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

·7 min read
Budapest resident Anastasia Chukovskaya, who is Russian, has given up her former job as an educator to devote herself full-time to helping Ukrainians arriving in Budapest. (Agnes Bihari/CBC - image credit)
Budapest resident Anastasia Chukovskaya, who is Russian, has given up her former job as an educator to devote herself full-time to helping Ukrainians arriving in Budapest. (Agnes Bihari/CBC - image credit)

On a grey, blustery afternoon, Anastasia Chukovskaya provides a bright spot along a desolate stretch of road running alongside railway tracks in northeast Budapest.

Her scarlet coat and floor-length fuchsia dress flapping in the wind, she hurries along, grasping a box of toys she just collected from a Hungarian woman. Her next stop: a Ukrainian manicurist down the road whom she also met on Facebook, who has some Ukrainian children's books she recently brought from Ukraine.

"It's a whole logistics operation," she said, rushing along. "Who buys the books, who gives them to the women, who brings them here, who gets them."

The books and toys are for an ad hoc school the Budapest-based Russian Chukovskaya is helping set up for some of the almost half a million Ukrainian women and children who have streamed into Hungary since the Russian invasion began on Feb 24.

Since then, Chukovskaya's life as a media trainer has been completely overtaken by the painful, 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, a lot of Russians I know have lost a lot and are depressed, devastated and hopeless," she said.

Megan Williams/CBC
Megan Williams/CBC

Chukovskaya, 35, is the great-granddaughter of the popular children's poet Korney Chukovsky, who famously portrayed Stalin as a cockroach.

(As she takes the bag of books, a No. 74 trolleybus rattles by, a hangover from the Soviet era. In 1949, Budapest, the latest reluctant capital to enter the Eastern Bloc, inaugurated the new bus by giving it the No. 70 to celebrate Stalin's 70th birthday.)

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

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

Fielding calls

"I'm not able to do anything else," she said. "And I won't be working for Russia anymore."

Earlier, at her spacious, light-filled apartment near the Danube River, with her two young children clamouring for attention, she sat at her computer fielding phone calls and updating a spreadsheet that matches those arriving with apartments and hotel rooms her network has secured.

Agnes Bihari/CBC
Agnes Bihari/CBC

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

The Russian invasion, Chukovskaya said, has not only upended her life, but also led to an identity shift.

It has also set in motion a profound and dramatic reassessment of her past activism, journalism, work as an educator and youthful optimism.

"It was a time full of hope for Russians and Russian media," she said of her stint at TV Rain, the independent Russian site launched by two women in 2010 that was blocked by the Russian government on March 1 over its coverage of the Russian invasion.

Final protest

Two years later, when members of the punk-rock band Pussy Riot were arrested and tried for hooliganism and inciting religious hatred for performing a punk prayer in Moscow's Christ the Savior cathedral, she was among those holding placards from the street.

It would turn out to be her last protest in Russia.

Agnes Bihari/CBC
Agnes Bihari/CBC

"We understood 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 not 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 that her generation should have been more radical — they should have protested much louder for much smaller infringements on civil rights — rather than accept what she calls a series of compromises.

'The history lesson we got'

"You know, you're working in this amazing startup, you're raising money, you're so smart and so young," she said of herself and her friends of that time.

"But you're actually doing 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 somewhere else.' But the shoe will always know that you're there and the shoe will always crush you. This is the history lesson we got, but unfortunately, too late."

Agnes Bihari/CBC
Agnes Bihari/CBC

While previously anti-migrant countries like Hungary are taking in hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians, she said it's mostly because they are "like Hungarians" and she questions how long it will last.

She feels the world has not done enough to help Ukraine, a sensation heightened by the now-deeply traumatized women and children arriving as the brutality worsens.

Yet help from a Russian is not always immediately welcomed by those arriving in Budapest.

"They hear my Russian accent and understand I'm from Moscow and they ask where I'm from," she said. "Sometimes there's a pause" when her answer comes.

'I was in shock'

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

But she said when Chukovskaya and another Russian woman showed up with groceries and gave her cash to buy face cream after she told them she'd left hers behind, she burst into tears.

Agnes Bihari/CBC
Agnes Bihari/CBC

"I don't think all Russians are monsters. I just think the amount of normal, kind people with an open soul ready to help you is very, very low. You can count them on the fingers of one hand. Anastasia is one of them."

What makes the help from Chukovskaya and other Russians even more sensitive for some Ukrainians is that the same assistance has not been forthcoming from 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 began to die, [my mother] started corresponding with [the cousin], who said, 'I don't believe it, I only believe Putin.' Since then, she has stopped talking to her. Yet, here, Russian women are helping us with all their heart and soul."

Chukovskaya said she expects she will spend the next months, but more likely years, setting up and running schools for Ukrainians. But she's aware she has to be careful.

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

The nationalist hardliner has increasingly cracked down on civil rights, targeting migrants and LGBTQ people. Over the past 12 years, he and his inner circle have clamped down on independent media outlets and bought others, including Index, one of the last independent Hungarian news sites with a large readership.

"You know this thing called retraumatizing?" Chukovskaya said. The purchase of Index by an Orban crony "really triggered me because I've seen this. I've been through this. I know what this means. It's not a good story and people should pay a lot of attention now."

But that's as much as she'll say about Hungarian politics. She's a legal resident, but all too aware of the fragility of her status in a country that makes it difficult to obtain citizenship.

"I'm like this very good migrant. I try to stay very silent and I don't speak on issues concerning Hungary," she said. Getting involved in politics here "would be very bad from my residency application. I'm a legal resident, but anyone can change that in a second."

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