emaciated man with chiseled cheekbones in a gray puffer jacket wanted to see his mother, who was in one of the Penza hospitals. They weren’t letting him in.
Mariupol – Leonidovka
Refugees’ stories about the journey from Mariupol to Leonidovka and through other similar camps are mostly identical.
“We spent 30 days down in the basement. Then, the Chechen soldiers told us that there were buses we could take to Rostov-on-Don. We packed and ran,” a refugee named Svetlana told Meduza. “It was the only humanitarian corridor open at that point, our only way out of that hell.” Before that, she said, her sister had been able to escape into Ukraine, but she’d had to do it on her own, fleeing down roads that were being fired on.
‘We ran four kilometers (2.5 miles) to the Port City Mall,” Svetlana said. “You could bathe there and charge your phone. From there, they took us to Volodarsk, in the Luhansk Region. We registered and signed up for filtration. Volunteers told us that we could go through it in transit. In the evening, Icarus buses arrived to take us away. We were sent to Novoazovsk, where we arrived at three in the morning.”
Some people go to Russia out of conviction, some (from among the young men) in order to avoid enlistment into the [Ukrainian] army or because they need to go through Russia to get to Europe. They don’t allow potential conscripts out of Ukraine. People from Mariupol’s Levoberezhny neighborhood had no choice: the bridges had been destroyed, the road to Zaporizhzhia cut off. Most of them only wanted to get as far away as they could from hunger and death. They didn’t care where that was.
First came “filtration” at the checkpoint into the DNR, then a search at the Russian customs desk. Women and children get through relatively quickly, but men have to wait, some of them for four hours — others for twelve.
“I was searched in Novoazovsk,” said Aleksander, a former electrician from the Azovstal steel plant. His hair was almost completely shaved off. “They looked through my phone, my contacts, checked my tattoos. They asked me what I had seen, what I had heard. They treated me loyally. Some guys they took away for a really long time, some of them never came back.”
In Volodarsk, people were housed in a school. It was filled to the brim. According to Alexander, people even sat in the stairwells. He and his mother spent four days like that. They were offered two options: they could either go to Donetsk or to Russia. The refugees waited for their bus to Taganrog for a long time — a lot of people wanted to get on it. It took Aleksander 24 hours to get to the Russian border.
Refugees don’t stay long in Taganrog. Every day, trains leave the station. People from Mariupol can either get on the first available trains or strike out on their own with no guaranteed food or roofs over their heads. Few choose the second route. “I was scared of becoming homeless,’” Svetlana explained.
The Ukrainians only learn about the volunteers later — from neighbors, people who’d left Ukraine before them, from the Internet.
“We got off the bus and they told us that people who don’t have anywhere to go, who don’t have any relatives in Russia, are all sent to Penza, to the temporary refugee housing center. You go straight from the bus to the train with your bags,” a woman named Yana told Meduza. She’d been studying at a trade school in Mariupol.
According to Meduza’s correspondent in St. Petersburg who spoke to refugees from the temporary housing camp in Cheboksary, the conditions in Penza and in Chuvashia are difficult. “In Penza, they gave us SIM cards [with Russian phone numbers] right away. Then, in about a week, we got ATM cards,” Alexander said. “They provided dental care, sent ambulances for people. Those who wanted to apply for asylum or Russian citizenship. That was at least 50 percent of the refugees. But it’s hard to get exact numbers. Some people want to do that but then change their minds.”
Some people decide against getting Russian citizenship out of strictly pragmatic considerations. “We have property back in Ukraine,” Svetlana said.
“Yes, it’s been destroyed, but it’s still ours. When we come back, we will still come back to our native city, and we can only deal with all that with our Ukrainian passports.”
“I think that [Mariupol] is going to become part of the DNR,” another refugee told Meduza. “They’ve already ‘elected’ a new mayor. So, we’re going to end up with Russian documents anyway. But if we hold onto our Ukrainian passports, we might be eligible for more aid.”
