- Svyatoslav Khomenko, Elizaveta Foght, Anastasia Platonova
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“Grandmother with the Soviet flag” has become in Russia a symbol of support for the war in Ukraine. Thanks to the video in which she goes to the Ukrainian military with a red banner, in Russia they erect monuments to her and dedicate poems. The heroine of the video, Anna Ivanovna, really exists – but, as the BBC made sure, after talking with her, her true story is very different from the image that the Russian media has been painting for the second month now.
A stooped elderly Ukrainian woman in an Olympian and with a red flag at the ready – this is one of the most recognizable images in Russia in 2022. The cult of this woman was born in early April – it was then that a video appeared on social networks, which showed how the “grandmother” comes out to meet the Ukrainian military with a red flag at the ready, and then, when one of them starts trampling on the banner, refuses to take food from them.
Over the past month and a half, monuments to Anna Ivanovna – and that is exactly what the very “grandmother with a flag” is called – have appeared in cities throughout Russia and even in the occupied territories in Ukraine. Officials and employees of Russian state channels consider her act an example of an “inflexible spirit” and the embodiment of the idea that many Ukrainians actually yearn to return to the USSR and support the Russian military operation.
BBC correspondents visited the house of Anna Ivanovna Ivanova, talked with her neighbors, the same military man who stepped on her flag, as well as cultural scientists, and tell how the “grandmother with a red banner” became a symbol of modern Russia and why she is not at all the hero portrayed by Russian propaganda.
“I prayed for you and for Putin”
“It would be better for me if I wasn’t famous … A celebrity is, of course, a great thing, but you have to deserve it. But I don’t know, maybe I didn’t deserve such a celebrity,” says Anna Ivanovna Ivanova.
Her conversation with the BBC begins with the question of what language to conduct a conversation. Anna Ivanovna’s native language is Ukrainian. According to her, when she gets worried, she switches to Russian – but in fact, to a mixture of Russian and Ukrainian, which is typical for these places.
Anna Ivanovna is short, frail and very energetic. She will turn 70 in the summer – she is only three months older than Vladimir Putin. She looks much younger than the old woman depicted on most of the posters that have appeared everywhere in Russia.
The conversation goes right in the courtyard of the house of Anna Ivanovna and her husband Ivan (she warmly calls him Alekseich). A week ago, the couple were in the Kharkov hospital, but now they have returned to Velikaya Danilovka.
Alekseich does not take part in the conversation. It is difficult to say hello to him: he hears very poorly.
Formally, Velyka Danilovka (in Russia it is called Bolshaya Danilovka) is a suburb of Kharkov. In reality, this is an ordinary Ukrainian village. About trips to the center here they say “go to the city.”
The biography of the spouses was described in detail by the Spectrum publication. Anna Ivanovna had four children, but they all died for various reasons. Alekseich is her second husband, he comes from Belgorod. Anna Ivanovna’s parents lived in Velika Danilovka, she herself lived for a long time in Dvurechnaya (also in the Kharkov region) and worked at the elevator. And then she returned to her parents’ house.
After the start of the war, Anna Ivanovna did not see Russian soldiers in her village: they never entered Velikaya Danilovka, they stood a couple of kilometers from it, in the now liberated village of Tsirkuny.
On May 12, when the BBC arrived in Danilovka, fighting was still going on here: the rumblings of artillery duels were heard over the village every now and then. Anna Ivanovna no longer paid attention to these sounds – she was used to it. But quite recently, Russian shells fell directly on the village, turning some of the huts into ashes.
Anna Ivanovna’s house also suffered from shelling: glass was broken in her hut, the slate roof was damaged, and fragments of shells still lie on the lawn. The fact is that her house is located next to a strategically important by local standards bridge across the stream, and it was bombed several times.
Anna Ivanovna treats destruction philosophically: it could be worse. However, even before the war, the life of pensioners was not distinguished by luxury.
Poverty is clearly felt in the house, the hut is crammed with dilapidated things – around the trough, rusty bicycles, balalaikas, half-empty canned food with blue mold. In one of the rooms of the cluttered house there is a whole iconostasis: Anna Ivanovna and her husband are very devout, during the conversation the woman is constantly baptized and turns to God and the Mother of God.
