Since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, hundreds of ads offering to help Ukrainian women have cropped up on the Russian social media network, VKontakte. Written predominantly by men, the ads promise housing for Ukrainian women and girls in exchange for a sexual partner, a spouse, or a housekeeper. Verstka spoke with dozens of authors of the ads to learn their stories and find out why they posted on social media.
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«We are even»
Maria [her name has been changed] left her hometown of Mariupol on April 2nd, 2022. The southeastern Ukrainian city was under heavy artillery fire. In the rush to evacuate, Maria left her cell phone at home. To make matters worse, she was suffering from a slowly healing shrapnel wound. When she finally arrived at the bus station, she realized she had forgotten to bring her passport, too.
It took the evacuees a day and a half to get to Taganrog, a port city in southwestern Russia. Together with other refugees, Maria was brought to what is called a temporary accommodation facility: a sports hall that was turned into «one large bedroom» with two hundred cots.
Ukrainians who are taken to Russia are transferred to different regions of the country via evacuation routes. They usually don’t have the ability to choose where they will go. Those who came with Maria were headed for Chelyabinsk, Cheboksary, and other cities far from the Ukrainian border. But Maria didn’t want to go deep into Russia. She was hoping to reunite with her child, who had been left behind in Mariupol with her ex-husband.
She set her sights on the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, but she soon learned she needed a passport to gain entry. Then she decided to look for a place to stay in Rostov Oblast, on Ukraine’s southeastern border, but she didn’t have enough money for rent. Using her mother’s cell phone, she logged on to VKontakte and wrote a post asking for help. It was an uncomfortable experience. «I never had to ask anybody for anything, much less beg,» she said. It never occurred to her that she might be contacted by users with their own intentions. Living for weeks under siege, she lost her sense of danger. «What can be more frightening when’ve you already been through the worst?» she said. «When every minute you think you’ll get hit by a shell—when you don’t know if you’ll live or die?»
Soon after Maria posted on VKontakte, a man named Vasiliy [the name has been changed] offered to let her stay at his house in Rostov Oblast. But he had one condition: she had to help him with housework. Maria thought this was fair and accepted the offer. They agreed on a meeting place, where Vasiliy’s mother would pick Maria up and drive them to their house in a small rural locality called Bokovskaya, six hours away. When the car arrived, a man in a wheelchair greeted Maria: it turned out that Vasiliy had cerebral palsy. Maria was caught off guard; she had no idea her host was disabled, and that she’d probably have to assist him.
Vasiliy also imagined their meeting differently. He said that when he made his offer to Maria, he expected they might end up together. But when he first saw her, he knew it was impossible: «My mother didn’t notice that she [Maria] was pregnant,» he said. «It’s funny, but that’s what happened.» Vasiliy was disappointed. Neither told the other the full truth of their circumstances. «That makes us both even,» she says.
«Can I have refugees too?»
Since 2014, numerous social media groups have formed on VKontakte with the purpose of unifying residents of Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. Right after the 2022 invasion, users became more active, and many new posts appeared. As Ukrainian refugees started arriving in Russia in the first half of February, they appealed to Russians for help, seeking housing, medication, clothing, and documents. Meanwhile, Russian men started posting in relief forums, offering their assistance — but only to women. We counted more than a hundred such posts. Some of them simply offered to meet with Ukrainian women, as if on a dating site.
The posts showed up in both regional groups, such as «Settlers and Refugees in Kaluga» and «Helping Refugees in Saint Petersburg,» and in national online communities. In one popular group, called «Ukrainian Refugees,» which boasts nearly a thousand members, the first ads appeared in late February. In May, twenty-two men had authored posts offering to help Ukrainian women.
Verstka also uncovered two smaller groups solely for dating female refugees: «I Want to Marry a Ukrainian Refugee» and «A Ukrainian Refugee Needs Help.» Some of the posts in these groups get right to the point: «Will marry a Ukrainian refugee,» «Offering half of a couch for a Ukrainian refugee in Voronezh,» and «Can I have refugees too?» Others are more informative, containing detailed descriptions of the writer and his material status. One from Sverdlovsk Oblast alludes to a «kind and divorced» man. A 32-year-old resident of Murmansk Oblast describes himself as an «adequate, calm, cool-headed, hard worker.» A single, 42-year-old author from Saint Petersburg looking for «a Ukrainian refugee with kids» promises to send his photo in a private message.
