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In Latvia, Ukrainian refugees find help from Russians

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Russia's invasion of Ukraine had driven apart two countries that used to be close, but many Russians oppose the war, which was launched by Russian President Vladimir Putin. NPR's Philip Reeves recently visited Latvia, a Baltic nation that borders Russia, and found that some Russians are now reaching out to Ukrainians in unexpected ways.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Russian).

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Speaking Russian).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Russian).

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: In a forest near the Baltic Sea, a man is talking to a little girl about birds.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Russian).

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRD CALL)

REEVES: He uses his mobile phone to show her which ones to listen out for.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Imitating bird call).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Russian).

REEVES: The girl's eyes shine. The man is Russian. The girl is from Ukraine. Both are here in a foreign land because of the war that his country has launched against hers. This birdwatching trip is for Ukrainian refugees. The man's one of a handful of Russian volunteers. We're in a national park near the Latvian capital, Riga. There are white-tailed eagles around here and, in the nearby marshes and lagoons, coots and tufted ducks. The group spots a blue tit.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Russian).

REEVES: They're delighted because it's blue and yellow, like the Ukrainian flag.

VERA: My name is Vera (ph) - Vera, and Ukrainian version is Vera.

REEVES: Vera is a speech therapist from the Ukrainian city of Odesa. She's asked NPR not to broadcast her full name for safety reasons. Vera finds days out like this really helpful.

VERA: It's very important for our lives to forget about the war, just for a few minutes, a few hours.

REEVES: Vera moved to Latvia over a year ago to escape the war. Her mom, dad and grandfather stayed behind.

VERA: Sometimes I get nervous and thinking about this. It's very important to get some messages from my family. It's not good for our living, for our lives.

REEVES: The presence of Russian volunteers doesn't bother her. They're trying to help, she says. Yet as a Ukrainian, she does worry generally about fraternizing with Russians in Latvia.

VERA: Because we don't know what are they thinking about this? Can they support us? Or maybe they support their country? It's very hard, and we don't want to be in bad situation and have some problems.

REEVES: So you're careful when you meet Russians.

VERA: Yeah, careful, of course.

REEVES: This day trip is organized by a Latvian charity called Common Ground. Common Ground was created by local activists right after the war started to help Ukrainian refugees integrate by providing advice and activities. Sergei Lotarev, a research scientist from Moscow, is among the volunteers.

SERGEI LOTAREV: I know that I cannot influence the general situation with the war, but I know that I can do something to overcome the consequences for this or that person.

REEVES: Lotarev moved to Latvia last year with his wife. She's a journalist. Journalists who don't toe the Kremlin's line risk being jailed. Many have moved here. Lotarev's horrified by Putin's invasion.

LOTAREV: I'm quite sure that we cannot solve political and other problems by killing people.

REEVES: Lotarev feels helping Ukrainians is something he needs to do.

LOTAREV: I think it's important for me, yes - and for my soul, for my inner balance.

REEVES: It's not easy. Latvia is a former Soviet republic. There's always been some hostility towards Russians. Now it's stronger. This is an online video of a summer picnic that Common Ground organized for Ukrainians to celebrate their Independence Day.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Latvian).

REEVES: That man is angry about the presence of a London-based Russian businessman, a prominent Putin critic who sponsored the barbecue. The Ukrainian Embassy also objected to the picnic. It said it was against Russian citizens taking part in any events held for Ukrainians or in any actions aimed at reconciliation. Common Ground's Latvian director Inese Dabola begs to differ.

INESE DABOLA: I believe that we need to support those Russians who are willing to live and value democratic standards and want to live in a normal society.

REEVES: Dabola says she understands why some Ukrainians object, yet she intends to continue including Russians who oppose Putin's war.

DABOLA: Because if we unite all together, or if we find a way how we support Russian opposition in Russia, it's way better.

REEVES: Back in the forest, the birdwatchers wrap up their day also with a picnic and a group photo.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Speaking Russian).

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Speaking Russian).

ANNA TIAN: (Speaking Russian).

REEVES: "Days like this give you the sense that you're not alone," says Anna Tian, who's Ukrainian. As for the Russians who are here...

TIAN: (Speaking Russian).

REEVES: "I reckon you should judge people by their actions," she says, "not by their passport."

TIAN: (Speaking Russian).

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News in the Kemeri National Park, Latvia.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.