The woman says that recently her pension was increased: now she has 3,034 hryvnias (about 6,700 rubles), while her grandfather has more than 4,000 hryvnias (8,800 rubles). But, of course, “poverty is a great thing,” Anna Ivanovna sighs: if not for her, the house would be cleaner, and life in general would have turned out differently – one could look at the world. And so from the trips she can only remember a trip to Moscow, in which she remembers the mausoleum and temples most of all.
When the BBC is interested in the fate of that same red flag, Anna Ivanovna leads the journalists to the barn. Where the banner came from in her house, the woman no longer remembers: it has been in the family since her childhood.
In the barn, Anna Ivanovna peers at a pile of firewood and boards and says offendedly: “Did they steal something? Destroyed it?” As a result, the banner is found by journalists. The flag is dirty, not washed off for years, or even decades, and in the twilight of the barn it differs slightly in color from the firewood on which it lies.
Joyful Anna Ivanovna unfurls the flag and leads the BBC to the lawn in front of her shabby gates, on which traces from fragments of an exploding shell are visible – exactly to the same place where on March 4 the scene played out that turned Anna Ivanovna into a symbol of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The same video was filmed by the Ukrainian military. In the video, three soldiers approach Anna Ivanovna and her husband with a bag of food. Grandma is holding a red flag. “Of course, they were waiting for you, they prayed for you and for Putin, and for the whole people,” she says good-naturedly to the operator.
At first, Anna Ivanovna refuses to take food – she says that the soldiers need it more. But one of the soldiers with the words “Glory to Ukraine” still passes her a package, and picks up the red flag, throws it on the ground and stands on it with his feet.
Further dialogue is almost inaudible due to the wind, but it is clear that Anna Ivanovna is indignant. “My parents died for this flag,” she tells the military and refuses to take food.
In early April, this video appeared on the Internet, and Russian users began to share it.
“Ukrainian bastards got to the point of an old man and an old woman, who mistook them for Russian soldiers and greeted them with the Red Banner of Victory,” Daniil Bezsonov, deputy minister of information of the self-proclaimed DPR, was indignant . (spelling and punctuation preserved).
“The Lord led me to the Ukrainian”
In fact, this scene took place on March 4 – two weeks after the start of the Russian invasion. The north-eastern outskirts of Kharkov were actively shelled, but the village at that time was “no man’s land”, recalls Viktor Kostenko, senior lieutenant of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, in a conversation with the BBC.
It was Kostenko who stood with his feet on the flag, and it was on his phone that the video that made Anna Ivanovna a celebrity was filmed.
When Kostenko’s company entered Velikaya Danilovka, the military saw that most of the houses here were damaged, and there were almost no people left. Those who were leaving were helped by the military to go to safer areas of Kharkov. Grandmother Anya went to the military with the flag of the USSR two or three days after their arrival in the village.
“We, as we always do, asked how they were doing, if they had food. Grandmother replied that she had nowhere to go and that she was waiting for us and – I won’t quote her words exactly – she prayed all this time for Russian troops, because she was tired of the war. And she added that she has a Russian flag to meet us, “Kostenko recalls that meeting. The military were surprised and asked the woman to show the flag.
“I don’t know what was going on in my head,” Anna Ivanovna is now talking about that day.
During the conversation, she herself voices several versions of the answer to the question of why she went out to three soldiers with blue and yellow chevrons with a red “sign”, as she herself calls it.
The first explanation sounds like this – a woman heard Russian speech from Ukrainians and therefore thought that they were Russians: “And we, I say, have a Russian sign. And she took it out, showed it. And it turned out that way.”
“It’s like this: if people speak to us in Ukrainian, then we speak Ukrainian with them. If in Russian, then in Russian, of course. She is probably due to the fact that we speak Ukrainian they began to speak Russian, confused us with Russian soldiers. Well, I told her: take out this flag, and for the sake of interest I took out the phone, gave it to my sergeant, and he began to shoot this picture. And then you saw, “explains Kostenko.
According to another version, voiced by her, Anna Ivanovna went to the Russian soldiers, because they would certainly have found the contacts of the Russian president. The woman says that she allegedly wanted to call Putin on behalf of the soldiers and ask him why he started a war against unarmed Ukrainians – maybe they could convince him and stop the bloodshed.
