In Russia's southwestern Belgorod region, locals reveal what nearly a year of full-scale war waged against nearby Ukraine has brought.
In late January, Oleg Artyushenko, a reporter with RFE/RL's North.Realities, visited Russia's Belgorod region to speak to locals about life in the shadow of war. The sound of artillery has become commonplace here, and on trains out of Belgorod, around one-third of the passengers are military personnel apparently going on leave.
In the town of Shebekino, 32 kilometers from the regional capital of Belgorod and a short drive from the border with Ukraine, damage from explosives is clearly visible.
An old man stops reluctantly to speak. People here are afraid to talk about the war.
"We've gotten used to these shellings," he said, blaming Ukrainian forces for the attacks.
Kyiv has not acknowledged targeting Russian territory but has described widespread destruction of Russian infrastructure as "karma" for the ongoing invasion.
Locals say around one-third of the population of Shebekino has left since Russia launched its February 2022 invasion of Ukraine.
In a market damaged by what residents say was a shelling attack on January 15, an old man sells fishing equipment amid the damaged stalls.
"Where else can I work?" he said. "There's a market here. People still walk around. Life in the city continues."
On the road from Shebekino to Belgorod, no checkpoints are in place and public buses travel freely to and from the border town every 20 minutes.
An old woman who was sweeping the front path of her house on the outskirts of Belgorod city also tells RFE/RL she is accustomed to the sounds of rockets and explosions in the sky. When asked if she believes Russia's invasion of Ukraine was a sound decision, she wraps up the conversation swiftly, saying, "I don't think about it."
In the center of the city, taxi driver Ivan recalls that the situation in Belgorod was more intense several months ago.
"You could hear rockets flying. You could hear them being shot down. People were afraid, but that's not the case now," he said, adding, "Today, it's dangerous in Shebekino.”
On weekdays, Belgorod is relatively empty, but fairs here are held on weekends and the public squares are still adorned with remnants of New Year's Eve decorations.
Since October, the local government began ordering signs be painted indicating the locations of bomb shelters throughout the city.
Anton, a man aged around 30 who was passing through a central park in Belgorod, says he realized the invasion was about to happen several days before February 24.
"My friends and my brother and I were discussing whether there would be a war when there were helicopters flying all over the city. We figured then it was still an exercise," he said.
But the man says he realized war could be imminent when he noticed helicopters began flying with loaded missile pods.
"On February 24, at 5 in the morning, my brother called," Anton recalled. "I didn't believe it. I said, 'You’re kidding.' He replied, 'Well, look out the window.'"
Anton expresses his frustration with the ruinous military setbacks faced by Russian forces in Ukraine, despite the reported prediction that Kyiv would fall within three days. But after so much blood has been shed, he said, "How can we stop now?"
In one of Belgorod's hospitals, 32-year-old teacher Vladislav Shishkin, originally from Pskov, is being treated for wounds suffered while fighting in Ukraine’s Luhansk region. According to his mother, Natalya, who spoke to RFE/RL's North.Realities, Shishkin's family, as well as the families of his students, appealed to the authorities to try to stop the teacher being drafted. He was sent to the front lines on November 30 regardless.
In early January, he reportedly received head injuries and lost vision in one eye. RFE/RL attempted to visit the wounded former teacher but was denied access.
After a longer Russian-language version of this photo report was published in late January, the North.Realities editorial office received a message with the above photo of small bouquets of flowers at a Belgorod monument. The flowers had been left to mourn those killed in the January 14 missile attack that killed at least 46 people in an apartment block in Dnipro.
"I want people to know that not everyone supports this crazy war," the anonymous writer said. "These are flowers at the monument to [17th-century Ukrainian military commander] Bohdan Khmelnytskiy from me and other caring citizens. They are cleared away daily by administration officials."