Russian Dissenters Are Helping Ukrainians Escape Putin’s War

Dissent looks different in Russia. It has to. Protesters are arrested for criticizing Vladimir Putin’s government. Under certain conditions like mass protests and arrests, prisons may enact fortress protocols to isolate prisoners from the outside world. As a result, detainees are denied access to lawyers and police can do as they please: threats, psychological pressure, physical abuse and torture are common allegations.

For Kultrab — a punk art fashion collective based in Russia — dissent is sometimes cynical, often underhanded. It’s hard to shop their online store without smiling — rainbow band tube socks with “FREE ROSSIA” on one band and “PUSSY RIOT” on the other, “Eat the Rich” on the heels. For the pandemic, a pink butterfly vulva face mask. A coffee mug with a child’s drawing of a smiling sun and orange flowers, “Fuck it” scribbled across the top. A long-sleeve leotard with a blurred hand extending an index finger telling you to be quiet. We are muted. You are muted. This is Russian dissent.

“Putin destroyed the independent press,” Alina Muzychenko, cofounder of Kultrab, says. “So we make our political message through branding.”

Protests in Russia over the war in Ukraine have resulted in the arrests of over 13,000 people since February 24, 2022. This is not new. In January and February of 2021, 11,000 Russians were arrested for protesting the detention of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny when he returned to Russia after being poisoned, which Navalny’s supporters and United Nations rights experts say was the Russian government’s doing. Kultrab cofounder Egor Eremeev was arrested when he asked police if it was safe to cross the street. Eremeev managed to sneak a cell phone into the jail and recorded the conditions there. Detainees describe being tortured. The cops keep arresting them, but the protesters show up anyway.

When Putin invaded Ukraine, Russians familiar with fortress protocols, Russians who believe in open dissent, understood Putin would try to make Russia a fortress unto itself. They saw martial law on the horizon. Censorship. Mass arrests.

Over 200,000 people are estimated to have left Russia since Putin invaded Ukraine. Many of them left in dissent. They saw the Russian fortress extending to Ukraine. Convoys of tanks, artillery and personnel carriers driven by Putin’s aggression.

Muzychenko and Eremeev are among those self-exiled Russians, though Muzychenko is Belarusian. They left Russia for Georgia.

Muzychenko recalls the chaos of arriving in Georgia: “The first day, we’re all crying. All these people, they’re screaming, it couldn’t be reality. It felt like a play Putin was manipulating, but nobody thought it was real. Then the second day, our group, we ask ourselves, ‘Okay, what can we do?’”

Many of those who left Russia are teachers, artists, creative directors, marketers. They are also activists.

If Putin could force himself on Ukraine, Muzychenko, Eremeev, and a network of Russian expats reasoned, they could help Ukrainians escape. Their effort — Helping to Leave — started with three volunteers, Muzychenko, Eremeev and Yulia Lutikova, a 19-year-old Russian artist who moved to Tbilisi a year ago. Using the messaging app Telegram, Helping to Leave began collecting information from news sources, war zone maps and Ukrainians using the app, to provide safe, up-to-date information for Ukrainians who suddenly found themselves in a war zone.

Lutikova began collecting and publishing the aid and evacuation information the same day Russia invaded Ukraine. Muzychenko and Eremeev joined the next day.

Helping to Leave’s Telegram-based network has grown rapidly. In the beginning, volunteers and donors were mostly Russians. “Our first donation was from Russia. The Russians feel so ashamed and helpless that they were eager to donate,” Muzychenko explains.

Russian dissenters have begun displaying a white-blue-white flag — Russia’s flag without the red stripe. Emma Volodchinskaia, a Los Angeles-based volunteer, adds, “We take the blood off the Russian flag.”

Helping to Leave raised over $30,000 in its first two weeks, and expanded from three volunteers to over 300, most now living in Georgia, Poland, Romania, France, Austria, Israel and the U.S. There are over 90,000 members across their Telegram channels — from Ukrainians needing help to strangers offering help. Information flows through the chats rapidly, continuously. Watching the discussion threads grow, they may seem chaotic, but this is a highly coordinated effort.

New volunteers are required to go through five hours of training before they can begin working on the message boards. When users go to the website, they follow the prompts to an automated survey that then guides them to a volunteer on the other end who gets them started on their journey. Are they safe, are they alone, do they have children or pets, do they need medicine, food, clothes? Supervisors perform basic research, pulling information from the active message boards before sending it off to a fact-checker.

Train and bus stations, maps and local contacts have to be updated around the clock; the work never stops. A place that is safe from bombing may be under Russian shelling five minutes later. A shelter that is empty may fill up. A maternity hospital might be destroyed.

Volodchinskaia explains, “We can’t give them bad information. That will kill them. We know what street the bomb shelters are on. We know who’s giving out food. Medicine is hard. Very hard. It’s impossible. But we find it.” The supervisors and fact-checkers — including supervisor Lutikova — are tasked with tracking down resources and then validating them.

