Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, it always seemed likely that the war would come back to Rostov-on-Don, the city which until then had been my home. Rostov isn’t just close to the border but feels it. Most of my university students were from the Donetsk and Lugansk, refugees from the 2014-2022 war. It’s the military hub of southern Russia, the first major city you come to from the Donbass. It felt like a sitting invitation.
It was also somewhere I knew intimately and had been part of my life since my half-Russian daughter’s birth a decade ago. I took to Rostov-on-Don with an outsider’s greed for all four corners of the city, but lived bang in the centre. When images of the Wagner Group’s invasion of Rostov began to appear on Saturday, they were in places I knew as well as you know your own local Tesco or all-night garage. The circus, its entrance blocked by a tank alongside cute cartoon posters of elephants was a five-minute walk from my house and a place I knew inside and out. The takeaway where masked Wagner soldiers slung with loaded automatics were shown pushing their way into the queue for breakfast-burgers was once my local McDonalds. Snipers had been sighted on top of Galeria Astor, the shopping centre where I used to buy my weekly groceries and pick up toys for my child. Watching packs of menacing soldiers and military hardware swarm over these locations was disconcerting, to say the least.
But it was a good chance to reestablish contact with people I’d fallen out of touch with since last year. Most intended to remain indoors – they’d been heavily advised to do so – but there were a few brave souls willing to go out to work.