Home News The border ran through their home. Now it was the front line.

The border ran through their home. Now it was the front line.


In March, when Valentina’s town in Russia was under heavy bombing by Ukrainian forces, her daughter Alla, who lives just across the border near Kharkiv, would text her mother to check she was OK.

Now, as Kharkiv and its surrounding areas come under heavy Russian attack, Valentina is checking in with her daughter to make sure everything is OK. Regular checks are continuing as fighting intensifies on a new front Russia opened this month.

“So she called me and said, ‘Mom, what’s going on over there? It’s so loud here. I think something is coming from our direction towards you. Be careful, Mom!'” said Valentina, a dual Russian and Ukrainian citizen who did not want to give her full name out of fear for the repercussions for herself and her daughter in Ukraine.

“I said ‘OK, daughter, OK, it’s OK. How are you?'”

As Russia pushes toward Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, similar conversations are taking place across the border, where life can be not only physically dangerous but also emotionally unsettling as family bonds across the border test people’s empathy.

Like many people living in the border region, Valentina grew up in Ukraine and moved to the Russian town of Greyvolyn, six miles across the border, in 1989 to do business. The reverse is also true; people who grew up on the Russian border move to Kharkiv to study, work, and get married.

Valentina, who has relatives in both Moscow and Ukraine, is one of many locals heartbroken by the civilian casualties on both sides. She said she hopes the war ends soon to save more lives and to save Kharkiv, which she calls an “amazingly beautiful city.”

Across Russia’s vast expanse, the war being waged by Russian troops in Ukraine is an abstract concept to most people. But farther east, in the border towns of Grevolyn and Shebekino, the war feels tangible and personal.

“My impression was that this war was not a larger war, but a war that was happening in the border area,” said Valentina, who hid in a storeroom near a local market stall during the March attack, even though the blast blew off the stall’s metal door.

From south of Shebekino, you can hear the constant sound of artillery fire and see thick smoke rising from the Ukrainian border town of Vovchansk 10 miles away.

“Everyone has someone they care about there,” said a 66-year-old woman named Tamara, tilting her head slightly toward Ukraine. “All my childhood friends and neighbors live in Volchansk,” she said, using the town’s Russian name. Like Valentina and others interviewed, she agreed to be identified only by her first name for fear of retaliation.

She said she used to go to Vovchansk every weekend to buy cheap goods, especially sausages, at the market there and visit friends.

“Before, we all lived like a family.”

For many residents of Shebekino, this was the second time in a year that they had been subjected to conventional bombing. In late May last year, the town and its 40,000 pre-war inhabitants were shelled for weeks, and when they were evacuated in early June, many houses and apartment buildings were severely damaged.

Most of the damage has been repaired and a significant number of residents have returned to their homes. Many are determined to stay this time, especially because the nearest city, Belgorod, is becoming increasingly dangerous.

On a recent Sunday, parishioners at St. Nicholas Ratnoy Orthodox Church in Shebekino, miles from the border, shared cake and coffee while listening to explosions in the distance.

“In the border region we are so intermingled, so inseparable,” said Father Vyacheslav, a church leader who said almost half of his wife’s family is in Ukraine.

“In Moscow there are prayers specifically for victory,” Father Vyacheslav said. “Our prayers are more for peace. For us, peace is more important.”

While some of Father Vyacheslav’s parishioners died fighting with Russian troops and one was left in a coma, others opposed the war.

“It’s really painful for me because my niece lives in Kharkiv,” said parishioner Mikhail, 63. “We text each other, asking, ‘How are you today after the shelling?’ We understand each other.”

Mikhail, an ethnic Russian, grew up in Chechnya, a region of the Caucasus that was ravaged by war in the 1990s and early 2000s. His parents moved to Kharkiv, and he settled in Shebekino, just a short drive or commuter train ride away.

His background, he said, made him deeply opposed to the war in Ukraine.

“Many of the relatives here have become enemies,” he said. “Over there, the relatives will say, ‘You shot at us,’ and the same thing is happening here. There is a huge lack of understanding between the two.”

However, others are still actively cheering for the Russian soldiers.

“I hope our brothers will take Kharkiv so we can have some peace here,” said Elena Lutseva, 60, who lives across from the church. She is one of about 1,500 residents who never evacuated last year and is determined to take care of her goats and cats and help more infirm residents.

Lutseva, whose mother is from Ukraine, also obsesses over the Kremlin’s false narrative that Ukraine is run by Nazis and needs regime change, but she acknowledges that among Shebekino’s acquaintances, opinion on the war is roughly divided between those who support Russia and those who support Ukraine.

At a concrete-reinforced bus station near the city market, mostly closed except for stalls selling military equipment, Tatiana and some colleagues smoked e-cigarettes outside. Wearing a camouflage military jacket, she said she had many friends among Russian soldiers. She said she had cut ties with her aunt, who lived in Kharkiv and opposed the Russian invasion.

“My uncle was injured there,” said Tatiana, 19, referring to the Kharkiv region. “Then we started collecting aid for our fighters, and my aunt started writing bad things about them.”

They exchanged sharp words and stopped talking, she said. Tatiana expressed confidence that Russian soldiers would not attack innocent civilians — despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary from humanitarian organizations, foreign news outlets and independent Russian media. “No, I will never believe it. I will never believe that our soldiers would do this,” she said.

Later in the day, several loud explosions echoed through Shebekino. Many locals sitting in cafes near the central square barely blinked, accustomed to the regular onslaught of air raid sirens, drones and artillery fire.

Within minutes, windows shattered at a hospital, a dormitory and a Soviet-era apartment building. After the air sirens were cleared, emergency workers evacuated a woman with multiple shrapnel wounds while her relatives watched in horror. She later died of her injuries. Residents stared in amazement at cars with shattered windows or lacerated by shrapnel.

Still, the damage to Shebekino was minor compared with that of Volvchansk, which had a prewar population of 17,000 but had become like other towns completely destroyed by Russian attacks. Kharkov itself was also hit by glide bombs that could drop hundreds of kilograms of explosives—the most recent being In the hardware supermarket At least 12 people were killed.

Back in Grey Warren, Valentina recalls how she was able to drive an hour to Ukraine to visit her daughter and grandchildren. That was before the border closed due to the coronavirus pandemic and the war. She still misses her friends and neighbors there.

Despite her resentment toward Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, whom she initially supported because of his promise to repair Kyiv’s relationship with Moscow, she could not shake the feeling that her relatives in Ukraine understood the war differently than those in Moscow.

She referred to the brutal attack by Islamic State followers on March 22 at the Krokus City Hall concert venue near Moscow, which killed more than 140 people. Her relatives in Moscow called her to express their shock and horror. But the attack took place when Grey Warren was under heavy fire and soon after the local market was also attacked.

“When they call me and tell me about the pain of Crocus, I say ‘Excuse me, but Crocus is here every day,'” she said. “I feel bad for people, but I can’t tell you how sad I am because I live here.”

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