KRAKOW, Poland — Every week since the start of March, Evgeny has packed his car with box after box of medicine and driven from his home near Krakow to another Polish town, Rzeszow, near the border with Ukraine.
Evgeny said he was originally from Russia, but for 16 years Poland has been his homeland. He lives there with his wife and is a Polish citizen. When the Russian invasion of Ukraine began in late February, he said he knew he had to do something.
He said he knows other Russians in Poland who have also spent the past seven weeks, like many in their adopted country, joining grassroots efforts to provide housing, logistical support and other types of aid to those fleeing the war in neighboring Ukraine.
“For me, it’s simple. It’s not an internal conflict for me,” he said, reconciling his Russian identity – and his concerns for his family still living in Russia – with his desire to help Ukrainians. “I don’t treat it like two opposing sides, like my family is the enemy of the other side. That’s not true,” he added, asking that his last name not be used. for the safety of his family.
More than 2.5 million people have crossed the border between Ukraine and Poland – mostly women and children – since the start of the Russian invasion, and their needs are immense.
When news of the Russian invasion broke, Evgeny said he was shocked.
“You have mixed feelings – you feel angry, embarrassed and you don’t know what to do next,” he said. “For five or six days I was completely empty inside.”
But Evgeny said he had a close friend in Ukraine, Oleksandr, who he said saved his life when he was in a serious car accident in Ukraine eight years ago and became like a brother.
“We got to know each other on the worst day of my life. He is a fantastic person, a pure patriot of Ukraine and a good person,” Evgeny said. When he heard the news of the Russian invasion, he said one of his first calls was to Oleksandr to make sure he was alive and to see what he needed, and what he needed. Evgeny could do to help her.
Oleksandr is in an area of Ukraine that has remained relatively stable so far, and he is helping the war effort. Evgeny said he had been in close contact with his friend to see what the needs were on the ground and was working with a network of his contacts to coordinate aid.
Now his home office has become a logistics hub, he said, and he has devoted all his free time outside of work to helping Ukrainians. He makes the 3 hour round trip to Rzeszow at least once a week.
Evgeny, whose wife is a pharmacist, said much of his attention has been focused on getting medicine to Ukrainian refugees in Poland and sending it across the border into the country.
“At least I feel like I can do something,” he said.
Other Russian nationals have also joined these efforts. Igor Gerbeev, 34, who used to live in Moscow but moved to Poland in 2020, is one of them.
“This country has become like a dictatorship without the possibility of speaking its own opinion,” he said of Russia. As someone who has spoken out against the Kremlin online, he said the atmosphere has become increasingly difficult.
“Russia is like a beautiful facade,” he said, but behind it there is a lack of opportunities for young people like him and he no longer saw any future there.
Since arriving in Poland and finding a new job at an IT company, he said he has grown closer to a community of Ukrainian friends who have welcomed him with open arms as he he didn’t know anyone in Krakow.
So when the Russian invasion began, he felt he had to take a stand.
“It is my duty. I have principles and I have a vision,” Mr Gerbeev said.
He said he hosted a family of five Ukrainians in his home for weeks before they moved to stay with family members in Germany. When the family arrived, Mr Gerbeev said, the mother was nervous when she realized he was Russian. But she quickly warmed up and was incredibly grateful.
Mr Gerbeev, who described himself as a small part of a larger aid effort, said he was inspired by the tireless work of Ukrainians helping their compatriots, even as they endure the devastation of the war.
He said he believed that in the long term, the war would destroy the lives of Russians as well as Ukrainians, due to punitive sanctions and Moscow’s international isolation. Yet he said the majority of people he knows back home still support President Vladimir V. Putin.
“It’s hard to talk to them. For many people in Russia, I am a traitor,” he said, adding that this would not stop him from doing all he could to help Ukrainians in need. “It’s my duty as a human.”