"If we don't support the soldiers, we will also become refugees." How Russian Belgorod lives on the brink of war

  • Natalia Zotova
  • BBC

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image copyrightAnadolu Agency/Getty Images/Anton Vergun/TASS

Belgorod suddenly turned out to be a front-line city. Since winter, Russian soldiers have been camping in the Belgorod region, residents are woken up by the sounds of military aircraft over their heads, rockets regularly fly into areas bordering Ukraine. How Belgorod residents are experiencing this, the BBC Russian Service found out.

On the morning of April 1, Peter from Belgorod (his name has been changed) went out on the balcony to smoke and saw black smoke in the sky. He went online and found out that it was a tank farm on fire. According to the Russian authorities, it caught fire as a result of a Ukrainian shell hit.

Peter and his bride Alena live in a house on a hill, and the floor is also quite high. From their apartment you can hear military planes flying by.

“On May 3, we were sitting in the evening – and at that moment the plane broke the sound barrier, and our windows rattled,” says Alena. it gets creepy.”

frontline city

Kharkov and Belgorod regions have long been closely connected. Until 2014, traveling from Belgorod to Kharkiv was commonplace: the two cities are only 80 kilometers apart, and you could enter with an internal passport.

“To go shopping or to a concert, to have fun – it was in the order of things, like going to a picnic. We went to Kharkov and Kyiv for a walk,” says Alena.

And her fiancé Peter recalls the European Football Championship in 2012, which was held in Poland and Ukraine: “Half of Belgorod went to it. Even special trains were launched to bring and take away fans.”

But after 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and hostilities broke out in the Donbass, traveling to Ukraine from Russia became more difficult. From time to time, the Ukrainian side denied entry to men with Russian passports or demanded an invitation from someone from Ukraine. Meanwhile, many Belgorod residents in Ukraine had relatives or friends.

image copyrightMCHS Belgorod region/TASS

photo caption,

Burning tank farm in Belgorod

After Russia started the war in Ukraine, the Kharkiv region and its center were immediately attacked by Russian troops. Tank units and infantry broke through to the outskirts of Kharkov and tried to take the city outright, but failed.

Subsequent attempts to capture Kharkov were also unsuccessful. Until about the beginning of May, the city was in a semi-encirclement and was subjected to devastating shelling.

But then the situation changed – the main Russian forces were transferred to the Donbass, and near Kharkov, Ukrainian troops launched a counteroffensive.

The weakened units of the Russian army and the self-proclaimed LPR were unable to offer serious resistance and began to retreat in the direction of Belgorod and the region.

According to the American Institute for the Study of War, Russian troops withdrawn from Ukraine are being accumulated in the Belgorod region for future redeployment.

Meanwhile, the telephones of residents of the Belgorod region began to receive calls from unknown numbers with misinformation about the transfer of hostilities to the territory of Russia and about the allegedly preparing evacuation of the population.

“Claps” have become commonplace

So Belgorod turned out to be a front-line city. Rockets arrive from the territory of Ukraine to the Belgorod region on a regular basis. Because of this, two border villages were evacuated: Zhuravlevka and Nekhoteevka.

Every now and then, the regional authorities report damaged houses and injured residents. In May, the death of the first civilian as a result of shelling was officially confirmed .

News about “pops” – this is how the pro-government media in Russia call any explosions – has become commonplace in the region. Several times the governor warned residents that air defense was working on the city, so loud sounds should not be frightened.

In local publics, the governor Vyacheslav Gladkov has already been nicknamed Vyacheslav Khlopkov.

On May 1, an object of the Russian Defense Ministry caught fire in the Belgorod Region. It is not known whether a rocket from the Ukrainian side hit the object or whether the fire started for other reasons.

“For what is happening on the territory of the Russian Federation, the leadership of the Russian Federation is responsible. Maybe someone smoked in the wrong place. Maybe the Russian military is sabotaging the execution of the order with the methods available to them,” Aleksey Arestovich, adviser to the office of President Zelensky, commented vaguely on that fire.

“Did someone attack your homeland?”

