ST PETERSBURG – For a year and a half Ms 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 Ms 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, Ms 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
Ms 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.
Ms 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 Ms Lyudmila.
Ms Artyomenko added: “This is the only way left for us to exist. That’s all we can still do.”
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