Finally, the third explanation of Anna Ivanovna is this: the grandmother did not put any political subtext into her act. The red banner, she says, is not the flag of the Soviet Union, not of Russia, but “the banner of love and happiness in every family, in every city, in every republic.”
“White is the purity of the body and soul. And the red flag means love and victory. So I gave the soldiers a sign of love and victory. I did not take it to the Russians, the Lord led me to the Ukrainians. was a win!” – explains Anna Ivanovna and is baptized.
And what do the sickle, hammer and five-pointed star do on the banner of love, asks the BBC. “What?” she retorts. “A sickle is bread, iron is forged with a hammer, for different machines, beautiful fences, and a star is protection from heaven.”
When asked why she told the soldiers that she was praying for Vladimir Putin, Anna Ivanovna replies: “Yes, I pray for both Putin and Zelentsev [President of Ukraine Vladimir Zelensky]. I ask God for understanding for them. And for Lukashov [President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenka] I pray. I pray for everyone – that they receive enlightenment and do not fight with each other.”
“Anna Ivanovna is so artistic a little and changes her testimony from interview to interview,” Dmytro Galko, from the Center for Strategic Communications (CSK) at the Ministry of Culture of Ukraine, tells the BBC.
One of the main tasks of this Center is “counteraction to information attacks of the Russian Federation”. Galko is sure that the woman, going out to the military, “just wanted to resolve everything peacefully.”
The ending of the viral video thundered the most in Russia: Kostenko steps on the flag with his feet, Anna Ivanovna refuses to take food from the soldiers. As the woman recalls now, then she was frightened: she thought they would shoot her. It turned out to be wrong. “See, she’s alive,” she says.
The BBC asks Kostenko why he stepped on his grandmother’s flag? “I felt angry at the one who attacked us, who wants to recreate that empire, that Soviet Union, in which my people were dying of hunger in 1932-33,” he replies.
According to the senior lieutenant, although the video ends at a dramatic moment, the reality turned out to be much more prosaic. After recording, the military did not continue the dispute with the spouses for long – shelling continued around.
As a result of a short discussion, the soldiers went on, Anna Ivanovna picked up her flag from the ground, and Alekseich “calmly” took the package with food, after which the old people went to their house.
“And then we became friends with this grandmother, a day later they brought food to her, for Easter they brought a little paska ( aka Easter cake – BBC ) from the Ukrainian Church,” Kostenko laughs.
“Grandmother for all Russia”
How this video with the trampled flag ended up on the Internet and who published it and why is still not known.
The video, filmed on Kostenko’s phone, was sent by Ukrainian soldiers to each other in their Telegram and WhatsApp groups, no one planned to make it viral. The senior lieutenant assures that he has nothing to do with the publication of the video on the Internet.
The BBC could not find where and when exactly the video with Anna Ivanovna was published in the public domain for the first time. It can be assumed that for the first time it appeared in pro-Ukrainian publics, which thus showed that the Armed Forces of Ukraine provide assistance to all residents of the country, regardless of their political views.
The Russian media quickly drew attention to the video and gave it a slightly different meaning.
On the morning of April 7, Channel One aired the video in its morning broadcast.
“The security forces came to the village, sort of like distributing humanitarian aid, but they didn’t miss the opportunity to mock people,” commented the video in the release.
On the same day’s three-hour broadcast, the presenter was already more categorical and accused the Ukrainian military of desecrating the banner: “The radicals are frankly mocking an elderly woman.”
Two days later, the host of the “First” Vitaly Eliseev, talking about this story, shed a tear right on the air. “They say old age… I don’t know about you, but I just saw what an unyielding spirit means. It’s a sacred thing to protect such people,” he said in a trembling voice.
On April 12, Deputy Permanent Representative of Russia Dmitry Polyansky spoke about a pensioner from Ukraine at a meeting of the UN Security Council. Polyansky called the pensioner a symbol of “another Ukraine”, which, thanks to the military operation, got a chance for “genuine good neighborliness.”
As a result, over the past month and a half, the “grandmother with a red flag” – no one knew her last name or even her name for a long time – has become in Russia the main symbol of support for the war in Ukraine, along with the letter Z.
On the Internet, the woman came up with nicknames – “Grandma Z” and “Grandmother of Victory”, her image was actually equated with the “Motherland”, a monument to which was erected in Volgograd.