The atmosphere in the city’s pubs is tense. The usual agenda consists of peaceful news – for example, they write about a man who deliberately jumped into a flower bed (the police are looking for a vandal). Or about the members of the Belgorod motorcycle community, who repaired the village monument to the soldiers of the Great Patriotic War.

Anxiety erupts through the comments. “The most beautiful hatches in Belgorod were mutilated on Cathedral Square. They were painted with gray oil paint. Who and why,” the public “Overheard in Belgorod” sadly.

Most likely, this is an unsuccessful decision of housing and communal services, which usually do not differ in aesthetic sense. But in the comments, Ukrainians are beginning to be suspected of painting hatches. “[It happened] after the green corridors from Ukraine were opened,” one of the subscribers noted. “We feed them for free, but they quietly hate us.”

“Khokhlovs must not be allowed into Russia,” another says even more clearly.

“Are you afraid that they will paint all the hatches with oil paint?” – they ironically ask again in the comments.

A lot of responses were gathered by the post that a huge letter Z is being installed on Vatutina Avenue. defenders of our homeland. We, and there are many of us, support you. Happy Holidays!!” – wrote one of the subscribers. “Happy Latin holiday,” someone added ironically.

“Someone attacked your homeland? They attacked Ukraine, which means that, by all the rules of logic, it is the Ukrainians who are defending their homeland,” they argued with the congratulators.

But in general, the city lives a normal life. From May 1 to May 3, the festival “River in Bloom” was held: tulips bloomed in the park and crowds of people walking gathered. And on the evening of May 9, there was fireworks in Belgorod – the same “claps”, only festive ones.

“They don’t want to think that in a neighboring country people are hiding from bombs and dying,” says Petr from Belgorod.

image copyrightEvgeny Silantiev/TASS

photo caption,

From May 1 to May 3 in Belgorod there was a holiday “River in Bloom”

In the first weeks after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there were anti-war protests in the city. Retired military pilot Vladimir Bilevich walked around Belgorod in a vest with the inscription “No to war” in Russian and Ukrainian. He is Ukrainian, and the war between his native countries has shaken Bilevich, he told RFE/RL in March.

The pilot was soon detained on the street and fined. Now Bilevich no longer wears a vest with slogans and is afraid to talk to journalists, especially by phone. He turned down the BBC for an interview.

On March 20, two girls were handing out flowers on the streets of Belgorod, dressed in yellow and blue. They were also detained, and the court imposed a fine on them. One of the girls, Nadezhda Rossinskaya, soon began to help Ukrainian refugees.

“I didn’t have the option of doing nothing”

On Nadezhda’s Instagram – she works as a photographer – studio shoots in skimpy dresses have been replaced by photos of bags of pasta and receipts, which she shoots to report to donors.

Nadezhda (subscribers know her as Nadine) helped 60 people rent housing in Belgorod and settle down. Several hundred people were helped by her volunteers to leave the war zone for Russia. About a hundred Ukrainians were sent to Europe: to Lithuania, Poland, Germany and other countries.

It all started with the fact that at the end of March, Nadine was written by a client from Ukraine, who had ordered a photo shoot from her several years ago. She asked for help: her mother and her dog crossed the border in the Belgorod region that day, not knowing where to go next and where to stay for the night.

Nadine agreed to take her in. At the border, the woman met several more families in a desperate situation: the parents of a one-year-old baby, a grandfather and grandmother with two grandchildren. They all came to Nadine’s odnushka.

“We covered the whole room with blankets, blankets – everything that was, and lived in such a crowd for four days,” she recalls. This direct confrontation with the war startled Nadine.

“At first I thought that my grandmother came to me, and when she took a swim, I realized that this was not a grandmother, but just an adult girl. people feel bad. But when you see it live and not on YouTube, your thinking changes.”

Through acquaintances, Nadine began to receive more and more messages about people in the Kharkiv region without food and medicine.

Therefore, now Nadine collects and sends food, medicines to the Kharkiv region, helps a hospital in the city of Izium, a psycho-neurological dispensary in the Ukrainian border village of Strelechya.

