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The Remote Villages Where Ethnic Russians And Ukrainians Live Together In The Shadow Of War

Entering the settlement of Zaporozhye near the southern tip of Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula
Entering the settlement of Zaporozhye near the southern tip of Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula

ZAPOROZHYE, Russia -- For Victory Day, the May 9 holiday celebrating the Soviet role in Nazi Germany’s defeat in World War II, a banner was hung on the sports center of this remote settlement on the Kamchatka Peninsula reading: “We won then, and we’ll win now.”

The sign’s black-and-orange St. George ribbon in the form of the Latin letter Z -- a symbol of support for President Vladimir Putin and the war against Ukraine -- stood out as one of the few reminders of the relentless conflict being fought more than 7,000 kilometers to the west.

“Are many folks from Zaporozhye fighting in the special military operation?” a local resident* said, using the Kremlin’s mandatory euphemism for the war. “Only a couple of volunteers…. People here don’t like the ‘patriots,’ since 50 percent of the population…is Ukrainian.”

This remote fishing-dominated settlement of some 650 people, along with the nearby village of Ozernovskoye, is nearly evenly split between ethnic Russians and the descendants of the Ukrainians who were brought in to work the fish-processing plants back in the early part of the 20th century. Those settlers were primarily from the southern Zaporizhzhya and Kherson provinces, which are among the five regions of Ukraine that Moscow has baselessly claimed as its own and that have seen some of the most intense fighting in the war. They named Zaporozhye after their native region.

'Of Course, It Hurts…'

Over the nearly 850 days since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, residents of these villages have not performed any of the pro-war rituals that have swept the rest of the country. They have not named any buildings for the “heroes of Donetsk” or taken up collections to buy drones or organized schoolchildren to stand in a Z formation. Their schools and post offices are not festooned with jingoistic posters.

The emotional turmoil evoked by the conflict, however, simmers just below the surface, despite assertions by Putin and his supporters that Russians and Ukrainians are “fraternal peoples” or, as Putin has falsely claimed, “one people.”

“How do local Ukrainians react to the war?” one ethnic Russian woman in Zaporozhye told RFE/RL. “In general, things are quiet. They focus on fishing and work as they have always worked. Earlier this year, there was one incident when police detained some women for shouting ‘Glory to Ukraine’ [at one of the fish-processing plants].”

One of her Ukrainian neighbors expressed similar sentiments.

“Many people in Zaporozhye have relatives living in Ukraine,” the woman said. “The war is going on, but we have to live here. Our life now is in Russia. We want to live without conflicts, since fighting among ourselves won’t change anything.”

A building of the Vityaz fish-processing plant in the settlement of Ozernovskoye
A building of the Vityaz fish-processing plant in the settlement of Ozernovskoye

“Of course, it hurts to hear about the bombing of Kharkiv, Odesa, Zaporizhzhya, and so on,” she added. “But what can we do now?”

RFE/RL was able to confirm the deaths of only two men from Zaporozhye in the war in Ukraine – Dmitry Kim and Ivan Poberezhnik. A third man, Ruslan Gromov, has been listed as missing, although locals believe he was killed.

“Ruslan worked [at a fish-processor],” said one woman who knows him. “We went on hikes together. He’s a good guy, handsome. We hope he’s alive, but they say his whole regiment was destroyed. His documents and his telephones were given to his younger brother. They said he was killed, but it wasn’t documented. No one really knows. He volunteered to go, just like Dimka (Dmitry) Kim. They wanted to earn some money.”

'Like Hermits On A Desert Island'

Fish-Processing Plant No. 55 advertises permanent vacancies, providing benefits including housing in a dormitory and security from military mobilization. The salary is 45,000 rubles ($522) a month, less than one-fifth what those who sign military contracts can expect.

“In Soviet times, they also offered an exemption from military service,” a man from Ozernovskoye said. “I myself didn’t serve. One year here counted for two [in the army].”

In Soviet times, young workers came to the region to begin their careers in the fisheries sector.

The road along the coast of the Okhotsk Sea to Zaporozhye is often buried in snow or washed out by severe storms.
The road along the coast of the Okhotsk Sea to Zaporozhye is often buried in snow or washed out by severe storms.

“Now, of course, the situation is different,” the man said. “Those who come are those who have nowhere else to go.”

On June 8, a processing plant in Ozernovskoye caught fire. Workers were able to evacuate themselves and fight the flames before firefighters arrived.

“Life is hard here,” the man added. “Snowstorms all winter and nothing around but volcanoes and hills. There is nowhere to go. The ‘real world’ is far off.”

Even reaching the regional capital, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, some 150 kilometers to the northeast, requires Herculean efforts. To drive, one must make paid crossings of numerous rivers, one local said, paying a total of 13,000 rubles ($150) for one car. For locals, travel to the capital by helicopter costs just over 10,000 rubles each way.

“Getting to the mainland is very difficult,” another local said. “We recently paid 180,000 [$2,700] for plane tickets for three of us. We live like hermits on a desert island.”

Meanwhile, the far-off war in Ukraine continues.

“Our job is just to live through this horror,” said an ethnic Ukrainian woman from Zaporozhye. “What will happen when the boys come back from the special military operation? If they survived, then so be it. That is their fate. But we aren’t going to welcome them.”

Written by RFE/RL’s Robert Coalson based on reporting by RFE/RL’s Siberia.Realities
*EDITOR'S NOTE: Some people in this story have not been identified to protect them due to Russia's labeling of RFE/RL as an "undesirable organization."

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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