Ukrainians found a Russian priest ready to help them restore their destroyed lives

Four months ago, they were preparing for the birth of their first child. Now they are sitting in a modest apartment turned into a hostel in the center of St. Petersburg, Russia. They became refugees. They fled Mariupol, a port city on the Black Sea now under Russian control, but were forever traumatized.

“We planned a lot for the future, we did repairs in the apartment,” says 36-year-old Shishkina. Now they don’t want to come back.

“Purely emotional, we would always know where we were back, and we would always…” Her voice trailed off, and her husband, Vladimir Shishkin, finished the sentence. “We will always be afraid,” he said.

CNN met a Ukrainian couple in Russia’s second largest city with a Russian priest, the Reverend Grigory Mikhnov-Vaitenko, who helps them in their second life – giving them shelter, food and organizing their future care. Mikhnov-Vaitenko estimates that he and his network of volunteers have helped thousands of Ukrainian refugees since the conflict began.

When Russian troops entered Ukraine, Shishkina was resting in a maternity hospital in Mariupol, and a long-awaited child was growing inside her. A previous pregnancy was lost at 21 weeks, she told CNN, and it was difficult for her and her husband to conceive again. She remembers being in a quiet ward full of women approaching their due date when a death bomb hit the hospital.

“It was so powerful that everything else rang in my ears and drowned out,” Shishkina said. “Everything fell apart out of nowhere.”

On March 9, Mariupol Maternity Hospital No. 1.3 was bombed in a notorious incident that killed four people and injured dozens. Ukrainian authorities have accused Russian forces of dropping bombs on him from the air. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the bombed-out hospital was being used by Ukrainian troops and that all the patients and nurses had left. A spokesman for the Russian Defense Ministry at a briefing denied that Russia fired at the maternity hospital at all, calling it a “provocation.”

For Shishkina, involved in a tumultuous and violent conflict, everything has changed.

She knew she had to scream, she said, to have any hope of being found among the rubble and rescued. Shishkina was pulled out from under the rubble and rushed to another hospital, where doctors managed to save her life. But not her unborn son.

“They did a caesarean section. There was panic everywhere, but they said that I needed to be saved. They saw that the child no longer had vital signs. They tried to pull him out and resuscitate him,” Shishkina said.

“Whoever set off this explosion, I took a direct hit in the stomach – right in my baby – and they couldn’t save him,” she told CNN, keeping her voice loud even as tears welled up in her eyes.

When she recovered, she tried to send messages to her family, not knowing if they were still in Mariupol and if they were alive.

She heard that some of her relatives had left. But her husband, Vladimir Shishkin, was not with them.

He was injured the day after the hospital explosion and ended up being treated almost 70 miles (112 km) away in Donetsk. The city, located in Ukraine’s far east, has been a territory ruled by Russia-backed separatists since 2014, and one that Russian President Vladimir Putin recognized as independent days before the conflict.

Shishkin, 31, told CNN that he was walking to the only open local store before heading to his wounded wife when he and a friend named Tolik were hit by an airstrike.

“We ran when we heard the plane getting louder,” he said, leaning on crutches next to him. “There was a hill, with a fence and some big house. We, like everyone around, jumped over the fence. I shouted: “Tolik, Tolik”, but he was already dead. He couldn’t say anything.”

Vladimir Shishkin moves on crutches after losing his left leg during the conflict.

Shishkin said the stranger heard his cries for help and carried him to a wheelbarrow to be taken to the road and then to a car that took him to the hospital. His condition worsened and he was transferred to another hospital in the Donetsk region, where his leg was amputated.

It was there that Shishkin finally caught up with him and where the help came from Rev. Mikhnov-Vaitenko, Archbishop of the Apostolic Orthodox Church, in St. Petersburg.

He contacted the couple on social media when he saw Shishkina posting messages asking for help. He arranged for them to travel to St. Petersburg Street and paid for housing, medical care and their own needs.

Rev. Grigory Mikhnov-Vaitenko says that his help is mainly funded by the Russians.

Mikhnov-Vaitenko estimates that he and his network of volunteers have helped thousands of Ukrainian refugees since the start of the conflict, from paying for travel and housing for refugees to medical care or information about where they can go and what they are entitled to in Russia, and all that. often with a kind word or prayer.

“What we can do, just for a moment, (is) just take your hand, just look into your eyes, just smile and say, ‘It’s going to be okay, now you’re saved,'” the priest told CNN in an interview. church: a lonely bare room in a former factory in St. Petersburg. Petersburg. “Then I hope, with God’s help, from some period it will be in the past.”

The Reverend Grigory Mikhnov-Vaitenko embraces Shishkina, one of the thousands he says he was able to help.

Ukrainians arriving in Russia are given accommodation in a refugee center and 10,000 rubles (about $175), as well as a permit to stay for a year.

Because most Ukrainians, especially those from the east, are fluent in Russian, Mikhnov-Vaitenko says it’s a fairly easy transition. He says that many refugees say they initially don’t want to go to Europe, fearing they can’t speak different languages.

Mikhnov-Vaitenko relies on donations to pay for his work with refugees, including moving many of them to the EU. According to him, the money comes from Russian hospitals, companies, businessmen and ordinary citizens.

Mikhnov-Vaitenko has no hesitation in sharing the limits of aid available in Russia and helping Ukrainians move on if they want to.

“People who come to Russia have no information. What can they do, where can they go, what is allowed,” he told CNN.

And at the moment he is not facing official obstacles to his work. “I don’t see them and they don’t see me,” he says of the Russian authorities.

Mikhnov-Vaitenko leads the Sunday service for his flock in the Apostolic Orthodox Church.

Mikhnov-Vaitenko left the Russian Orthodox Church in 2014 after a bloody battle in eastern Ukraine and support from the church and Moscow for pro-Russian separatists.

The head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, is a staunch ally of Putin and a supporter of what the Russian government calls a “special military operation” in Ukraine.

“Now in Russia it is essentially a military church. We do not have Orthodox Christians, we have military Christians,” Mikhnov-Vaitenko said.

Mikhnov-Vaitenko boldly declares that even in the presence of strict new laws, he is not afraid to speak openly about his opposition to Russia’s actions in Ukraine – he is afraid only of God.

“I was born and raised in a dissident family,” he said, “so there is nothing to be afraid of.”

As for the young couple, Mikhnov-Vaitenko made sure that they got a chance to start a new life by providing them with tickets to Germany and accommodation. Shishkin should also have a prosthesis installed at a specialized hospital in Bavaria.

Victoria Shishkina smiles as she and her husband Vladimir prepare to leave for Germany.

As Mikhnov-Vaitenko loaded the couple’s luggage into the car, Shishkina said they were nervous but excited. Already she seems brighter, happier.

“Fear? Maybe fear of the unknown… but our expectations are positive, we know things will get better,” she said.

Correction: This story indicates the correct age of Victoria Shishkina. She is 36.