The clanking sound of sewing machines resounded through a Moscow workshop where more than a dozen women were busy assembling tactical stretchers for Russian troops fighting in Ukraine.
The women were working under the auspices of Golden Hands of an Angel, a volunteer group founded by Lyudmila Sushevskaya and Natalia Prahova shortly after the war in Ukraine broke out earlier this year.
The organisation specialises in producing tactical stretchers, which are meant to serve as a compact but effective tool for evacuating wounded soldiers off the battlefield. Since launching, Golden Hands of Angel has delivered about 37,000 stretchers to the front lines and opened locations in nearly 100 cities across Russia.
Sushevskaya told Al Jazeera the group directly coordinates its stretcher provisions with Russian commanders on the ground. “We get so many requests from military units for help that we can’t keep up with all of them,” she said.
Golden Hands of an Angel is part of a burgeoning volunteer movement that has taken on an increasingly prominent role in supplying the Russian military with everything from medicine to night-vision scopes for sniper rifles. Although the exact scale of the movement’s contribution is difficult to pin down, the Russian authorities estimate that volunteers have raised more than $58m since the start of the war in Ukraine.
Due to their close contacts with troops on the ground, volunteer groups are also often the first to raise public awareness about logistical problems in the Russian armed forces – an issue that has been further thrust into the spotlight by the Kremlin’s decision to call up reservists for military service in Ukraine.
Speaking before the Russian defence ministry’s board last week, President Vladimir Putin thanked volunteers for their “unprecedented support” and instructed Russia’s top military brass to heed their criticism. “There is no doubt that we must listen to those who are trying to contribute to the resolution of existing problems instead of hushing them up,” he said.
On the other side of the front line, Ukrainian volunteer groups have also sought to bolster their country’s war effort by launching crowdfunding campaigns to buy drones and other weaponry.
Savva Fedoseev, a Russian nationalist activist from Saint Petersburg, has been involved in the volunteer movement since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and a pro-Russian armed uprising erupted in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. “I have always supported the unification of historic Russian lands so this was a cause close to my heart,” he said.
During the early stages of the war after the February 24 invasion, Fedoseev helped refugees from Donbas find housing in Russia. His focus shifted towards aiding Russian troops following a surprise Ukrainian counteroffensive in the northeastern Kharkiv region in early September. Fedoseev began organising fundraising events online and in person, raising tens of thousands of dollars for military needs over the course of several months.
“I initially believed that the conflict would be over quickly and that volunteer work wasn’t all that necessary, but I realised that I had to become more involved after the Kharkiv catastrophe,” he said, referring to Ukrainian gains in the northeast in September.
Another call to action for the volunteer movement was the Russian government’s decision to declare partial mobilisation later that month. As hundreds of thousands of men across the country prepared to arrive at their training grounds, many of them discovered that they would have to buy many types of basic equipment on their own – ranging from body armour to radio devices.
Fedoseev said volunteer groups had received an influx of new donations and members following the partial mobilisation because the decision had brought the war closer to home for many Russian families.
“Many were initially reluctant to donate to the army because they thought that it was the Ministry of Defence’s job to handle these issues,” he said. “After mobilisation, people started donating in larger numbers because they realised how poorly many troops were equipped. Many Russians helped dress and equip their own relatives who were mobilised and then began supporting other soldiers in need.”
Not all volunteers are longtime political activists, however.
Alexander Garmaev, a photojournalist from the Siberian region of Buryatia, first arrived in Donbas in May to cover the war. The grisly realities of the conflict quickly left a strong impression on him and made him reconsider his priorities.
Garmaev told Al Jazeera that while working in Donetsk, he came across the bodies of civilians who were killed during the Ukrainian shelling of the city. In other parts of the region, he encountered locals who lacked basic necessities after sheltering for weeks from nearby fighting.
“In my view, it’s not ethical to stand idly by and take pictures while a person next to you is dying,” he said. “The first duty of a photojournalist is to help people affected by war – whether by administering first aid, bringing them food products, or contacting their relatives. No photograph is more valuable than a human life.”
Garmaev soon began holding crowdfunding drives on his Telegram channel to assemble humanitarian aid packages for civilians in Donbas. He also started collecting donations to buy drones, automobiles, communications equipment and tactical gear for Russian troops on the front line. “The goal is to save the lives of our soldiers because I will someday return home and I want to give them that opportunity as well,” he said.
Prahova, one of the co-founders of Golden Hands of an Angel, said for many of their members, volunteering provided them with a form of psychological relief by making them “feel as though they have the power to make a difficult situation better”.
“Most of our volunteers are women with families who understand that what’s going on could at some point impact their husbands and children,” she said. “War is terrifying, but when people focus on serving their loved ones that helps their mind and soul.”