As Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine nears the end of its third month, visible signs of dissent within Russia itself have become fewer and farther between. Outside the country, however, a handful of anti-war Russians are actively aiding Ukrainian refugees displaced by Vladimir Putin‘s invasion.
In Tbilisi, Georgia, several help centers have sprung up in recent weeks to provide Ukrainians in need with basic necessities ranging from pasta to heart medication to temporary housing. The centers have also provided anti-war Russians with an opportunity to fight back against their own government’s military misadventure.
“We have around 100 volunteers, and I’d say 80% of them are Russian citizens, most of whom have moved here since the start of the war,” Georgian national Lasha Tsiskaradze, manager of the Paliashvili 60 help center told Newsweek.
“We also get a lot of donations from Russia,” Tsiskaradze added. “People there can’t openly promote the fact that they’re against the war, but those who understand what’s really happening help us out financially as much as they can.”
The Paliashvili 60 center is one of four humanitarian aid points set up with help from Georgian singer Nino Katamadze in the early days of the war. In the first weeks of the conflict, Katamadze and her corps of volunteers collected and shipped 27 truckloads of food, clothing, medicine, and hygienic products through Turkey to Ukraine. After Ukrainian refugees started turning up in Tbilisi, the centers shifted to helping the new arrivals get on their feet in a new city.
Dissident Russians fleeing the wartime crackdown at home were eager to join in the effort.
“It was impossible to do anything to support the Ukrainian war effort in Russia without risking a long term in jail,” a volunteer named Dmitry, an English teacher who relocated from Moscow in early March, told Newsweek.
“The situation is obviously much worse for Ukrainians, but for Russians who are against the war, things aren’t exactly easy,” Dmitry said. “Coming to the center is kind of an escape. The work never ends, and so when you need to take your mind off of everything, you can just come in and sort through donated stuff for hours and hours. It’s almost like knitting.”
Some volunteers, like Dmitry, are part-timers who continue to support themselves through jobs that they can do remotely. Others, however, have taken up the refugee support effort full-time.
Multiple workers at the Pashiashvili 60 center referred to a volunteer named Ruslan as the organization’s “unofficial ambassador.” Although he was too busy to speak at length about it himself, Ruslan has worked more or less non-stop since his arrival from Moscow on March 9.
“I had one unplanned day off,” Ruslan told Newsweek. “Food poisoning.”
When asked how long he was prepared to keep up such efforts, Ruslan responded “until death.” He then walked away to help a refugee from Kherson find a suitable headache medication.
The story was similar at another Katamadze-connected center across town.
“We also distribute food, medicine, and hygiene products,” the on-site manager Kirill told Newsweek, “and on top of that we coordinate with volunteers to help evacuate refugees through Russia.”
Kirill, who lived and worked in Kyiv for four years, cannot return to Ukraine due to his Russian citizenship.
“For now, all I can do is help Ukrainians who cannot live in their own country,” he said.
Katamadze’s organization is not the only one connecting Russian volunteers with Ukrainian refugees in Tbilisi. In the heart of the old city, a group called Emigration for Action has begun to attract a more politically active contingent of Russian emigres.
Yevgeny Lyamin, one of Emigration for Action’s founders, was detained at a Moscow anti-war protest on February 25, and arrived in Tbilisi on March 1. After working with friends to collect humanitarian aid for shipment to Ukraine, the group decided to turn their efforts into something more sustainable.
“We started fundraising, rented a space, and now we hold regular events here,” Lyamin said. “Entrance is by donation, and the money we collect is used to buy medicines for Ukrainian refugees in Tbilisi.”
“Out of our approximately 80 volunteers, the overwhelming majority are Russian citizens, but we also have several Ukrainian refugees who decided to work with us,” Lyamin said.”
“Ukrainians mostly respond positively to Russians who are against the war and against Putin,” he added.
One of those Russian volunteers explained his motivation for taking a stand against Russia’s actions.
“When I have children and they ask me what I did to resist my country’s invasion of an innocent neighbor,” Zhenya said, “I want to be able to look them in the eye.”