“Every day, civilians die at the hands of these fascists. <...> We bury people every day at this point. Crippled children, murdered elders. This is their doing,” Vyacheslav Gladkov, the governor of the Belgorod region of Russia, speaks passionately in a video message posted on his Telegram channel.
Since the start of the invasion of Ukraine, Gladkov’s socials have turned into a war bulletin: almost every day, he updates the local population on explosions in the territory bordering Ukraine and on the number of injured and killed.
Before 24 February 2022, Gladkov tried build an image of a “governor close to the people” and often posted videos on Instagram that started with the phrase “Good evening, friends!” But after the war had started, the governor said goodbye to the “enemy” social network and changed his rhetoric.
At the end of March of last year, Gladkov published his last post on Instagram, saying goodbye to his followers and asking them to follow him on the “allowed” socials. “I can’t stand by while I see a disinformation war against Russia being waged. Meta Platforms, in charge of Facebook and Instagram, has allowed calls for violence against our boys — Russian soldiers, and also approved calls for murder of our President!” Gladkov wrote in his last Instagram post. The post is accompanied by a photo: the governor, dressed in a hoodie with the Z letter on it, is waving goodbye.
As the war progresses, the situation in the region has become more and more difficult, with the area being subjected to shelling increasingly often. One of the villages of the region — Novaya Tavolzhanka — ended up under control of the Russian Volunteer Corps (RVC), a unit fighting for Ukraine. Russia has branded them terrorists.
On 4 June, the RVC and the Freedom of Russia Legion offered to negotiate with Gladkov and discuss a prisoner swap. A video posted to the RVC Telegram channel shows Denis Nikitin — a Russian ultra-right activist, leader of the RVC — addressing Gladkov. Nikitin claimed that the men shown in the video are captured Russian soldiers. The RVC leader says that he is not far from Novaya Tavolzhanka and proposes to return Russian POWs to Gladkov in exchange for “a couple of minutes to chat” about the “fates of Russians” and a “useless deadly war”, which is now being waged on the territory of the Belgorod region.
For several hours, Gladkov stayed quiet. Then he recorded a video, in which he stated that he had seen the message from the “bastards, rogues, murderers, and fascists”. “I hope they all will be destroyed. There’s no other way, period,” he said. Gladkov added that the prisoners were “most likely killed”, but if they were alive, then he was ready to meet with the RVC representatives. He proposed his own meeting spot — from 5 PM till 6 PM at the car border checkpoint near the town of Shebekino. “I guarantee your safety,” he promised.
Due to the fact that Gladkov proposed another spot, the meeting did not take place. There was a new video message from the corps on the same evening. There were more prisoners in the video that time — ten people. Identities of four of them were verified by journalists of Telegram channels We Can Explain and Astra: Roman Gomenyuk, Yury Martynov, Alexey Khimitsky, and Dmitry Yermakov — all of them natives of the town of Velikiye Luki, Pskov region. Another prisoner from the Pskov region, Denis Vylomov, was identified by his relatives, who contacted journalists.
“Just as we expected, Mr. Gladkov did not see the need, did not find the courage to exchange his precious time for the lives and freedom of, as he said, ‘our boys’,” Nikitin stated in the second video.
He added that the POWs would be handed over to Ukraine’s Armed Forces for future swaps.
Technocrat in Putin’s era
Gladkov became the head of the Belgorod region in November 2020. That was when Vladimir Putin appointed him as acting governor; Gladkov later said that he had agreed immediately. At that moment, he was 51.
Gladkov replaced Yevgeny Savchenko, who managed the region for 27 years. Almost 78% of local residents voted for Gladkov at the September 2021 elections.
Both the residents and the local media noted that Gladkov had found his way into people’s hearts with his openness and ability to communicate both on his socials and in the media. It played especially well in comparison to closed-off Savchenko who didn’t communicate much with citizens or journalists.
“When Savchenko was relieved of his duties before the end of his term, we didn’t have many options. Out of all the proposed candidates, Gladkov, who was a member of the United Russia party, seemed like the best option. The local residents even started joking around — my colleagues and I would say hi to each other with ‘Good afternoon, friends!’ — just like Gladkov on Instagram. That was literally how he became more famous than the others,” a journalist for the Belgorod region state media tells us on condition of anonymity.
“I can’t say that we were expecting some grand moves from him. And we didn’t get the thing we weren’t expecting to get. We had a governor and that’s about it. It is a good thing that at least it was easy for journalists to approach him. We sometimes met up with him at a cafe, or just outside on a bench.”
Gladkov was born in the Kuchki village in the Penza region. He studied economics at university and got a master’s degree in management. For some strange reason, he defended his PhD in Chechnya in 2012.
Before the start of the full-scale war, Gladkov wasn’t particularly famous.
“Before Gladkov, the region was developing faster, in particular because of the flow of qualified personnel coming from nearby Kharkiv. With time, this flow, obviously, came to an end,” says political scientist Dmitry Oreshkin. “And so did the Belgorod region’s advantages compared to its neighbours — it was now a mediocre region. Which, it seems, was just fine with the governor. He never displayed any particular ambition, he managed the region the best he could. From what I understand, the local population didn’t like him very much.”
