During the last five days of May, Ruslan, a 27-year-old English teacher in a Russian town near the Ukrainian border, heard the distinct sound of a multiple rocket launcher strike for the first time. The shelling began around 3 a.m., sometimes shaking his house, and continued throughout the morning.
He had heard the sound of explosions in remote villages in the past, he said, and in October shelling damaged a nearby shopping mall. But nothing like it.
“Everything has changed,” he said.
Fifteen months after the first Russian missiles were fired at kyiv, residents of the Russian border region of Belgorod are beginning to understand the horror of having war on their doorstep.
Shebekino, a town of 40,000 six miles from the border, has effectively become a new part of the front line as Ukraine has stepped up attacks inside Russia, including on residential areas near its own borders. The series of assaults, most recently by militias aligned against Moscow, sparked the biggest military evacuation effort in Russia in decades.
“The city became a ghost in 24 hours,” said Ruslan, who evacuated on Thursday after a sustained bombing campaign.
Over the past few days, The New York Times has interviewed more than half a dozen residents of the border region to get a sense of the growing anxiety among Russian civilians. Like Ruslan, most insisted on being identified only by their first names, citing fear of reprisals for talking about the war.
“Shebekino was a wonderful flower town on the border with Ukraine, full of happy, friendly people,” said Darya, 37, a local public sector worker. “Now only pain, death and misery live in our city. There is no electricity, no public transport, no open businesses, no inhabitants. Just an empty city, broken into smoke.
The difficulties are familiar to Ukrainians, who have seen towns like Bakhmut wiped out and others ravaged by civilian casualties. So are the sleepless nights; Russian missiles targeted kyiv at least 17 times in May. But many Russians did not expect something similar to happen at home.
Explosions are also audible in the town of Belgorod, the regional capital 20 miles north of Shebekino, and residents have increasingly begun to seek access to basements that could be used as bomb shelters. People who had previously tried to go about their daily lives suddenly found they couldn’t.
“We are at a turning point right now,” said Oleg, a businessman from the city. “When it all started,” he said, referring to the war, “the people who opposed it here were a minority. Now, after four days of shelling, people are changing their minds.
Belgorod regional governor Vyacheslav Gladkov said 2,500 residents had been evacuated and taken to temporary shelters in sports arenas further from the border. Thousands more left on their own, residents said in interviews.
Mr Gladkov said seven residents had died from shelling in the past three days. It’s unclear how many Russians in the border region were killed in total, but it was almost certainly the deadliest week for the Belgorod region since the start of the war.
Cross-border flare-ups and shelling between Ukrainian and Russian forces occurred regularly throughout the war. Recent attacks on Belgorod have been carried out by two paramilitary groups made up of Russians fighting for the cause of Ukraine; they claimed they only targeted security infrastructure and described their fight as a fight for freedom from the regime of President Vladimir V. Putin.
But their claims clashed with accounts of mass home destruction described by witnesses and seen in videos posted on social media and verified by The Times. One of the two groups, the Russian Volunteer Corps, also admitted to bombing the urban area of Shebekino with “bouquets of Grads”, a Soviet-designed multiple rocket launcher that covers a large area with explosives.
As images of the bombing filled Belgorod’s public chat rooms, citizens volunteered to lead affected families to safety, donated money and opened homes for refugees. In doing so, they highlighted what they said was the inadequacy of the local government response and the growing realization that they could only rely on themselves.
It was a sign of spontaneous social organization that Mr Putin has systematically undermined in recent years by tightening control. The arrival of war on Russian soil revives a basic civic spirit born of necessity, with still unpredictable consequences for the country’s politics.
For some in the region, the assault on Shebekino, the most sustained attack on a Russian city since the start of the war, clearly showed Moscow’s lack of interest in their plight. In social media posts, they used the hashtag #ShebekinoIsRussia, a call for attention from the general public across the country, which has largely continued with daily life. In interviews, some in Shebekino expressed anger at state television presenters’ difficulty in pronouncing the town’s name, even as they praised the evacuation efforts.
“It seems that in Moscow they don’t understand what’s going on here,” said Ruslan, the English teacher. Citing explosions over the Kremlin last month, he said: “When drones flew into Moscow, there were immediately big stories, it was all over the news. And here, people have been under fire for months, and nothing.
Despite an upsurge in attacks on Russian soil, only one in four Russians are following the war closely and are most likely going beyond state media to seek out information about it, according to a May poll by the cabinet. independent opinion Levada Center, based in Moscow. Almost half of the respondents said they did not follow the conflict at all, or only superficially.
Levada director Denis Volkov said it was too early to tell whether the escalating border attacks would rally Russians around the flag.
“We have a very disjointed society,” he said. “No one has much interest beyond their own nose.”
But the violence is causing Shebekino residents to reassess their apathy or support for the war, and last week’s disruptions are fueling resentment against authorities who they say have failed to protect them.
“People are disappointed that it has come to this stage, that it has been allowed,” said Elena, a Belgorod resident who volunteered to evacuate people from Shebekino.
Darya, the public sector employee, described a chaotic evacuation. As the sounds of explosions got closer, she said, her family gathered necessities and waited for the official transport promised by regional authorities. When he did not arrive, they called an evacuation help line set up by the governor and were told to wait, to no avail.
They eventually left town in their private car, leaving behind an older relative who could not easily be moved.
“We saw many residents of Shebekino sitting on the side of the highway in their cars because they had nowhere to go,” she said.
Evacuation did not always bring security. Two women died near Shebekino after their car was hit by a shell on the side of the road on Thursday, according to Mr. Gladkov, the governor. His claim could not be independently verified.
There is also the realization among border residents that there is no end in sight to the war.
Russia has annexed parts of four Ukrainian regions it has occupied and plans to hold elections there in September, despite the expected Ukrainian counteroffensive aimed at retaking territory from Moscow forces.
“I don’t understand the point of these annexations, I don’t even know where they are,” said Alina, 31, a social media manager in Belgorod.
“It’s just some kind of prank.”
In the city of Belgorod, which has a population of 340,000, the pain and confusion of war is made more acute by historical ties with Ukraine. It is only 40 kilometers from the border and only 80 kilometers from Kharkiv, the second largest city in Ukraine.
Before the war, people from Belgorod used to go to Kharkiv for shopping, or even just for a night out. Many have relatives living across the border.
Ruslan, the English teacher, said he always opposed the war and his position did not change with the destruction of his city. But his feelings towards Ukraine have.
“I thought I was able to empathize, but when it comes to your house, it’s a completely different feeling,” he said.
“I understand that this is all because of Putin, but at the same time I have a slightly different attitude towards the Ukrainian Armed Forces,” he continued.
“Now I think they may not be different from us.”
Milana Mazaeva, Alina Lobzina And Oleg Matsnev contributed report.