“At first I had absolutely no idea how to help, I just started collecting money, food, raked out all the pickles from my mother. And when I was able to send a humanitarian aid, more and more people began to write to me. I had no option to do nothing.”

She estimates the total number of humanitarian aid that went to the Kharkiv region with her help at “several KAMAZ trucks.”

True, KAMAZ does not have volunteers yet, although it is needed. “If there is a man who wants to give me a KAMAZ, I will marry him,” the girl jokes. According to her, she has already helped 15 thousand people.

15 thousand is not a figure out of thin air. “I have such a population census for the districts that I supply,” the blogger explains. Each of its 32 volunteers is assigned to each locality, from where they sort out applications, or rather, just the stories of relatives: my relatives live at such and such an address, there are two more families left on their street. Further humanitarian aid is sent to these families.

Another team to help refugees – in their chat “Tenth Circle – Belgorod Refugees” in Telegram now has 800 participants – was assembled by Yulia from Kharkiv (she asked not to indicate her last name). Julia moved from Ukraine to Belgorod in 2014.

When, a week before the war, friends from Kharkov asked her if an offensive was being prepared from Russia, she jokingly answered: “Guys, if I attack, then only with vodka and borscht, and you prepare lard and garlic.”

And on February 24, at 4-5 in the morning, Yulia – like the whole city – woke up from a roar. “We didn’t understand what these sounds were, what happened,” she recalls. “When bombs began to arrive in my native Kharkov, I was very hurt. My ex-husband called – we have a common child, I consider him my family. I showed the video , as right under the windows of the house where we lived, a large rocket flew in and sticks out about two meters, the public utilities are pulling it out.

It became even more painful that Kharkov friends began to write to her “nasty things with curses, with accusations,” says Yulia. They demanded that she go out into the street with a protest poster – this seemed incomprehensible and meaningless to Yulia.

On the first day of the war, a close friend asked if it was possible to wait out the fighting at their home in Belgorod, and after three weeks he wrote: “You have destroyed our life, the future of our children.”

Around that time, Ukrainians began to appear in Belgorod, fleeing the war and looking for work. Together with her friends, Julia rented a room for a girl with a three-year-old daughter, found her dishes, blankets, and food. She took a Kharkiv resident who fled from the war to work in her small production.

Helping refugees turned out to be a way to occupy oneself, to throw out one’s pain and anger: “For me, it’s self-therapy: it’s easier for me, I don’t have time to sit in the news and once again look at everything,” Yulia says.

But the number of families in need is increasing. Julia realized that she could no longer ask her friends for help: they had already given everything they could to the refugees. It became clear that a support group needed to be created.

“I reasoned like this: we need to hit the cities where there is more money: Moscow and St. Petersburg. I began to find charitable foundations, channels to help refugees and send messages there: help whoever can.”

Now in the “Tenth Circle” there are 25 permanent volunteers, 129 requests for help, of which 80 families have already been provided with things. A warehouse appeared, friendly programmers wrote a chatbot with a questionnaire so that requests for help were processed automatically, and they helped with the warehouse program.

The “tenth circle” helps those Ukrainians who did not go to the temporary accommodation center for refugees. It is impossible to stay in the Belgorod TAP for a long time, people from there are distributed to different regions. But many do not want to go far from home, it is easier for them to stay in the Belgorod region, dozens of kilometers from their native Kharkov.

True, in this case, the state no longer provides shelter and food. This is where Yulia helps them with volunteers – for the time being, until people receive documents and find work.

image copyrightEvgeny Silantiev/TASS

photo caption,

TAP in the Belgorod region is a temporary tent camp, from where refugees are sent to other regions

“The Tenth Circle” fundamentally does not collect money. Julia explains that they want to avoid accusations of theft or spending on the wrong things. Volunteers connect those who want to help with those who need help.

Julia no longer communicates with Ukrainian friends. “I was so glad when Facebook and Instagram were blocked in Russia,” she admits. “I don’t install VPN, not because I don’t know how, but because I don’t want to. they write, it turns me inside out.” In these publications, according to Yulia, there is too much hatred, and Russians are slinged with mud.