On the eve of Victory Day, images of Anna Ivanovna appeared on the chevron of the Russian military, poems were dedicated to her, posters with her images and numerous graffiti through the efforts of district administrations appeared on houses in cities throughout Russia.
Monuments and sculptures erected in honor of a woman became a separate genre. It could not do without excesses – for example, at the end of April, a resident of Moscow, Roman Sakharov, broke a cardboard figure of a “grandmother with a flag” installed in Kurkino.
A protocol was drawn up against him under the article on discrediting the army (20.3.3), and TV presenter Vladimir Solovyov published a video with an apology from a Muscovite: “On April 22, I made the biggest mistake in my life. I broke the symbol of today’s Russia, although I don’t even remember it, because I was very drunk.”
In Belgorod, a barely erected monument had to be removed due to vandalism – the mayor of the city complained that residents even tried to “climb” on my grandmother. They decided to move the statue to a place where the townspeople would not have “the opportunity to contact it.”
The most famous monument to the “grandmother with a flag” appeared on May 5 in Mariupol, destroyed by the Russian army. First Deputy Head of the Russian Presidential Administration Sergei Kiriyenko and United Russia General Council Secretary Andrei Turchak personally came to open it.
“Unfortunately, we don’t know her full name, patronymic. But we will definitely find out. And I’m sure there will be an opportunity to say thank you to her and bow low at her feet, because she has become a living symbol of such a continuity of generations, the continuity of the fight against Nazism and fascism. She became such a grandmother for the entire Donbass, and a grandmother for all of Russia,” Kiriyenko said.
However, now the “grandmother with a flag” is no longer the only heroine of the Russian media: in recent days they have been writing less and less about Anna Ivanovna and more and more about the boy Alyosha from the Belgorod region, who daily greets the Russian military columns and dreams of becoming a tanker.
Although social networks already appear art with a joint image of “grandmother with a flag” and Alyosha.
“A fragment of the day before yesterday”
And yet, why exactly did the hunched-over grandmother suddenly become a de facto symbol of modern Russia?
On the one hand, the transformation of the old woman into a meme and into a certain symbol that legitimizes the Russian “special operation” is very symptomatic, Evgeny Dobrenko, a philologist, cultural historian, researcher of late Stalinism, explains to the BBC.
According to Dobrenko, the “grandmother with a flag” symbolizes how the Russian regime would like to look for the outside world and how it sees itself: “The liberators from Nazism have come from the east again, and this grandmother comes out like a fragment of some new “Young Guard”, greet your benefactors.”
The historian also draws attention to the inconsistency: on the one hand, the popularity of the image of a “grandmother with a flag” is an example of an appeal to the Soviet past, in which, for example, monuments to Lenin are being restored in captured Ukrainian cities.
On the other hand, on the eve of the war, Vladimir Putin promised to show Ukraine “real decommunization.” The Russian leader has repeatedly explained that he considers the creation of Ukraine within its modern borders a kind of historical mistake, the “author and architect” of which was personally Vladimir Lenin.
But Anna Ivanovna’s popularity demonstrates that Russia is carrying a Soviet past, contrary to its proclaimed goals, Dobrenko says.
“Everyone understands that Putin’s rhetoric is just a cover for the usual imperialist colonial practices of Russia, which wants to explain the inexplicable, justify the unjustified,” the expert believes. practiced by Russia in the 21st century”.
“Grandmother Anya” is indeed a very instructive symbol: even if it had not been used so self-revealingly, once in the media, it would still be doomed to become a meme, “explains BBC Yan Levchenko, culturologist, editor of Rus.Postimees.
“It’s a good symbol of the Russian invasion, very revealing, very illustrative. It exposes itself,” says Levchenko. From his point of view, the very purpose of the “special operation” is an attempt to restore the USSR within those boundaries and semantic fields in which it is available to the modern Russian order.
“And in this sense, grandmother Anya with her red flag paves the way to the Soviet Union, and they could not fail to use it,” the culturologist explains.
He draws attention to the fact that the very personality of Anna Ivanovna is of little importance for propaganda: “It is important that she goes back to the USSR with a red flag, illuminating and consecrating the path of the president.”
