“Those who wanted to and could avoid all these situations had left by late February,” said Dmitri (not his real name), whose parents’ village in Russia has been hit twice in recent weeks by Ukrainian army fire. “Those who were afraid packed their things and went wherever they could. Those who remained, even the shelling isn’t really causing them to evacuate.”
Dmitri’s parents live in Solokhi, which lies west of his own hometown of Belgorod and is only some 10 kilometers (about six miles) from the Ukrainian border. Yet despite the recent shelling, he still refuses to call what is happening in the neighboring country a “war,” even though it has now spread to Russian territory.
Rockets were fired at Solokhi twice last month, on May 11 and May 18. In the first incident, which also killed an 18-year-old village resident, Dmitri’s stepfather was wounded. The second time, his parents’ house was damaged, but no one was hurt.
“There was a first wave of explosions at some distance from my parents’ house,” Dmitri said of the first incident. “People began going out into their vegetable gardens to see what had happened, and then the second wave began. My stepfather was wounded. Their neighbor was more seriously wounded; he had shrapnel in his stomach and is still hospitalized. One of our dogs was killed.”
In recent weeks, Russia’s official media has been running stories on an almost daily basis about shelling and rocket fire on villages in the provinces near the Ukrainian border – Bryansk, Kursk and Belgorod. Unofficial Telegram channels publish videos as well as many reports that don’t reach either the local or the national media.
Telegram channels and local media have also reported “acts of sabotage” in these provinces. In early May, for instance, the Belgorod internet news site Fonar.tv reported that mortars were fired at the Borisovsky factory, which, among other things, made components for the Crimean Bridge that links Russia to the occupied Crimean Peninsula. This item didn’t appear in almost any of the national media. Other, similar reports published on Telegram or in local media outlets generally receive no response from the authorities.
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Three civilians have so far been killed in Russia by Ukrainian fire – two in the Belgorod district and one in the Kursk district. Ukraine has maintained a policy of ambiguity on these attacks.
In late April, Mikhail Podolyak, an aide to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, wrote on his Telegram channel that “the provinces of Belgorod, Voronezh and Kursk are now actively learning the meaning of the term ‘demilitarization.’” He then elaborated, writing, “In these Russian provinces, weapons arsenals and fuel depots that provide fuel for Russian tanks go up in flame from time to time for ever more bizarre reasons. Karma doesn’t forget.”
Local governments are urging residents to evacuate from villages near the border, though the extent of the destruction is fairly small and just a handful of civilian victims have been reported by the authorities. Local governments must walk a fine line between “business as usual” and maintaining alertness.
As for the residents, many of whom have relatives and friends in Ukraine, they oscillate between hatred of Ukraine and anger at their own government, between fear of escalation and fear of the censor.
“I don’t support violence of any sort,” Dmitri said. “I won’t say that what’s happening now is a tragedy for me, but it’s a very tense situation. I never thought Ukraine was an enemy, I’m not one of those who scream that they are enemies. In my view, people shouldn’t shoot at each other regardless of what they think of each other.
“I’m in favor of ending the fighting as quickly as possible with as few losses as possible. A man who shoots at my parents’ house is an enemy by definition, but I don’t see Ukrainians as personal enemies and I won’t go to the front to try to avenge the strike on my parents’ house.”
Dmitri said that people in Belgorod, and in Russia in general, are divided into two camps – those who support the “special operation” in Ukraine and those who want it to end as quickly as possible.
“I evidently belong to the second camp; I don’t understand the people who stick the letter Z on their cars,” he continued, referring to the practice of showing support for the war by using the letter the Russian military paints on its own vehicles. “I’m against the shooting, against the fighting. But if they continue to shoot at my parents, at my relatives, God knows what I’ll say.”
A world turned upside down
In early April, the governors of the three provinces announced a high (“yellow”) alert for terrorist threats, which means residents are asked to avoid crowded places insofar as possible. Nevertheless, the governor of Belgorod province, Vyacheslav Gladkov, recently announced the launch of the street festival Belgorod Summer – which will include performances, fireworks displays, workshops and markets throughout the province – on the social media site Vkontakte.
“Maybe you have nerves of steel, but I watch television, and there, every 10 minutes they’re saying they [the Ukrainians] will bomb Belgorod province when they get weapons from the U.S.,” one woman wrote in response. A man wondered whether “there’s public demand for events like this right now,” and another man responded, “there’s public demand for peace.”
Other posts by Gladkov elicited complaints from province residents that homes in one village hadn’t been renovated after an attack and that they didn’t even know about the shooting at that village. A resident of the border town of Zhuravlyovka complained that evacuated residents are being forced to crowd into hotels and cut short their planting season, while animals in the village are dying of hunger and food in cellars is rotting.
On the Vkontakte group for the village of Tyotkino, which in the province of Kursk near the Ukrainian border, residents complained about a preschool destroyed by Ukrainian fire. Some also wondered when they would be able to return home.
When the group discovered that Kursk Governor Roman Starovoyt had visited the “People’s Republic of Donetsk” and that Kursk was providing humanitarian aid to the breakaway Ukrainian region, residents wrote comments like “Help is wonderful, but when will you repair our preschool?” and “When will village residents stop sleeping in strangers’ houses?”