The largest problem facing the Ukrainian refugees is probably the lack of work and opportunities. “Some people went to the labor board, but it was totally useless,” a refugee told Meduza. “When they learned that we were going to go to Petersburg, the policemen at the train station said, ‘Of course, there’s no work in Cheboksary.’ But now they’re saying that they’re sending our people out to some Aidyr [the refugeee probably meant to say Alatyr]. Nothing but woods all around there.”
“I’m off to the Krasnodarsk Region to work,” a refugee told Meduza. “Another forty-year-old guy here isn’t doing anything. He’s just sitting around thinking, ‘As long as they don’t send me to fight in the Army.’ Pure, clean, good men are easy to help, but just try helping him. Then again, as Russians, it’s especially not for us to judge them.”
Many of the regions accepting Ukrainian refugees have seen huge volunteer movements. Directly in front of the Veselo-Voznesenk border crossing, on the strip of neutral territory, people from Mariupol are greeted by volunteers from the Neravnoduzhnye [Not Indifferent] movement, which was started by Taganrog entrepreneur Oleg Podgorny. The volunteers give the exhausted arrivals tea, food, and other essentials. As of the publication of this article, the Telegram channel for their community had more than 1,000 people.
Another large group is based in St. Petersburg, which works with the city’s human rights councils. It was created with help from the archbishop from the schismatic Apostolic Russian Orthodox Church, the former director of orthodox television network Blagovest Grigory Mikhnov-Vaytenko.
The majority of volunteers are local enthusiasts or people who work entirely on their own, like the Rostov entrepreneur who houses refugees in his apartment and then sends them abroad. He is inspired by Steven Spielberg’s film “Schindler’s List,” as he told Meduza on the condition of anonymity, fearing pressure from local authorities and enforcers.
Leonidovka – Penza
A Mercedes Sprinter and two lightweight vehicles approached the camp at Leonidovka around six in the morning on April 29. When they learned that they were transporting refugees, the driver agreed to do it, but raised his prices.
Thirteen people from Mariupol passed through the checkpoint with their volunteer companions. A blonde woman led her son by the hand, a silent man lugged a carrier with a tiny and angry toy terrier. All of them had large, heavy bags. While they were filling up the trunk, the refugees bade their companions goodbye and anxiously smoked. An elderly refugee with graying hair and a gray coat approached Igor. “Were you the one who got him a ticket?”
The driver started the engine and Zhulimov’s explanations drowned in the noise. That woman’s husband had sent Igor a message asking to take her and her son to Estonia even though they had decided to stay in Penza. When Zhulimov learned about that, he refused to help the man any further. The man got money some other way and paid for his own train ticket.
Finally, everyone took their seats. Kora the short haired malamute lay down in the passageway. The sprinter took off and soon, it arrived at the train station at Penza. At the entrance, a security guard stopped a refugee, stretching his hand out for her bag as it came out of the X-ray machine. “Do you have any weapons?”
She unzipped her bag, and took out her keys, which had a bullet-shaped keychain. “You can have this. It’s all I have left from my apartment.” The policeman couldn’t find words, and then the other refugees started surrounding the woman, taking out their keys and shouting, “And here are mine! I don’t have anything else!”
The security guard let them all through, but then a policeman approached the refugees in the waiting area and recorded their information.
The train between Orenburg and St.Petersburg stood in Penza for 41 minutes. The refugees had time to drag their huge bags up the stairs and get on the train. Igor Zhulimov smoked on the platform until their very departure. Each of the refugees was given 5,000 rubles ($75) for the road, collected from donations. In reaction to the “Putin 10,000” that none of the refugees ever did get, the volunteers call this money the “anti-Putin 5,000.”
“Sometimes, I say that I’ll cross the border with the last group of refugees [and not come back],” Zhulimov joked to Meduza. “Like a captain who leaves the ship last.”
Penza – St. Petersburg
The train takes almost 24 hours to get to St. Petersburg. The refugees sit in their cabin discussing the future. Little Estonia can’t fit them all. Volunteers on that side of the border will greet them, put them in hostels, help them out for the first little while, but then they will have to move on. To where? “Finland, Sweden, Ireland…” Alexander and his mother think aloud. “It’s nice in Ireland, I’ve been there a couple times,” a stranger reading a newspaper on a lower bunk said. “Ireland it is, then,” the refugees decided.
