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‘The trenches mean we’re being protected’. How residents of Russia’s Belgorod region are learning to live with shelling. Meduza and 7×7 report.

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Results of shelling in the village of Golovchino on the border with Ukraine, 50 kilometers (31 miles) from Belgorod.

Since the first days of the war, Russia’s Belgorod region has been on the frontline. The regional center is located just 39 kilometers (24 miles) from the Ukrainian border, and its suburbs are even closer. Uniformed men and military equipment patrol the streets of Belgorod, where tent hospitals now stand alongside coffee shops and parking lots. Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov regularly reports incidents of shelling, but life goes on. In this joint report, Meduza and Russian news outlet 7×7 explore how everyday life has changed in the Belgorod region, and whether local residents are afraid of war. 

Please note. This report was originally published in Russian on April 19, 2022.

Jazz plays in the basement of a bar in the city center. Around 8:00 p.m., people begin to gather around tables and at the bar. The bartender and a client are talking about the war.

“So it turns out he’s a nurse?” asks a guest leaning against the wall. 

“Not exactly. A nurse is a scalpel-washer. But a military doctor… You’re still a military man: you carry a weapon, you’re performing a combat mission. But if the shit hits the fan, you’re a medic,” the bartender answers as he slowly wipes a glass.  

The war has been going on for more than two months, and everyone here is almost accustomed to it. In early April, according to the authorities, a Ukrainian air strike hit a local oil depot. Since the beginning of the war, the authorities have reported more than ten incidents of shelling and air strikes. On April 14, a man from the village of Zhuravlevka was hit in the shoulder by a fragment from an incoming shell. But the locals mostly live as they did before, refusing to leave even if relatives offer to take them in. For more than a week, the area has been on “yellow” alert, indicating a high-level terrorist threat. But people keep living as if nothing’s happening.

Both of the bar’s two rooms are full by 10 p.m. — the jazz subsides. At a big table, a group of young people listen to Ukrainian songs. Music from the Ukrainian rock bands Vopli Vidopliassova and Okean Elzy blare from from the loudspeakers. At two tables, people sing along in broken Ukrainian, and ask for an Okean Elzy song called “Vesna” (“Spring).

People at another table ask to switch to the Russian rapper Miyagi.

In the smoking room I ask one of the guests: “How do you like Ukrainian music?”

“Look, brother,” says the broad-shouldered, bright-eyed young man. “They [the artists] aren’t ours. But this has nothing to do with the situation.” 

‘That war is not a war’

The people listening to Ukrainian music in the bar include Vitya (whose name has been changed). We strike up a conversation at a table, then take a nighttime walk together through Belgorod. Teenagers pass by on electric scooters. Every few minutes a taxi goes by. Without them, the city would be completely quiet.

“All people are rotten. You know that better than I do,” Vitya says. People who know Belgorod claim that there are evil, bad people here. I tried to change my mind about them, including about myself. Tried to see the good in people. But the war showed it was true. Most people are very weak and cannot think for themselves.”

“Vitya is 27 years old. He’s an illustrator, and was born in Shebekino, a town not far from Belgorod. The war separated him from his girlfriend Lyuda (whose name has also been changed). She grew up in Ukraine and was in Kyiv when Russia began its full-scale invasion on February 24.

“Lyuda never stopped telling me that she was uncomfortable in Belgorod,” says Vitya. “For her, there has been war for eight years, she had to leave Donbas in 2014. Everyone here joked that she’s batty, they said, ‘that war is not a war’ – and all kinds of other banter. But the full-scale [combat] operations in Ukraine have shown that those who made such jokes were, to put it mildly, wrong.”

In early March, Lyuda managed to escape to Europe, and now Vitya is also planning to go abroad.

“Now, of course, she will not return to Russia. Now it’s the country that took her home away, twice. Thanks a lot to the ‘liberators’,” Vitya says. “I just want to support Lyuda, to leave Russia. Because I don’t care about my future, but our life together is important.”

Vitya does not think Russia will use nuclear bombs in Ukraine, and he is not afraid of war inside Russia. He doesn’t believe that the Ukrainian military would mount an offensive on Russia, or even on Crimea or the “people’s republics” in the Donbas. His worst fear is Russian sabotage in his own region.

