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Homes destroyed by shelling in Valuyki, a village in Russia’s Belgorod region. September 16, 2022

Too close for comfort A dispatch from Russia’s Belgorod region, where the war against Ukraine has become impossible to ignore

Source: Meduza
Homes destroyed by shelling in Valuyki, a village in Russia’s Belgorod region. September 16, 2022
Homes destroyed by shelling in Valuyki, a village in Russia’s Belgorod region. September 16, 2022
Dmitry Boikov / TASS

Since the launch of its counteroffensive in late summer, the Ukrainian army has managed to liberate about 8,500 square kilometers (about 3,280 square miles) of its territory from Russian occupation, mostly in the Kharkiv region. On September 11, Ukrainian forces reached the Russian border, capturing a checkpoint just outside Russia's Belgorod region. Meduza reports on how the views of Belgorod residents have changed since the war began — and since it started affecting them directly.

Getting out of dodge

In the train station in Belgorod, a Russian city just 25 miles from the Ukrainian border, about 20 soldiers are standing around, waiting to be sent to their respective units. An armored personnel carrier with a Z symbol sits nearby. Outside of the station, someone has written the words “No to War” in marker on a bench.

Almost every night, loud rumbles fill the city as bright objects shoot off into the distance: Russian missiles headed for Ukraine. After the launches, air raid sirens start going off in Kharkiv, which is only 80 kilometers (50 miles) away.

Since Ukrainian forces liberated the Kharkiv region in its September counteroffensive, according to local residents, Belgorod has become a more frequent target of Ukrainian shelling: while strikes were rare for most of the summer, now the city is bombarded almost every day.

Anna (name changed at her request) lives in Belgorod and is a member of the city’s Anti-War Committee, a group created by local activists after Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine. Members of the committee put up anti-war flyers around the city as well as providing assistance to soldiers seeking to terminate their service contacts and residents facing legal persecution for speaking out against the war.

On September 21, the day of Putin's mobilization announcement, Anna went out to protest with a sign that read, “I love my dad.” She told Meduza she decided to speak out because she was afraid for her relatives who were at risk of being mobilized. A lot of her family members spent that day crying, fearful for their loved ones, Anna said; nobody she knew wanted to go to war.

Alexey (name changed at his request) is a member of the Anti-War Committee as well. Though he works for a government enterprise, he uses his free time to help speak out against the war, hanging up green ribbons and helping run the committee’s Telegram channel.

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He told Meduza that after Ukraine’s counteroffensive and Putin’s mobilization announcement, even the other public sector employees he knows have begun to oppose the war. He also said it’s getting harder and harder for his coworkers to remain indifferent to the war and to politics: after September 21, for example, employees at the state enterprise where he works were tasked with delivering draft orders, though Alexey himself has managed to avoid the job so far.

According to Alexey, many Belgorod residents have moved to neighboring regions, deciding it’s just too dangerous to live just so close to the battlefield. “10-20 percent” of the people he knows, he said, have already left.

Others have remained in the city even after seeing the aftermath of shelling with their own eyes. According to Alexey, at first, people simply couldn’t believe that a missile strike could land on Russia territory. On the night of March 31, he said, he was awoken by the sound of an explosion. When he looked out the window, he saw light reflecting off of the windows of the building across the street: a nearby oil depot was on fire. Regional governor Vyacheslav Gladkov later said that the facility was hit by an airstrike “from two helicopters of the Ukrainian Armed Forces who entered Russian territory at a low altitude.”

Alexey and his neighbors ran outside, but after seeing the oil depot aflame, they returned home. In the days that followed, many residents refused to believe the strike had happened, insisting that “the owner of the oil depot had somehow organized the fire himself in order to avoid bankruptcy,” the activist told Meduza. Several days later, Alexey's apartment building was evacuated.

“When danger reaches you directly, your [self-preservation] instincts kick in, and a lot of people start to think, ‘Why put myself through this?’ That night, you could feel that those questions had surfaced: ‘Why put ourselves through this? Why are we risking our lives? We were just sitting in our apartments, when suddenly there’s an explosion outside. Could it have been us who got hit?’” Alexey told Meduza.

