‘We have other problems’ As the world worries about an all-out war between Russia and Ukraine, Meduza reports from the border with the Donbas
Since the fall of 2021, media outlets around the world have been discussing the possibility of another Russian invasion of Ukraine. Moscow has had troops massed near the Ukrainian border for several months now — in response, NATO countries, led by the United States, have deployed additional forces to Eastern Europe and are threatening the Kremlin with sanctions. What do people living near the Russian border with Ukraine think about these escalating tensions? For Meduza, journalist Gleb Golod traveled to towns and villages in Russia’s Rostov region to find out.
‘Not live, survive’
Located in Russia’s Rostov region, the Matveyevo-Kurgansky district borders the unrecognized “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DNR) to the north. The Alekseyevskoe rural settlement is among those closest to the border. Home to roughly 4,000 people, it consists of several villages, smaller settlements, and hamlets.
Local residents have all but deserted the hamlets. In one of them, half of the houses have been destroyed, the urgent care center has long been closed, as has the only local store; the advertisements posted on utility poles have faded. People here rely on subsistence farming. The only thing that breaks the silence is the barking of dogs who caught the scent of the approaching journalists. Hearing the noise, a man in his seventies comes outside.
“Everything is calm here, the border guards protect us,” he says. “There are a hundred of us left here, maybe less. In Soviet times, people from the North came here and bought houses. Then they stopped, they started to move out. In 2014–2015, shells flew near us; a plane was shot down near us here. At the time, we went to watch from afar how our guys beat those Banderites. Although, in fact, all of this makes me want to cry.”
Alexander has lived here for 25 years. He came to this hamlet from the Donetsk region of Ukraine. Alexander believes that Russia should have “annexed the Donbas at the same time as Crimea.” “It won’t be worse for them or for Russians,” he says.
An elderly woman in a torn jacket rides through the snow on an old bicycle. She hadn’t even heard about the possible war with Ukraine. Asked how people here live, the woman replies shortly, “not live, survive.”
“There used to be some holidays, a village day at least. Now, there’s coronavirus and nothing else,” she says, explaining that when locals get sick or need to buy groceries, they have to go to the district center, Matveyev Kurgan. “It takes about an hour for an ambulance to get here. There’s hardly any of us left here, just pensioners surviving all by themselves,” she sighs.
The barking dogs disturb yet another resident, who comes out into the yard of a dilapidated house. A bearded, middle-aged man in an army jacket and blue sweatpants, he introduces himself as Gena. Hearing that journalists had come here, he looks around in surprise. Gena moved here a few years ago from Taganrog and works on a local farm.
“Everything’s fine. Everything’s calm. I haven’t heard anything, why? I haven’t heard about a war. Ask someone in Alekseyevka, maybe they’ll tell you [something],” the farmer says, hurriedly retreating behind the fence.
‘Physical war is no longer relevant’
Alekseyevka is the rural settlement’s center. It’s home to the village administration and the House of Culture. In September 2021, the House of Culture hosted a polling station for Russian passport holders living in the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics,” who crossed the border to vote in the State Duma elections.
Today, the building is practically empty, with just a few employees working inside. One of them claims that no one in Alekseyevka is talking about war, ordinary village life carries on.
“You know, there are other problems now — people have health problems. We want the danger [of war] to pass us by. I almost never watch television and I don’t read online, I don’t want to pay attention to the negative. I don’t want to be nervous and worried,” says Irina, who works at the House of Culture.
The local administration has taken a recess, explains Elena Nemashkalova, the head of the Alekseyevskoe rural settlement. Hearing that journalists had come to the village, she demands that they leave the building right away. “We’re having a recess, can’t you hear? A recess! That’s all, get out of here,” the government official says, nervously.
— Until what time?
— Until one o’clock.
— We’ll come back then.
— We’re busy, guys, can’t you hear? We’re busy here. Everything is calm here, there are no problems, there are no complaints from residents either. Enough.
As they exited the administration building’s yard, Nemashkalova asks the journalists to show their documents. “You do understand that now you can’t just leave here?” she finally says. (Several hours later — in another village — Russian border guards detained the journalists and then released them without any fines.)
