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Long lines of trucks at the Latvia-Russia border show immense toll of war

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The eastern border of Latvia is where trucks wait for days to get through inspection to make sure no one brings contraband goods into Russia. It is also where many Russian-speaking people live and fear to speak their minds. NPR's Rob Schmitz traveled to the region recently and has this report.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: A mile-long line of semitrucks waits to enter Russia at the Terehova border crossing in Latvia. The road is lined with port-a-potties and dumpsters filled with junk food wrappers and plastic bottles that once held caffeinated beverages. Belorussian trucker Dmitri passes the time chatting with a friend and watching Russian TV shows on his phone in the cab of his truck. He's been here for two days, and he's inched towards the front of the line. Not bad, he says.

DMITRI: (Through interpreter) You should have seen this line two months ago. There were more than a thousand trucks, and it took at least seven days to cross into Russia.

SCHMITZ: European Union sanctions on Russia have made border crossings like Terehova a test in patience. Dimitri, who doesn't give his last name for fear of being targeted, is transporting a trailer full of beer from Germany to Moscow. He's Belorussian, and he says because his country has aligned with Russia, Moscow's invasion of Ukraine has impacted his work and reputation.

DMITRI: (Through interpreter) I've lost work from this. People treat me worse than before. 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. They told me to get my food from Putin instead.

SCHMITZ: Dmitri says he ate at a restaurant across the street, but the incident stuck with him.

DMITRI: (Through interpreter) The leaders behind this war aren't suffering from it. It's us, the regular people, who suffer.

SCHMITZ: Further back in line is Anatoly Chibaterevsky, who's driving a thousand 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 all his life. His family came here as part of the Soviet occupation of the country. When Latvia gained independence in 1991, he was one of tens of thousands who were never given Latvian citizenship. He is essentially stateless. He digs his passport from a bag in his car. It says Latvian noncitizen on its cover. He says he hopes the Russians let him enter. Last time he tried to cross the border during the pandemic, they turned him away.

ANATOLY CHIBATEREVSKY: (Through interpreter) They usually let me cross, no problems. But last time they told me, you ran away from Russia, so you're staying in Latvia.

SCHMITZ: Ethnic Russians make up a quarter of Latvia's population of 2 million, but they're the norm in the towns along the border where they speak Russian, identify with Russia, and up until recently, got much of their information about the world from Russian television.

NADEZHDA KRAVCHENKO: (Through interpreter) 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.

SCHMITZ: Nadezhda Kravchenko lives in the border town of Zilupe. When I ask how Russia's war in Ukraine is impacting her, she says Latvia has no power over the situation, that it's none of her business, and then walks away without saying goodbye. Nearly everyone I approach in this town is hesitant to talk about the war.

JURIJS: (Through interpreter) Everyone is afraid to tell you what they really think, but I'm not.

SCHMITZ: Sixty-five-year-old Jurijs isn't scared to talk about the war, but he doesn't give his last name for fear of being targeted. He says he watches both Russian and Latvian news and has decided the Latvian side is propaganda.

JURIJS: (Through interpreter) Ukrainians are fascists, and the U.S. gives them weapons. Russia has liberated them, but they continue to plant landmines and bomb kindergartens and hospitals. Why is Ukraine doing this? Putin is the most powerful leader in the world.

SCHMITZ: 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.

JURIJS: (Through interpreter) They can put you in jail for that. But I'm old. Let them put me in jail for supporting Russia.

SCHMITZ: He says if he goes to prison, the Russians will eventually come and liberate him anyway. Back at the border crossing, cars inch forward towards Russia. Among them is the Toyota SUV of Natalia Kononenko, who never thought she'd be here trying to get into Russia. She's Ukrainian, and she's driven nearly a thousand miles from Kyiv where she's been staying as her home region of Donetsk is being fought over by Russian and Ukrainian troops. But there's a problem; her son, a young student, is stuck there.

NATALIA KONONENKO: (Through interpreter) There is 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 the other side. But until now, no one is forcibly taking us anywhere.

SCHMITZ: And that's why she's on a rescue mission to pull her son out of the region. Instead of driving a couple hundred miles through the fighting on the front line and risk getting killed, she's driving thousands of miles completely around Ukraine so that she can approach Donetsk from Russia - a journey that will take several days. She's praying that the Russian border guards will allow her into the country.

KONONENKO: (Through interpreter) There shouldn't be a problem. But we don't know. We'll just keep on driving and hope for the best.

SCHMITZ: Behind her in the queue is Anatoly Chibaterevsky, the Latvian noncitizen who's also hoping to get to the other side.

CHIBATEREVSKY: (Through interpreter) There are benefits to being a noncitizen. With this passport, I don't have to buy visas for the EU nor for Russia, and I can freely go anywhere in this region.

SCHMITZ: 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. Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Latvia's border with Russia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.