“Don’t mold her into a dead idol”
While the Russian media were wondering about the fate of the “grandmother of all Russia” – they wrote that she was saved by the DPR militia or taken to “relatives in Barnaul” – Anna Ivanovna continued to live in her hut on the outskirts of Kharkov, unaware that she had become a star of social networks, and that the monuments it is opened by high-ranking Kremlin officials.
Unless the Ukrainian soldiers, who continued to regularly come to their “girlfriend” and bring food, joked: they say, the grandmother became famous.
After another shelling of Danilovka, glass flew out in Anna Ivanovna’s hut, the roof was damaged and one section of the fence was demolished. At that moment, says senior lieutenant Kostenko, the Ukrainian military strongly recommended that the old people move out of their house: they say you don’t have a cellar or a dugout.
Anna Ivanovna and Alekseich listened to the advice, Kostenko took them to the local church. They spent one night there, but Alekseevich’s health problems worsened, and volunteers helped them get to one of the Kharkov hospitals.
There, in early May, Dmitry Galko from the CSK met the spouses, who found them with the help of parishioners from the church in Danilovka. It was he who recorded the sensational video in Russia, before the release of which almost nothing was known about the fate of Anna Ivanovna.
“The thing, of course, is lousy that Russia went to war with us. Very lousy,” says Anna Ivanovna in that video. It also tells how the woman’s house was destroyed due to Russian shelling.
Galko eventually took patronage over a couple from Danilovka. The military guarding them left the village after the Russian troops were driven back from Kharkov after the counteroffensive of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
The pro-Russian media and public perceived the situation unequivocally.
Komsomolskaya Pravda military commander Alexander Kots, who openly supports the military operation, reposted the following message: “Kyiv took hostage Anya’s grandmother from the Kharkiv region. showed, but expectedly blamed Russia.”
And on May 7, State Duma deputy from the Communist Party Nina Ostanina proposed “to carry out a special operation to free Anna’s grandmother and her husband from the hands of the Nazis in the Kharkov region: take them to Russia and invite them to honorable participation in the Parade on Red Square.”
“Who is hostage? Me? No,” Anna Ivanovna shrugs her shoulders in bewilderment, talking to the BBC.
A few days ago, Anna Ivanovna and her husband returned to their native hut: everyone was worried about how the dogs, cats and rabbit they left behind after evacuating after the bombing felt there.
Everything is fine with living creatures, says the grandmother. Now we need to plant potatoes before it’s too late – because of the Russian invasion, the sowing calendar on her farm has shifted somewhat.
When asked if she would like to take advantage of the invitation of Nina Ostanina and go to the Victory Parade on Red Square, Anna Ivanovna excitedly replies: “I can’t go there – because they bombed us unarmed. This is the village. And there were no more people “But they all bombed. I can’t go to Russia now. It’s still a pain for Ukraine. Ukraine is my dear mother.”
Russian propaganda makes everything one-dimensional and real people are not interested in it – it only cares about the seizure of Ukrainian lands, comments on Russian publications about the “grandmother with a red flag” Dmitry Galko from the CSK.
“So Anna Ivanovna in Russia was turned into a dead idol, a dead icon. They were not interested in who she was and where she came from, what her name was, what her fate and biography were. If they could, they would steal her, mummify her and put her in mausoleum, and there she would lie, dead,” he says.
Galko emphasizes that in Ukraine they have not tried and are not going to make a grandmother with a blue and yellow bow out of a grandmother with a red flag. But, he recalls, Anna Ivanovna’s parents are Ukrainians, and Ukrainian is her native language. “This is our grandmother! Don’t make a dead idol out of her!” he says emotionally.
“Fast acting. Nightmare”
On the lawn in front of the gate – where Anna Ivanovna first met the Ukrainian military more than two months ago – she examines graffiti, murals and monuments printed on a color printer, the prototype for which she herself became. Previously, my grandmother only heard about her fame, and now she looks at the pictures with visible interest.
Some of them really don’t like her. “Am I so old and some kind of stranger?” she asks in surprise. In some pictures, the woman really looks like she is at least a hundred years old and she could well have caught the First World War. The lively and energetic Anna Ivanovna really is completely different from this old woman.
