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Ukrainian refugees who ended up in Russia must now decide what comes next

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

For months now, we have been bringing you stories of Ukrainians who fled the war by heading west to take refuge in Europe. But hundreds of thousands have also gone to Russia, some by choice, others under duress. NPR's Moscow correspondent Charles Maynes has been spending time talking with Ukrainians now in Russia as a result of the conflict and talking with the Russians who helped them.

SVETLANA: My name is Svetlana. I am from Mariupol. (Speaking Russian).

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: After nearly a month hiding in a basement as bombs fell overhead, Svetlana from Mariupol says she and her son made an obvious decision amid the fighting that was leveling her city to go where there wasn't any.

SVETLANA: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: For Svetlana, who asked we not use her last name out of concerns for her safety, that meant taking an evacuation bus to the Russian border before being put on a train, destination unknown.

SVETLANA: (Through interpreter) We were on the train for two days, and we would say to the conductor, is it true we're going to this town or that? And she said, how would you know when even I don't know where we're going?

MAYNES: And the uncertainty doesn't stop there. Ukrainians who have sought refuge in Russia often face a fundamental choice - accept Russian hospitality and the Kremlin's vision for Ukraine under Russian rule, or risk an uncertain road out of the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF LIGHTER CLICKING)

ALEXEI MICHEL: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: Alexei Michel from Donetsk region flicks at a broken lighter, curses and tells me to give his wheelchair a shove if I want to hear his story.

MICHEL: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: Alexei - or Leosha, as he prefers - says he was getting ready for bed when a rocket fired, he insists, by Ukrainian forces leveled his apartment building. How is he so sure? Russian tanks were nearby, he says. That's how the soldiers knew to look for him.

MICHEL: (Through interpreter) A local guy told the Russian soldier I was under the rubble, and they cried when they found me. They couldn't believe I survived.

MAYNES: Leosha approves of Russia's military campaign and of President Vladimir Putin. He argues Putin was right to send in troops to combat a rise in Ukrainian nationalism. But there's one point where he differs from the Kremlin leader - what to call what's happening in Ukraine.

MICHEL: (Through interpreter) It's a war, not a special operation. Putin can call it whatever he wants, but it's a real war, and innocent civilians are dying.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: I met Leosha in a makeshift government resettlement center on the grounds of a Soviet-era resort in a small town a few hours outside of Moscow. Several hundred Ukraine refugees have been sent there. The day we met, Leosha was openly complaining about the conditions.

MICHEL: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: They don't give enough food, he told me. The rooms were leaky and full of mildew, and he certainly didn't trust local officials in charge of distributing government aid.

MICHEL: (Through interpreter) The director is a scumbag who steals from the refugees. Vladimir Putin gave the orders to help us, and he isn't fulfilling them.

TATIANA DMITRIEVNA: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: Sitting on a park bench nearby, Tatiana Dmitrievna, who also declined to provide her last name on the condition of talking, has fewer complaints. She said the Russian government had provided her insulin shots for her diabetes and a one-time stipend of around $100. It was getting here from her small village in Ukraine's Kharkiv region that proved harder.

TATIANA DMITRIEVNA: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: Tatiana Dmitrievna said she'd planned to stay in Ukraine until an artillery shell that landed on her neighbor's house convinced her otherwise. She fled with her son and his wife and four children for the Russian border mostly out of necessity.

TATIANA DMITRIEVNA: (Through interpreter) We have relatives here in Russia. We don't know anyone in western Ukraine.

MAYNES: Her biggest concern was getting her son, who had served in the Ukrainian military over a decade ago, through a series of Russian-occupied checkpoints and a process called filtration.

TATIANA DMITRIEVNA: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: They were pulled away for separate interrogations, she said, her son checked for incriminating tattoos.

(Speaking Russian).

I asked her about stories of Ukrainian men being detained in these filtration camps. There have been multiple reports of people disappearing or being tortured. But Tatiana Dmitrievna said the other refugees with her had a different problem - the Russian-backed separatists. They wanted the men to stay and fight against Ukraine.

TATIANA DMITRIEVNA: (Through interpreter) They should have let more young people out who wanted to leave because they didn't want to fight. And we, their mothers, didn't want to leave them behind.

MAYNES: She says when it came to her son, she begged and pointed to his four young children. How are we supposed to survive without him, she asked. They let them through, and now she's hoping to reunite with family they have here in Russia. Helping in that process is an underground network of Russians who supplement often-sparse state assistance programs. Connecting on social media, these ad hoc volunteers help fleeing Ukrainians restore lost documents, find temporary housing, even crowdfund for medical care and surgeries.

OLGA REDKO: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: Olga Redko, a volunteer organizer based in Moscow, says she, like most, got involved as a way to express opposition to the Kremlin's actions while all too aware of the risks of protesting the war outright. But she says she's since learned refugees' experiences in Russia exposes a truth inconvenient to both Kremlin critics and the government alike.

REDKO: (Through interpreter) Because the stories we hear from the refugees are varied, some liberal critics don't want to hear it's not as bad as they thought, and our government doesn't want the public to know that it's not as good as it presents.

MAYNES: That includes stories of those who, having fled to Russia to avoid the fighting, are now seeking a way out.

GRIGORI MIKHNOV-VOITENKO: They use St. Petersburg. And so we start to find a hostel first...

MAYNES: In St. Petersburg in western Russia, Grigori Mikhnov-Voitenko, a dissident priest at the local Orthodox church, is leading me to a hostel for refugees that continue to pour into the city as the conflict grinds on.

MIKHNOV-VOITENKO: (Through interpreter) Even with all our desire to stop the war, it's impossible to do so immediately. So let's focus on those who are suffering now, to those who are without homes, those who are scared. Let's help those we can still save.

MAYNES: Mikhnov-Voitenko estimates his own network of volunteers have already helped several thousand Ukrainians seeking a path out of Russia and into Europe, which is how I met Svetlana, Svetlana from Mariupol from the beginning of our story.

SVETLANA: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: She says her train ride ended in central Russia. Since then, she's scraped together money for tickets to St. Petersburg. When we met, she and her son were making their way to the Russian border again, only now to build their future in the West.

SVETLANA: I would like to work more but with good salary.

MICHEL: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: Meanwhile, Leosha from Donetsk says he plans to stay in Russia, get a job, find an apartment. His mother had fled the conflict for Poland, but he felt his roots were always here.

MICHEL: (Through interpreter) My mother raised me, and I thank her for that. But we each choose our own path.

MAYNES: Choosing her path isn't so easy for Tatiana Dmitrievna. More than anything else, she wants to return to her village in Ukraine's Kharkiv region but worries there's no way back - not anymore.

TATIANA DMITRIEVNA: (Through interpreter) They say now that we're traitors for having gone to Russia, that we should have laid down before the Russian tanks in defense of our land. (Crying.)

MAYNES: She breaks down as she tells me how she'd grown up thinking of Russians and Ukrainians as brothers and sisters. Even her own family stretched across two countries. For her, choosing between the two was never a choice at all. Charles Maynes, NPR News, Moscow.

(SOUNDBITE OF JULIEN MARCHAL'S "INSIGHT I") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.