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The view from southern Russia

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

As Ukrainians look nervously across their border with Russia, wondering whether an attack is coming, many Russians on the other side are wondering the same thing. NPR's Charles Maynes has this report from Rostov-on-Don in Russia's south.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Looking out from the banks of Russia's Don River, fisherman Viktor Oreshkin casts his rod in hopes for the best in everything.

VIKTOR ORESHKIN: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: Let's pray to God there will be no war. That's the main thing, he says. People can look at the situation differently, but I just don't want anyone to die. That's what matters most.

As Russia's main city near the Ukrainian border Rostov-on-Don and its namesake river have long served as a southern outpost for Russian culture and trade. But located less than a hundred miles from Ukraine's border, the city is also being pulled into modern fights over President Vladimir Putin's efforts to restore Russian greatness.

TIMUR OKERP: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: Timur Okerp is squinting at an 18th century map of the Don River basin, the Donbas, an area that stretches from Rostov-on-Don to the river's western tributaries in present-day eastern Ukraine.

OKERP: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: It was all part of southwest Russia, he says, until the 20th century carved it up - first into Soviet republics and then later, after the breakup of the USSR, into independent states.

OKERP: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: In 2014, Okerp was one of thousands of Russian nationalist volunteers who fought alongside Donbas separatists and Russian army regulars in a Kremlin-backed proxy war. At the time, Okerp says, he expected Putin would seize the Donbas just as he had Crimea, the peninsula annexed from Ukraine that same year.

OKERP: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: It was a huge disappointment when it didn't happen, says Okerp. And he's hoping for a different outcome this time around.

OKERP: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: The land that historically belonged to Russia should return to it, and what belonged to the West, should stay in Europe, he says. In other words, Okerp wants this fight. He's just not sure Putin feels the same.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL RINGING)

MAYNES: Amid a buildup of Kremlin forces along Ukraine's border, polls show Russians are divided over whether war is likely with its neighbor, even in Rostov-on-Don. Many have been left guessing over Putin's intentions amid charged negotiations with the West.

ANDREI ROSLIE: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: Andrei Roslie, an instructor at the local journalism college, says he feels like there are two different realities - one on TV where Kremlin propagandists hype the possibility of conflict and then the other one in Rostov-on-Don, where most people just go about their daily lives.

ROSLIE: (Through interpreter) I can't name one person in my circle of friends who is seriously worried about a conflict breaking out.

MAYNES: Roslie says he remembers the flood of Ukrainian refugees that came into the city in 2014 - the feeling that war was being fought close by. But now it's different.

ROSLIE: (Through interpreter) If there was a real escalation, we would have seen it, and we haven't.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARKET AMBIENCE)

MAYNES: At the city's central market, it's the usual daily bustle. There, 72-year-old Alexandra Donskova takes a break from selling fruit to scoff at the idea that war could break out at any moment.

ALEXANDRA DONSKOVA: (Through interpreter) War with Ukraine? It'll never happen. That's just politicians ratcheting up tensions from both sides. Regular people get along fine. No one's getting ready to fight anyone.

MAYNES: If Russians are left guessing at Putin's intentions in Ukraine, the Russian leader's argument that the West is to blame for the current crisis resonates more deeply, even among critics.

VLADIMIR KOLODKIN: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: Vladimir Kolodkin, a provost at Don State Technical University, says he considers himself pro-Western. And yet, Kolodkin can't help but wonder why if the Soviet Union he grew up in is gone, NATO didn't go with it.

KOLODKIN: (Through interpreter) As a citizen of Russia, I have a question. What is NATO for? First, they said it was to contain Iran. Then they said it was to contain al-Qaida. But it turns out, all along, it was trying to contain me.

MAYNES: It's as if the Soviet Union didn't completely fall apart, adds Kolodkin. Now its ghosts are coming out of the closet to say hello. Charles Maynes, NPR News, Rostov-on-Don, Russia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.