The border between Russia and Ukraine that separates families is also now at the forefront

When the small town of Valentina in Russia came under heavy shelling in March by Ukrainian forces, her daughter Alla, who lives a short distance across the border near Kharkiv, texted her mother to make sure she was okay .

Now that Kharkiv and the surrounding region are under heavy attack from Russia, it is Valentina who is consulting with her daughter to make sure everything goes well. Regular checks continued as fighting intensified on the new front opened by Russia this month.

“So he calls me and asks, 'Mom, how's it going there? It's so loud in 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 for fear of repercussions for both her and her daughter in Ukraine.

“I say 'OK, daughter, OK, everything's fine. How is it going?'”

Similar conversations are taking place across the border region, now caught up in Russia's advance on Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city. Life in these areas is not only physically dangerous, but can also be emotionally jarring, as sympathies are tested by family ties that reach across borders.

Like many who live in the border regions, Valentina grew up in Ukraine before moving to the Russian town of Grayvoron, six miles across the border, in 1989 to do business. The opposite is also true; people who grew up on the Russian side of the border moved to Kharkiv to study, work and get married.

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 that she wants the war to end as soon as possible, saving lives and also Kharkiv, which she said is a “wonderful, wonderful city”.

In the vast expanses of Russia, the war that its army is waging in Ukraine is an abstraction for most people. But in border towns like Grayvoron and Shebekino further east, it's painfully intimate.

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

From the southern part of Shebekino, the steady fire of outgoing artillery can be heard and smoke can be seen rising over the border in the Ukrainian town of Vovchansk, 10 miles away.

“Everyone there has people they care about,” said a woman named Tamara, 66, with a slight tilt of her head toward Ukraine. “All my childhood friends and neighbors live in Volchansk,” she said, using the city's Russian name. Like Valentina and other interviewees, she agreed to speak using only her first name, for fear of retaliation.

In the past, she says, she went to Vovchansk every weekend to buy cheap produce, especially sausages, at local markets and to visit friends.

“Before, we all lived as one family.”

For many residents of Shebekino, this is the second time in a year that they have faced regular shelling. Late last May, the city and its pre-war population of 40,000 came under artillery attack for weeks, and by the time 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 has returned home. Many are determined to stay this time, especially as the nearest city, Belgorod, has become increasingly dangerous.

On a recent Sunday, parishioners at St. Nicholas Ratnoy Orthodox Church in Shebekino, several miles from the border, shared cake and coffee as explosions rang out in the distance.

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

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

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

“It's actually very painful for me, because my granddaughter lives in Kharkiv,” said one parishioner, Mikhail, 63. “We write to each other and ask, 'Are you okay today after the bombing?' We understand each other”.

Mikhail, an ethnic Russian, grew up in Chechnya, the Caucasus region that was the scene of 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 away.

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

“Many relatives here have become enemies,” he said. “A relative over there will say, 'you're shooting at us,' and over here the same thing happens. There is a profound lack of mutual understanding.”

However, others actively encourage Russian soldiers.

“I hope our guys 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 about 1,500 residents who were never evacuated last year, determined to care for her goats and cats and help the most infirm residents.

Ms. Lutseva, whose mother was from Ukraine, parroted the Kremlin's false narrative that Ukraine was ruled by Nazis and needed regime change. But she acknowledged that among those she knew in Shebekino, opinions on the war were divided more or less evenly between pro-Russia and pro-Ukraine.

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

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

They exchanged bitter messages and no longer speak to each other, he said. Tatiana expressed confidence that Russian soldiers do not attack innocent civilians, despite ample evidence to the contrary provided by humanitarian groups, foreign outlets and independent Russian media. “No, I will never believe it. I would never believe our people would do that,” she said.

Later that day, several loud booms rang out across Shebekino. Many locals sitting in a bar near the central square didn't bat an eyelid, having grown accustomed to the regular intrusions of air raid sirens and drone and artillery attacks.

Within minutes, windows in a Soviet-era hospital, dormitory and apartment building were shattered. Once the air raid warning had passed, rescuers were evacuating a woman with multiple shrapnel wounds, as her relatives watched in horror. She later died from her injuries. Residents gaped at cars whose windows had been blown out or shattered by shrapnel.

However, the damage suffered by Shebekino pales in comparison to Vovchansk, which had a population of 17,000 before the war but now resembles other cities completely destroyed by Russian assaults. Kharkiv itself has been hit by glide bombs that can carry hundreds of kilograms of explosives; most recently, an attack on a hardware hypermarket that killed at least 12 people.

Back in Grayvoron, Valentina was remembering how she could visit her daughter and grandchildren in Ukraine in exactly one hour's drive. This was before the borders closed due to Covid and then the war. She still speaks fondly of her friends and neighbors.

But even as she has soured on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky — she initially supported him because of his promises to mend Kiev's relationship with Moscow — she can't shake the feeling that her relatives in Ukraine understand the war in way in which those in Moscow don't do it. 'T.

He mentioned the brutal attack by Islamic State followers on the Crocus City Hall concert hall near Moscow on March 22, which killed more than 140 people. Her relatives in Moscow called her, expressing shock and horror. But this happened while Grayvoron was under heavy attack, shortly after the local market had been hit.

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

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