In one of the images, a grandmother with a red banner at the ready tramples on the blue and yellow flag of Ukraine. Anna Ivanovna is indignant: “God forbid! I love our banner. It’s wrong that they painted it like that! To trample on your own banner, who invented it? On the contrary, I love my banner. .I kept them.”
Grandmother likes the poster on which she stands next to Alekseich – in this image he looks like a retired geologist, and behind them are Russian soldiers. Anna Ivanovna is not interested in soldiers at all: she shows her grandfather how beautifully they painted him and asks to keep this image as a keepsake.
Separately, the BBC shows the grandmother a photograph of the monument opened by Sergei Kiriyenko in Mariupol. “Fast acting. Nightmare,” she says. But you can see by her face: she rather likes the monument and fame in general.
What would she say at the opening of a monument to herself, if she had such an opportunity? Anna Ivanovna thinks. “God forbid, I would say that this monument was a [monument] to peace for our entire planet. Peace in every home, in every family. Understanding. I would especially like the presidents to have understanding. So that they don’t make such a war anymore,” she says.
Anna Ivanovna is especially touched by the girls who are standing near the Mariupol monument in the guard of honor. “Leave me that card, with the kids,” she asks.
“I didn’t want to betray anyone”
After the publication of the video with the grandmother coming out to the Ukrainian soldiers with a red banner, Ukrainian social networks were flooded with a wave of comments, to put it mildly, unflattering towards Anna Ivanovna.
“Met the invaders with a red flag.” “Crazy Old Woman” “Collaborator”. “Let him go to his Russia.” The tone of most assessments of her act was derogatory.
Yes, and the villagers of the woman Ani also perceive her fame ambiguously. Half of the village was destroyed by these “red flags and the Russian world,” and this “valtanut” ( crazy – BBC ) came out to meet them, says the BBC neighbor of the spouses Vladimir, a former military man.
Fellow villagers help the elderly with food, but behind their backs, several residents of Danilovka tell the BBC at once: they will not live here. “Well, that is, no one will beat them, of course, but they won’t communicate with them either. She will simply be an outcast,” says Zhenya, a resident of the village who is now headlong into volunteering.
Anna Ivanovna feels this attitude towards herself.
“Today, those who collect garbage from the city … They called me a traitor. They say, take a bag and get out of here. They say how will you live with this?” she complains. “But I didn’t want to betray anyone, I wanted peace: to Russia, Ukraine, Belarus lived as before, so that no one would offend anyone, but only fought against drug addiction, against alcohol, against smoking, and for the Christian faith!”
But Senior Lieutenant Kostenko, who, by and large, made the “grandmother with a flag” famous, defends her: “You don’t need to judge a person for his act, for the past that he lives in … All people live where their youth passed, where they lived, worked. They do not fully know history. It is better in independent Ukraine to improve their living conditions in such a way that they remember that Soviet Union as the black past of our state. And to condemn a person simply because he lived in the Soviet Union – that’s wrong.”
The grandmother’s problem, according to Kostenko, is informational hunger. For a long time she could not believe that the Russians were shooting at her village: all her life she considered the Russian people to be fraternal, and her Alekseich was from Belgorod.
When the grandmother was taken from the Kharkov hospital and taken to Danilovka, she was taken around Kharkov and showed the extent of the destruction of the city from indiscriminate bombing by Russian troops. She, recalls Dmitry Galko, only threw up her hands: “Ah-ah-ah, this is real 1941.”
However, even recent events have not forced Anna Ivanovna’s political views to stabilize. On the one hand, she doesn’t seem to be against Ukraine and Russia living together, but only “that the Ukrainian president be in his place, the Russian president be in his place, and that they understand each other.” On the other hand, she prays to God for the victory of Ukraine and the Ukrainian soldiers with whom she managed to make friends.
Anna Ivanovna says that after the victory of Ukraine, the soldiers who filmed the video with her participation are waiting for a visit. There will be, they say, electricity in Danilovka – they will be able to cook tea for them. Even to that Vita, who “trampled the sign.”
When asked if Anna Ivanovna regrets what happened and would go again to meet the military with a red flag, she replies: “Probably would have come out. At least Ukrainians, at least Russians. win with a flag … Or maybe the Lord himself sent me to give this flag of the world, so that they conquer, so that they return Russia to its place? And this can be. Maybe the Lord himself sent me this way. Not for celebrity, but for the world ” .
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