Some ads also specify criteria for receiving help. For instance, a man from Moscow says he would only help a «young» Ukrainian refugee. A resident of Stavropol, seeking a woman «to have a family with,» says she must be «young, healthy, beautiful, and hardworking.» Others appeal to widows with children or offer shelter for «a young girl with a small baby.»
«I don’t want to be a bother»
When Maria arrived at Vasiliy’s home, she was given a room with a sofa and a TV. Although she was late in her pregnancy, she managed to do simple chores, like heating and serving food and helping Vasiliy’s mother with the cooking. (Vasiliy claims he just «fed the girl.») For Maria, the time she spent in Bokovskaya was «satisfactory,» except for Vasiliy’s mother’s complaints about her own health. «I just don’t think it’s appropriate talk about with someone who’s been wounded while fleeing a war zone.»
Two weeks after her arrival, Vasiliy told Maria he no longer wanted to keep a woman with child. She wasn’t that upset about it; she didn’t want to «be a bother to anyone.» Vasiliy’s mother took Maria to the hospital, where she hoped to stay until the baby was born. The hospital denied her, so Vasiliy’s mother brought Maria back to the refugee facility.
Maria stopped trying to find volunteer housing on VKontakte. With no money for rent, she boarded a train along with other refugees and headed for Stavropol. She decided to have her child there.
Vasiliy continues looking for a female refugee from Ukraine for a serious relationship, or just to spend «some time» with. He published another ad on the social media platform, this time seeking a Ukrainian refugee between 30 and 45 years of age, claiming he has «a large property.» During our interview, he asked us several times to help him with his search.
«Women who have been through hell will make good wives»
Verstka responded to forty-five ads posted on VKontakte since February. Thirty-three respondents confirmed that they were willing to host female refugees if they accepted the offer. Twenty-nine-year-old Dmitriy from Moscow said he’d prefer to marry a woman from Ukraine «because Russian girls don’t respect men and only care about money.» He said that if he met a Ukrainian refugee he liked, he’d marry her and «help her get a Russian education, a Russian passport, love, family, and a decent lifestyle.» If there’s no spark, he would help her find a job in Russia. During our conversation, Dmitriy even asked one of our journalists if she was married.
Another Moscow resident proposed to «take in a housewifely Ukrainian for a year or on a permanent basis.» He refused to give us his name, but said he was dissatisfied with women in the capital and was looking for a Ukrainian partner. «Ninety percent of women in Moscow don’t know how to take care of the house or how to cook,» he said. He insisted that he had no particular requirements regarding age or appearance, but that whoever he hosted should be able to cook and clean his one-bedroom apartment. The man added that he hopes to have a romantic relationship with this person.
A 31-year-old man from Taganrog, addressing himself as Vikentiy, wrote in a group called «Helping Refugees in Saint Petersburg» that he was ready to help «a slim girl.» He told us that he lived in a studio but was planning to buy a bigger home for himself and his future spouse, and was looking for a Ukrainian partner.
Artem, a 49-year-old father of three, says that he would take in a Ukrainian refugee if she would do chores and have sex with him. He says that it’s a fair price for living in the capital. «Should I clothe, feed, and shelter her for free?» he said. «Think about it, if we live together for six months, won’t we have sex? It’s human nature, and we can’t change that.» Artem claims that Ukrainian women have written to him, but none have taken up his offer yet. «They’re lying when they say they need help.»
Albert from Naberezhnye Chelny quotes a Russian proverb to explain his desire to support refugees: «Luck would not have happened without misfortune’s help.» He says it’s normal to live with a woman for some time before having a sexual relationship with her. There has to be «mutual sympathy.» He also says he’s willing to support a woman in return for help with the housework. «In a relationship, both members should try to make it work.»
Fifty-eight-year-old Oleg writes that he is looking for a Ukrainian refugee in her early 50s to take care of his home on the Vyatka River. «I think that women from Ukraine who have been through hell will make good wives,» he told us. He also asked if we knew anyone who would be a good «fit» for him.
