In Background, Crimea

By Vera Graziadei , published on her website, Sept. 18, 2014. Vera Graziadei is a British-Ukrainian-Russian actress and writer who resides in London.

Map CrimeaIt’s mid-July and I’m on a flight to a place that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of Britain advises against all travel to with these menacing warnings:

Russian forces and pro-Russian groups have established full operational control in Crimea. Following an illegal referendum on 16 March, Russia illegally annexed Crimea on 21 March and tensions remain high. Flights in and out of Simferopol airport are subject to disruption. … Train and bus routes out of the peninsula are still operating, though subject to unscheduled disruptions. There are reports of road blocks, with passengers being searched but traffic is able to get through. If you’re currently visiting or living in Crimea, you should leave now. If you choose to remain, you should keep a low profile, avoid areas of protest or stand-off and stay indoors where possible.

Had I not been going to this exotic peninsula on the edge of the Black Sea every single year since I was 6, I would probably follow this mis-advice, which is still current on the UK government’s website. Even at the peak of the Crimean crisis in March 2014, when I was phoning all my numerous Crimean friends, worrying about the situation there, I was always reassured that most of the things I read in the western media were a lie. None of these friends, mainly living in the southern area of Crimea, have encountered any problems, seen any little green men, been searched, threatened or in any way intimidated. The majority of ordinary citizens were not affected at all, and far from ‘keeping a low profile’, people flocked to the streets at any opportunity to celebrate what most see as a ‘re-unification’ with Russia.

“I was crying with joy. I’ve never seen the sea front so full people. Everyone was ecstatic (re: Russia’s Day, 12th June). The day Crimea joined Russia was the happiest day of my life”, one of the old friends of my family, Lyubov (65), who was born in Yalta and lived there all her life, told me on the phone. All my other friends and acquaintances, 23 to 70 year olds, whom I’ve spoken to voted for independence from Ukraine and told me that all their friends and family have done the same. The only person I knew, whose experience was different was a Crimean-born Ukrainian singer Jamala of Qimily Tatar origin, who wrote to me back in March: “when my grandpa heard that Russian occupied Crimea, he barely handled it. He will not be able to endure another war, that’s why I’m in hysterics as well.”

The Crimean Peninsula is a unique cultural crossroads where east meets west – amongst feather-grassed steppes, forested mountains and a picturesque coastline you can find Greek ruins, Italian fortresses, Scythian burial tumuli, the Palace of the Crimean Khan, Jewish synagogues in caves, Tsar’s and Russian nobility’s palaces, as well as many Soviet era spas. Ethnically, 58% of the Crimean population is Russian, 24% is Ukrainian and 10.2% are Tatars, along with other minorities, including Belorussian, Volga Tatars, Armenians and Jews. All of these people’s welfare mainly depends on tourism and agriculture, so it’s ironic that while the governments and press of the West profess their love for the minorities of Crimea, they are actually economically impoverishing those people when issuing warnings against travel to their homeland.

Street scene in Simferopol, image from Flikr Commons

Street scene in Simferopol, image from Flikr Commons

I’m worried that when I arrive to Simferopol airport, I’ll encounter empty lounges, so I question the first airport assistant I see about how busy they are. “We used to have 23 flights a day and now we have 80. All from Russia. We are very busy”, she replies. Of course, many people used to drive to Crimea via Ukraine, but with the war in Donbass that option is not available to them anymore. During my July trip, I find Crimea quieter than usual, though by August it seems quite busy again. As a regular tourist, I don’t see any major changes except for Russian flags everywhere, placards advertising Russian political parties, and police being dressed in a different uniform. Otherwise, Crimea remains just like I love it – culturally and geographically rich and with always something new to explore. Needless to say I never encountered any major road blocks, never been stopped, searched or threatened (even though both my husband and I always spoke in English). Crimean beaches are not empty, there is food in the shops and most of what I’ve read about Crimea before I went there was just not true. One of the goals of my trip was to talk to people themselves, to hear their voices unmediated by the press and to understand what they think and feel about their new political status.

On both trips, I visit Hotel Yalta, a modernist giant that recalls a large ship, where my parents used to take me when I was a girl and a teenager, and I’m pleasantly surprised to find it full, not much under its usual capacity. Owned by Moscovites for quite a few years, it was only this summer that the owners decided to do numerous renovations, including a new pool, new playground, new restaurants and a lounge Cinema-themed bar that looks like it could easily belong in the South of France. Many more works were still underway – a sign of the owner’s renewed optimism in the future of the business. “Things are going ok this summer, but next year will be better”, a young lady at the reception quickly answers me, but she avoids giving me more specific numbers and pretends to be busy with papers.

