Voices from Russia Applause for Putin and Fears of War

Russian President Vladimir Putin has now recognized the "People's Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk." He insists that he has the support of his people, but how true is that? We spoke to Russians near the Ukrainian border to find out.
By Christina Hebel und Maxim Babenko (Fotos) in Taganrog, Russia

In Taganrog, a port city in southern Russia, buses carrying hundreds of women and children from the self-proclaimed People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk are arriving every day. The closest border crossing to the port city on the Sea of Azov is only about 70 kilometers (45 miles) to the north.

What do people here think about the crisis? Do they support Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has now recognized the breakaway territories in Ukraine’s Donbas after nearly eight years of fighting and has sent troops into the region? Will there be a new war?

DER SPIEGEL spoke with residents of the city:

Veronika, 25

Veronika, 25 years old

Veronika, 25 years old

Foto: Maxim Babenko / DER SPIEGEL

"I think the fact that Putin has recognized the 'People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk’ isn’t a bad thing, it can help the people there. Normal men, who have tried for all these years to live in peace, have now been called on to fight in those regions. It is no secret that our army is well equipped, maybe it will save human lives if our military comes to their aid.

We live in a border city, what I want is peace for all. I see the situation not from a political perspective but from a human one. Politicians make the decisions way over our heads anyways. I feel for the people, especially the children, who really don’t deserve all this. There has been fighting for years. I live near the train station and every morning when I drive to work, I see the buses with the refugees from the Donetsk and Luhansk regions waiting. (Eds. Note: The refugees are transferred onto trains that bring them to other parts of Russia further from the border). To be honest, tears came to my eyes when I saw all the buses full of people, when I drove by on Monday. After all, they will clearly not be able to go back anytime soon and are leaving their homes for a long time. I read that some of them are even being brought to Kazan." (Eds. note: Kazan is located about 1,500 kilometers away.)

Alexander, 60, retired train conductor

Alexander, 60 years old

Alexander, 60 years old

Foto: Maxim Babenko / DER SPIEGEL

"Putin is doing things right. I’m not afraid of a new war, not at my age. I’m already retired, live in a village outside of the city, take care of my garden, the potatoes. The situation in the Donbas will now calm down. It will take time, but that’s what will happen, I’m convinced of it."

Ilya, 18

Ilya, 18 years old

Ilya, 18 years old

Foto: Maxim Babenko / DER SPIEGEL

"Of course I’m in favor of recognizing the territories. Will there be a new war? There’s already been one for eight years, and I’m afraid it's not going to be coming to an end any time soon. Plus, there’s the propaganda war, which is like a lever that constantly exerts pressure on people to change their opinion. We can see how the Western media haven’t revised history on just one occasion. In the U.S., they say that it was the Americans who won World War II, and not the Russians. Of course, if worse comes to worst, I would be ready to fight for my country, for our sovereignty. Together with other volunteers on the weekend, I helped bring refugees from the Donetsk and Luhansk region to the train and to find their seats."

Yulia, 43, market fruit vendor

Our volodya (Eds. Note: a nickname for Vladimir Putin) is just great. I have always voted for him. He’ll take care of things. The main thing is that he ensures peace. All of this makes me anxious, all the buses arriving here behind us with the refugees. When you only read about it, it’s different than when you see it yourself. All this is terrible, I feel for the people, the children."

Tonya Vzhyol, 59, pensioner

Tonya Vzhyol, 59 years old

Tonya Vzhyol, 59 years old

Foto: Maxim Babenko / DER SPIEGEL

"The territories have finally been recognized by the Kremlin as independent. This should have happened eight years ago. Thank God! What a speech by Putin, I watched it live on TV. I am so happy about it, what a day of celebration it is for us! My friends and I sent each other congratulations afterwards. My son believes that now, after the recognition of the 'People’s Republic of Donetsk and Luhansk,’ the danger of war will increase. I see it differently. I think we are one, one people, and I say that as someone who was myself born in Ukraine. I come from Zaporizhzhya region (Eds. Note: Area in southeastern Ukraine, west of the Donbas) and came to Taganrog after the collapse of the Soviet Union. I think that we belong together, not only the Donbas region, but also Kharkiv (a region in northeastern Ukraine), Dnipropetrovsk (in eastern Ukraine) and also my home region of Zaporizhzhya."

Andrei Merkushkin, 28, train conductor from Rostov-on-Don

Andrei Merkushkin, 28 years old

Andrei Merkushkin, 28 years old

Foto: Maxim Babenko / DER SPIEGEL

"To be honest, I try not to think about the issue at all if I can. I don’t want to be afraid of war and I try to block all of that out. Recognizing the 'People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk’ is really a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it’s good for the people there, they are further integrated into the Russian state. On the other hand, it could go badly for us. By that I mean, there could be a new war. God forbid that should happen. And then, the economic consequences that we are now already feeling, the exchange rate for the ruble has already crashed."

Ilona, 58, with her dog Luziya, retired economist

Ilona, 58 years old

Ilona, 58 years old

Foto: Maxim Babenko / DER SPIEGEL

"Putin’s speech was commendable. Though I don’t really like him, I think it is time for him to make way for a successor. I have always voted for the communists. But I support the fact that he has now recognized the 'People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk.’ It is simply very unpleasant to live in a border region, so close to Ukraine, where the nationalists are shooting (Eds. Note: this is how she refers to Ukrainians). They recently tried to push into Russian territory. How do I know that? I saw it on the news.

The Ukrainians want to go to war. I am convinced of that. There is some kind of hatred involved: They hate eastern Ukrainians and Muscovites and think we have annexed territory (Eds. Note: she is referring to the Crimea). But that’s not true. The land used to belong to us and was taken from us after the end of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union and Ukraine itself were founded by Lenin. Without Lenin there wouldn’t be any Ukraine, as Putin correctly pointed out. Now, Ukraine has forced us to take these measures, to recognize the 'people’s republics,’ to send troops – after all, the Ukrainians don’t want the regions and all the people there."

Vitaly, 27, works in a café

"My friends and I are all against the recognition of the 'People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk.’ But many people are afraid to speak about it publicly, to criticize the leadership. There is a lot of pressure, along with the uncertainty and fear of what is coming. Repression in Russia has increased enormously recently.

I don’t like at all what’s happening now, Putin’s smugness, the feeling that everything we have seen recently seems very staged, as if this script had been written a long time ago. This is all very scary. I think that no matter what happens, it will not end well. I also don’t understand at all why Putin is acting like this – on what basis, based on what facts? His speech about Lenin, that everything was terrible back then, that is nonsense. He himself was a member of the Communist Party during the Soviet Union.

I like the fact that the EU and the U.S. reacted quickly with sanctions – and targeted at Putin’s entourage, not at all of us."

Note: A further eight people did not want to speak or said they were not closely following the situation or only briefly said they supported Putin’s actions. Two people did not want to speak to foreign media, including an elderly lady who first said she wanted to award Putin the title Hero of Russia and then refused to be approached by a foreign journalist.