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Idel. Realii: Escapees from hell

“Pristaniste” – this is the name of a shelter for the forced migrants from Ukraine, Russia and Belarus in the seaside town Budva in Montenegro. It was opened by Shmelev family with the financial support of the businessman Oleg Reps and other Russian and Montenegrin philanthropists. Recently, the help in Pristaniste has been received by more than a hundred of Ukrainian, Russian and Belarusian citizens, who escaped from the war or repressions of of authoritarian regimes.”Idel. Realii” spoke with some of them.


Budva is a trendy and party city. People dance here up to the morning, meeting the dawn in a careless company of friends. Thy drink wine any time of the day, write poems and paint pictures, hold conceptual exhibitions and carnivals. Along narrow medieval streets of the old city, crowds of tourists walk, aiming the camera lens at the Virgin Mary on the facade of an ancient temple, at the gymnast frozen on a stone at the edge of the Adriatic Sea, at a flotilla of colorful sailboats on the counter of a souvenir shop. In Budva casino you can lose all your money at night, but, if you are lucky you would be able to win back in the morning using the last chip.

Recently, in the touristic center on the Adriatic Sea another people appeared. They have got shabby clothes and detached extinct look, they shudder from the sound of fireworks. They are the refugees from Mariupol, Kharkiv, Odessa, Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities, besieged and destroyed by the Russian army. With surprise they look at the elegant crowd on the Budva embankment as if don`t understand where they are. Probably, in front of their inner eyes, they have other pictures: mangled burning buildings, empty eye sockets of windows, blackened skeletons of houses, cities lying in ruins, crowds of people fleeing the war. According to Balcan Press, during two last months in Montenegro at least 10 thousand refugees from Ukraine appeared.

Some of them found salvation in Pristaniste – the shelter for forced migrants in Budva is called so. “Pristaniste” is translated into Russian as a landing place, but most of its inhabitants prefer to call it using its folk name – “Pristaniste”(Пристанище). Among its founders there is Shmelev family from Moscow, the former Forex-Club Head Oleg Reps, and other Russian and Montenegrin philanthropists. The haven is located in five buildings-villas in one of the picturesque Budva side streets. Here, surrounded by blooming trees and carefully attentive help of volunteers, the refugees can spend two weeks. They will be helped to find a permanent housing, a job, a school for children, to stay in Montenegro or to move to another European country. 

-       Practically everyone, who is here, is the lucky one! – admits Svetlana Shmeleva, “Pristaniste” Executive Director. – Each fate, each story – is a kind of a miracle. Some people came just in slippers and a gown having got out of the bombing, others were lucky to avoid an arrest and a prison. To give this people “Pristaniste” is the least we can do.


One of those, who by chance got out of the bombing, went through half of Europe, and appeared in “Pristaniste”, is the former citizen of Kharkiv, an accountant Anna Azarova and her daughter Marina, a student of Kyiv University. Now, they live in the villa in Budva, in the evenings they drink tea on a terrace surrounded by blooming magnolias, but they are still in besieged Kharkiv with all their hearts.

-       We were running out of there not under the influence of any reasonable feeling, we were driven by animal fear, - Anna tells. – Kharkiv was bombarded from the very first day. At first there were missile strikes, and then the airplanes arrived. It was the scariest. You can`t imagine this sound, low, penetrating, similar to the howl of a mechanical monster. It penetrates everywhere; there is no corner in your flat where you can hide…It seemed that you were in hell.
-       Did you go down to the bomb shelter?
-       There was neither a bomb shelter in our district nor a basement in our house. Besides, you can not have time to go down from the 9th floor. Metro is too far and it was overcrowded from the first days of the war.
-       Were residential areas bombed?
-       Of course. We lived near the district Severnaya Saltykovka – it was a usual dormitory area of Kharkiv where usual people, speaking mostly Russian, lived. We found ourselves in the center of the war. The lights suddenly went out, and we realized that the electro station was hit. Then, the water and heat supply disappeared, the telephone got silent – it meant that the heating network and telephone station had been destroyed. Even Ecopark, where bears, tigers, lions, leopards lived, was bombed out. The animal cages were destroyed, and  most likely they had to be euthanized.
-       Did the shops work?
-       First days they worked. People crowded there. They bought out everything what they could: salt, sugar, cereals, pasta, everything. In three days there was nothing in the shops. People began leaving the city. I found a car which went to Western Ukraine. We were driving along the city center of Kharkiv and saw huge buildings with gaps in the walls, mangled flats with furniture falling down into the streets. The ambulances were driving around the city picking the wounded and the dead. We joined a huge motorcade slowly leaving Kharkiv. The cars moved 5 km/h, a glow blazed behind our backs, a cannonade was heard. All this reminded us the movies about Great Patriotic War, which I had enjoyed watching. Meanwhile, my child left Kyiv by evacuation train.

