January 30, 2023

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Ryazan, Home of Elite Russian Unit, Still Supports Ukraine War

7 min read

Even under a thick coating of snow, the graveyard for Russian soldiers killed in the Ukraine war is awash in color. Graves are heaped with wreaths of plastic flowers and, at each mound, flags representing the dead soldier’s unit whip in the wind.

On a recent Saturday, a woman named Natalia grasped a brush and carefully swept clumps of sticky fresh snow off her son’s wreaths. She removed the red carnations she had brought the week before, now frozen, replacing them with a small Christmas tree she purchased at the cemetery entrance.

Natalia comes at least once a week to care for the grave of her only son, who was killed in the first days of the war, after his group of soldiers swept into Ukraine and tried and failed to secure the Hostomel airfield, near Kyiv. What was left of his body arrived in Ryazan several weeks later.

“Even when I’m sick, I come here, because I worry he’s going to be bored,” she said of her son, whose remains arrived just shy of his 26th birthday. She declined to provide her surname, fearing retribution for speaking out.

Many Western opponents of Russia’s war in Ukraine expected that mothers like Natalia would become the backbone of a surge of outrage against President Vladimir V. Putin, and evolve into a political force opposing him. But 10 months into the conflict, that has not 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 that she thought the invasion “should have been planned better,” in order to minimize losses, but she expressed no anger at Russia’s leadership. “Something had to be done,” she said, referring to Ukraine.

That kind of continued support has been a crucial factor in Mr. Putin’s ability to avoid any significant domestic blowback to his war, allowing him to double down on his commitment to pursuing his goals in Ukraine despite a series of setbacks.

Natalia was alone in the cemetery on her recent visit, but if the number of soldiers buried there is any indication, there are many more mourning mothers like her. There were at least 20 rows with three fresh graves each.

Still, by many accounts, Ryazan, home to two military bases, sends its men off to war with pride, even though some return in body bags.

The city, about 100 miles southeast of Moscow, is particularly proud of its paratroopers. A gargantuan sculpture of their logo along the main road celebrates the city as the “home of the VDV,” the initials of an elite paratrooper unit of which Natalia’s son was a member. In the city center is a sprawling school for the unit’s cadets, with a museum next door celebrating its history.

A long hallway documents its participation in various military campaigns and already includes artifacts from this war.

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

The single mother of two other children, including one with severe disabilities, Ms. Doronina, a home health aide, depends on her eldest son for financial help and physical labor. Her roof is “leaking like a sieve” and he had planned to fix it before the winter set in.

“Who will fix my roof now?” she asked. “He was also going to fix my fence in the autumn.”

But she said she was not angry that he was sent to war. Nor did she oppose mobilization in general. Instead, she said, she was angry at the “system,” which couldn’t provide a delay, if not an exception, for her son.

She communicates with Vadim in Ukraine over the WhatsApp chatting platform. He sends videos of himself in trenches spending time with fellow soldiers.She feels proud when she sees photos of him dressed in camouflage, she said.

“This situation must be resolved somehow,” she said, echoing Natalia’s vague assertion about Ukraine. But even as she was annoyed about the way the local authorities managed the mobilization of her son, she expressed faith in Mr. Putin.

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

Repeating a common theme pushed by propaganda programs on state TV and among many ordinary people, she said she believed “the West” was not only fighting in Ukraine, but also suffering the consequences of the war worse than Russia was.

“People don’t have anything there,” she said of the West. “Go to our stores, we have everything. This doesn’t affect us in any way,” she said, though she acknowledged that prices had risen slightly.

A significant number of Russians appear to agree. Though many fear speaking publicly about the war and often parrot the Kremlin’s narrative, a survey this month by the Levada Center, an independent pollster, showed that more than 70 percent either “definitely” or “mostly” support the activities of the Russian Army, while 64 percent believe the country is going in the right direction.

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

Yet something quite out of the ordinary has already happened in Ryazan, which is only 300 miles from the border with Ukraine. Its two military installations have made the city the target of one of the deepest Ukrainian military strikes inside Russian territory since the war began.

On Dec. 5, two Soviet-made drones fell on bases in Ryazan and near the city of Saratov, farther east. In Ryazan, the drone was aimed at the Dyagilevo Air Base, a training center for strategic bomber forces. Russia said it intercepted the drone and shot it down, a claim that could not be confirmed, but acknowledged that three people were killed and five injured in the attack, which also damaged a supersonic Tupolev Tu-22M strike bomber.

The Russian Ministry of Defense blamed Ukraine. Ukraine does not publicly acknowledge strikes inside Russia, intentionally maintaining ambiguity.

It was a rare instance of Ukraine striking far inside Russian territory. Not far from the base, some residents tried to appear casual about the drone attack.

At the main transport hub in the Dyagilevo neighborhood — a slushy bus stop across from a park where children played on top of a statue of a Tupolev Tu-16 bomber — a 70-year-old woman named Valentina Petrovna insisted that there was “nothing to be afraid of.’’

Had anything changed in her life this past year, which brought seismic changes to Russia and the world? “Nothing,” she insisted, even though she said she had many relatives in the military. “We are waiting for our boys to win as soon as possible.”

However, Alina, a 19-year-old medical student, admitted feeling some fear. She had been standing at the bus stop on Dec. 5 when she heard the explosion.

“Everything was shaking,” she said, and fear that it could happen again was affecting her holiday mood.

The drone incident has made locals start paying more attention to the war, according to Aleksandr Yurov, an internet technology specialist. “People finally started to be concerned,” Mr. Yurov, 34, who is against the war, said.

There is reason to think it can happen again: On Monday, Moscow said it had shot down another Ukrainian drone over the Engels base, near Saratov, and that three personnel were killed.

But by and large, Mr. Yurov said, many people he knew had started calling for more attacks on Ukraine or more extreme measures against the West, something that dismayed him.

He said he had been briefly detained twice, once on Feb. 24, the day the war started, after the police caught him holding an antiwar poster, and again on Sep. 21, the day Mr. Putin announced mobilization, when he was outside a stationery store preparing to buy a poster.

“Here, supporting human rights is considered extremism,” Mr. Yurov said. He was keen to talk to foreign reporters because he said it was the only way to express his beliefs in contemporary Russia.

He spends his spare time trying to help Ukrainian refugees who have settled in the Ryazan region.

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

“People have become more united here,” in support of the war effort, Ms. Samsonkina said in the headquarters of her organization.

“Grandmothers are knitting socks and children are writing letters in school” for the troops, she said.

She rebuffed a question about whether the military was poorly equipped, given that volunteers needed to collect thermoses or other essential items for Russian soldiers. The army had everything it needed, she said, but volunteers could procure some items faster than the military bureaucracy.

Ms. Samsonkina said that her son might be mobilized, something that worried her daughter. But he was ready to fight, she said, and she herself would not object if he were called up.

“I’m happy to have a son like that,” she said. “How else could I feel about it? Of course, I’m nervous, I’m very worried. But I’m not going to talk him out of it.”

She said she was completely behind the war.

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