Marina Pisklakova-Parker, a Ph. D. candidate in sociology and the director of the domestic violence prevention center «Anna» (listed as a foreign agent by the Russian government), says that this idea of a «happy family» is patriarchal, subordinating woman to the role of loyal and obedient housewife. «These attitudes are rooted in gender stereotypes and traditional gender roles within family and society,» she says. «Some are open and cynical about them, and others try to conceal their intentions.» According to Pisklakova-Parker, some men sincerely believe that women prefer this kind of relationship.
She adds that men who lack self-confidence tend to look for vulnerable women, expecting her to be less demanding and more submissive. Without the fear of rejection, these men can feel like saviors. Pisklakova-Parker asserts that this dynamic poses a significant problem, since any relationship with a dependent partner is inherently unstable. «There is a type of man who’s prone to domestic violence,» she says. «Unconsciously, they believe a refugee is a potential partner they can easily control.» She adds, «And then there are criminals involved in human trafficking. A crisis situation spurs on all negative trends.»
But for most men seeking Ukrainian refugees online, according to Pisklakova-Parker, their burden is an after-thought. «They don’t bother to think of [these women’s] trauma,» she says. «Many actually believe Russia is liberating Ukraine, and their role is to help and protect Ukrainian women on what they think is their territory.»
Tatiana Orlova, co-founder of the psychological help center «Don’t Tolerate This!,» agrees that these ads are a pure manifestation of patriarchy. «In a patriarchal society, the man plays the dominant, central role, and the woman is expected to serve him. The man is a master who takes in a servant.» Orlova explains that after the invasion, these negative tendencies became more apparent in Russian society: «Social tendencies change very slowly. Both Ukrainian and Russian women are less and less in favor of a patriarchal relationship in which a man makes decisions and a woman takes care of the house and the kids.» She says that Ukrainian women are extremely vulnerable to being preyed on by men who want to act out their patriarchal ideas and find a suitable sexual partner.
Orlova also warns that relationships like this can lead to domestic violence: if a woman is treated from the beginning as a source of free labor or as a sexual slave, and if she doesn’t have any family or friends to help her, it can be very hard for her to escape the relationship.
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«Looking for a nanny, 35 and older, with no bad habits»
Not all men who want to take in a Ukrainian refugee are looking for a sexual partner. Some told us they needed a nanny or a housekeeper. For example, 35-year-old Ivan from Tula says that he «lives alone in a big house with a garden,» works a lot and wants a Ukrainian woman to take care of his house. He says that a sexual relationship «isn’t necessary,» but he did invite one of our journalists to Tula.
Dmitry from Cherepovets works as a security guard and says he’s often away from home for weeks. His mother used to take care of the house before she died. Now Dmitry is looking for a Ukrainian refugee who would live with him and do the chores. As for sex, Dmitry says that it’s «up to the woman.»
Denis, a railroad technician and single parent from Velsk, is looking for a nanny for his 2‑year-old son. He doesn’t exclude the possibility of a romantic relationship but suggests that the woman he hires first «try out» as a nanny.
Some men told Verstka that they’d like to help without expecting anything in return. Dmitriy from Udmurtia, «a Russian with no bad habits,» writes that he is ready to help a woman with children and offers his house which he has built for his future family. «I believe in God, and I am against adultery,» he said. «But men are the stronger sex, and they understand life better.»
Andrey from Kerch says he has already helped two Ukrainian refugees find work because «he was raised to believe that men should help women in need,» otherwise «they will end up in brothels.»
Vladislav from Irkutsk Oblast said that he doesn’t want to take advantage of a vulnerable woman. His house burned down recently, but he built a bigger one and wants to help those who have no place to live. Vladislav says that if he invites a woman and then abuses her or makes her work, the whole village will know. «Here, in Siberia, things are different,» he said.
Stanislav Khotsky, a psychotherapist specializing in treating people prone to aggression and violence, says that some men who offer to help refugees have an ulterior motive. «These are attempts to build a relationship with a submissive, emotionally vulnerable person,» says Khotsky. «This is dangerous: a person who offers a relationship based on an imbalance of power, resources, and emotional stability creates conditions to exercise violence. In a situation like this,» he adds, «a powerful man can abuse his power and will do so in the absence of resistance. The only way to avoid physical and emotional violence in this kind of relationship is to refuse to take advantage of the more vulnerable partner. But it’s impossible if a man offers a relationship.»