-       At the railway station in Kyiv there was a big crowd of people going to the trains, - Marina recalls, - The trains were stormed – those, who managed to be the first, were the owners of sitting places. Those, who didn`t manage, had to stand in the aisle very close to each other – it was impossible even to go to the toilet. One mother wanted to take a baby carriage for her seven month old baby, but she wasn`t allowed to do that for not to take spare place. Some mothers couldn`t catch the evacuation trains for a very long time, because while they were going to the trains with small children, all the trains became overcrowded. We moved from the left bank of the Dnieper and it was rather quiet there, but the right bank was shelled. In western Ukraine we I met my mother…

-       In Uzhgorod I suddenly met my friend, she was on crutches – she had broken her leg before the war, - Anna continues. – She and her mother were going to go to Montenegro, they had somebody there. We decided to go with them, because it was no difference for us where to go – nobody waited for us. I remember our crossing the European border. There was a huge crowd of women with children (men were not allowed to go), with suitcases on wheels, with bags and rucksacks, slowly moving through the checkpoint to the unknown. There were mothers with infants, 90 year old women with their animals – cats and dogs – in hands. This exodus of women from Ukraine was a real biblical spectacle, I will never forget this!

-       How did you know about Pristaniste?
-       It happened accidentally. An unknown guy from Facebook sent us the link to “Pristaniste” – we wrote, and we were accepted. This was manna from heaven, our lives were saved! Here, in Pristaniste, we met Russians, and I realized that I didn`t hate them. Russian refugees, in some sense, are in more difficult situation. We are victims of the war, everyone feels sorry about us, and they are the representatives of people-aggressor. We left because of the bombs and they left their Motherland because they had decided they couldn’t live with such authorities.
Azarov family spent in Pristaniste two weeks, after that the Ukrainians received an unexpected invitation to visit Israel. A family of former Soviet Union migrants invited them to live in their own house in Afula town in Israeli valley. Now Azarovs are in safety but they anxiously read reports of military operations from Ukraine, and don`t know where they come back home.

One of those who left Russia after the beginning of the war with Ukraine is a civilian activist Sergey (he asked not to use his surname). He is 27 years old; he is a native Moscow resident. For the first time he participated a political action when he was a schoolboy. At rallies he learned about opposition leader Alexey Navalny – in 2013 he became a volunteer of his headquarters (recognized in Russia as “an extremist organization” – “Idel.Realii”), many times he worked as an election observer and as a member of election Committee, went out on solo pickets. During protest actions there were several attempts to arrest him, but every time the young man was lucky to run away. Nevertheless, he had to pay the administrative penalty – 10 thousand rubles – for violation of the law on rallies. Sergey prepared his flat for possible search: a banner in support of Navalny, flags, badges, stickers, flyers and other “compromising materials” were taken out of the flat. When he came to know about the beginning of the war with Ukraine, he made up his mind to leave Russia.

-       I got everything together in one evening, bought the first ticket to Turkey, - Sergey says. – My mother and brother drove me to airport. Why did I decide to do so? I understood I could be called up for military service at any time and sent to Ukraine. They could give me no weapon, because they didn`t need any weapon in the hands of those who supported Navalny, but what they could, was the opportunity to send me ahead as “a human shield”. If they didn`t call me up, they could arrest me. Everything was so unpredictable. Journalists, Navalny supporters, opponents of the war – all these people are in the group of risk. The fact, that “Echo Moskvy” was switched off, was a signal for me that the authorities wouldn`t abhor anything. If you call the war what really the war is – fratricidal and disgusting – you can`t stay in Russia anymore.

-       Why did you think it was wrong for you to go to jail for your ideas as Alexey Navalny had done?
-       You know, I ask myself about it. I think all the time if I was right to have acted this way. I even had a return ticket from Turkey by Pobeda air company, but I didn`t use it. I am not such a strong person as Navalny. He chose the way of martyrdom and I am scared. I won`t survive in prison, I can`t stand loneliness. I am not the symbol of protest, the whole world won`t defend me.  I'll just quietly rot, and no one will get better.

-       Do you work in Pristaniste as a volunteer?
-       Yes, I have been here since the middle of March. Recently, when I visited a center of the help to Ukrainian refugees, I asked for forgiveness from myself. They took it very good but I can`t stop feeling shame. I`m ashamed speaking loudly Russian outdoors, because I understand that this language now is associated with aggression and madness happening in Ukraine now. I don`t want anybody think I support all this. But I am not ashamed that I am Russian, I`m not going to burn my Russian passport or renounce citizenship because Putin is not Russia, I always say this to everybody. My Russia is completely another country. Of course, now the whole life turned upside down, you don`t think anymore what will be tomorrow. Do you have what to eat and where to live? Super! But I am not going to stay in Europe forever; I have nothing to do here. Russia is my country, Moscow is my city, I went to streets with these slogans. I will be back and tell just the same. But I want to live up to this. I won`t give them such an opportunity to put me in prison, to torture me  and to kill. When will I come back? I don`t know, but, probably, for me such a sign will be the liberation of Navalny. If he gets out of jail alive, a lot of people will come back.

