Recent advances by the Ukrainian military represent a potential turning point in the war. For Russians living near the border, it is a source of growing anxiety. For Russians further afield, war is hardly a part of everyday life. I spoke with my colleague Valerie Hopkins, a Moscow reporter who reported last week from a city near the border, of contrasts.
Claire: You have just traveled to Belgorod, a Russian city of 400,000 people about 25 miles from the Ukrainian border. It is now closer to the front lines after the Ukrainians recaptured the land, pushing the war to the east. What’s the mood there?
Valerie: For the first time since early March, Ukrainians are right at the border. Everyone is worried about having enemy troops so close. You can hear war. I went to a market and heard two explosions. A very frightened elderly woman said to a shopkeeper there, “It feels like they’re already here.”
About 1,500 people, mostly refugees from Ukraine and Russian soldiers fleeing the fighting, are sleeping in a community of improvised tents the city has set up. Volunteers estimate that thousands more are staying in private apartments. A lot of Belgorod residents volunteer, trying to meet needs that, in general, the government doesn’t really respond to.
And while they did not openly disparage the Russian military, people were still shocked. They used to believe in the strength of the Russian government and military. The fact that the army was mobilized so quickly and lost so much territory, it made many Russians realize that the army was not as strong as they thought. That’s not to say everyone in Belgorod was a passionate supporter of the war – some had their own questions about what was happening and why.
As war approaches Russia, what do people fear now?
There is a lot of uncertainty about what happens next. I spoke to someone who told me he can only plan a few days in advance at a time. He also said he bought plywood to replace his windows in the event of a bomb blast. People are packing, in case they have to leave if Ukrainian troops enter Russia.
Life in border cities often revolves around long lines – you report that people used to regularly travel about 50 miles from Belgorod to the city of Kharkiv, in Ukraine, to eat, party or shop. How did living in such close quarters affect the view of the war from Belgorod?
At least 11 million people in Russia have ties to Ukraine. Many people from Belgorod see little difference between themselves and the people of Kharkiv, the city Ukraine has reclaimed thousands of square miles around. They quietly ask themselves: Who are we fighting?
However, in Moscow, you recent report That daily life away from the battlefield continues. What was the attitude of the Russians there toward the war and its disruption?
It is surreal to be here and see people go on about their lives with almost nothing happening. Prices in Moscow have gone up, but people are still living more or less as usual. The shelves are full. I’m drinking Coca-Cola right now, even though the company has officially left the Russian market.
People still shop for luxury. While many high-end brands close their stores here, department stores remain open, some still selling Chanel and Dior perfumes and cosmetics as usual. The restaurants were packed. People will imitate McDonald’s versions. I was walking past a closed Starbucks recently that was becoming something called Stars Coffee. Russians know how to adapt. Some have already started saying, “It’s about time we started building these companies for ourselves.”
I’m also trying to think about what I do not understand. Tens of thousands of people have gone to other countries. For some, it was an act of protest. Others fear a military service. Several journalists and activists have gone because of the crackdown on dissidents – now if you write an anti-war article, you will spend years in prison. Many of my journalist friends and colleagues have passed away. Personally, I feel their absence.
Moscow has an incredible culture and performers. A lot of people made Moscow a world-class capital because they had the freedom to make art, and now many of them are gone.
Our colleague Anton Troianovski reported that some politicians recently said against war, a notable moment in the Kremlin’s crackdown on dissent. How does criticism filter down to the Russians?
Television commentators are talking about massive Russian losses, and in some cases, criticism by experts on state television can be offensive, saying Russia needs more investment. more resources. Those are changes, although they are not against the war themselves. Comments can change opinions, but people won’t change how they vote. They won’t go out and protest.
But in Moscow, the worst atrocities of the war were not in the news. So you ask yourself: Do these people know and don’t care? Or did they choose to shield themselves?
I try to talk to the Russians about it. Recently took place this flower festival in Moscow where people happily pose for selfies. They went on with their lives as if nothing had happened, as if children weren’t killed by bombs every day in a neighboring country. That duality is worrisome.
Valerie Hopkins is a reporter for The Times, covering the countries of the former Soviet Union. Her first journalistic job was covering war crimes trials in Bosnia and Herzegovina for the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.
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