She was a pro-democracy journalist in Russia. Now she helps Ukrainians find refuge in Budapest

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On a gray and windy afternoon, Anastasia Chukovskaya offers a bright spot along a desolate stretch of road alongside train tracks in northeast Budapest.

Her scarlet coat and long fuchsia dress fluttering in the wind, she rushes forward, grabbing a box of toys she has just picked up from a Hungarian woman. Her next stop: a Ukrainian manicurist down the street who she also met on Facebook, who has Ukrainian children’s books she recently brought from Ukraine.

“It’s quite a logistical operation,” she said, rushing off. “Who buys the books, who gives them to women, who brings them here, who gets them.”

The books and toys are for an ad hoc school that Budapest-based Russian Chukovskaya is helping set up for some of the nearly half a million Ukrainian women and children who have flocked to Hungary since the beginning of the Russian invasion on February 24.

Since then, Chukovskaya’s life as a media trainer has been completely overtaken by the painful and urgent imperative to help those fleeing the violence inflicted by her country.

“I don’t want to compare my problems to the problems of Ukrainians, but I will say that many Russians I know have lost a lot and are depressed, devastated and hopeless,” she said.

Chukovskaya collects children’s books from a Ukrainian she met online, who is part of a network of pro-democracy Russians in Budapest who help Ukrainians. (Megan Williams/CBC)

Chukovskaya, 35, is the great-granddaughter of famous children’s poet Korney Chukovsky, who described Stalin as a cockroach.

(As she picks up the bag of books, a No. 74 trolleybus zooms by, a Soviet-era hangover. In 1949, Budapest, the last reluctant capital to enter the Eastern Bloc, inaugurates new bus giving it the number 70 to celebrate Stalin’s 70th birthday.)

Nine years ago she moved from Moscow to Budapest, where she established a publishing house that translated non-fiction books into Russian and worked as a civic and media educator in Russia, mostly away from Budapest, but coming back often.

Now, along with a handful of other pro-democracy Russians who have moved to Budapest, she spends her days finding housing, food and schools for Ukrainians.

Answer calls

“I can’t do anything else,” she said. “And I will no longer work for Russia.”

Earlier, in her spacious and bright apartment near the Danube, with her two young children clamoring for attention, she sat at her computer answering phone calls and updating a spreadsheet that matches those who arrive with apartments and hotel rooms that his network has secured.

Yuliya Protsenko, 43, a yoga teacher in kyiv, says that without the help of Chukovskaya and the other Russian women, she, her sister and their three children would be homeless and starving. (Agnes Bihari/CBC)

Among them is the former studio of her husband, Alexey Zelensky, sound designer, composer and now podcaster. (The sound equipment is now in their apartment, along with cribs and beds to sleep over in the old studio.)

The Russian invasion, Chukovskaya said, not only turned her life upside down, but also led to a change of identity.

It also sparked a deep and dramatic reassessment of her past activism, journalism, work as an educator, and her youthful optimism.

“It was a hopeful time for Russians and Russian media,” she said of her time on TV Rain, the independent Russian site launched by two women in 2010 and blocked by the Russian government. on March 1 for his coverage of Russian news. invasion.

Final protest

Two years later, when members of the punk-rock group Pussy Riot were arrested and tried for hooliganism and inciting religious hatred for performing a punk prayer in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, she was among those who stood signs in the street.

It would be his last demonstration in Russia.

Protsenko, 43, right, his sister and two children at a small Budapest hotel organized and paid for by a network that includes pro-democracy Russians in Budapest. (Agnes Bihari/CBC)

“We understood that it would be really difficult to build a life in Moscow,” she said of the decision she and her husband made to leave. “It was getting really dangerous.”

They chose Budapest, a beautiful cosmopolitan city with a relatively low cost of living. It’s also a short flight to Moscow, where she gave workshops when she wasn’t working remotely.

“I really believed that if me and my friends, very talented and creative people… did our best, then the best would come,” she said. “It was a terrible idea. It was a complete failure and we have to accept that and we have to rethink our actions.”

She looks back now and says her generation should have been more radical — they should have protested much louder for much smaller civil rights violations — rather than accepting what she calls a series of compromises.

“The History Lesson We Have”

“You know, you work at this amazing startup, you raise money, you’re so smart and so young,” she said of herself and her friends at the time.

“But you actually do it under [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s shoe and you think, “Maybe the shoe won’t know you’re here.” Maybe the shoe will go elsewhere. But the shoe will always know you are there and the shoe will always crush you. That’s the history lesson we got, but unfortunately, too late.”

The small hotel near the Budapest train station where a network including pro-democracy Russians are hosting Ukrainian refugees. (Agnes Bihari/CBC)

While previously anti-migrant countries like Hungary are taking in hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians, she said it’s mainly because they are “like Hungarians” and she wonders how long this will last.

She feels the world has not done enough to help Ukraine, a feeling reinforced by the arrival of deeply traumatized women and children as the brutality escalates.

However, the help of a Russian is not always immediately welcomed by those who arrive in Budapest.

“They hear my Russian accent and understand that I’m from Moscow and they ask me where I’m from,” she said. “Sometimes there is a pause” when her response comes.

‘I was shocked’

“At first I was in shock, honestly,” Katerina said, when she learned that the women helping her were Russian. The fertility doctor, who prefers not to give his last name, fled Kharkiv with his teenage son at the end of March and is staying in a small hotel near the train station, awaiting visas for England. “I didn’t know how to act towards her.”

But she said that when Chukovskaya and another Russian woman showed up with groceries and gave her money to buy face cream after telling them she had left hers, she melted into it. tears.

Katerina, who did not want to give her surname, fled Kharkiv with her teenage son at the end of March and is staying in a small hotel near the Budapest train station. (Agnes Bihari/CBC)

“I don’t think all Russians are freaks. I just think the number of normal, kind people with an open soul ready to help you is very, very small. You can count them on the fingers of one hand. Anastasia is one of them.”

What makes the help of Chukovskaya and other Russians even more sensitive for some Ukrainians is that the same help was not provided by relatives and friends in Russia.

“My mother has a cousin in Kaliningrad,” said Yuliya Protsenko, 43, who fled kyiv on March 13 shortly after opening her own yoga studio. “When the war started and our children started dying, [my mother] started to correspond with [the cousin], who said: “I don’t believe in it, I only believe in Putin”. She has since stopped talking to him. Yet here, Russian women help us with all their heart and soul.”

Chukovskaya said she expects to spend the next few months, but more likely years, establishing and running schools for Ukrainians. But she is aware that she must be careful.

Prime Minister Victor Orban was elected for a fourth consecutive term with a super-majority earlier this month.

The nationalist hardline has increasingly suppressed civil rights, targeting migrants and LGBTQ people. For the past 12 years, he and his entourage have cracked down on independent media and bought up others, including Index, one of the last independent Hungarian news sites with a large readership.

“You know that thing called retraumatizing?” said Chukovskaya. Buying Index by a buddy of Orban’s “really triggered me because I saw that. I’ve been there. I know what that means. It’s not a good story and people should pay a lot of attention to it now.”

But that’s all she will say about Hungarian politics. She is a legal resident, but all too aware of the fragility of her status in a country that makes it difficult to obtain nationality.

“I’m like this very good migrant. I try to be very quiet and don’t talk about issues regarding Hungary,” she said. Getting involved in politics here “would be very bad for my residency application. I’m a legal resident, but anyone can change that in a second.”

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