Anna stayed back in Leonidovka. She’d grown up in the USSR and nostalgically recalled the final Russian-Ukrainian military parade in Crimea in 2013. She was afraid to go to Europe, which she doesn’t know, but she had decided to make the journey after all, for the sake of her son’s future. Many refugees see things this way; they leave for the sake of their kids. They take humanitarian corridors into Russia for the sake of their kids and then, for the sake of their kids, they leave.
In another cabin, where Kora the malamute lay at refugees’ feet, and another, smaller dog was curled up on the upper bunk, Nikolai, a red-faced man of around fifty without a single gray in his red hair fell out into the passageway. He was having a good time. His eyes were shining, and he was proudly showing off his cellphone screen with a fresh money transfer. “My nephew sent it to me. Ten thousand, so that his uncle won’t starve to death. They promised us ten thousand for each family member. And what? That’s my government, that’s my insurance policy. Everyone, look!”
“We didn’t ask anyone to do that to our city,” Nikolai continued to shout. “Where are we now? Nowhere. Between heaven and Earth. You’re a cool guy, Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin], decisive. But why did you need to press those Azovs so hard that they had to completely level our city? You could have found other ways. You’re fast, former FSB. You should have treated us like Crimea. Distract the troops and calmly go into Mariupol when they’re not looking. But nope, not enough strategy.” By the time he was finished, it felt like he was on the verge of tears. He fell back into his bunk.
This perspective is not rare among middle-aged and elderly people from Mariupol, even those leaving Russia for the West. “My neighbor Lida had four apartments. We watched her car burn,” Anna said. “But she said, ‘It had to happen. Because Ukraine is Russia.”
The refugees tend not to criticize the Russian government in front of strangers. What if their native Mariupol ends up as part of the DNR? What if it’s too hard out in the West and they have to go back to Russia? That kind of thing happens, too. Two sisters made a video while they were on their way to Estonia, it was of them standing on the embankment of the Neva in St. Petersburg in front of the cruiser Aurora. They said, “Russian warship, go fuck yourself!” But they only posted the video once they got to Tallinn.
“I don’t want any war,” Anna quietly told a Meduza correspondent. “I also don’t want Ukraine to win back Donetsk and turn it into another Mariupol.”
In Ryazan, Russian soldiers got on the train and sat down in the neighboring cabin. The refugees smoking on the platform followed them with indifferent gazes. “Six bullets!” Nikolai blubbered to a woman traveling with him. He stammered out a story about how DNR soldiers gunned down a car that his son and his friend were traveling in. The friend died instantly, his son had six bullet wounds and survived. “But I’m not mad at them. It’s a war. They could have gotten them with a Mukha [grenade launcher]...”
St. Petersburg – Ivangorod
St. Petersburg is where the main streams of Ukrainian refugees from all across Russia meet. Some of them are waiting out the war here, having found jobs and housing, and others are going to the West. Another group is simply getting its documents processed. They come to St. Petersburg by train, commuter rail, or hitchhiking.
There are nearly 4,000 people in the St. Petersburg volunteer chat, but only 100 active volunteers. Hostel owners let Ukrainians stay for free, human rights advocates help them with documents, and an experienced tour guide shows them around Nevsky Prospect. He reminded them that this street had been written about by their countryman Nikolai Gogol, and he stammered when it came time to speak about the Kazansky Cathedral, a temple to Russian military power.
The Mariupol refugees from Penza already had all their documents in order, which is why they were put on vans to Estonia as soon as they stepped out of the train station. Their comrades in misfortune waiting to get their documents done in the city helped them load in their luggage. On the other side of the border, volunteers from the Rubikus team awaited them.
