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  2. "I left with the belief that I would come back. I was wrong." How the Kovcheg Project working from Lithuania helps Russians who have fled their country because of the war

"I left with the belief that I would come back. I was wrong." How the Kovcheg Project working from Lithuania helps Russians who have fled their country because of the war

Kovcheg is a project to help emigrants who left Russia because of the war in Ukraine and its aftermath. Source: https://pxhere.com/

Russian aggression against Ukraine forced hundreds of thousands to leave Russia. For many, it became a journey into the unknown, without savings, jobs, or prospects. The Kovcheg project ("kovcheg" means "ark" in Russian) was started in response to the first wave of emigrants. It provides temporary housing, psychological help, legal aid, and a friendly community. Since March 2022, Kovcheg has helped 130,000 people in several countries, including Lithuania. Journalist Dmitry Gavrilov tells emigrants' stories for "7x7."


Historian Marina Maksakova left Russia in March. She and her partner had never missed protests in their city, Rostov-on-Don. They decided to go abroad after they were both jailed.

"We were about to board the train to Moscow to attend an anti-war rally when we were stopped by the police at the train station and taken into custody. Before leaving Russia, each of us spent 15 days in jail," the woman says.

Marina is 36 years old. In Rostov-on-Don, she ran the local branch of Urban Projects, a network of urban communities created by Ilya Varlamov and Maxim Katz. Marina's partner is a human rights activist. He was arrested in 2021 for a sticker bearing the symbol of Alexei Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation, an organization officially designated as extremist.

After 15 days of arrest in March, Marina and her partner decided to leave Russia before they both got locked up for a long time. They packed in a hurry and flew to Armenia, where the Kovcheg Project for Assistance to Emigrants provided them with a room in a shared living space.

"We stayed in Yerevan in an apartment with several other emigrants. It was a very nice group, fantastic people," Marina recalls.

Kovcheg has co-living centers in Yerevan and Istanbul. The project rents apartments and hostels where Russian emigrants can stay and figure out their next steps. According to Anastasia Burakova, Kovcheg's leader, they currently have 93 housing units. People stay at a co-living place for a couple of weeks, then they find permanent housing or move to another country.

In June, Marina and her partner moved to Vilnius. Having visited Lithuania's capital before, Marina thought it would make a nice home.

Kovcheg provides co-living for immigrants. After mobilization began in Russia, the project opened temporary co-livings in Kazakhstan.

Photo: Dan Gold. Source: unsplash.com


Marina feels safe and secure in Vilnius. Still, the change was too big to get used to a new situation easily, so she asked Kovcheg for psychological help. Volunteers recommended a psychologist from Belarus.

"We provide psychological support to people both here and in Russia. Some feel isolated because of their anti-war position. To the people overwhelmed by propaganda from TV and the Internet, it seems that they are the only ones who disagree with the official position. We have a chat room where they can join group talks led by a psychologist. This way they find out that their beliefs are shared by many others," Anastasia Burakova says.

Dmitry Chernysh, a 33-year-old colorist from St. Petersburg, is one of those who turned to Kovcheg for psychological help. He first heard about this project in March, from the media, and after moving to Lithuania joined the chat room community.

"I introduced myself as a political activist who had just come to Lithuania, and they started sending me messages with compliments," Dmitry says.

Back in Russia, Chernysh, like the Rostov-on-Don couple, had spent some time in jail. He was arrested for a line from a Sector Gaza song that he had on his placard when he stood on the street in a solitary picket. The song is called "It's time to Get Out," but because of Russian law, "7x7" cannot quote the "illegal" line.

For a while Dmitry stayed in a refugee camp, 40 kilometers from Vilnius, where he always had access to the chat room, finding support and making new friends. Later, Dmitry had to hit the road again and travel to Spain, the country that had issued his Schengen visa.


Kovcheg's 40 chat rooms are categorized by countries and professions. People can talk to those who had emigrated earlier, and they can share their experience in finding work and housing, explain how to open a bank account, and solve other routine problems.

The most sought-after service is legal aid. The Telegram bot alone received 50 thousand requests in six months. If someone fails to find the needed answer, they can go to @kovcheghelp and ask for a consultation.

"People worry about the 'wanted' lists and persecutions, they ask how to apply for asylum or refugee status, they want to know about different types of visas and the legal rights they grant, some are interested in freelancer visas," Anastasia Burakova says.

The volunteers care for new emigrants. Some of them are recent emigrants themselves, some have been living abroad for years and they can explain the intricacies of the local law or help with learning languages.

Kovcheg offers classes in ten languages and four more are to be added soon to this list.

"It is not about becoming as fluent as native speakers. Emigrants arrive to a new country with very little money, they need to interact with the locals but can't do it because of the language barrier which makes the adaptation process complicated. Applicants' situations can be very different. When there are two requests next to each other and one says, "I am already sitting on my bags, I really need Norwegian," while the other says, "I would like to learn Norwegian," then, naturally, we choose the first one," Ekaterina, a volunteer coordinator, explains (at her request "7x7" does not disclose her last name).

Ekaterina, 30 years old, had worked in Russia as a journalist; her media has been labeled a "foreign agent" by the Russian Ministry of Justice. When the war in Ukraine began, she moved first to Turkey, then to Vilnius:

"I left with a strong belief that I would come back soon, that it was a little vacation, that all this couldn't last long. I was so wrong."

Ekaterina hopes to return to Russia at the first opportunity.

Kovcheg is registered in Lithuania while helping immigrants in many countries.

Source: unsplash.com


Kovcheg was created with the support of the Anti-War Committee, an organization founded by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Evgeny Chichvarkin, Boris Zimin, Garry Kasparov, Vladimir Kara-Murza, and some others. The first donation came from Mikhail Khodorkovsky who paid a month of rent for co-livings. Today the project raises money through crowdfunding. Donations are accepted via cryptocurrency, PayPal, or a bank account. According to Anastasia Burakova, so far, the initiative has raised $130,000.

Kovcheg is registered in Lithuania, where the local law doesn't allow anonymous donations if they exceed 1.5 thousand dollars. So, the project leaders know the names of their benefactors. Most of them are Russians who had left their country long ago, and none of them is widely known.

Kovcheg aids anyone in need.

"Kovcheg hasn't been banned on the territory of the Russian Federation. So, anyone can safely ask for assistance from us. According to the Russian law and judicial system, there is nothing illegal about it," Anastasia Burakova says.


* В материале упомянута организация Фонд борьбы с коррупцией, деятельность которой запрещена в РФ
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