The backrooms at the local communist party headquarters near Belgorod airport are stacked high with supplies.
There are sacks of onions, meat propped up against the garage doors so it stays frozen, plastic bags stuffed with rice and dried goods, and a large cabbage, enough to feed a family for a week or so, albeit heavy to carry from here to the bus stop.
There are nappies and cleaning products and a pile of toys in the corner for children who’ll be spending their first New Year, the big celebration in this part of the world, away from home.
These are donations from across Russia, and Evgeny Bakalo shows them off proudly. His day job is glass fitting but for the past eight years he’s spent his spare time doing what he can to help people in Ukraine whose sympathies lie with Moscow, not Kyiv.
After Russian-backed separatists rose up against Kyiv in 2014, Mr Bakalo would travel to Donbas bringing supplies for children, including teaching aids.
I ask if he removed Ukrainian books from schools, as was reportedly the case in the Kharkiv region when it was under Russian occupation earlier this year.
“We only add books, we don’t deny Ukrainian literature, it’s part of Russian literature. We don’t deny the Ukrainian language. But the textbooks that distort history we of course don’t welcome,” he said.
In Belgorod his focus is sourcing what he can for refugees who find themselves this side of the border. He runs an organisation called ‘The Tenth Circle’, a reference to Dante’s inferno and its nine circles of hell. Mr Bakalo is something of a philosopher as well as being an ardent Sovietophile.
‘I cannot be against my homeland’
“I was born in the Soviet Union, I got a great education there,” he says. “I cannot be against my homeland even when I don’t approve of some of the government’s steps.”
The refugees we meet in his centre aren’t keen to show their faces. Kharkiv is just 50 miles south west of Belgorod and most have fled from the Kharkiv region.
For almost half a year they were under Russian occupation. Then in August the Ukrainians pushed back in a lightning offensive which threw Russia’s military on the back foot. Most have pro-Russian sympathies and they’re not ashamed to say so.
But they are scared of what they’ve heard about the hunt for pro-Russian collaborators back home.
The hunt for pro-Russian collaborators in Ukraine
“Neighbours who support the Ukrainian army tell on them and they get taken away. People go missing,” says one girl from Izyum, immaculately made up, her huge winter hood hoisted up to hide her face.
“They say that the taxi drivers who were taking people to the Russian border are killed. And many people who were cooperating with the Russians, went to work for the administration, as teachers, in gas or electricity services, were all sent to jail.”
It is hard to verify particular rumours and it is rumours and information, false or otherwise, which exacerbate the ideological chasm between the majority in Ukraine who see Russia as the aggressor and those who have absorbed Moscow’s messaging and think it had no choice but to invade.
The effect on generational lines
Ukraine is actively tracking down collaborators and there is a 15-year jail term for those found to have aided and abetted Russian forces. Even just being in Russia can make life difficult for relatives on the other side of the border and the decision to flee this way splits families, often along generational lines.
“My own daughter could hand me over to the SBU (Ukrainian Intelligence),” says Olga (not her real name), who was a teacher in the Kharkiv region and, like Mr Bakalo, is keenly nostalgic for soviet times.
“She said to me: ‘Mum, people like you have no place in a school. I’ll hand you over to the SBU’. I deleted the correspondence.”
Ukrainian intelligence has good reason to be worried. In a shopping centre in Belgorod we are introduced to one young man who left Kharkiv and is now working for Russia on defence matters. Both he and Mr Bakalo are on an infamous but unofficial Ukrainian hit list, Myrotvorets, which names people considered enemies of the Ukrainian state.
Myrotvorets, ironically, translates as ‘peacemaker’.
‘A person cannot blame himself for his own problems’
“Everyone who’s on the territory of the Russian Federation are ‘discarded people’ to the Ukrainians now,” this man tells us. “They are afraid that the knowledge they have will be used against Ukraine.”
Does he understand why so many people in Ukraine hate Russia now?
“People must have an enemy, psychologically,” he says. “A person cannot blame himself for his own problems.”
Unlike him, there are tens of thousands of other Ukrainians who fled to Russia because they had no other choice. Shifting frontlines are hard to cross. Many have moved on through Russia and into Europe, keen to spend as little time as possible inside the country that is bombing theirs. Others are trying to make peace with their new reality.
“Yes, I’m staying here in an aggressor state. Yes I’m ready to get help from Russian hands. Yes, I may be deprived of my work, my home, my reputation because staying here and not going to Europe is to agree with the fact that I’m staying in an aggressor state. But I can’t explain to everyone the reasons I stayed,” he added.
A messy compromise
Nika Karakonstantin fled to Russia with four of her children in March, from a village in the Kharkiv region. She now runs a children’s day centre where she looks after Ukrainian refugee children, teaching them in Ukrainian as well as in Russian.
It is a messy compromise, but in Belgorod she is just across the border from where she used to live, with food, heating and supplies and a degree of certainty about what tomorrow brings. Her children can grow up in safety.
Her eldest son though stayed behind.
“All he says is ‘Mama, I love you, I understand you had no choice. But I can’t come over to you. I cannot overcome the feeling of anger, disgust, hatred. I won’t cope like you have. I cannot forgive’.”