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“The way to the booth is an obstacle course”: Russia’s Belgorod Region goes to the polls amid war. A report by The Insider

Local authorities in Russia’s Belgorod Region didn’t cancel voting in the recent presidential election, despite the constant air alerts, drone strikes and loss of life. Residents of the border region have to go to the polling stations under fire, taking shelter in apartment buildings and basements on the way. The government also didn’t miss the opportunity to turn martial law in their favor: at noon — the time of the Alexei Navalny-inspired “Noon Against Putin” protests — they suddenly declared a “local missile threat” in areas where protesters were expected to gather.

  • “Out of the house and straight to the shelter”

  • “War on video and in real life are different things”

  • “It's scary when there's a lull. It means that something will happen soon”

  • “If only to get away from here”

“Out of the house and straight to the shelter”

The air-raid siren sounds over Belgorod at 12:58 — people in the courtyard raise their heads and look up into the sky, then glance around in search of shelter. About 15 seconds later, two blasts sound overhead — loud enough for everyone around to scream, duck and rush toward the apartment building.

Cats in Belgorod rush to find shelter as soon as they sense danger
Cats in Belgorod rush to find shelter as soon as they sense danger

“F*ck!!! Over there!” — two men yell as they yank on the entryway door. It doesn't budge until it's opened from the inside — almost immediately. We run into the building, trying to catch our breath. Even from inside, you can feel the house shaking from the blows.

“I walked and walked, I didn’t make it, even though it’s 200 meters to the school where the polling station is,” grins one of the men, adding: “That was the longest 200 meters in my life!” His name is Sergei, he lives in a neighboring apartment block. He teaches at a local university, and, unlike his colleagues who voted remotely on Russia’s online state services portal Gosuslugi, he decided to fulfill his civic duty at the polling station. Sergei is cheerful, joking and laughing. There are seven of us taking cover. Other people in the shelter are not so optimistic. “I went to pick up Vika from the garden,” says another man. He tries to call his wife, but the network reception in the entrance is poor. People have moved further inside, away from the entrance. One of the men is holding the door so that everyone who is nearby can get into the makeshift shelter.

  • A sign reading 'shelter'
  • A bus stop converted into a bomb shelter
  • Bomb shelter built out of concrete slabs
  • Inside the concrete slab shelter

A couple of minutes later, another voter, who was also trying to get to the polling station at the same school, stumbles into the entrance. It's Sergei's coworker from the university. It turns out that I found myself in the entrance with the cream of Belgorod intelligentsia — one of them is a doctor, another is a PhD candidate. They tell me how the university administration forced them to report on the vote: “They say that the lists should be available by 4 p.m. It’s probably possible to refuse and not participate. I don't think it will help much, but they’ll irritate you to death,” says Sergei. According to him, those who wanted to vote remotely could not do so in the morning because of the system failure: “All the state employees were pushed in [to vote online], so it failed!”

The siren fades, but no one’s in a hurry to leave. “The polling station is still closed until they call off the air raid alert is officially announced,” Sergei explains. I decide to get out and head for the school. A policeman meets me at the station and escorts me to the shelter — a lit room in the basement of the school. There are benches and a water cooler.

“We are not afraid. We are in our own country,” one of the women tells me. “Our people are made of stone!” There are about 30 people downstairs with me, including police officers, members of the special services (likely from the “E” Center, the “Center for Combating Extremism”), precinct election commission (PEC) staff, and ordinary voters. The message to leave doesn't come until half an hour later. That’s when we all go upstairs.

“We have an algorithm of actions in case of an attack,» the PEC chairwoman tells me. “Seal the ballot boxes, collect all the record books, go down to the shelter.” When asked how long it takes to do this, given that sometimes there is no time to even walk to the shelter, she answers, a little embarrassed: “Well, [we have to do it] quickly.”

  • Sandbags outside the school hosting the polling station
  • Polling stations at a school in Belgorod
  • Members of the precinct election commission carry a ballot box

“I worked in the last presidential election — if you compare then to now, now the number of people applying for home voting is one and a half to two times more. Everyone is trying to vote faster today, because… Well, you never know what will happen later,” says Natalia, an employee of one of the PECs. Together with a colleague, they carry a transparent ballot box to those voting at home.

On the way, I take a photo of a kindergarten, which is covered with sandbags, and a man with local territorial defense papers immediately runs up to me. He asks to see a journalist's ID. “I was walking with my dog and saw you. We’re on guard here: this morning I detained one of them and handed him over to the police, so they can sort it out,” the man brags.