“It’s possible that some Wagner Group mercenaries will disguise themselves as Ukrainian soldiers and kill, for example, my parents, who live a few kilometers from the border,” Vitya says. “They’ll come, and, in an attempt to justify the invasion of Ukraine, they’ll say: ‘Oh, it was the Ukrainians who killed them.’ I do think that missiles will fly this way [towards the Belgorod region]. But come on, there are missiles flying over Kharkiv every second. They’re killing peaceful people. And it’s been going on for three months already.”

‘Who can tell me the truth?’

On April 12, Belgorod Regional Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov reported damage to the railway lines in Shebekino. In early April, trenches began to be dug in the city. I head there to talk to the locals.

The bus stop for departures to Shebekino is near the Belgorod Railway Station, which is now surrounded by a high fence. There’s a pillar with a blue sign that reads “Kharkiv.” At the ticket window, someone has put up a sheet of paper saying, “Trains to Kharkiv and the border are not running.” People board the bus: there’s a woman carrying willow branches, her child is wearing a red jacket. They’re taking a bike with them. The road to Shebekino passes through a forest. Vegetation along the road has been burned away, and a narrow, shallow trench has been dug. Beyond the forest there is a field of deep pits. 

“Are those trenches? Oh, those ones look more like it,” says a passenger on the bus.

Bus stop in Shebekino, April 2022

The local authorities announced “excavation work” on April 5. They explained that they were “playing it safe” and, as usual, said there was nothing to be afraid of.

Children swing on the swings in front of the Palace of Culture. Office workers come out of the Rebinder business center. Inside a turquoise-colored wooden gazebo, three elderly women sit on a bench. A gray cat sleeps on a stump in front of them. 

“How do you find life here? Aren’t you scared?”

“No. Everybody’s working, everybody’s studying, we grannies are doing nothing,” says one woman with a cane in her hand.  

“Even if they do something, we can’t hear. We’re in a pit,” says the second woman, who wears a colorful scarf. “They fly around us,” she says, gesturing with her hand. 

“Why did they dig the trenches? Aren’t you afraid you’ll need them?”

“No, they’re far away. We’re all good here. So they say,” the third woman says.

Shebekino’s Memorial Walk is deserted. At a nearby playground, music plays. The forest behind the Memorial Walk smells of pine trees and poplar. Families with children walk along the paths. A girl on the skateboard scares off a squirrel. A few meters away, two schoolgirls sit on a bench.

“Things are calm now,” says an eighth grader with darting eyes. “My family and I have no plans to go anywhere. If anything happens here, maybe we’ll leave. Everyone will go to Moscow.”

“What about the trenches and the shelling in neighboring districts?”

“No, no, we can’t hear anything here. And the trenches mean we’re being protected,” says the other girl, a sixth-grader.

“Have you ever had an evacuation at school?”

“Yes, we did, they showed us where to hide,” the older girl says.

“And we were brought out in front of the school, counted, and told to wait,” the younger girl adds.

“What do you think you want to be when you grow up?”

“I actually wanted to work in international relations. But given what’s happening now, it’s impossible to say whether Russia will have any international relations,” the eighth-grader says. Then she tells me how to get to the hospital.  

* * *

There are khaki-colored trucks behind the hospital fence and several PAZ buses with medical crosses painted on their sides. A young soldier with a rifle stands at a checkpoint. A tent hospital is set up behind him. Three hundred yards from the hospital, on Paratroopers’ Memorial Square, a man drinking coffee stands next to an armored personnel carrier.

“Aren’t you scared to be here right now?”

“Honestly, I just got here.”

“How do you like it here?”

“It’s fine, there’s no panic. And why worry, if all that equipment is standing there [on the border]?”

A yellow ambulance pulls into the hospital courtyard, without sirens or flashing lights. There’s a “Z” on the side window of the car.

Marina (whose name has been changed) is a nurse who has relatives in Ukraine. When the war began, it became more difficult for her to keep working — both mentally and physically.

“Of course, it’s disturbing now. I’ve seen [air defense systems] shoot down missiles. Everywhere [you go] there’s only talk about one thing,” she says.

Not all of the doctors have the same view about what’s going on, Marina says. Those who have relatives in Ukraine try to be less outspoken and worry about their loved ones. Others openly disdain the “refugees.”

