Ukrainians forced into enemy hands are fleeing ... and Russians are helping them

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Volunteer Tatjana (C) serving food for refugees at a€Friends of Mariupolrefugee shelter in Narva, Estonia - Sergei Stepanov for The Telegraph
Volunteer Tatjana (C) serving food for refugees at a€Friends of Mariupolrefugee shelter in Narva, Estonia - Sergei Stepanov for The Telegraph

Vlad, from the destroyed Ukrainian city of Mariupol, looked sullen as he walked into the refugee shelter in this drab Soviet-built town in northeast Estonia.

It had taken him two months to get to the safety of the European Union through Russia but even so, the enormity of this moment was difficult to process.

Then Oxana, the Russian volunteer who had helped him make it into Estonia, pulled him into a hug. And he softened.

“Thank you,” he told her as they embraced in the middle of the reception room, strewn with toys and luggage. “Thank you.”

Millions of Ukrainians have fled west directly into Europe, but hundreds of thousands of people from northern and eastern Ukraine have had to flee fighting through Russia, which they were forced to enter.

For Vlad, 21, the hug and his arrival at the refugee shelter in Narva marked the end of his flight through Russia.

“I’m relieved,” he said, speaking from Narva, now the main gateway for Ukrainians into the European Union from Russia. “Things will get easier now.”

But it was also a significant moment for Oxana, the bubbly middle-aged Russian who holds a Finnish residency card that allows her to cross into Estonia. It was another successful act of defiance against Vladimir Putin and his war in Ukraine.

“It’s also a medicine for us,” she said of her role in a network of thousands of volunteers across Russia. “The refugees help us too, to feel useful.”

Interrogated for four hours

Vlad and Oxana had only met a few hours earlier in St Petersburg. Volunteers had paid for him to travel 420 miles by train north from Belgorod to Moscow and then on to St Petersburg. He had then been told to make his way to a point near Oxana’s apartment where she had picked him up for the three-hour drive to the border with Estonia.

“It had been going so well. Then the Russian border guards saw my tattoo,” Vlad said. “The FSB interrogated me for four hours.”

He showed off the tattoo that covered his left arm and hand. Putin has said that he needed to invade Ukraine to purge it of Nazis and Vlad’s tattoo included skulls and lightning forks, the sort of images that Russian soldiers have been told to look out for.

Vlad paused. He looked exhausted. His skin had a pallid sheen. His short dark hair lay thin and slick across his head and his black eyes were wide and sunken. And so Oxana took up his story.

“They had him in a small room to one side. Everything was filmed,” she said. “He’s lucky that he didn’t have any military insignia or Azov emblems. They eventually let him go.”

Other Ukrainian men have been held for days at the border or even turned around.

Vlad was interrogated for four hours at the Russia-Estonia border - Sergei Stepanov for The Telegraph
Vlad was interrogated for four hours at the Russia-Estonia border - Sergei Stepanov for The Telegraph

The journey through Russia

For Vlad, crossing into Estonia meant that he could travel to Malmo to be reunited with his girlfriend and to start a new life. They had been separated at a filtration camp in rebel-held Donetsk more than a month ago.

Most of the Ukrainian refugees in Narva have similar stories. They had mainly fled from Mariupol, but also from Kharkiv.

They told of sheltering in their basements for weeks, hoping that the Russian artillery bombardment would pass. Eventually they fled to Russia, under orders from Russian forces or Russian-backed forces or, terrified, in their cars.

Their first stop is the dirty filtration camps in rebel-held Donetsk where Russian and separatist soldiers try to weed out Ukrainian soldiers and policemen. Families are split up. The men are interviewed for hours, forced to give fingerprints and then swear allegiance to Russia over Ukraine. Sanitary conditions and the food are foul.

After this, the Ukrainian refugees are often sent to so-called Temporary Accommodation Points in Russia, typically a converted gym. Many end up in Taganrog near Rostov, although they could also be sent to other cities. It is a more relaxed regime here and the Ukrainians are free to leave. Volunteers hand out SIM cards and cash to the refugees.

Here, also, Ukrainian refugees have to make a choice.

They can take official refugee status from the Russian government which comes with some housing and financial support. The snag, though, is that it can often mean agreeing to live in Russia’s remote Far East or in Astrakhan, on the Caspian Sea coast. The refugees also need to renounce their Ukrainian citizenship.

Refugees who have taken this option have also said that they have been housed in barrack-like wooden houses and fed bad food.

And so, instead, many of the refugees decide to try to live with relatives in Russia or head to Narva and Europe, relying on volunteers to pay for train tickets, buy food and donate clothes.

Many of the Ukrainian refugees said that they had been well-received by ordinary Russians who were sick of Putin’s war but others, including Vlad, reported a less welcoming reception with Russians staring at him and bad-mouthing him in shops.

“It was bad and I needed a new life. That’s when I knew I had to leave,” he said.

Arriving in Estonia

The refugee route out of Russia has now become established. They head to Moscow and then to St Petersburg before travelling to Ivangorod, the small Russian town across the river from Narva.

The Narva River has formed a border between Europe and Russia for centuries and two medieval fortresses face each other across the narrow river.

The border bridge between Estonia and Russia in Narva where two medieval fortresses sit opposite each other - Sergei Stepanov for The Telegraph
The border bridge between Estonia and Russia in Narva where two medieval fortresses sit opposite each other - Sergei Stepanov for The Telegraph

The land here is drenched in the history of past battles, most recently in 1944 when the Soviet Army recaptured Narva from Nazi Germany. In the process the Red Army bombed the once-famously beautiful baroque town into the ground.

It takes around 15 minutes for refugees to walk across the bridge from the Russian border to the Estonian one. They then emerge through the heavy doors, hauling their luggage. Emotions can be raw. Some are tearful, many resigned, all exhausted.

Most plan to travel to Germany or Sweden although some said they were heading to France or the Czech Republic. Nobody said they wanted to come to the UK. However, nobody said that they wanted to return to Ukraine.

Eight-year-old Ruslan, a refugee from Kharkiv, arrives at the border station in Narva, Estonia - Sergei Stepanov for The Telegraph
Eight-year-old Ruslan, a refugee from Kharkiv, arrives at the border station in Narva, Estonia - Sergei Stepanov for The Telegraph

“How can we? There is nothing to go back to,” said Dima, from Kharkiv, as he smoked outside the refugee shelter, a dilapidated former hotel that doubles up as a local cultural centre.

Katya Romanova, 22, runs the shelter for the Estonian NGO Friends of Mariupol. It opened on April 23 and has since hosted 455 refugees.

“They feel the change of atmosphere as soon as they arrive. It is a relief for them,” said Ms Romanova, who quit Russia 18 months ago. “I feel guilty about Putin and his politics. Doing this helps me fight the indifference.”

The refugees stay at the shelter for one night before moving on. Most are now able to access cash held in Ukrainian banks. They are inside the European Union and can travel.

Sitting and smoking outside the Estonian border post, were Viktoria and Sergei. They had spent nearly three months hiding in a basement in Mariupol before fleeing into Russia where they had headed straight to Narva.

Viktoria flicked her dyed orange-red hair, which showed long dark roots. She didn't have the same yellow sheen or sunken eyes as Sergei. Perhaps it was the make-up.

“When we arrived in Russia we were relieved, of course,” she said. “But, yes, now I am very happy to be here in Europe and out of Russia.”