In the Russian city of Yefremov, residents have expressed shock at the case of a father who was separated from his 13-year-old daughter because her drawing criticized Moscow’s offensive.
The city of 37,000, some 300 kilometers from the Russian capital, is showing every outward sign of patriotic support for the year-long campaign seen across the country.
“For a world without Nazism” reads a billboard on Main Street – alongside the letters “Z” and “V” used by Russian forces in Ukraine.
But its residents are quietly divided over the fighting and have been rocked by a case in recent weeks that has become evidence of the stifling of any criticism of the offensive.
It all started last year when 13-year-old Maria Moskalyova made a drawing at school showing rockets next to a Russian flag heading towards a woman and child standing next to a Ukrainian flag.
Her principal immediately contacted police, who said they found comments criticizing the offensive on the social media profiles of the girl’s father, 54-year-old Alexei Moskalyov.
Moskalyov is due to go on trial on Monday for “discrediting the Russian armed forces,” which carries a maximum sentence of up to three years in prison under a law passed last year.
Moskalyov is also at risk of losing parental rights in a separate trial scheduled to start on April 6, according to his lawyer Vladimir Bilyenko.
Since March 1, Moskalyov has been under house arrest while his daughter was taken to an orphanage and forbidden to call her father, according to city councilor Olga Podolskaya.
The mother is estranged from the family.
The case in this otherwise tranquil town in Russia’s Tula region has garnered national attention, prompting an online petition calling for the child’s return to his father.
Even Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner paramilitary force leading the Russian offensive, has pledged his support to Maria and has criticized local authorities for their actions.
– ‘I want this to be over’ –
On the streets of Yefremov, few residents were willing to speak openly about the case – or about their views on the campaign in Ukraine.
“The separation of a father from his daughter is terrible. She was just expressing an opinion,” said Alexandra, a student.
One pensioner, who declined to be named, said her life has changed since February 24, 2022 – the day Russian troops invaded Ukraine.
“I don’t blame anyone. I see casualties on both sides. I want this to be over as soon as possible,” she said.
Several fresh graves of soldiers killed in what Russia calls its “military special operation” could be seen at the local cemetery.
The offensive felt even closer last month when three Ukrainian drones reportedly struck in the region.
These developments have caused growing concern in a small town where everyone knows everyone.
In the central square, two elderly women wearing red armbands said they were part of a neighborhood watch initiative set up by local residents to report suspicious activity.
“They told us that an attack was imminent and that we had to restore order,” said one of the women sitting on a bench.
– “You are depressed” –
Alexander Salikhov, a 66-year-old retired engineer, said he wanted peace but added that “we must liberate Russian land” in Ukraine.
Dmitry, a 50-year-old businessman, said he went bankrupt because of Western sanctions that caused major disruptions to supply chains.
“What does the future bring? Power is in the hands of the security services and we are on the brink of nuclear war,” he said.
Podolskaya said residents were at odds.
“You are depressed. You don’t understand what’s happening. But they cannot take to the streets. They’re scared of being laid off — they’ve got mortgages and kids,” she said.
Marianna, a pregnant 31-year-old, said she was more optimistic, although she said she was concerned her husband would be mobilized.
“We hope it ends and our son is born in a peaceful world and doesn’t have to fear military action,” she said, revealing that the couple plans to name him Bogdan – a popular Ukrainian name.