Zhuravlevka, March 24, 2022.
Zhuravlevka, March 24, 2022.
A fire at the Rosneft oil depot. According to the Belgorod administration, the fire was caused by an air strike from Ukraine. Belgorod, April 1, 2022.

“They’re angry, they say, ‘Let them run and get machine guns to protect their homeland!’,” the nurse says. “I ask why they are saying this, they [refugees from Ukraine] are not to blame for the fact that Kharkiv is being bombed. Another girl has parents in Ukraine, she doesn’t talk to them now. I went to her and said, ‘There are people there, who don’t want to be burned with flamethrowers.’ And she started pouring her heart out to me. ‘Am I supposed to be afraid for my life? The missiles are coming! If we don’t do it to them, they will do it to us!’.”

“Our troops, the Ukrainian troops, and the Nazis, they’re all bombing,” Marina replies when asked who, in her opinion, is shelling Kharkiv. “Who can tell me the truth? But it’s a fact that our missiles are flying there, I saw it with my own eyes.”  

At the same time, Marina says, the doctors have not changed their attitude toward their work. When providing assistance, they behave as they did before and show no dislike for patients, whether they are soldiers, wounded Ukrainians, or ordinary citizens of Belgorod.

“Help is always provided as it should be. Whatever they [the medics] might talk about after the fact is idle chatter. They give their work 100 percent,” she maintains. After the conversation at the hospital, I head back to Belgorod. 

‘We try not to talk about it’

Belgorod is filled with “patriotic” symbols. Near the shopping center next to the city’s Victory Park, there is a dust-covered black hatchback with stickers on its windows and sides that say “For victory,” and “As long as we’re united, we are invincible.”  

On one of the main streets an ambulance goes by, marked with the letter “Z.” There’s a Lada with the same symbol right behind it. Three bearded guys in camouflage walk down a pedestrian street — their caps have the white, red, and yellow flag of South Ossetia on them and the letter “Z.”

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At the entrance to the Magnit supermarket are three more men in camouflage. Inside, women are picking out domestics. The cashiers are chatting.

“They got rid of Coca-Cola. So what? We’ll make our own burgers. Or grill kebabs,” one of them says. 

“Our great-grandparents survived [in the Soviet Union]. Why wouldn’t we survive?” another one wonders.

Opposite the supermarket, mannequins in suits stand behind a plastic grille, at an Adidas shop that’s shut down because of the sanctions. A few meters away, soldiers are lined up alongside a building. On a narrow road in front of them are dark green Ural trucks with the letter “Z” plastered on tarpaulins.  

A military helicopter flies over the city. It’s hard to hear because of the rain that’s been falling for two days. A man is taking shelter under the roof of Belgorod State University’s smoking room. 

House of Culture in the village of Krasny Oktyabr. March 30, 2022.

“Tell me, are you afraid to live in Belgorod now?”

“Oh…” The man nods and turns away. “It’s calm.”

“Anything fly this way?” I ask, referring to shells.

“Nothing’s flying in.”

“And the trenches in Shebekino?”

“Well, there are trenches and trenches. Everything’s fine.”

A young man and woman are smoking in the rain near a Belgorod coffee shop.

“Tell me, aren’t afraid to be in Belgorod now given the ‘special operation’?”

“We try not to talk about it. Everything’s calm, [we’re] not afraid. But we’re trying to focus on work,” the man says.

“Ukraine should be scared. We don’t want to discuss it with you!” the woman says sharply.

“Why should Ukraine be scared?”

“Because I’m from Ukraine.”

“We try not to talk about it,” her companion interrupts, trying to avoid a conflict. 

“What town are you from?”

“From Khmelnytskyi.”

“Did you ever think about leaving Russia?”

“I want to go home, of course. But [given] the circumstances….”

The young people finish smoking and go to make coffee. Russian troops continue to bomb key infrastructure in Khmelnytskyi. On the morning of April 19, a new shell hits a village near Belgorod. 

On the frontlines in Ukraine

Translation by Carol Matlack

https://meduza.io/en/feature/2022/04/28/the-trenches-mean-we-re-being-protected ‘The trenches mean we’re being protected’. How residents of Russia’s Belgorod region are learning to live with shelling. Meduza and 7×7 report.

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