A Border Runs Through Their Families. Now It’s a Front Line.

When Valentina’s small town in Russia came under heavy bombardment in March by Ukrainian forces, her daughter Alla, who lives a short distance across the border near Kharkiv, would text her mother to make sure she was all right.

Now that Kharkiv and its surrounding region are under heavy attack by Russia, it’s Valentina who is checking with her daughter to make sure that everything is fine. The regular check-ins have continued as fighting intensified across the new front Russia opened this month.

“So she’s calling me asking, ‘Mom, how is it there? It’s so loud here. I think there’s something heading your way from our direction. Mom, be careful!’” said Valentina, a dual Russian-Ukrainian citizen who did not want to give her full name out of fear of repercussions for both herself and her daughter in Ukraine.

“I say ‘OK, daughter, OK, it’s all right. How are you doing?’”

Similar conversations are taking place all along the border region now caught up in Russia’s advance on Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city. Life in these areas is not just physically dangerous, it can be emotionally jarring, as sympathies are tested by family bonds that reach across the border.

Like many living in the border regions, Valentina grew up in Ukraine before moving to the Russian town of Grayvoron, six miles over the border, in 1989 to do business. The opposite holds true as well; people who grew up on the Russian side of the border moved to Kharkiv to study, work, and marry.

With relatives in both Moscow and Ukraine, Valentina is one of many locals who feels pain for the civilian casualties on both sides; she said she wants the war to end as soon as possible, sparing lives and also Kharkiv, which she said was a “stunning, beautiful city.”

Across Russia’s vast expanses, the war its army is waging in Ukraine is an abstraction for most people. But in border towns like Grayvoron and Shebekino farther to the east, it is painfully intimate.

“I have the impression that this war is not some broader war, but a war that is happening in the border zones,” said Valentina, who hid in a storage closet near her stall in a local market during the attack in March, even as explosions blew the metal door off its hinges.

From the southern part of Shebekino, you can hear the constant thuds of outgoing artillery, and see the smoke rising across the border in the Ukrainian town of Vovchansk, 10 miles away.

“Everyone has people they care about there,” said a woman named Tamara, 66, with a slight tilt of the head toward Ukraine. “All of my childhood friends and neighbors live in Volchansk,” she said, using the Russian name for the town. Like Valentina and others interviewed, she agreed to talk using only her first name, for fear of retribution.

In the past, she said, she went to Vovchansk every weekend, to buy cheaper goods, especially sausages, at the markets there and visit friends.

“Before, we all lived like one family.”

For many residents of Shebekino, this is the second time in a year they are dealing with regular bombardment. Late last May, the town and its prewar population of 40,000 were pelted with artillery for weeks, and when it was evacuated in early June, many homes and apartment complexes had been severely damaged.

Much of the damage has been repaired, and a significant portion of the population returned home. Many are determined to stay this time, especially because the closest city, Belgorod, has become increasingly dangerous.

On a recent Sunday, parishioners of the Saint Nicholas Ratnoy Orthodox church in Shebekino, several miles from the border, shared cake and coffee as explosions cracked in the distance.

“Here in the border regions, we are just so strongly mixed up, inextricably tied together,” said Father Vyacheslav, the leader of the church. His wife had almost half of her family in Ukraine, he said.

“Moscow has a special prayer for victory,” said Father Vyacheslav. “Our prayers are more about peace. For us, it’s more important.”

While some of Father Vyacheslav’s parishioners have died fighting in the Russian army, and one is in a coma, some others oppose the war.

“It’s actually so painful for me, because my niece lives in Kharkiv,” said one parishioner, Mikhail, 63. “We text each other and ask, ‘Are you all right today after the shelling?’ We understand one another.”

Mikhail, an ethnic Russian, grew up in Chechnya, the Caucasus region that descended into brutal wars in the 1990s and 2000s. His parents moved to Kharkiv, while he settled in Shebekino. They were a simple car or commuter train ride apart.

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

“Many relatives here have become enemies,” he said. “Over there, a relative will say, ‘you are shooting at us,’ and the same thing is happening on this side. There’s a deep lack of mutual understanding.”

Still, others are actively cheering on the Russian soldiers.

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

Ms. Lutseva, whose mother came from Ukraine, parroted the Kremlin’s false narrative that Ukraine was run by Nazis and needed regime change. But she acknowledged that among her acquaintances in Shebekino, opinions on the war were split about evenly between pro-Russia and pro-Ukraine.

At a concrete-reinforced bus stop near the city’s market, mostly shuttered except for stalls selling military equipment, Tatiana vaped outside with some colleagues. She wore a camouflage military-style jacket and said she had many friends among the Russian soldiers. And she said that she stopped communicating with her aunt in Kharkiv, who opposed the Russian invasion.

“My uncle, who is there, was wounded,” Tatiana, 19, said, referring to the Kharkiv region. “Later, we started collecting help for our fighters and my aunt started writing nasty things about them.”

They exchanged bitter messages, and they no longer speak, she said. Tatiana expressed confidence that Russian soldiers don’t attack innocent civilians — despite ample evidence to the contrary provided by humanitarian groups, foreign news outlets and independent Russian media. “No, I’ll never believe it. I would never believe ours would do that,” she said.

Later that day, several loud booms reverberated through Shebekino. Many locals sitting in a cafe off the central square barely batted an eyelash, having grown accustomed to the regular intrusions of air raid sirens, and drone and artillery attacks.

In the span of a few minutes, the windows of a hospital, a dormitory, and a Soviet-era apartment building had been shattered. Once the air alarm had passed, emergency responders were evacuating a woman with multiple shrapnel wounds, as her relatives looked on in horror. She later died from her injuries. Residents gaped at cars whose windows had been blown out or gashed by shrapnel.

Still, the damage to Shebekino pales in comparison to Vovchansk, which had a prewar population of 17,000 but has now come to resemble other towns utterly destroyed by Russian assaults. Kharkiv itself has been pounded by glide bombs that can deliver hundreds of kilograms of explosives — most recently, a strike at a hardware superstore that killed at least 12 people.

Back in Grayvoron, Valentina was reminiscing about how she could visit her daughter and grandkids in Ukraine in exactly an hour by car. That was before the borders closed due to Covid and then the war. She still speaks fondly of her friends and neighbors there.

But while she has soured on President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine — she initially supported him because of his promises to repair Kyiv’s relationship with Moscow — she can’t shake the feeling that her relatives in Ukraine understand the war in a way the ones in Moscow don’t.

She mentioned the brutal attack by followers of the Islamic State at the Crocus City Hall concert venue near Moscow on March 22 that killed more than 140 people. Her relatives in Moscow called her, expressing shock and horror. But it occurred while Grayvoron was under heavy fire, shortly after the local market was hit.

“When they called me in so much pain about Crocus, I said ‘Forgive me, but we have Crocus here every single day.’” she said. “I feel sorry for people, but I can’t tell you that I’m really devastated, because I live here.”

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