  • Reinforcements outside a shopping center
  • Empty streets in Belgorod
  • Belgorod is empty on a Friday night

On the first day of voting, the polling stations interrupted their work five times, but the elections continued. On Sunday, March 17, Belgorod authorities were concerned about a new threat — Alexei Navalny’s “Noon Against Putin.” According to eyewitnesses, PEC members warned of a “local missile threat” at the polling stations where people gathered at 12:00. There were no such announcements in the previous days, and there could not be, as the alarm is announced centrally — everyone in the city receives an SMS alert.

Election commission members warned of a “local missile threat” at polling stations where people gathered at 12:00

At other times, the administration tried to ensure maximum voter turnout. In light of the shelling, the governor ordered the suspension of work at shopping malls, but not at polling stations — apparently, a visit to a shopping mall is more dangerous than a trip to a PEC. As darkness falls, it is almost impossible to find an open shop. I meet a fellow journalist who, like me, has come to Belgorod and is looking for a place to buy water. “I approached a policeman and asked him where the store was. He immediately ran over, demanded documents, searched my bag,” the man said. The city center is deserted, we encounter no one. Only policemen were on duty in the central streets, stopping and inspecting cars selectively. It's 10 p.m. on a Friday, but there's not a soul around — an unprecedented situation for Belgorod.

“War on video and in real life are different things”

In the morning on a bus in Belgorod, all the talk was about the new shelling. It hit the southern part of Belgorod, in the area of Gubkin and Yesenin streets. According to the authorities, two people were killed.

School number 42 is located five hundred meters from the site of the attack. Four polling stations were opened there at 8 a.m., but they worked for less than a minute: explosions were heard at 8:01 a.m. Despite the danger, the polling stations were not shut down. The school principal who came out to talk to me shows me the armored foil that was used to cover the windows. It’s supposed to prevent the glass from breaking and shattering. They have also arranged for “blind corridors” — places where it is safe according to the “rule of two walls.” The rule dictates that the floor between the walls in a narrow space without windows is considered the safest place in an apartment.

“I myself had a hit 100 meters from the house,” says the director. “We've all watched videos about Donetsk and Luhansk, but war on video and war in real life are very different things!”

As we talk, people come in and out of the building. There are fewer of them than on the first day, says the director. According to him, Belgorod residents began to take a responsible approach to safety after the shelling became more intense. And warns me not to go far from the shelter. “Get ready. They're going to strike soon, around noon or so. They always strike at the same time.”

  • Municipal workers haul away cars damaged in the shelling
  • A bus damaged by the strikes
  • Aftermath of the shelling

A tow truck with a burned out car passes by. Not far from the school, an intersection is blocked off — it's the site of one of the strikes. “Yes, you can go through! Don't just stand there! F*cking [Belgorod Region governor] Gladkov’s gone, you can do anything now!” — one of the locals yells when he sees me fiddling around the tape. We go through the tape without being stopped. The strike not only destroyed the cars parked near the teachers' college, but also damaged a paneled apartment building. The resident who took me behind the tape complained that the glass on her balcony was shattered. “They suggest we go to a hotel. But I'm also afraid to move, as if I'll be left without a home,” says Svetlana. Her neighbors have gathered around the burned cars and are loudly discussing the rationale behind the so-called “special military operation.”

“F*cking [Belgorod Region governor] Gladkov’s gone, you can do anything now!” — the locals shout at the tape fencing off the impact site
- What [special military operation]?! Crimea in three days, that was a [special military operation], and this is a full-scale war!!! The front line is thousands of kilometers long! This is a catastrophe! — shouts a man of age.
- We should have cut off the head of the Nazi viper straightaway and lived in peace. It’s all because we’re so humane, it ruins us,” replies his friend.
- And I'll tell you this: we shouldn't have started it! If we didn’t have the guts!” the first neighbor retorts.
- This is for our sins, we are deep in hatred and violence, all of us! All we can do is pray,” says a woman.

Not far away is a blue city bus with broken windows and soot on the asphalt. There are a lot of people here — many come to buy food. Somehow, strangely, it is here in the south of Belgorod that most of the shops are open, despite the fact that this area is hit daily. The City Mall has been hit twice in the last two days.

Marina sells coffee on Shchorsa Street. She finished work an hour early, but has no plans to close down completely, as many others have done. “It flew straight into my friends' apartment on Koneva Street. And if we had been at work, we might have survived unharmed,” the girl says. “You can't guess where the impact will be.”

