From, Nov. 23, 2023, Condensed text:

Editors’ Note. – Since the war in Ukraine began one year and nine months ago [see Vol. 74, No. 8, pp. 9‑13], frontline Belgorod Province has lost over 60 civilians and over 500 mobilized and contract military personnel. The region is attacked on a daily basis, and every citizen is at risk of becoming a victim of the war at any minute. However, locals say that they have managed to adapt to their new reality and are trying to live their lives and shut out the war. In this article, Republic reports on life in Belgorod, the ability to speak out against the war there and how the state chooses to spend its money there.

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‘You can’t do something good for everyone – someone will always be worse off.

On the surface, Belgorod, the main city in the frontline Russian province, has not changed since the beginning of the war. Houses are being built, roads are being fixed, and this summer, a new embankment and beach opened on the shores of the Seversky Donets [river], which locals visit in droves in good weather.

“I never used to like our city, but now I really do,” a local businessman named Denis, who returned to Russia after a year abroad, told Republic. He left the country during mobilization [see Vol. 74, No. 38, pp. 3‑10], but now he has “sized up the situation” and seen that there are no risks for him to be in the country.

“I don’t think [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is going to have a second wave [of mobilization],” he said. “He has an election coming up, and he’s pouring a lot of money into making sure that residents of Russian regions, particularly border regions, are happy. He was even able to win me over with that.”

“Look how beautiful it is! Like in Europe! This used to be all in ruins, with drunks sprawled out all over the place,” he said, pointing to an evenly paved path and benches along the banks of the Donets.

“So it was that easy to buy your consent to commit evil on your behalf?” I asked Denis. He responded that he’d “had enough and just wanted to finally get on with living.” He added: “You can’t do something good for everyone – someone will always be worse off.”

Fear and indifference in Belgorod.

Every day, Belgorod residents see and hear Russia launching missiles toward [Ukraine’s] Kharkov Province. Ukraine is, naturally, defending itself: It sends shells and drones flying at Belgorod towns and villages every day. Some of them bring destruction and death, but Denis, like many others, has a fatalistic attitude toward this risk. “A brick can fall on your head even during times of peace.”

Officials and siloviki [law-enforcement and security officers] are well aware that it could be something much more than a brick and are making efforts to protect themselves and strategic government facilities. When the war started, a tall metal fence was erected around the railway station in Belgorod for the first time in decades – now you have to go through a special checkpoint with a metal detector and an X-ray machine to enter the station.

An equally tall fence was put up around the building of the FSB [Federal Security Service] regional department, which is on Preobrazhenskaya Street in the center of town. Late in the evening of May 22 (the same day that a group of Russian Volunteer Corps raiders attacked a village near Graivoron [see Vol. 75, No. 22, pp. 6‑8]), an explosion rang out in that building: An explosive device had been dropped from a drone onto the FSB’s roof. . . .

Not one single local media outlet wrote about the attack on the FSB building. Republic spoke to journalists from several outlets who said that the siloviki told editors they couldn’t publish anything about the incident. Criminal and administrative cases on antiwar statements and comments are being opened almost every day in the region, and the local authorities and the FSB are encouraging people to inform on each other and even trying to launch Telegram bots for anonymous complaints against dissenters.

“We ourselves are afraid of writing too much about the war and attacks. Every time, you’re afraid you’ll be arrested for discreditation or fake news,” said a journalist from a local news portal. “If something about this appears on [Belgorod Province Governor Vyacheslav] Gladkov’s channel, we post it without question – it’s definitely safe. This, of course, is not journalism at all. But such are the times.”

Regional officials spare no effort to instill the fear of reprisals in Belgorod residents. One young Belgorod resident, 28-year-old Ilya Chubukov, who was accused of setting fire to the letter Z [the Roman letter Z symbolizes support for the Ukraine war – Trans.] on Kharkov Mountain in September, was tortured by the siloviki. And they came for architecture student Vitaly Palukhin right in the middle of class because of video messages he had posted on a closed Telegram channel that criticize Putin and the war. He was threatened with a basement cell and torture, then fined for discrediting the Army. Then he left Russia. A former teacher at a local university who was fined a year ago for discrediting the Army and subsequently fired from her job because of comments she made on social media told Republic that almost all of her former colleagues have turned their backs on her. “They’re afraid to be seen with me.”