“I’m always staying here [on the message boards]. For the first five days, I was doing everything on my phone. It was very hard,” Lutikova says.

“She didn’t use a computer! [They] are always on their phones,” Muzychenko jokes.

“I’m using the computer now. I wrote a letter to President Zelenskyy,” Lutikova laughs. “Maybe I’m… naivnyy?”

“Naive,” Muzychenko says.

Lutikova continues, “I’m writing to him, he needs to accept a ceasefire. Work it out. The people in the shelter won’t last forever. But I’m still trying to help them even in occupied territory. I’m making them hold on to hope. I’m hoping, and I’m making them hope, a moment will open up to help them leave.”

Many Ukrainians who use the Telegram service are stressed and desperate; what little information they can get from where they shelter is often old, useless. This is the fog of war.

“To know that there are thousands of people donating to help them, it gives each person a new sense of hope,” Lutikova says. “They can’t believe it.”

Hope is scarce in war, but it exists. For example, Muzychenko describes a lone comment in the main message board that caught her attention. In a stream of endless comments, a young woman had simply typed: “help me to leave.” Lutikova reached out. The young woman, Sofiy (name changed for health information privacy), was trying to flee Kharkiv, one of Ukraine’s hardest-hit cities. On her way to Kherson, Sofiy became stuck in a small village. Muzychenko reached out to Sofiy and managed to locate a driver to help. It seemed Sofiy would be able to make it out. However, news of a bombed bus on her evacuation route then started to populate in the thread. Only two survivors. Helping to Leave recommended Sofiy stay in the village; it was too dangerous to flee. But Sofiy was desperate to escape war; eight years ago, her family left Donetsk when war broke out between Ukraine and Russian separatists. So, after finding her own ride, she attempted to flee the small village. When they arrived at an evacuation point, Sofiy witnessed Russian troops shoot a man waiting in line for a bus. She returned to the village, stuck again, and refused to leave. Helping to Leave then created a support chat for Sofiy, with a psychologist and four volunteers devoted to working through her PTSD, to keep her focused on surviving and ultimately leaving the village where war is in full swing.

“It’s like a video game where you have to get the hero to safety, but there’s no second life. You can’t make a mistake,” Muzychenko says.

The constantly changing situation inside Ukraine makes the job hard enough, but misinformation and abuse in the message boards raises the stakes — fake phone numbers, fake addresses, a steady stream of threats against the users and moderators. Verifying the identities of users carries the same weight as verifying curfew times and evacuation corridors. Malicious users and trolls are actively banned from the chats; sometimes Lutikova messages trolls directly to tell them they could get someone killed.

Reading through the message boards, I follow a link to “Fully furnished home, sleeps five, no charge.” Google Maps takes me to the ruins of an old estate, a historic landmark, totally uninhabitable. As I attempt to take a screenshot, the link is deleted. Helping to Leave’s supervisors are very good at removing bad information.

Ukrainians actively ask for updates from members who have followed the group’s advice, and Helping to Leave has devoted an entire chat to this. They want to spread the word on what to expect, that no two experiences will be the same. Users generally focus on describing the journey out of Ukraine, not their experience in the new country. While there is hope, expectations are tempered by stark reality. Not every evacuation is guaranteed, and in some cases, hesitation about evacuating has meant missing the curfew for humanitarian corridors or missing an empty seat in a private car. People may be limited in the amount of luggage they can bring (if any), they may need to get paperwork in order for their children, they may have to leave pets behind. Some users share that evacuation is not possible for them, but that the information provided by Helping to Leave has kept them safe.

As Putin’s fortress encloses Russia and bleeds into Ukraine, blocking truth and spreading death, the defiance of the Russian and Belarusian expat dissenters shines through.

“This is Putin’s war,” Muzychenko says, emphasizing that it is not the will of the Russian people she knows.

Despite Putin’s ruthlessness, the activists prioritize hope.

Lutikova has thought a lot about hope. “I believe in a bright future. [I] want the world to help rebuild the whole country [of Ukraine] — for the people to get back to their homes, their apartments, their jobs.”

Since February 24, 2022, Helping to Leave has aided in the evacuation of over 7,000 Ukrainian citizens. Making evacuation efforts work requires selflessness. Some volunteers work on this project 20 hours a day, while some provide out of pocket financial aid directly to evacuees. Volunteers get invested in their cases and keep in touch with some evacuees once they’ve made it out of the country. The dedication of Helping to Leave’s volunteers to the preservation of life amid the chaos of war is hope in the purest sense. After six weeks of war and counting, hope and dissent are the forces that save lives.

Helping to Leave is looking for Russian/Ukrainian speaking volunteers to aid in its efforts. They receive hundreds of aid inquiries a day.