Saint Petersburg, :For a year and a half Galina Artyomenko had been raising funds to help refugees from Ukraine after the Kremlin sent troops to the pro-Western country.
Then in July the 58-year-old resident of Saint Petersburg in northwestern Russia discovered that one of her bank cards as well as those of two other volunteers had been blocked.
“According to the bank, our ‘collections’ were for ‘questionable purposes’,” said Artyomenko, insisting that she can justify “every ruble spent”.
After President Vladimir Putin sent troops to Ukraine last year, the authorities ramped up a crackdown on dissent, with those criticising the assault facing long prison terms.
Like other volunteers helping Ukrainians, Artyomenko is careful not to express an opinion on the ongoing conflict as even humanitarian operations can sometimes be viewed with suspicion in Russia.
Despite the obstacles she has faced, she collects donations online and uses the money to buy clothes, medicine and food for people forced to flee to Russia or Russian-controlled territory in Ukraine.
She regularly welcomes Ukrainians arriving in Saint Petersburg by train, helping them find accommodation, work, or arrange for their onward travel to the European Union from Russia.
– ‘Prefer not to talk’ –
Artyomenko said that “thousands of people” in Russia were helping Ukrainians.
“But they prefer not to talk about it, for security reasons,” she said. “Even if no law prohibits helping people who have fallen into misfortune.”
Many volunteers refuse to speak about Moscow’s offensive in Ukraine or their help to refugees, for fear of attracting the attention of the authorities who regularly arrest people accused of collaborating with Kyiv or “discrediting” the Russian army.
Lyudmila, a 43-year-old volunteer who preferred to withhold her last name, said many such people are “pacifists” who cannot openly express their position and ease their conscience by helping the victims of the conflict.
“We cannot stand idly by, we must help those who are in a worse situation than us and who are suffering,” said Lyudmila.
Artyomenko added: “This is the only way left for us to exist. That’s all we can still do.”
– Millions of refugees –
According to the United Nations, nearly 1.3 million refugees from Ukraine were recorded in Russia as of December, 2022.
According to Russia’s estimates — disputed by NGOs — the count stands at more than five million.
Some of those people are in transit, particularly in northwest Russia, which borders the European Union.
Others say they want to stay in Russia.
Kyiv has accused the Kremlin of having deported Ukrainians to Russia and of pushing them to obtain Russian passports.
In March, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin and his commissioner for children’s rights, Maria Lvova-Belova, over the “unlawful deportation” of Ukrainian children.
Moscow has denied the charge, insisting that the Ukrainians arrived voluntarily or were evacuated to safety.
– ‘I just want peace’ –
Solidarity networks helping refugees such as the one involving Artyomenko have been operating in Russia since the start of the offensive in 2022.
On a recent Saturday, Artyomenko bought and dropped off some household products at a humanitarian aid warehouse for Ukrainian refugees.
Shoes, clothes, food products, and household appliances could be seen sitting on wooden racks at the collection point that is visited by up to 10 families a day.
Then Artyomenko went to buy a pair of glasses for a woman from the eastern Ukrainian town of Bakhmut, which Moscow captured in the spring.
In Moscow the Mayak.fund, one of Russia’s best-known charities, receives up to 50 people a day, down from record numbers seen last year, said volunteer Yulia Makeyeva, 49.
Makeyeva admitted that it was hard to see the suffering of refugees.
“To maintain energy and hope, I try to keep my distance, otherwise I can’t work, I can only cry,” she said.
As AFP visited, Yulia, who fled the town of Kupyansk in northeastern Ukraine almost a year ago with her children, aged seven and three, began to sob as she recounted the story of their survival under attacks.
Kupyansk and nearby areas in the Kharkiv region were retaken by Kyiv last September, after six months of being in Russian hands, but Moscow is now pushing back.
“I just want peace,” said Yulia.