Political scientist Anton Chablin said back when Gladkov had been appointed that, as a political manager, the governor was weak; people in governmental and United Russia circles, who had worked with Gladkov closely, said he was inflexible, unbudgeable, non-creative and at the same time “unruly and vindictive”: “a typical official who only considers a situation from his limited POV.” According to Chablin, Gladkov wasn’t particularly impressive when it came to finances either.
Residents of the Belgorod region Novaya-Europe has talked to note that life, indeed, did not change in the region under Gladkov’s rule — it didn’t get better, nor did it get any worse.
“[Before the war] he would post what was happening in the region, tried to make it seem as if everything was better than it actually was,” local resident Irina V., 50, says. “That was how we found out that there was a grand opening or a facility was built. He didn’t pay much attention to us, and we didn’t pay much attention to him. When the special military operation started, everyone became agitated: how will he help if someone attacks us? We understood at once that there’d be no help [from him].”
Another interlocutor said that during the first days of the war Gladkov “made everyone panic”:
“He immediately published a post about us being located on the border, so we were in danger; that aid stations would be opened; he closed schools and kindergartens. Probably, instead of getting angry at him back then, the better course of action was to pay attention and leave.”
Almost everyone Novaya-Europe has talked to says, almost sounding sympathetic towards Gladkov, that he was “abandoned” by the Russian government, which still hasn’t released any clear statements about the constant shelling of the region.
The federal government hasn’t provided any aid to the residents who suffered from the attacks either.
Political scientist Abbas Gallyamov notes that this is a part of Putin’s strategy — the successes are his while the problems are the responsibility of local governors, in this case Gladkov.
“Obviously, this impacts Gladkov’s image negatively. People think that they were living well before the war, and now their lives are becoming worse and worse. This negative dynamic leaves no space for satisfaction with the government’s actions. So there’s no need for any sociology: it’s obvious that the ratings of both the federal and regional governments are plummeting,” says Gallyamov.
Vyacheslav Gladkov. Photo: social media
Andrey [name changed under his request] who lives in the town of Shebekino, complains that the Russian authorities “started this entire mess themselves” but it’s the residents of the region who are “paying the price”. According to him, the attitude towards Gladkov went from everyone being fine with him to annoyance.
“He’s from United Russia after all, he has been a governor for several years, he must have some connections. Why can’t he call whomever he needs to and say: ‘Hi, I have people dying here, please help us in any way at all.’ Instead of actual help we get his messages, how are they of any help?” Andrey exclaims.
Abbas Gallyamov notes that Gladkov’s actions in the current situation can’t be called a success, but it’s also impossible to lay all the responsibility at his feet. In Putin’s system, says the political scientist, governors are only figureheads, they don’t have any actual power or resources.
Dmitry Oreshkin agrees:
“Gladkov is a governor, he cannot provide security, because there are no armed forces that he has control over. The only thing he can do is repair shattered glass and windows and compensate the families of the killed.”
However, Gladkov has attempted to publicly ask the federal government for help. In February 2023, when attacks on the region increased, he asked that the region be provided with financial aid during a meeting with Putin, seeing as the regional budget cannot handle the expenses.
“We have around 2,500 residential buildings and flats damaged <...> I wanted to ask for money to be allocated for construction of housing for this category — the regional budget will not be able to pay for it,” Gladkov told Putin.
Afterwards, Gladkov said that the region had been allocated 1 billion rubles (€11.2 million), with the majority of the money spent on restoration of destroyed plants.
On 25 May, Gladkov said during a live stream, answering a question about the border “defence full of holes”, that the responsibility lay with the military and that he had “more questions towards the Defence Ministry” than the Belgorod region residents themselves. The governor also indicated that the army was not defending the region well enough.
Political scientists agree that the weird part about the Gladkov situation is that Putin, who had spent a long time creating a power vertical with himself in charge, suddenly left Gladkov to deal with everything happening in a big region on his own.
“There is a logical contradiction here, but there’s not an emotional one,” Oreshkin explains.
“The Kremlin does not want to be associated with the war happening on Russian territory. Gladkov can’t do anything about it,” explains Oreshkin.
“Gladkov is not a winner, or a warrior, so it’s unlikely he would be able to score any points at the front.”
To make that happen, he would need to make some kind of move: save a little girl from shelling or strike back. But Gladkov does not possess such resources, and it’s not a task assigned to him. So he will just have to deal with the aftermath. He will have to provide the reasons why to the refugees that had to abandon their homes. This is not a place where one can score points.
According to Oreshkin, Gladkov tried to make a “move” when he agreed to negotiate a prisoner swap with the RVC. Gallyamov thinks that by agreeing to negotiate Gladkov only tried to “fend off” an attack, because if he were to say no immediately, he’d be called a coward. Instead, he was able to reject the proposition covertly: by first agreeing and then refusing, additionally saying that he was asked to negotiate by “bastards and fascists”.
Oreshkin thinks that because of the lack of coordination with the Kremlin, Gladkov made a statement in discordance with his status and at his own risk: “Why would he be allowed to conduct any negotiations, or do any swaps?
Despite all of these facts, the people Novaya-Europe has talked to think that Gladkov will retain his job for now: he can be a great fall guy in the future.
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