One resident, Oksana Arisheva, even mustered the courage to post a video in late May in which she appealed to Russian President Vladimir Putin to “close the skies” over the village. “I’m sick of living in a cellar with the children or evacuating somewhere all the time,” she said in the video, which received tens of thousands of views on Vkontakte.
In an interview with the website 7x7 – Horizontal Russia, Arisheva said she supports the “special operation” but wants protection for border towns. She also said that after posting the video, she was visited by two men in civilian dress who asked her if she has relatives in Ukraine who asked her to post the video. She responded that she does have relatives in Ukraine, but hasn’t been in contact with them since the war began.
Oksana added that she was very afraid when she learned they wanted to have a “conversation” with her. “I thought they’d smash my face in, fine me or put me in jail,” she said. But nothing of the sort happened.
Fyodor, a journalist from Belgorod who, like the other interviewees, asked to remain anonymous, said that “we, the local journalists, have verified information that there are soldiers in the villages that are under fire, or at least, there were when the shooting occurred.”
“I know there’s some kind of agreement between the civilian authorities and the army that the forces will stay at least five kilometers (three miles) from the villages so the villages won’t be shot at,” he added. “But this information hasn’t been officially confirmed.”
Sources in one village attacked by rockets from Ukraine said that at one point, a small army bases consisting of tents and some vehicles was located at the edge of the village. And Belgorod residents describe constant movement by military vehicles in and around the city.
“There are fewer military vehicles now, but from time to time they come and go,” one resident said. “We can identify them because they travel with police escorts. In the villages closer to the border there’s constant movement by army people, to the point that when I’m in the garden, I see a military truck coming or going every 15 to 20 minutes.”
“Belgorod itself is living a prewar life,” Fyodor said. “People go to cafes and restaurants, and not long ago there was [another] big festival, ‘Blossoming River’ ... On one hand, the governor declares a yellow alert, but on the other, he’s launching this festival, where hundreds of thousands of people will be walking around.”
He added that unlike residents of villages near the border, people in Belgorod generally can’t hear the battles. And they’ve already grown used to the noise of Russian missile launches.
Though the war endangers residents of border villages, it doesn’t worry Belgorod residents too much. There was panic only in late March, when Russian forces began retreating from large part of Ukraine.
“Many of my acquaintances planned to go to Voronezh then, at least for a weekend, because they feared the Russian army was retreating and now the Ukrainians would come,” Fyodor said, explaining that this was also when the story of the massacre of Ukrainians in Bucha broke.
“Belgorod residents were always more aware of what was happening in Ukraine,” he added. “Almost everyone here has relatives in Ukraine; people know more. Therefore, after the Bucha tragedy, many feared the Ukrainian army would cross the border and start taking revenge.”
For now, the province is divided between those who support the war and those who condemn it.
“My sense is that the number of Z and V signs on cars has declined significantly,” Fyodor said. “At the start of the war, there were a great many cars that had those symbols and people who had it on their shirts. You could go 200 meters through the city and encounter two or three cars like that. Now, there are very few. Sometimes, when I’m walking in the center of town, I don’t see even a single car like that.
“I think people have begun removing these symbols out of fear that someone will smash their windows or something, because there have been cases like that. At the start of the war, there was an incident of a madman who went around vandalizing cars with Ukrainian license plates, but the police caught him. But later, there were some incidents of cars with the letter Z being vandalized and having their tires punctured, and people have been threatened online.”
Fyodor said it’s hard to know the extent of opposition to the war, but cautiously estimated that 65 percent of residents support it and 35 percent oppose it. Attitudes toward the war even split families.
Lubov (not her real name), who lives east of Belgorod, can hear the sounds of the battles in nearby Ukrainian towns quite well. She sees planes and helicopters flying over her house toward Ukraine and knows people who were evacuated from a village near the border long ago and are afraid to return.
“When I go to the city, I see a lot of fuel tanks that are headed there and a lot of trucks,” she said. “Aside from that, there’s a ton of private cars without license plates, generally dark-colored ones, driving totally recklessly through the city, crashing into other cars, causing accidents. They feel they can do anything – they’re the bosses now.”
While Lubov strongly opposes the war, her husband has a “different view,” so she tries not to discuss it with him, she said.
“I have relatives in Kharkiv; I write or speak on the phone with a relative who lives there every few days,” she added. “We invited her to come to us at the start of the war, but she was afraid, because there were cars that tried to make that trip and got bombed.
“My husband studied in Kharkiv; he has friends there who have had to leave now. He corresponds with them, but they don’t touch on any of the issues. I don’t know why he isn’t pained by everything that’s happening.
“My mother asks me, ‘Why are you so sad?’ I tell her, ‘Mom, how can I be happy? When I imagine everything that’s happening there, my brain explodes.’ And she replies, ‘but we don’t have any way to help.’ And that’s it.”
What Lubov finds most astounding is the attitude of her aunt, a resident of Kharkiv. “When I speak with her, she tells me, ‘I can no longer wait for our boys’” – meaning the Russians – “‘to come, and then this will all end.’ The world has turned upside down and been stood on its head, that’s for sure.”