“You’re going to get searched,” a St. Petersburg volunteer told them while handing out bottles of water. “Erase your personal information from your phones; you can get it back later. They’re going to take the men for questioning — don’t be alarmed. It can take up to five hours. Don’t panic: just sit there calmly, and wait. Don’t speak more than you need to. You don’t know us, and we don’t know you.”
The scent of vaping filled the inside of the van. Kora whined, laying her head on a suitcase. The passengers chatted nervously. The closer they got to the border, the scarier it felt. According to Igor Zhulimov, people accustomed to life without independence often panic upon arrival in Estonia — sometimes to the degree that local volunteers struggle to manage them. They end up needing personal assistance over the phone. The shock dissipates the next day, however, and then they begin feeling relieved.
“So, you don’t want to go back to Leonidovka anymore?”
“No, I don’t even remember that name!”
For Igor Zhulimov, this isn’t his first experience doing volunteer work. He defended Alexey Navalny’s supporters and activists in court after the “He’s not our Tsar” protests against raising Russia’s retirement ages in September 2018. In 2021, Zhulimov organized a fundraising campaign for the defense of the head of the local Navalny office, Anton Strunin. The Penza region became the first region in Russia where the police fought to be compensated for additional expenses incurred during the “unsanctioned rally” where Strunin was arrested. The campaign managed to lower the additional fees demanded by the police from 883,000 to 560,000 rubles (about $13,480 to $8,550), which Zhulimov’s group promptly crowdfunded in 10 days.
When Irina Gurskaya decided to help Ukrainian refugees, she asked Igor to assist her. Officially, nobody interfered with their work. However, as Zhumilov told Meduza, one by one, the charities that they asked for help began to disappear. First, they would “promise to help, but then they would vanish, like, oh, we can’t today, oh, we’re away right now.” After a few weeks, the bank account for the money the volunteers raised was blocked in Sberbank due to “suspicious activity.” Irina went down to the bank. They apologized to her and issued her a new card. And then, twice in the course of two days, they blocked it again.
On April 12, local journalist Evgeny Malyshev posted a video report about the temporary housing center in Leonidovska on the Facebook page of the magazine 7x7. The report’s tone was positive, and it even dismissed rumors that the refugees were being held against their will; however, it did mention that some people who’d come from Mariupol were heading abroad. On April 17, Ukrainian news outlets reported on “concentration camps” near Penza, citing Ukrainian Commissioner Irina Denisova. These reports mentioned unnamed “volunteers.” Then, on April 21, the pro-Russia anonymous Telegram channel Oblomki Planetaria condemned “a group of British grant-suckers led by Igor Khulimov” who “use Banderite methods to make people believe in fake news about ‘Russian concentration camps’ where people are held against their will.” On April 27, an unknown party graffitied “A Ukr Nazi Lives Here” on Igor Zhylimov’s door in blue and yellow spray paint.
Similar graffiti appeared that same night on Irina Gurskaya’s door and on the gates of the home of journalists Evgeny Malyshev and Ekaterina Malysheva, calling them “Ukro-Nazi helpers.” The tires of Zhulimov’s car were also slashed, and the Malyshevs’ windshield was marked with a white letter Z.
In the evening of April 29, after the refugees from Leonidovka had crossed the Estonian border, the police in Penza stopped Irina Gurskaya on a tip from a “vigilant citizen.” The officers later released her, but not before they confiscated her documents. When Meduza sent messages asking about the charges against Gurskaya and the reason for seizing her property, her Telegram account responded, “Worse,” before going silent.
“I think they arrested her for helping us,” the refugee who owned Kora told Meduza. “Irina demonstrated that there wasn’t enough medicine and that you could get it through volunteers. The authorities brought us humanitarian aid, but it was all old. Everything that Irina brought us was fresh.”
This group of Ukrainian refugees would be the Penza group’s last. On April 30, Igor Zhulimov announced on Facebook: “The circumstances have gotten very serious, and we have been forced to cease our activities.” He would not share any details, adding only: “I feel so nauseous, it’s worse than February 24…”
The Penza volunteers managed to send nearly 50 Ukrainians abroad, including 38 refugees from the Leonidovka camp.
Translation by Bela Shayevich