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A damaged kindergarten after a missile strike in Belgorod, Russia. March 17, 2024.

Safety theater As Russia’s Belgorod faces near constant attacks, local authorities say they’re working to protect residents. Their spending says otherwise.

Source: iStories
A damaged kindergarten after a missile strike in Belgorod, Russia. March 17, 2024.
A damaged kindergarten after a missile strike in Belgorod, Russia. March 17, 2024.
AFP / Scanpix / LETA

Russia’s Belgorod region, which lies on the border with Ukraine, comes under fire 300–400 times a month. However, the Russian authorities and state media usually remain silent about the constant bombardment. It wasn’t until a particularly deadly assault in December 2023 that Russian President Vladimir Putin finally made a statement, describing the attack as “an act of terrorism.” Meanwhile, Belgorod officials have been fortifying bus stops with sandbags and concrete structures. Yet locals remain unconvinced by their efforts and many projects that appear on paper don’t seem to exist in real life. Moreover, the “protective structures” the authorities promote may be wholly ineffective. The independent Russian outlet iStories learned what steps are being taken to protect the city’s residents and if these measures can be considered effective. Meduza shares a lightly abridged version of the story in English.

‘Protective structures’

In light of increasingly deadly aerial attacks, Belgorod Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov issued an order on January 11, 2024 for the fortification of all bus stops in the Russian border city. A document from the Belgorod Region State Housing Supervision Department, dated the same day, outlines plans to “construct protective structures made of sandbags in the courtyards of 146 multi-story [residential] buildings.”

According to the document, the task of setting up these “protective structures” was given to 29 management companies, 14 of which belong to former or current officials, lawmakers, or individuals close to the Belgorod authorities. iStories asked city residents to check if any of the 146 addresses listed had some kind of fortification or shelter. They found some sandbags near the first floor of one building and by a gazebo in the courtyard of another. There was nothing at the other addresses, one of which was a private house, not an apartment building.

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However, the Belgorod authorities did reinforce some of the city’s bus stops with sandbags and fortify others with modular structures made from reinforced concrete or concrete blocks. City administration claims to have allocated more than 39 million rubles ($421,980) for fortification measures. While iStories couldn’t find evidence of related purchases to corroborate this figure, local government expenditures did reveal something else: Belgorod’s administration has spent almost twice as much money on souvenirs as it says it has on sandbags.

An apartment building damaged in a strike. Belgorod, Russia. March 21, 2024.
Anton Vergun / Sputnik / IMAGO / Scanpix / LETA

Since the beginning of 2024, when the city began actively fortifying certain areas, the Belgorod administration has purchased magnets, keychains, mugs, and other such trinkets, to the tune of 929,600 rubles ($10,058). By their own figures, Belgorod officials have spent just 495,000 rubles ($5,356) on sandbags. Meanwhile, some bus stops in the city remain completely unprotected.

No way to take cover’

“They set up sandbags and said, ‘You can hide behind them if there’s shelling.’ But in reality, it’s just nonsense. A sandbag will only stop small bullets or shrapnel,” a former Russian special forces soldier told iStories on condition of anonymity. “Moreover, they aren’t even placed around the entire perimeter of the bus stop. On one side, there are sandbags, and on the other, thin metal walls that even rubber bullets can pierce. It’s just safety theater. Total nonsense with no meaning whatsoever.”

Belgorod residents themselves complain that the sandbags are useless and poorly installed. “Is it possible to somehow replace this shelter with a concrete one? There’s no way to take cover in this. All the bags have fallen apart,” a local woman wrote to the mayor. At another bus stop, the sandbags were stacked so unstably that they fell and broke the glass enclosure. Residents complained that this “protective structure” turned out to be a hazard itself.

feeling forgotten

‘I want Putin to see what he’s done to our city’ As rocket fire becomes the norm in Russia’s Belgorod, locals feel powerless and forgotten

feeling forgotten

‘I want Putin to see what he’s done to our city’ As rocket fire becomes the norm in Russia’s Belgorod, locals feel powerless and forgotten

“Concrete blocks and modular structures made of reinforced concrete can generally protect from shrapnel created upon impact,” the former soldier explained. “But if projectiles come from the air, [the structures] won’t help at all. If a projectile hits, it will simply blow it apart. They even destroy entire buildings. Especially if a projectile hits the stop directly, whatever’s left of the blocks will just crush people. Essentially, they’re only useful in small arms combat. But for people to hide there during aerial bombardments? Well, this rates as a one out of 10 for protection. Just so people have somewhere to hide. Maybe someone will get lucky and these blocks will stop one single piece of shrapnel.”

Rockets, missiles, and drones are the main dangers Belgorod residents face — not bullets. According to the former soldier, real bomb shelters are the only effective protection against these kinds of attacks. But despite the fact that the city regularly comes under fire, the local authorities have neither increased the number of bomb shelters nor ensured that existing ones are open. As air raid sirens sound, many residents have fled to basement shelters only to find them locked, BBC News Russian reported. On the door — a note with the phone number of a person or company with the key.

The Belgorod Region State Housing Supervision Department did not respond to iStories’ inquiries regarding why sandbags were present at only two of the 146 listed addresses, nor did they offer details on any additional measures planned to ensure the safety of the region’s residents.
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Reporting by Irina Dolinina and Lizaveta Tsybulina for iStories

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