The Ukrainian travel agent sent customers to Russia. Now he’s at a crossroads

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24 years in business. Now a break

Khodorkovsky founded GoToRussia in 1998, in the midst of a improved US-Russian relations driven in part by a close relationship between Presidents Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin. In 2019, 30 employees in offices in Atlanta, San Francisco and Moscow helped Americans obtain visas to enter Russia and plan tours and excursions, among other services.

Now it’s mostly all stopped. Commercial flights connecting US and Russian destinations have been suspended after the United States banned Russian planes and airlines from its airspace, a move that prompted Russian authorities to quickly follow suit. But even if the planes were still flying, Khodorkovsky says he couldn’t bear to continue facilitating travel – and tourism revenue – to a country that is causing so much havoc for its people. A series of aggressive emails from former clients and online critics, which take aim at his business’s connection with Russia, suggest there may not be much demand for his company’s services anyway . Meanwhile, many of its Russia-based employees have fled the country, fearing state repression.

Legend

Alex Khodorkovsky holds the sign bearing the name of his travel agency, which hung in front of his business. Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Alex Khodorkovsky holds the sign bearing the name of his travel agency, which hung in front of his business.  Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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Alex Khodorkovsky holds the sign bearing the name of his travel agency, which hung in front of his business. Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

In the days following the outbreak of the conflict, Khodorkovsky removed a street-facing sign above the front door of his office bearing the company’s name and replaced it with a Ukrainian flag drawn in the hand.

At his office, he began devoting most of his time to running a humanitarian aid donation campaign.

Last Friday, boxes of donated items were stacked throughout his agency, with bilingual labels describing the contents of the various boxes.

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A box ready to ship shows what’s inside in English and Ukrainian. Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

A box ready to ship shows what's inside in English and Ukrainian.  Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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A box ready to ship shows what’s inside in English and Ukrainian. Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Those boxes are now on their way to Ukraine, which means Khodorkovsky will have a more open schedule going forward. Still, he thinks it’s too early to reflect on what the crisis means for him and the future of his business, although he acknowledges Russia will likely be a ‘toxic place’ long after the fighting ends. .

“It’s probably the last thing on my mind right now, even though it’s been the business that has fed me for 24 years,” he said. “It’s just that with the news, with the attacks, we don’t think about work. I’m sure we’ll get back to normal life at some point, and then we’ll think about how to make money. But there’s no time for that now… Right now we just have to win the war.

Donation campaign

Following the outbreak of the conflict, Khodorkovsky says Ukrainian immigrants in the Atlanta metro area, including himself, seized on ways to make themselves useful. Many attended rallies calling for peace and raised money for relief efforts. There was also widespread interest in donating goods and supplies.

To make a large-scale donation campaign possible, Khodorkovsky set up a website, AtlantaforUkraine.com, where he posted a list of all the items needed at home, including hygiene products, candles, bags sleeping bags, blankets, medical supplies, backpacks, generators, lightly worn clothing and more. GoToRussia’s offices were one of eight collection sites located in the Atlanta metro area. In about two weeks, about 20 tons of humanitarian aid were collected.

“The outpouring of support has been incredible,” Khodorkovsky said.

Khodorkovsky and other donation campaign organizers worked out the logistics themselves to get the supplies to Ukraine.

Over the weekend, the donated goods were transported to the Port of Savannah by truck. From there, Khodorkovsky says they will cross the Atlantic on a ship to Klaipeda, Lithuania, before being transported by truck to aid workers in Lviv, a Ukrainian city near the country’s western border with the Poland.

While Khodorkovsky wouldn’t rule out helping organize subsequent donation campaigns, there are no immediate plans underway.

For years, Khodorkovsky said that when people in Atlanta asked where he was from, he told them he was Russian, “because few Americans knew what Ukraine was and where it was. “.

The Ukrainian people’s demonstration of resistance and solidarity in the face of the ongoing Russian offensive has helped them tap into a sense of nationalism they never knew existed.

“I could never have imagined that one day I would feel so proud to be Ukrainian. It’s something I just discovered. And I’m sure it’s not just me. It’s something that was seemingly sitting inside of us and just waking up, this incredible national pride,” he said. “So this whole war, it helped us find our identity.”

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Alex Khodorkovsky organizes boxes with donated goods for Ukraine in the offices of the GotoRussia travel agency. Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Alex Khodorkovsky organizes boxes with donated goods for Ukraine in the offices of the GotoRussia travel agency.  Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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Alex Khodorkovsky organizes boxes with donated goods for Ukraine in the offices of the GotoRussia travel agency. Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Lautaro Grinspan is a member of the Report for America body that covers immigrant communities in the Atlanta metro area.

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