Aside from the atmosphere of fear, numerous banners featuring photographs of living and posthumously decorated combatants make the presence of the war known in Belgorod. . . .

“In general, if you don’t count the outgoing and incoming strikes, the topic of war is only propagated by administrative resources; the people are sick to death of it,” a local journalist told Republic.

According to him, the war’s impact on the lives of Belgorod residents is constantly morphing. During the first year, people were overwhelmed with emotions: They argued with each other offline and on social media, they hurled insults at each other, they broke ties with friends and loved ones, they tried to prove their point of view and condemn the other side. Now, the journalist believes, Belgorod residents are trying to drive the war out of their world: “And this is convenient for Putin – he also wants to take the war off the agenda in advance of the March plebiscite.”

“At work, even people whose relatives are fighting in the special military operation are silent on the topic. Everyone has their own problems,” a worker at the local education department told Republic. “Many teachers are afraid that if they say something wrong in class, the children will inform on them. So even during ‘conversations about important things’ [i.e., special extramural lectures about the war – Trans.] they try to talk about something abstract.”

‘No one remembers the married couple killed by an explosion on the Crimean Bridge. Maybe they weren’t even there?’

Nevertheless, the war has directly impacted the lives of thousands of people. Local authorities still have not officially said how many Belgorod residents have been mobilized for the war. Several facts are known. Last October, officials reported that they had issued mobilized soldiers a one-time payment of 100,000 rubles; 350 million rubles was allocated from the regional budget for this. So that means there were at least 3,500 mobilized service personnel. Several days ago, Belgorod officials said that 6,911 Belgorod families have relatives fighting in Ukraine. . . .

Journalists have been able to confirm that 500 soldiers from Belgorod Province have died in the war in Ukraine.

Sixty-seven civilians in the province have died. Almost all the victims were killed by shelling from border villages. Of them, seven people – two families – died in Belgorod itself when antiaircraft missiles fell on their homes during the night.

While some soldiers who have been killed are occasionally used for propaganda purposes (their photographs are set up on tables in schools, they are awarded decorations posthumously), little is said of civilians who are killed. The authorities aren’t saying how many have died, but journalists are keeping track by hand as they monitor reports on deaths. These peoples’ names are not heard anywhere, and the very fact of their deaths is quickly erased from the memory of the region’s residents.

“Over the summer, two women were killed in Maslova Pristan (a village halfway between Belgorod and the border town of Shebekino that was evacuated during shelling in late spring – Ed.). They were driving in a car, which was shelled with mortar fire,” recounted 47-year-old truck driver Maksim, who agreed to drive around the area with this Republic reporter. “Everyone has already forgotten about them. No one remembers the married couple killed by an explosion on the Crimean Bridge. Maybe they weren’t even there?”

Maksim pointed to the road beyond the windshield: The streets were filled with Chinese cars. According to him, car owners are trying to get rid of their Western models. “If you want, you can get any spare part through parallel imports, but the prices have skyrocketed, so there’s no point,” he said. . . .

Maksim stopped at one of the car repair shops along the way. We managed to exchange a few words with the worker there.

“It’s quieter now, and we’ve generally gotten used to the war,” said a man in a jacket and camo pants. “But I have started to like the city more since the beginning of the war. You can tell they’re spending money on repairs, that they’re improving things and making them look pretty. It used to be worse.”

Later Maksin explained: “His son, who’s 23, went to Georgia because of mobilization. And Sergei misses him, he’s trying to convince him to come back. That’s why he’s praising the city.” Forty-five-year-old Sergei told Republic that he is part of the local territorial defense forces – he mainly transports cargo and soldiers “wherever they ask.” From time to time, he travels to border villages, helping to evacuate civilians “if the situation has become tense.”

