Ukrainian travel agent sent clients to Russia. Now, he’s at a crossroads

Three weeks ago, Alex Khodorkovsky never thought his travel agency would make a drastic change. Instead of sending passengers to Russia, the office now serves as a warehouse to collect humanitarian aid products to send to Ukraine..  Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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Three weeks ago, Alex Khodorkovsky never thought his travel agency would make a drastic change. Instead of sending passengers to Russia, the office now serves as a warehouse to collect humanitarian aid products to send to Ukraine.. Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The Kyiv-born owner of the GoToRussia travel agency has taken a leading role in humanitarian relief efforts

Like most Ukrainian immigrants living in Atlanta, Kyiv-born Alex Khodorkovsky says his world “turned upside down” when Russian troops rolled into his homeland on Feb. 24.

Khodorkovsky spends day and night worrying about the safety of relatives caught in the war, a common experience among Ukrainian diasporas. But the Russian invasion has also had profound professional ramifications, as it’s made his family business financially and morally unviable nearly overnight: For decades, Khodorkovsky ran GoToRussia, a travel agency that catered specifically to the needs of Russia-bound visitors.

With business put on hold in the aftermath of Russia’s assault of its neighbor, Khodorkovsky has been using his agency’s office space in downtown Atlanta to store hygiene products, clothes and other donated goods meant for his compatriots back in Ukraine.

“That’s the irony of things,” Khodorkovsky said. “We used to send people to Russia. Now, we’re collecting humanitarian aid for Ukraine out of the office of GoToRussia travel.”

He added: “It’s just completely unimaginable. We’re all shaken right now.”

24 years in business. Now, a pause

Khodorkovsky founded GoToRussia in 1998, amid an upswing in U.S.-Russia relations driven in part by a close relationship between Presidents Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin. By 2019, 30 employees across offices in Atlanta, San Francisco, and Moscow helped Americans secure visas to enter Russia and plan tours and excursions, among other services.

Now, that’s largely all stopped. Commercial flights connecting U.S. and Russian destinations were suspended after the U.S. banned Russian planes and airlines from its airspace, a move that prompted Russian authorities to quickly follow suit. But even if planes were still flying, Khodorkovsky says he couldn’t stomach to continue facilitating travel – and tourism revenue – into a country that’s causing so much devastation to his people. A spate of aggressive emails from former customers and one-star reviews online, which take aim at his company’s connection with Russia, suggest there wouldn’t be much demand for his business’ services anyway. Meanwhile, many of his Russia-based employees fled the country, fearing repression from the state.

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Alex Khodorkovsky holds the sign that bears the name of his travel agency, which used to hang outside his business. Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Alex Khodorkovsky holds the sign that bears the name of his travel agency, which used to hang outside his business.  Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Combined ShapeCaption
Alex Khodorkovsky holds the sign that bears the name of his travel agency, which used to hang outside 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 conflict’s outbreak, Khodorkovsky removed a street-facing sign above his office’s front door bearing the company name and replaced it with a hand-drawn Ukrainian flag.

At his desk, he began devoting nearly all his time to spearheading a donation drive for humanitarian aid.

Last Friday, boxes of donated items were piled up all over his agency, with bilingual labels describing the different boxes’ contents.

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A box ready to be shipped shows what it contains in English and Ukrainian. Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

A box ready to be shipped shows what it contains 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 be shipped shows what it contains 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, meaning Khodorkovsky will have a more open schedule going forward. Still, he thinks it’s too early to think about what the crisis means for him and for the future of his company, even as he acknowledges that Russia will likely be a “toxic place” long after the fighting stops.

“It’s probably the last thing on my mind right now, even though it’s the business that fed me and for 24 years,” he said. “It’s just that with the news, with the bombings, we’re not thinking of work. I’m sure we’ll return to normal life at some point, and then we’ll think of how to make money. But there’s no time for that now … Right now we just need to win the war.”

Donation drive

In the wake of the conflict’s outbreak, Khodorkovsky says Ukrainian immigrants in metro Atlanta, himself included, grasped at ways of making themselves helpful. 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 drive feasible, Khodorkovsky created a website, AtlantaforUkraine.com, where he posted a list of all the items needed back home, including hygiene products, candles, sleeping bags, blankets, medical supplies, backpacks, generators, lightly worn clothing and more. The offices of GoToRussia was one of eight collection sites located across the Atlanta metro area. In roughly two weeks, an estimated 20 tons’ worth of humanitarian aid was collected.

“The outpouring of support was amazing,” Khodorkovsky said.

Khodorkovsky and other organizers of the donation drive worked out the logistics themselves to get the supplies into Ukraine.

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

Although Khodorkovsky doesn’t rule out helping organize subsequent donation drives, there are no immediate plans in the works.

For years, Khodorkovsky says that when people in Atlanta would ask where he was from, he’d tell them he was Russian, “because few Americans knew what Ukraine was or where it is.”

The Ukrainian people’s show of resistance and solidarity amid the ongoing Russian offensive has helped him tap into a feeling of nationalism he didn’t know existed.

“I could never have imagined that I would one day feel so proud to be Ukrainian. It’s something that I’ve just now discovered. And I’m sure it’s not just myself. It’s something that apparently was sitting inside us that just woke up, this amazing national pride,” he said. “So, this whole war, it helped us find our identity.”

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

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Combined ShapeCaption
Alex Khodorkovsky arranges boxes with donated goods for Ukraine out of 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 Report for America corps member covering metro Atlanta’s immigrant communities.