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Anastasia Sergeeva, co-founder of For Free Russia, in Warsaw, Poland, holds up a new flag that pro-democracy Russians living outside the country have adopted since the war in Ukraine began.Anna Liminowicz/The Globe and Mail

Ever since Russian troops began bombing Ukraine last month, Dmitry Strotsev has been wrestling with guilt and shame.

Mr. Strotsev, 29, is among the small number of Russians who live in Warsaw and, though he fiercely opposes the war and has no time for Russian President Vladimir Putin, the invasion has left him struggling with a sense of responsibility.

“It’s hard to reconcile your thoughts, your feelings,” he said between sips of coffee in a downtown café. “Surely we do not blame all Germans for what the Nazis did, but at the time I guess every German was guilty. And right now every Russian is guilty.”

He paused to reflect on collective responsibility and what future generations will think. “I would also be the one who would be expressing a feeling of being sorry for all this, even though I was against it.”

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The Russian Embassy in Warsaw on March 18.Anna Liminowicz/The Globe and Mail

The war has had more direct consequence as well. Mr. Strotsev’s partner, Maks Voronkin, is from Ukraine and the couple have been on an emotional roller coaster since the fighting broke out, vacillating between anger, hatred and numbness. Only recently has Mr. Voronkin, a 38-year old barber, been able to calm the constant rage he feels, but he said one look at the news and it comes rushing back.

Then two weeks ago, Mr. Strotsev’s citizenship cost him his job. He speaks four languages and worked as a translator in a venture-capital company in Warsaw. When he got into a dispute with his boss over working conditions, his employer abruptly cited Mr. Strotsev’s nationality and told him to leave. “Never have I ever experienced any kind of discrimination because I’m Russian in Poland, until now,” he said.

For other Russians living in Warsaw, the fallout from the war has been equally profound. There are only about 8,000 ex-pats here but nearly all have been left reeling by the conflict and how to respond.

A few dozen local Russians have made donations to the Ukrainian army, opened their homes to refugee families or helped transport people across the Polish border. But going further and voicing public support for Ukraine has been problematic.

Anastasia Sergeeva, right, is a co-founder of the Free Russia Foundation, a pro-democracy organization, in Warsaw.Anna Liminowicz/The Globe and Mail

“We all have very huge identity crisis,” said Anastasia Sergeeva, a Russian pro-democracy advocate who has been in Poland since 2013 and founded a group called For Free Russia. “Having only Russian identity and understanding that right now Russia is bombing Kyiv, Kharkiv other Ukrainian cities, and looking at the stories of Ukrainian refugees, and by understanding that it’s our fault.

“It’s our part of responsibility, which is really very huge because we didn’t stop Putin beforehand. We can’t change the situation now. It’s a very huge crisis inside your mind,” she said.

Ms. Sergeeva said that for years local Russians would proudly wave their country’s flag during pro-democracy events to show that not all Russians backed Mr. Putin and that he didn’t control the country’s symbols. “But unfortunately the war changed the situation rapidly and now we have the very clear understanding that unfortunately we have to give up the flag,” she said.

Instead, they’ve created a new flag to show their support for Ukraine. They removed the red stripe from the Russian flag, which for them symbolized blood, and replaced it with white. The result is a flag that has one blue stripe down the middle bordered by two in white.

“The red was cleared,” said Ms. Sergeeva. “Now, we have to make this symbol really meaningful because by now, we still feel our shame because of Ukrainians who are dying instead of us. It should be we who are struggling with Putin.”

The new flag has already won some legitimacy. Ms. Sergeeva said pro-democracy protesters in Russia have been detained simply for carrying it.

Problems with protests aren’t the only issues thrown up by the war. Western sanctions have also caused concern. While most Russian-Poles support Western actions to isolate Russia, there’s fear that some of the measures could hurt efforts to promote change inside the country. And in a number of cases, financial sanctions have actually hindered support for Ukrainian refugees in Poland.

Warsaw linguist Varvara Magomedova has been helping dozens of disabled children get out of Ukraine since the start of the war and move them to facilities in Germany, France, Lithuania and elsewhere. Ms. Magomedovais originally from St. Petersburg and she has an extensive network of family, friends and colleagues across Russia, many of whom want to support her work. But their donations have been blocked because of sanctions, leaving Ms. Magomedova to pick up nearly all of the costs.

“This pisses me off actually because I have a lot of Russian friends who really want to help,” she said while standing in her small kitchen and poring over messages on her laptop. “They are taking risks every day.” She couldn’t even access the equivalent of US$150 on her Russian Mastercard recently. “That’s two nights in a shelter for two families,” she added.

Ms. Magomedova has two autistic sons and she’s well aware of the stress these families face. And while she understands the need to hit Moscow with sanctions, she wishes more thought had been given to the unintended consequences.

For example, she said many academics in Russia can no longer attend international conferences, and financial support for pro-democracy groups has largely dried up. Western countries “are cutting off resources to people who were actually fighting the regime,” she said. “Yet they continue to buy Russian gas and oil. If you destroy the society, there is no force for change.”

Russian connections run far beyond the ex-pat community in Poland. Many refugees arriving from Ukraine have close family ties in Russia, making the current war even more tragic.

Aleksandra Kuchukova, who fled from Lutsk, Ukraine, plays the saxophone on a street in downtown Warsaw to raise money to bring her 10-years old brother, George, to Poland.Anna Liminowicz/The Globe and Mail

Aleksandra Kuchukova’s mother and grandmother were born in Vladivostok and she speaks fluent Russian. She arrived in the Polish capital late last week from Lutsk, in northwestern Ukraine, encouraged by her parents to get away from the Russian bombardments.

She’s 22 years old with degrees in music and theatre, and she used to teach 40 students the intricacies of contemporary dance. Now, she spends her days on a street corner wrapped in a Ukrainian flag and blowing her saxophone, hoping to get enough tips to bring her 10-year-old brother, George, to safety.

“Father can’t come,” she says in halting English, referring to the Ukrainian decree that bans adult males from leaving the country. “Mother love dad and doesn’t want to go. One brother that’s it. It’s no choice.”

She doesn’t speak with her Russian relatives any more and just wants all the killing to end. When asked if she had a message for Canadians, Ms. Kuchukova replied softly: “Pray for Ukraine. Pray.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misstated Varvara Magomedova's name.


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