Yulia does not want to talk about who is to blame for this war and who is shelling Ukrainian cities.

“This is a war, it doesn’t happen that some are good and others are bad. Everyone is bad,” she insists. “People who come [from Ukraine] also have different opinions. I understand both those who justify this and those who who is not. But if I see a mother with a child in front of me, it doesn’t matter to me what she thinks and for what reason. I just have to help her.”

And yet, more volunteers in the Belgorod region decided not to help the Ukrainians fleeing the war, but the Russian army.

Socks, hearts and mayonnaise for soldiers

The presence of soldiers in the region is noticeable: some hospitals have been converted into military hospitals, for example, the central district hospital in Shebekino. Where patients used to park, now there are army trucks and a tent, local residents told the BBC.

Especially a lot of equipment in rural areas. Eight-year-old Alyosha from the village of Veselaia Lopan began to run out to the tanks passing by the house, which he became famous for. Alyosha, who dreams of becoming a general, is now featured in Russian state media. And his mother complains that some villagers began to write them negative messages when the boy became a celebrity.

Petr from Belgorod saw armored personnel carriers on the roads, and once even a tank: “I am involved in the construction of roads, it causes me pain when fresh asphalt is destroyed by caterpillar vehicles.”

Caterpillars destroy not only asphalt, he noted. “We go to visit our grandmother in the village of Komsomolsky. There was a tent city, soldiers, military equipment: they destroyed the road, rolled garden plots into the mud. I don’t know what people will plant there now.”

It was in Komsomolskoye that one of the volunteer groups to help soldiers appeared. Initially, they organized to congratulate them on the Defender of the Fatherland Day – after all, a military town appeared in the village before the invasion.

And when the war began, the volunteer group grew. Their chat now consists of 6 thousand people. Everything is collected for the soldiers – from canned meat and sweets to shorts and camouflage suits. They even carry medical bandages consecrated in the church. And, of course, donations are collected to buy all this.

“I’m a very distrustful person, but then it immediately fell on my heart. I realized that I got where I needed to go. And my son is 20, and I understand that there are the same sons. And there are no other people’s sons, all of ours,” Anna writes in the chat from Kaliningrad, explaining why she made a donation to the team’s account.

Another chat participant, Svetlana, wishes “our guys” health and willpower: “Let St. George cover them with his cloak and send his blessing. And we will pray for them. And wait with Victory.”

image copyrightAnton Vergun/TASS

photo caption,

Procession of the “Immortal Regiment” in Belgorod on May 9, 2022

Local resident Nadezhda Zagordan is also collecting humanitarian aid for the Russian military.

“Most often these are shorts, socks, wet wipes, cigarettes, all kinds of sweets. We take knitted hearts as a souvenir. Someone has requests: for example, bring a SIM card. We bring it,” she told the BBC. It is clear that the army feeds them, they have everything … But eating just porridge or porridge with mayonnaise is tastier.”

In early May, Nadezhda took a cake and pizza to the campsite – at the request of her relatives, she congratulated one of the fighters on his birthday.

Zagordan is pleased that she managed to connect other regions to the collection of humanitarian aid and money. “It’s difficult for border towns. We can’t drag it all on ourselves for a long time. I had a goal: to attract other cities so that they understand that this story is not about Belgorod and Ukraine, but about Russia and Ukraine.”

Now Nadezhda receives parcels every day. On the day we spoke with her, she picked up 33 parcels from the post office from different cities.

When I ask why Nadezhda decided to help soldiers and not Ukrainian refugees, she explains: “In 2014, I helped refugees a lot, there was a big volunteer movement. But now I decided that it is important to help soldiers, because they are guarding the borders.”

She also does not want to talk directly about the war. “I don’t support the special operation, I support the soldiers who guard the peace,” the volunteer says. “If we don’t support, then we will also become refugees. From Ukraine, too, flies to us. won’t they protect us?”

“But nothing arrived from Ukraine until February 24,” the BBC correspondent tried to argue.

“I can’t comment on it. No way,” Zagordan snapped.

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