After our conversation I habitually reach for the camera, but the activist asks me not to take pictures. His relatives are in Moscow and he is afraid that there will be a search in their flats.


Sergey Shoman is 48 years old. He is a native of the Belarusian city of Gomel, a builder. After the President election 2020 in Belarus, Shoman was one of those who participated in the mass protests, and then was arrested.

-       On 9 August 2020 in Gomel we went for a walk, - Sergey recalls, - there were a lot of people in the center, I think, about 10-15 thousand. The people chanted “Long live Belarus!” clapped the hands, cars honked; some of citizens were with national white-red-white flags of free Belarus. Then we saw that riot police had blocked the street and were preparing to take over. In a minute I was captured and dragged to the car. I was the first, and then there were 10 more people. We were driven to the gym of District Department of Internal Affairs of Zheleznodorozhny district of Gomel. Why to the gym? Because all police departments were overcrowded. We were put on the floor, and we spent in such position two hours; we were lucky, they didn`t beat us. They began to beat people on the third day of the protests, from 11 October. There were a lot of arrested people; they were beaten by legs, hands, police batons!
I heard screams, groans, sounds of blows and even witnessed a murder…

-       A murder?
-       Yes. One young guy was arrested with me – his name was Alexander Vihor. We were together in the gym, and then we were taken to a court. All the detainees were given 15 days for participation in the illegal public event. When we were put in a paddy wagon Alexander began crying hysterically. He cried: “Mum, Dad, they kill me! Help, save me!” One of the guards sprayed pepper spray in his face. When we were driven to the detention center, they began to let everyone out of the car, but they left him there. Later, I got to know that Alexander Vihor died. I think policemen beat him to death. When his body was given to his mother, she found traces of beatings, hematomas, fractures. When I was in the Gomel detention center, half of arrested people there had been beaten. One of my cellmates was a tattoo master; he was not interested in politics. In the evening of mass protests he was walking with his dog. Riot police beat him up so that he couldn’t get up for four days.

-       Why did you decide to leave Belarus after the beginning of the war with Ukraine?

-       When this war began everything became especially disgusting. Many of those who had participated in protests and had been in opposition to Lukashenko, appeared to be the supporters of the war with Ukraine. I can`t even say that they were the victims of propaganda, because there wasn`t such an active propaganda in Belarus as compared with Russia. But a lot of Belarusians decided that they had to be with Russia and Ukraine was a traitor as it had decided to go to Europe and join NATO.

All this made a terrible impression and at some point I realized that I couldn`t live in such way anymore…I went to Georgia. But Georgia met me with rains – something went wrong there for me. The main problem was the language – this script which Slav can`t understand, can`t read the names of streets, shops – it`s unreal. Only old generation speaks Russian, young people don`t understand it at all. I had a friend in Montenegro and he invited me. Montenegro made favorable impression on me: the language is clear, people are sincere. I think I`ll stay here for a long time, because while those two – Putin and Lukashenko – rule in Russia and Belarus, I can`t come back.

In “Pristaniste” Sergey Shoman spent about a week – during this period he found a place to live and a job. Now he is going to apply for a residence permit. Belarusian is happy with his life in Montenegro, he is not even afraid of earthquakes that sometimes happen here.


Before they leave “Pristaniste” the guests leave comments in blue covered notebook. This book is called here “the blue book”. Each story here is a drama with a happy end.

This is, for example, a young couple – Sasha from Yaroslavl and Diana from Kharkiv, - tells us a volunteer of “Pristniste”, native of Stavropol Alexander. – They used to live in Ukraine before the war. When Kharkiv was being shelled, they managed to escape to Montenegro. Then they wanted to move to Europe. But Diana, as a native Ukrainian, was allowed to have visa, but Sasha wasn`t. they were not married, just hadn`t had time to do it before the war. It was a real drama. But everything ended happily – international journalist organizations helped Sasha (he is a journalist) to get a Czech visa. The lovers left safely for Heidelberg.

“We are immensely grateful to “Pristaniste” and to Alexander, Vladimir, Maria Shmelev for the kind and warm welcome in Montenegro. Due to their help we could take a break from problems of the war, come to our senses and kept going!” – I read in “The Blue Book”

-       Or another story, - goes on Alexander. – The Ukrainians from Odessa came with children by cars, lived here two weeks and left for Croatia. Odessans couldn`t understand why 144-million people couldn`t overcome one Putin. At first, they were angry with us, but then we became friends. A very touching story of Ermolenko family from Mariupol. They escaped from the bombing, their house was ruined, but they survived.
“When we thought that we were alone, Svetlana Shmeleva called us and said: “Do not hurry, we are waiting for you”. It was like a breath of fresh air. Now is the time when relatives become strangers and strangers – relatives! We experienced this for ourselves. Thank you very much! Everything will be ok!” – the Ukrainians wrote in “The Blue Book”