«They wiped their feet on me»
We also heard from men who said they had an unpleasant experience trying to help Ukrainian refugees and that they had lost their trust in Ukrainians. Sergey from Moscow told us that he had met a woman from DNR and invited her to Moscow with an offer of financial assistance. He said they had developed a good rapport on the phone. But the meeting never happened: after he sent her money, she blocked him on WhatsApp and on social media. We tried to contact her, but she never replied.
Sergey insists he only wanted to help. «It would have been all right if she came and said she didn’t want a relationship,» he said. «I’m not worried about the money. It just feels bad for someone to wipe their feet on you like this.»
Oleg from Volgograd wrote to Verstka saying he posted in several groups offering to house a Ukrainian refugee, but all he got in response were money requests. He’s sure they were all scammers. «No one who really needed help responded,» he said, «just those who make money by begging.» He was upset. «I have an apartment, a house, and no kids. I thought someone would want to come and live with me.» At the same time, he says he’s not ready to help refugees with relocation expenses. «If you don’t even have the money to buy a ticket, there’s no point in going to another country.»
Igor from Saint Petersburg says he refuses to help any refugee who asks for money. He’s fearful of scammers and will only support a woman who «will clean his apartment, cook dinner, and be next to him,» even if the arrangement doesn’t end in marriage. He also wants this person to share his beliefs about the the «special military operation», but knows that many Ukrainians will oppose the invasion. «Since childhood, they have been told that Russia is bad and that I won’t be able to re-educate her. But if she comes, she has to understand that I am pro-Russia and eligible for military service.»
«How shall we recover?»
After Maria left Vasiliy’s home, she went to Zheleznovodsk in Stavropol Krai. She was placed in a hotel in the Caucasus, but could not be admitted to a hospital until she had all proper documentation. According to Maria, «They said that I can still ‘run.’» Her situation is further complicated by the fact that she still doesn’t have a passport.
Maria can stay in the hotel until August 9th but has no idea what she’ll do next. Her house in Mariupol was damaged by shelling and will probably be demolished. «Where will we live? How shall we recover?» she asks. She has nobody in Stavropol, except for a fellow refugee, whom she can ask for help.
Maria says that if she wasn’t pregnant, she would try to find a job and a place to live in Russia. She wouldn’t mind working on a small farm, especially because she has a background in agriculture. «I saw ads offering 10–15 thousand rubles for this kind of work,» she says. «They provide housing, so I’d have more than enough.» But with a baby on the way, it’s a virtually impossible undertaking.
“How do I Know Their Intentions?”
Other Ukrainian refugees, like Maria, who sought help online told Verstka they had seen ads written by Russian men, too, and received messages from them. Twenty-five-year-old Irina says she was evacuated to Saint Petersburg when she was three months pregnant. In early May, she inquired with a group called «Helping Refugees in Saint Petersburg» about buying a transport card. In her post, Irina explained that she couldn’t find a job without a registration, so she had to spend hours walking around the city (she couldn’t afford public transportation) to collect all the necessary documents. In response to her post, Russian men invited her to live with them in exchange for cooking and cleaning. «Not all of them wanted a relationship,» she said. «Still, it was scary. I am alone and pregnant. I don’t want to take a risk living with men I don’t know.»
Thirty-one-year-old Marina from Donetsk also says she received messages like this after she posted in one of the groups, but she declined all of them: «How do I know what intentions they have? I have a child I don’t want to put at risk.» Twenty-one-year-old Valeria from Donetsk says she thinks that men who look for Ukrainian refugees online are «perverts,» and did not respond to any of them.
Oxana Gorbunova, a women’s rights advocate and a member of Vital Voices, an American non-profit organization for women, warns that Ukrainian refugees who become victims of violence or trafficking can be denied legal aid. «In international law, those who have suffered from human trafficking have the opportunity to defend their rights, get compensation and return to their homeland,» says Gorbunova. «But international standards do not apply in Russia. Ukrainian women are abused and exploited for sex and labor, even though they are already victims of Russian aggression.»
In one of the largest groups on VKontakte for Ukrainian refugees, «Donbas in Moscow: Settlers and Refugees,» posts like this are banned by moderators. The group administrator told us that men try to take advantage of refugees and «send thousands of requests every day.» She said that men seeking a relationship should look on dating sites, not in refugee relief groups.
Anna Ryzhkova, Daria Kucherenko
Translation: Daria Solomennikova, Christopher Lapinski