For Ukrainians fleeing the Russian assault on their homeland, staying at a hotel not only owned by a Russian national, but located in Serbia, an EU aspirant but also a traditional Russian ally, might at first seem an odd choice to seek shelter.
But for dozens of Ukrainians the hotel in central Serbia run by Mikhail Goluptsov and his wife, Vera, has been welcoming.
"When a person is in trouble, they should be helped first, no matter what their faith or ethnicity, regardless of who they are and where they are from," Goluptsov told RFE/RL's Balkan Service.
Goluptsov, his wife, and four children left Russia in 2014 when the Kremlin seized Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and began backing separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Since 2019, he and his wife have been running a hotel in Prnjavor, a small town in central Serbia.
Shortly after Russia launched its unprovoked assault on Ukraine on February 24, Goluptsov stepped up, opening his hotel to Ukrainians fleeing what U.S. defense officials have described as the largest conventional military attack since World War II.
Amid polling suggesting a majority of Russians back Russian President Vladimir Putin's attack on Ukraine, Goluptsov said "real Russians" are always on the side of justice, ready to protect, and help in times of trouble. In recent weeks, protesters against the war in Russia have faced harsh reprisals.
"Guided by these principles, I left Russia in 2014 when it annexed Crimea, because I did not want my family to live in a country that is taking part of the territory from its neighbors," Goluptsov said.
Goluptsov said Ukrainian refugees were welcome to stay at his hotel, named Sidar And Skvos, as long as they needed, with food and lodging offered for free.
More than 3.6 million Ukrainians had fled the country, according to UN data as of March 23. And more than 13,000 Ukrainians have made their way to Serbia, according to the Serbian Commissariat for Refugees and Migration. About 3,000 refugees have found lodgings with relatives or friends in the country, according to information gleaned by RFE/RL.
There are currently 48 refugees from Ukraine in the reception centers in Obrenovac, near Belgrade, and Vranje, in southern Serbia, according to information obtained by RFE/RL from Serbian refugee officials.
Serbia's Delicate Balancing Act
Serbia is performing a delicate balancing act between its European aspirations, partnership with NATO, and its centuries-old religious, ethnic, and political ties with Russia.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, facing elections on April 3 in which he needs to retain the support of Russian-leaning citizens, has pointed to Moscow's longtime backing in the United Nations where it has refused to recognize the independence of Serbia's former breakaway province of Kosovo.
On March 4, thousands of Serbs waving Russian flags and carrying pictures of Putin marched through Belgrade to the Russian Embassy, in a rare show internationally of public support for Moscow after its invasion of Ukraine.
Ahead of the march, Vucic told Ukraine's ambassador in Serbia that Belgrade respects international law and the territorial integrity of Ukraine, and that it stands ready to provide humanitarian aid and accept refugees.
Serbia, which relies on Moscow for its energy needs, also joined the UN General Assembly's condemnation of Russia's attack but has declined to introduce sanctions against Moscow.
The country's flag carrier Air Serbia continues to fly between Belgrade and Moscow -- even adding capacity for a while until returning to the original eight flights a week following rebukes from critics in Serbia and abroad -- as the EU and Russia issued tit-for-tat airspace bans.
The decision to open the doors of the hotel to Ukrainian refugees was made during a recent family reunion, with the Goluptsovs' four children returning home from far-flung destinations, including Canada and Germany. They had all been separated for two years, largely due to travel restrictions imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"My wife and I, together with them [the children], decided right away to help and immediately released information about it through social networks and Internet groups," Goluptsov, a retired engineer, explained.
The first families, mostly mothers with small children, began trickling in, with many staying only a few days before traveling on to EU states. Many have since contacted the Goluptsovs from Poland, Spain, and Italy, to express their gratitude and let them know they are safe.
'Patient, Gentle, And Kind'
Among the first to arrive in late February was Olha Manmar who traveled from Kyiv with her three children -- aged from five to 12 -- along with a friend, Hanna Nizhegarodova, and her 16-year-old son and nine-year-old daughter.
"They offered to pay for their stay, but we didn't want to hear anything of it. We told them they could stay as long as they wanted and that everything was free for them. We wished a quick end to this evil so that they can return to us one day as tourists," said Goluptsov.
Manmar, who has now moved on to an apartment in the nearby city of Kragujevac, especially praised Goluptsov as well as his wife Vera, a former journalist, for their hospitality and kindness.
"Of course, the children were not the best behaved after four days of travel, but the Goluptsovs were very patient, gentle, and kind. That meant a lot to us because we were all stressed out. We will never forget their kind support and understanding, nor their extended hands of friendship and warm hugs with which they welcomed us," Manmar told RFE/RL, adding that the youngest person she saw at the hotel during her stay was a one-month-old baby.
"Mikhail provided rooms, meals, and support. He simply turned the hotel into a shelter for refugees," Manmar said.
"He will always remain in our hearts for his kindness and decency."