At an auto parts store not far from the administration building, the journalists meet Alexander — a middle-aged man wearing a khaki jacket and a fishing-themed graphic t-shirt. He’s talking to a married couple — Alexey and Natalya. They had come to buy spare parts for their station wagon. Natalya and Alexey say they read the news, but they aren’t anticipating war.
“God forbid it’s like 2014!” Alexey says. “There used to be action: one column of [military] equipment, followed by another, followed by a third. With time it even becomes commonplace. Now, it’s nothing special. But do we have a better option? Just get in the car and leave? I will not leave my home and go anywhere.”
“Many people left back then. Those who stayed aren’t going to leave,” Natalya chimes in.
— It was scary then, of course. There was a lot of shooting, gunfire was heard constantly from across the river. But it fell just short of us.
— Back then, they thrashed them [Ukrainian soldiers] on the border here. Now, they stay away.
Asked about the possibility of the DNR and LNR becoming part of Russia, the couple says that they couldn’t care less. “I believe there will be no war,” Natalya concludes. “Physical war is no longer relevant. A biological war is going on,” she adds, apparently referring to the coronavirus pandemic. “This is more interesting and can [be used] to launder more money. That’s all.”
Alexander suddenly pipes up, recalling that a week ago he went fishing in the nearby village of Kuibyshevo, which is even closer to the border.
“The fishing was complete garbage, but the Grads [rocket launchers they were firing] there — wow! They say it’s some drills. You need to go and talk [to people] there. The locals will definitely tell you something,” he says.
Rumbling far, far away
The drive from Alekseyevka to Kuibyshevo — a village in the Kuybyshevsky district, located even closer to the border with the DNR — takes less than half an hour. Attached to each streetlamp is a sign with the words “Happy Holidays!” and the country’s coat of arms superimposed on the Russian flag.
Asked about the prevailing mood in the village, a young saleswoman in a local store smiles politely and replies that nothing has changed lately: no one is buying canned meat and other provisions. Indeed, business is almost worse than before.
A nearby hardware store has brooms and shovels lined up at the entrance. The store’s owner looks about sixty — he’s wearing camouflage pants and a wool sweater under a puffy vest. He introduces himself as Grisha. Grisha says that he heard that the war will start after February 20 — or so “people say.”
— Are you preparing for this?
— Us? We’re not preparing. What can we do? We just stay put. Others will get ready.
— And how’s business going?
— Right now there’s no trade at all. We can hear the war [going on from] here, sometimes you hear something rumbling far, far away.
The grocery store Magnit is the only big store in the village — it’s located in the very center of Kuibyshevo. Almost all of the locals here are dressed in camouflage jackets — and they don’t welcome journalists. A young man in a down jacket with an Armani logo refuses to talk; explaining that he works in law enforcement, he hurries away.
At the grocery store’s exit, a local woman with her hands full of bags reluctantly agrees to talk. She claims that shelling from the DNR still shakes the houses in the village from time to time, but she hasn’t observed any deterioration in the military situation lately. After 2014–2015, when shells regularly flew through the sky, she’s “not afraid of anything” anymore.
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In other towns and villages in the Rostov region, the people are in solidarity with the inhabitants of Kuibyshevo. Speaking to Meduza, two Taganrog residents — a woman and a man in their thirties — say that they’re tired of the constant talk of war. They’re sick of “the endless negative news.”
In the Neklinovsky district, a local official from a settlement located just a few dozen kilometers from the border with the DNR tells Meduza that war with Ukraine isn’t a topic on their agenda. “We have other problems — healthcare, garbage, and roads. People are dying here, they aren’t getting medical help. This is a problem. We don’t talk about war here at all.”
A similar opinion is shared in the Rostov region’s own town of Donetsk. Only one person Meduza spoke to was seriously worried. Larisa lives 30 kilometers (less than 20 miles) from the border with the DNR — in Krasny Desant, a village on the shore of the Taganrog Bay (the northeastern arm of the Sea of Azov).
“My worries haven’t changed much in almost eight years,” Larisa says darkly. “[That’s] not to say that something new is happening now. I still hear artillery and see flashes at night. The war didn’t end.”
Translation by Eilish Hart