The back rooms of the local Communist Party headquarters near Belgorod airport are filled with supplies.
There are sacks of onions, meat leaning against garage doors to keep it frozen, plastic bags full of rice and dry goods, and a big cabbage, enough to feed a family for a week. about, although heavy to carry from here to the bus stop.
There are nappies and cleaning products and a pile of toys in the corner for the children who are going to spend their first New Year, the big holiday in this part of the world, far from home.
These are gifts from all over Russia, and Evgeny Bakalo proudly displays them. His day job is window-fitting, but for the past eight years he has spent his free time doing what he can to help Ukrainians whose sympathies lie in Moscow, not Kyiv.
After Russian-backed separatists rose up against Kyiv in 2014, Bakalo was traveling to Donbass bringing supplies for children, including educational materials.
I ask if he removed Ukrainian books from schools, as would have been the case in the Kharkiv region when it was under Russian occupation earlier this year.
“We only add books, we do not deny Ukrainian literature, it is part of Russian literature. We do not deny the Ukrainian language. But textbooks that distort history, of course we do not welcome” , did he declare.
In Belgorod, his goal is to find what he can for the refugees on this side of the border. He runs an organization called “The Tenth Circle”, a reference to Dante’s Inferno and his nine circles of hell. Mr. Bakalo is both a philosopher and an ardent Sovietophile.
“I can’t be against my country”
“I was born in the Soviet Union, I received an excellent education there,” he says. “I can’t be against my homeland even if I don’t approve of some government measures.”
The refugees we meet in his center do not want to show themselves. Kharkiv is only 80 km southwest of Belgorod and most have fled the Kharkiv region.
For almost six months they were under Russian occupation. Then, in August, the Ukrainians repelled a lightning offensive that threw the Russian army on its back. Most have pro-Russian sympathies and they are not ashamed to say so.
But they are afraid of what they have heard about the hunt for pro-Russian collaborators at home.
The hunt for pro-Russian collaborators in Ukraine
“Neighbors who support the Ukrainian army denounce them and they are taken away. People disappear,” said a girl from Izyum, impeccably made up, her huge winter hood hoisted to hide her face.
“They say that the taxi drivers who took people to the Russian border are killed. And many people who cooperated with the Russians, went to work for the administration, as teachers, in the gas or electricity services, were all sent to prison.”
It is difficult to verify some rumors and it is rumors and information, false or not, that exacerbate the ideological chasm between the majority in Ukraine who see Russia as the aggressor and those who have absorbed messages from Moscow and believe that she had no choice but to invade.
The effect on generational lines
Ukraine actively hunts collaborators and there is a 15-year prison sentence for those who aided and abetted Russian forces. Just being in Russia can make life difficult for loved ones across the border, and the decision to flee in this way divides families, often along generational lines.
“My own daughter could hand me over to the SBU (Ukrainian intelligence),” says Olga (pseudonym), who was a teacher in the Kharkiv region and, like Mr. Bakalo, deeply nostalgic for the Soviet era.
“She said to me, ‘Mom, people like you don’t belong in a school. I’m handing you over to the SBU’. I deleted the correspondence.”
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Ukrainian intelligence services have good reason to worry. In a shopping mall in Belgorod, we are introduced to a young man who left Kharkiv and is now working for Russia on defense issues. Both he and Mr Bakalo are on an infamous but unofficial Ukrainian list, Myrotvorets, which names people considered enemies of the Ukrainian state.
Myrotvorets, ironically, translates to “peacemaker.”
“A person cannot blame himself for his own problems”
“All those who are on the territory of the Russian Federation are now ‘rejected people’ for Ukrainians,” this man tells us. “They are afraid that the knowledge they have will be used against Ukraine.”
Does he understand why so many people in Ukraine hate Russia now?
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“People have to have an enemy, psychologically,” he says. “A person cannot blame themselves for their own problems.”
Unlike him, there are tens of thousands of other Ukrainians who fled to Russia because they had no other choice. Changing front lines are difficult to cross. Many have traveled through Russia and Europe, eager to spend as little time as possible inside the country bombarding theirs. Others try to make peace with their new reality.
“Yes, I am staying here in an aggressor state. Yes, I am ready to receive help from Russian hands. Yes, I risk being deprived of my job, my home, my reputation because staying here and not not go to Europe, it’s I’m ok with the fact that I remain in a state of aggressor. But I can’t explain to everyone the reasons why I stayed,” he said. added.
A messy compromise
Nika Karakonstantin fled to Russia with four of her children in March, from a village in the Kharkiv region. She now runs a children’s day center where she cares for Ukrainian refugee children, teaching them both Ukrainian and Russian.
It’s a messy compromise, but in Belgorod she’s just across the border from where she used to live, with food, heat and supplies and some certainty about what tomorrow holds. Her children can grow up safely.
His eldest son, however, stayed behind.
“All he says is ‘Mom, I love you, I understand you had no choice. But I can’t come to you. I can’t get over the feeling of anger, of disgust, hatred. I won’t do like you. I can’t forgive’.”