“It's scary when there's a lull. It means that something will happen soon”

The closer to the center of Belgorod, the fewer people are on the streets. On Shchorsa Street, leading from south to north, there are many large shopping centers. There are no longer just sandbags at the windows, as there were in the summer. Authorities are putting up barriers of huge concrete blocks to protect storefronts. Election posters alternate with billboards advocating joining the armed forces.

  • A banner reading 'The battle for Russia continues, Victory will be ours!'
  • Digital ads with Russian soldiers that took part in the invasion of Ukraine
  • 'Join your own people. A real cause' reads an ad for contract service in the Russian military

An elderly man who was watching me photograph a poster with propaganda encouraging Russians to go to war called out to me, “What, are you sending it to the khokhols [a derogatory term for Ukrainians used by Russians — The Insider]? Make sure there are three plans, or no one will be impressed by your photo.”

It turned out that 73-year-old Vladimir is a former rocket scientist and photographer from Blagoveshchensk. For 23 years he lived in the village of Zhuravlevka on the border with Ukraine. For almost two years he has been in a temporary accommodation center (TAC) in the building of the Amax movie theater on Vatutina Street. Zhuravlevka was evacuated back in May 2022 — one of the first settlements to have done so. Vladimir, unlike many Belgorod residents, is not afraid to openly criticize the Russian military.

“They put several dozen cars with ammunition in the center of Zhuravlevka, how is that even possible? I am a rocket man myself, I immediately realized how it would end,” says Vladimir. “They stood there for several days, then, of course, they hit the village. And they deployed special communications near the cemetery. They struck again. They started f*cking us from the Ukrainian village of Strilecha. The flight time to us was only 27 seconds! Then our people came running. They shouted, ‘Grab your things, whoever has what you have, leave as soon as possible.’ And I have a bedridden wife.”

Vladimir has not been given an apartment yet. Although the food in the TAC is excellent, the man admits. “When they brought us [here], I couldn't even speak, I just cried all the time. There’s a lot of pain and death around.” Vladimir says that the authorities prohibit many things to be filmed on photo and video — the chronicle of the war, in his opinion, should be more complete.

“I regret that I did not film how a battalion of 300 people went to Ukraine — through our [village of] Zhuravlevka. They came back through [our village] too, and do you know how? Everyone was crying. There were only 17 men left there. The rest were dead and wounded.”

Asked if he is scared of shelling, Vladimir shrugs his shoulders: “Now it's scary when there is a lull. It means that something will happen soon.”

Belgorod was dead quiet from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. all day Saturday, and there was no «lunch strike» around 12 or 1 p.m., as was expected. “They're working on a weekend schedule,” someone joked in a local online chat room. Despite the weekend, it was as if the city had died. No kids on the playgrounds, no young people walking around. Cafes and shops are closed; you have to work hard to find a place to eat lunch. Surprisingly, a small Syrian restaurant is open — the owner laughs at my question: “What is there to be afraid of? Everything is in Allah's hands. It's scary in our homeland too, and [look] how many people are dying in Palestine now!”

“If only to get away from here”

The train station in Belgorod is not crowded either. No one is fleeing the city en masse, despite the daily reports of the dead in the shelling. Six people have been killed in the last three days.

In the storage room in the basement of the station building, a woman is cursing loudly, but her incoherent words do not embarrass the station staff. “She's been sitting here since winter,” the janitor complains. “As soon as the sirens started blaring several times a day, they started letting her in. We also had a lady with rats in her pocket. Live ones! I don't know why nobody does anything about them.”

As we board the train to Moscow, a series of blows are heard overhead. Those standing on the platform rush into the carriage, almost knocking down the conductors. No one even tries to show their passport — it was a matter of seconds. No air-raid siren is heard. The blows continue for several minutes. Judging by the noise, it was the air defense. Then came a rapid series of explosions. “Cluster bombs,” says one of the passengers. “Farewell salute,” a girl laughs nervously.

For a while, we don't know if the train will move at all — one of the conductors says we'll probably be taken back to the station, to the shelter. During a missile threat, there is really no public transportation, buses have to stop. But finally the conductors are instructed that the train will leave as scheduled. After 10 minutes, some passengers go out on the platform to smoke and come to their senses. Someone calls their relatives to ask if there’s been any shelling. “It's like everyone's used to it, but I'm shaking! If only to get away from here,” complains one of the passengers, a Muscovite. The conductor replies: “You can't get used to this.”

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