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At Latvia's border with Russia, the line grows long, and tempers short


TEREHOVA, Latvia — The road carrying a mile-long stream of semi-trucks waiting to enter Russia from Latvia is lined with port-a-potties and dumpsters full of junk-food wrappers and empty caffeinated soda bottles. The wait to get through this border crossing takes around two days.

"You should have seen this line two months ago," recalls Belarusian trucker Dmitri, who sits in the cab of his truck passing the time watching Russian television. "There were more than a thousand trucks and it took at least seven days to cross into Russia."

Dmitri, who doesn't give his last name for fear of being targeted for his opinions, has been idling here for two days, inching toward the front of the line. The mustachioed man in his 50s says he's transporting a trailer full of beer from Germany to Moscow, and he says because his country has aligned with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Moscow's invasion of Ukraine has impacted his work and reputation.

"I've lost work from this and people treat me worse than before," he says. "I was in Lithuania a few days ago trying to eat at a Ukrainian restaurant there, and they wouldn't let me. They kicked me out and told me to get my food from Putin instead."

Dmitri says he ate at a restaurant across the street, but the incident stuck with him. "The leaders behind this war aren't suffering from it," he says. "It's us, the regular people, who have to suffer."

Latvia, a member of NATO and the European Union, has pushed for a strong global response to Russia's war in Ukraine. The country's 180-mile border with Russia has become tense as a result. Long lines of trucks at border crossings illustrate the toll economic sanctions against Russia and Belarus have taken, and anxieties among those living along the border are also on the rise.

Some of those in Latvia are stateless

Farther back in line is Anatoly Chibaterevsky, who's driving 1,000 miles from his home in western Latvia to his brother's funeral in Volgograd, a city in southwest Russia. The 75-year-old has lived in Latvia most of his life. He doesn't say what country he was born in, but explains that his family moved here as part of the Soviet occupation of the country shortly after World War II, and returned after being deported to Siberia for a decade's worth of hard labor in 1949.

When Latvia gained independence in 1991, Chibaterevsky was one of tens of thousands of ethnic Russians who were never given Latvian citizenship. He is essentially stateless. He rifles through his suitcase and emerges with his passport, which says "Latvian noncitizen" on its burgundy cover.

He says he hopes the Russians let him enter. "They usually let me cross with no problems," he says, "but last time they told me, 'You ran away from Russia, so you're staying in Latvia.'"

Ethnic Russians are a large minority in Latvia

Ethnic Russians like Chibaterevsky only make up a quarter of Latvia's population of 2 million, but they're the norm in the towns along the eastern border, where many of them speak Russian and identify with Russia. And up until recently, they got much of their information about the world from Russian TV.

"Russian channels are now blocked and since Russia has been declared the aggressor, we just follow orders and watch what we're being ordered to watch," says Nadezhda Kravchenko, who lives in the Latvian border town of Zilupe.

When asked how Russia's war in Ukraine is affecting her, she says Latvia has no power over the situation, that it's none of her business, and then walks away without saying another word.

Nearly everyone NPR approached in Zilupe was hesitant to talk about the war.

"Everyone is afraid to tell you what they really think, but I'm not," says Jurijs, a 65-year-old pensioner who says he's not scared to talk about the war, but doesn't give his last name for fear of being targeted by authorities.

He says he watches both Russian and Latvian news and he's decided the Latvian side is propaganda. "Ukrainians are fascists and the U.S. gives them weapons," he complains, repeating talking points from Russian state TV. "Russia has liberated them, but they continue to plant land mines and bomb kindergartens and hospitals. Why is Ukraine doing this?"

Latvian authorities are cracking down on public support of Russia, and that's why Jurijs says nobody here wants to openly talk about the war. "They can put you in jail for that," he says. "But I'm old. Let them put me in jail for supporting Russia. When Russia invades, they'll come and liberate me."

Some Russian-speakers seem to be changing their views on the war

A poll taken earlier this year by Latvian research firm SKDS showed only 25% of Latvians who spoke Russian at home sympathize with the Ukrainian side in the war, while 83% of Latvian speakers supported Ukraine. In another poll conducted by the same firm, 36% of Russian-speakers in Latvia believed that Russia was fighting "Naziism" in Ukraine, a narrative pushed by Russian state television, while just 6% of Latvian speakers believed the same to be true.

"What we know from surveys done before the Russian invasion of Ukraine is that a majority of Russian speakers in Latvia actually had favorable views regarding Russia and Putin," says SKDS Executive Director Arnis Kaktins. "The reason for that is quite a large part of this population lived in the Russian information field, and we know it is very specific, distorted propaganda, and inevitably you are going to believe it and start to think the same way."

Kaktins says the polls his firm have taken since the war began show an increasing number of Russian-speaking Latvians changing their views to a more nuanced and critical stance on Russian state narratives. Kaktins says young Russian-speaking Latvians tend to be the most critical of Russia's government.

A Ukrainian seeks a roundabout route to the Donbas

Back at Latvia's Terehova border crossing, cars inch forward toward Russia. Among them is the Toyota SUV of Natalia Kononenko, who never thought she'd be here. She's Ukrainian, and she's driven nearly 1,000 miles from Ukraine's capital, Kyiv, where she's been staying, as her home region of Donetsk in the eastern part of her country is being fought over by Russian and Ukrainian troops. Her son, a young student, is stuck there.

"There's talk that the Russians will take over the rest of our region and then we'll have to make a decision to be on one or other side," she says. "But until now, no one is forcibly taking us anywhere."

And that's why Kononenko is on a rescue mission to pull her son out of the Donetsk region. Instead of driving a few hundred miles through the fighting on the front line and risking getting killed, she's driving thousands of miles, circumnavigating Ukraine, so that she can approach Donetsk from Russia, a journey that'll take several days.

She's praying that the Russian border guards will allow her into the country. "There shouldn't be a problem, but we don't know," she says with a nervous grin. "We'll just keep on driving and hope for the best."

Behind her in the line is Anatoly Chibatersvsky, the Latvian noncitizen who's also hoping to get to the other side. "There are benefits to being a noncitizen," he concedes. "With my passport I don't have to buy visas for the EU nor for Russia."

He says even his children who are eligible for Latvian citizenship have opted to be like him and remain stateless. In today's world of national allegiance and the wars fought over it, he says being stateless is, in some ways, a relief.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.