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As for himself, though, Alexey said the shelling doesn’t scare him anymore. What does worry him is the possibility of facing repressions from his own government for opposing the war. At the same time, he takes inspiration from the founder of Belgorod’s Anti-War Committee, 19-year-old Ilya Kostyukov. Despite the risks, Alexey said, Ilya has been steadfast in his opposition to the war.

Kostyukov has already been the target of an administrative case for organizing unauthorized rallies against mobilization. As a result, he’s been “expelled from college, evicted from the dorm, and fired from work,” he told journalists after the case's first court session.

The young activist told Meduza that after the start of the Ukrainian army’s counteroffensive, many Belgorod residents began supporting Ukraine instead of Russia — and that after Putin’s mobilization announcement, many of his neighbors changed their attitude toward the authorities as a whole. The events of recent weeks have dealt a heavy blow to the authority of “Uncle Volodya [Putin],” he said.

* * *

The Belgorod streets are covered in cars with Ukrainian license plates: in early September, 13,000 Ukrainian citizens entered the city in a period of three days, according to Regional Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov. Some of them continued on to other parts of Russia, but many stayed.

Before the full-scale war, Sergey (name changed at his request) lived in a suburb of Vovchansk, a city in Ukraine’s Kharkiv region that’s located just 40 kilometers (25 miles) from Belgorod. Russian troops captured Vovchansk on February 24, the first day of the full-scale invasion.

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Early this summer, a shell hit Sergey’s home. A video he took at the time shows a collapsed ceiling, broken furniture, and gaps in several of the walls.

Sergey spent the next five days in a cold basement, hoping Russian troops would come to evacuate him as they’d promised. But they never came. Instead, Sergey managed to get to Vovchansk, where he was able to get in touch via phone with a friend who had already gone to Belgorod and found work there. Sergey himself wasn’t opposed to evacuating to another part of Ukraine, but since he thought it would be easier to find work in Russia, he chose to follow his friend to Belgorod.

Compared to Vovchansk, he told Meduza, Belgorod “isn’t scary at all.” In mid-September, the Ukrainian military liberated Vovchansk from Russian occupation, but Sergey has nowhere to return to; his home was destroyed. He said he doesn’t blame Russia or Ukraine for what happened. He doesn’t approve of war, he said, but as an “ordinary citizen,” “there’s nothing I can do about it.”

‘There were rumors that Ukrainian troops had entered the city’

The road from Belgorod to Valuyki contains multiple checkpoints and "Z"-adorned military vehicles. Explosions can be heard from the town itself, and the streets are full of Russian troops. Alina, a resident of Valuyki, told Meduza that blasts have gotten more frequent since the start of Ukraine’s counteroffensive in late summer.

The locals have figured out the patterns: if it’s quiet in the morning, that means there likely won’t be shelling during the day. Nonetheless, people try to stay home during the mornings, evenings, and nights to avoid the shrapnel that can fall after air defense systems strike down incoming objects.

The aftermath of shelling in Valuyki. September 16, 2022
Belgorod regional administration

On the night of September 16, Valuyki came under fire. According to Regional Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov, the city’s air defense system was activated, but the strike it launched killed one resident and injured two others. After that day, according to Alina, the atmosphere in the town changed; people started leaving.

Alina was at home that night. She heard two blasts; after that, the power went out because the shelling had damaged a nearby substation. “When something is fired [into Valuyki at night], you start to see light [on the horizon] but you can tell it’s not the sunrise. Usually it flies by very quickly and in a straight line. But this time, I could see it was going downward and had a bright orange glow. Then the strike. And you could immediately hear sirens,” she recounted.

After the strike, Alina and her mother spent an hour hiding in their bathtub; their building didn’t have a basement. They had almost no cell service or electricity, and rumors began spreading through the city that “there will be more strikes soon, because the Ukrainian Armed Forces have entered the city, and there are a lot of casualties.” That night, Alina said, people didn’t come out of their homes.

Alina told Meduza that most Valuyki residents now have a negative view of the war — especially because many of them have relatives in Ukraine. “When the shelling happened, people's attitude towards the war shifted: you realized how scared you were, and that people there [in Ukraine] must be scared, too. A kind of sympathy and understanding awakens; a lot of people have given up their old views,” Alina said.

Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale

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