“I think we are much more humane than the Ukrainians. Do you know why? We Russians feel badly when their civilians die. And they rejoice at the deaths of our civilians,” he said. “But we have to wear Ukraine down. Otherwise, they will take revenge on us.”

“What difference does it make if you feel sorry for them or not when you’re still willing to kill them? What is humane here?” I ask him.

“Don’t twist my words. We’re not killing them. It’s just that people always die in wars. Take Israel [and its war with Hamas; see Vol. 75, No. 41, pp. 3‑11 – Trans.]. You can’t even tell who’s right and who’s wrong. Just like in this war between Russia and Ukraine – soon, no one will remember who started it and when.” . . .

Citizens of ‘Inner Mongolia.

Vera, 53, a doctor at one of Belgorod’s medical clinics, told Republic that after a year and a half of war, citizens have “adapted to it and become more careful.” “I feel like I’m living in a bubble, in Inner Mongolia. There are your people and not your people, and there’s an abyss between us. I have become very disappointed in people over this time. In how they support the war, how they’re foaming at the mouth at anyone who’s against the war, how they’re writing denunciations. It seems to me now that we’re from different civilizations. And it’s impossible for these civilizations to find a common language.”

The head of a Belgorod nongovernmental organization that helps people with disabilities told Republic that charitable organizations have had an increasingly hard time receiving money from the state since the start of the war. “Everything is going toward the war, and it has become more difficult to get presidential grants. But you have to make nice with the authorities and find ways to coexist.”

“I don’t broadcast my position when I think it might be dangerous,” said one woman from Belgorod. “But we talk about what’s going on with our children, our relatives, our friends. We listen to ‘our’ music and share news from banned sources.” . . .

“I have adapted. I’m able to enjoy myself in the midst of all this, to work, to have fun with my friends, because for me this is a way to affirm life, not death. But I’m sickened with horror for my husband, for the fact that he could be taken to fight,” Svetlana, a teacher at the state university, told Republic. “This is unthinkable for me, and I’m prepared to hide him in a dugout as long as he doesn’t end up there. I’m also afraid for my children, because stories about the crimes of people returning from war fuel this fear. And I understand that very bad consequences await us all in this regard. I’m no longer afraid of explosions, incoming strikes or fragments. There’s a kind of fatalism about it. Like, whatever will be, will be. We live in a region where all this is happening every day. In general, I feel like we’ve all been in some lingering bad dream since Feb. 24 [2022]. The word ‘war’ used to make me feel sad and scared, but it was a distant word. Now I hate the war with all my being. And I very much hope it ends soon. This also helps me keep going.”

Some people admit that they completely avoid talking with others about the war.

“I don’t speak with anyone about this topic, except for three people in the city, but I don’t see them often,” Anna, a 41-year-old worker at the city’s Palace of Culture, told Republic. “You’re always listening closely. I don’t speak with relatives or friends. If someone says something to me, I just keep silent. If other people start up a conversation around me at work, I leave. People who support [the war] talk about it out loud. I don’t know who among my acquaintances is against the war. I don’t ask. It’s scary all the time. It doesn’t matter if the city is quiet or loud, you jump at every sound, every car, helicopter, plane, missile, every antiaircraft defense, the outgoing strikes. You immediately look out the window and assess the situation.” . . .

Vadim, a 33-year-old factory worker, said that workers beat up his colleague in October: “He said that Russia did not bring happiness to the Donetsk Basin with its war. Myself, I don’t say anything. That probably makes it look like I’m for the war. But that’s not the case.” According to Vadim, he began to commit acts of “minor antiwar vandalism”: He wrote “No to War” in his building’s elevator. “The first time, that [first] February, the writing was there for three hours, then they wiped it off. The second time, the writing stayed for several days. Now it’s been there for six months. That’s how my wife and I measure public opinion on the war.”