February 8, 2023

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Ryazan, home of Russia’s elite unit, still supports the war in Ukraine

Even under a thick blanket of snow, the cemetery of the Russian soldiers who died in the Ukraine War shines in colour. Graves are heaped with wreaths of plastic flowers, and flags representing the dead soldier’s unit flap in the wind on every mound.

One Saturday last, a woman named Natalia picked up a brush and carefully brushed clumps of sticky fresh snow from her son’s wreaths. She removed the red carnations she had brought the week before, now frozen, and replaced them with a small Christmas tree she had bought at the cemetery entrance.

Natalia comes at least once a week to attend to the grave of her only son, who was killed in the first days of the war after his group of soldiers invaded Ukraine and unsuccessfully tried to attack the Hostomel airfield near Kyiv to back up. What was left of his body arrived in Ryazan a few weeks later.

“Even when I’m sick, I come here because I’m afraid he’ll get bored,” she said of her son, whose remains arrived just before his 26th birthday. She refused to give her last name because she feared retribution for speaking out.

Many Western opponents of Russia’s war in Ukraine expected mothers like Natalia to become the backbone of a wave of outrage against President Vladimir V Putin and emerge as a political force against him. But 10 months into the conflict, that hasn’t happened on a large scale — and certainly not in Ryazan, a city of half a million people known for its elite paratrooper unit.

Natalia said she felt the invasion “should have been planned better” to minimize casualties, but she expressed no anger at the Russian leadership. “Something had to be done,” she said, referring to Ukraine.

This kind of continued support was a key factor in Putin’s ability to avoid a major domestic backlash for his war and allowed him to redouble his commitment to pursuing his goals in Ukraine.

Natalia was alone at the cemetery when she last visited, but if the number of soldiers buried there is any indication, there are many more grieving mothers like her. There were at least 20 rows, each with three fresh graves.

Still, Ryazan, home to two military bases, is reportedly proud to send its men to war, even if some return in body bags.

The city, around 100 kilometers south-west of Moscow, is particularly proud of its paratroopers. A giant sculpture of their logo along the main street celebrates the city as “Home of the VDV,” the initials of an elite paratrooper unit to which Natalia’s son belonged. In the town center is a sprawling school for the unit’s cadets, with a museum next door celebrating their history.

A long hallway documents his participation in various campaigns and already contains artifacts from that war.

A 20-minute drive downtown from the cemetery, Marina N. Doronina also expressed her support for the war. Their 27-year-old son Vadim was called up just days after Mr Putin announced in late September that Russia would mobilize several hundred thousand men.

A single mother of two other children, including one with severe disabilities, Ms. Doronina, a domestic help, relies on financial help and physical labor from her eldest son. Her roof was “leaking like a sieve” and he planned to fix it before winter hit.

“Now who’s going to fix my roof?” she asked. “He also wanted to fix my fence in the fall.”

But she said she wasn’t mad that he was sent to war. Nor was she against mobilization in general. Instead, she said, she was furious with the “system” that couldn’t offer her son a delay, if not an exception.

She communicates with Vadim in Ukraine through the WhatsApp chat platform. He sends videos of himself in trenches spending time with comrades. She’s proud when she sees photos of him in camouflage, she said.

“This situation must be resolved somehow,” she said, repeating Natalia’s vague assertion about Ukraine. But although she was annoyed at how local authorities were handling her son’s mobilization, she expressed her confidence in Mr Putin.

“Our president is quite wise and is still doing a good job,” she said.

Repeating a common theme spread by propaganda programs on state television and among many ordinary people, she said she believes “the West” is not only fighting in Ukraine, but is also suffering the consequences of the war, which are worse as Russia.

“People have nothing there,” she said of the West. “Go to our stores, we have everything. It doesn’t affect us in any way,” she said, but acknowledged that prices had increased slightly.

A significant number of Russians seem to agree. Though many are afraid to speak publicly about the war and often mimic the Kremlin’s narratives, a poll this month by the Levada Center, an independent polling firm, showed that more than 70 percent either “definitely” or “predominantly” said the activities support the Russian army. while 64 percent believe the country is moving in the right direction.

“All of this is being settled and soon everything will be normal,” she added.

But in Ryazan, just 300 miles from the Ukrainian border, something extraordinary has already happened. Its two military installations have made the city the target of one of the heaviest Ukrainian military strikes on Russian territory since the beginning of the war.

On December 5, two Soviet drones fell on bases in Ryazan and near the city of Saratov further east. In Ryazan, the drone was aimed at the Dyagilevo air base, a training center for strategic bomber forces. Russia said it intercepted and shot down the drone, a claim that could not be verified, but acknowledged the attack killed three and wounded five, and also damaged a Tupolev Tu-22M supersonic bomber.

The Russian Defense Ministry blamed Ukraine. Ukraine does not publicly acknowledge the strikes inside Russia and is deliberately maintaining ambiguity.

It was a rare case when Ukraine slammed deep into Russian territory. Not far from the base, some local residents tried to make the drone strike casual.

At the main transport hub in the Dyagilevo district — a muddy bus stop across from a park where children were playing on the statue of a Tupolev Tu-16 bomber — a 70-year-old woman named Valentina Petrovna insisted there was ‘nothing to be afraid of.’ ‘

Had anything changed in her life in the past year that had brought seismic changes to Russia and the world? “Nothing,” she insisted, although she said she has many relatives in the military. “We’re waiting for our boys to win as soon as possible.”

However, Alina, a 19-year-old medical student, admitted to being a bit scared. She was standing at the bus stop on December 5 when she heard the explosion.

“Everything was shaking,” she said, and the fear that it might happen again dampened her holiday spirit.

According to Aleksandr Yurov, a specialist in internet technology, the drone incident has made locals pay more attention to the war. “People finally started to worry,” said Yurov, 34, who opposes the war.

There is reason to believe it could happen again: On Monday, Moscow said it had shot down another Ukrainian drone over the Engels base near Saratov, killing three employees.

But by and large, Yurov said, many people he knew had begun to call for more attacks on Ukraine or more extreme measures against the West, which dismayed him.

He said he was briefly arrested twice, once on February 24, the day the war began, after police caught him holding an anti-war placard, and again on September 21, the day Mr Putin announced mobilization when he outside was a stationery store preparing to purchase a poster.

“Here, support for human rights is considered extremism,” said Yurov. He was very interested in speaking to foreign reporters because he said it was the only way to express his beliefs in Russia today.

He spends his free time helping Ukrainian refugees settled in the Ryazan region.

About 200 Ukrainian families have settled in Ryazan, according to Yelena N. Samsonkina, who runs a charity that collects clothing and products for the refugee families — and for the Russian troops who played a role in their displacement.

“People have come together here,” Ms. Samsonkina said in support of the war effort at her organization’s headquarters.

“Grandmothers knit socks and children write letters at school” for the troupe, she said.

She dismissed a question about whether the military was ill-equipped since volunteers had to collect thermos flasks or other essential items for Russian soldiers. The army has everything it needs, she said, but volunteers can procure some items faster than the military bureaucracy.

Ms Samsonkina said her son could be mobilized, which worried her daughter. But he was ready to fight, she said, and she wouldn’t mind if he called up.

“I’m lucky to have a son like that,” she said. “How else could I think about it? Of course I’m nervous, I’m very worried. But I won’t talk him out of it.”

She said she was fully behind the war.

“Putin has taken the first step,” she said. “If he hadn’t, who knows where we would be now?”