Two receptionists at the Alushta’s Sanatorim Druzhba, a Soviet modernist masterpiece resembling a spaceship out of Tarkovsky’s Solaris, are far more willing to engage in a conversation given that their dilapidated workplace is only 1/3 full. Lyudmila, 43, and Alyona, 48, both of whom voted for re-unification, are now upset that the prices have gone up but their wages remained the same (only now they are paid in rubles). “No one controls prices, so some shops have raised them more than others. It’s like a free-for-all.”, complains Alyona. “It’s better in Sevastopol, because they have a good mayor, he actually walks around the city himself, checking prices”, adds Lyudmilla. Despite their complaints, both conclude that it’s much better to be with Russia than to have a war like in Donbass. As Alyona starts recounting some horror story from the battlefields that she saw on TV, somewhere in a distant hall Beethoven’s Moon Sonata starts playing and I start feeling a knot in my throat.

A 25-year old Oksana, whom I’ve just spoken to about how badly business has been for the games arcades where she works, suddenly mentions to me that she’s not from Crimea but from Donbass. As I tell her that I was born in Donbass too, we both stare at each other in silence for a moment – two strangers sharing the same pain. Then she tells me about her mother in Gorlovka, who keeps calling her in the middle of the night in fear, as the area where she lives is being shelled. She tells me that even though she planned to stay in Crimea for the whole tourist season, now she’s going back to Gorlovka within a week to be by her mother’s side. As if to avoid breaking down in tears, Oksana goes back to the issue of business: “It was very bad this summer, many arcades are closing down, but only temporarily, because here they have faith in the future.” The last sentence hangs heavily between us – Donbass civilians are still being shelled by the Ukrainian Army, some managed to escape to Russia and Crimea, but those remaining don’t have much ground for having faith.

Anatoliy, a native Crimean 50 year old ex-KGB agent who now rents out holiday homes in Gurzuf, is full of faith and enthusiasm, despite the fact that he only had onew tird of his usual summer gains. He’s sure that business will be back to normal once the Kerch Bridge, to connect Crimea with mainland Russia, is built, which should happen in three to four years. He said that he voted for reunification, even though by doing so he lost all his professional contacts in Ukraine.  He seems very proud of his new Russian passport and his new president, and is optimistic about Crimean prospects within a larger country. He admits that since Crimea became a part of Russia, it became harder to make extra money by overcoming laws: “Ukrainian corruption meant that you could find your way around making a few more hryvnas, but Russians are much stricter about corruption, which is great for Crimea, even if it means that personally I will be getting less.”

Some of the younger generation are not as optimistic. Crimean-born Liza Kuzub, who’s been living in Kiev since 2012 but has come back home for the summer, shares with me that many of her friends, who are young interpreters and translators like herself, are concerned about their career prospects, as there are no foreign tourists and there are fears that there won’t be many in the future, if “Crimea becomes an anti-globalisation, isolated place”. As a result, 70 per cent of the young people she knows are planning to move out of Crimea in search of a more promising life. A Maidan activist, she still says that she always loved Russia and Russian people, even though recent events have made her look at everything “in a different light”.

In contrast, Olga Rogacheva, a 27 year old translator from Sevastopol, is not planning to move anywhere and dismisses my question about whether Russia enforced a referendum upon Crimeans. “All my family and friends in Sevastopol wanted to join Russia for a long time. I even have a video on Youtube, where the people gathered at the Popular Assembly on the square and decided to separate from Ukraine. Back then, there was not even talk about the Russian army or seeking Russia’s help. It was just the people of Sevastopol deciding themselves that their city should become autonomous because they didn’t want to be with Kiev anymore.”

Street scene in Sevastopol, Crimea, image from Flikr Commons

Street scene in Sevastopol, Crimea, image from Flikr Commons

Sevastopol has always been a Russian city with a special status, so it’s not surprising that they would be pro-Russian, but it’s not much different for the rest of Crimea. When the Soviet Union collapsed and Ukraine voted to be independent, Crimean support was the lowest of all of the Ukraine (only 54 per cent in favor) with very low turnout (65 per cent). The following year, the Crimean parliament voted in favour of holding a referendum but it was forcefully suppressed by Kiev’s administration, as a New York Times article from 1992 testifies. Since then, separatist activism in Crimea is well-evidenced on a historical timeline of the UN resources library. It’s a myth to portray the Crimean referendum as an outcome of Russian state intervention. On the contrary, if one looks at the historical timeline, it appears to be Kiev who was suppressing Crimea’s constitutional right to self-determination for many years.

Olga Sergeeva, a 60 year old conservation architect who worked on the restoration of all of the main architectural icons of Crimea, including Alupka Palace, Livadia Palace, Bakhchisarai Palace and Keraites Kenasas, told me that “there’s a huge layer of Russian history in Crimea, expressed in buildings and city plans”. She explains to me that while during Soviet times, there was a law requiring ten per cent of the budget to go towards restoration, after the collapse of the Union, that money disappeared. That meant she really struggled with keeping buildings standing and mainly did ‘cosmetic’ works. “Ukrainians had different priorities and were not able to properly restore, rebuild and create new pieces, but now everything is in its place and Crimea will eventually have state support for the regeneration of Russian culture.” Sergeeva told me that after the results of the referendum were announced, she cut off all her long hair, to mark a new beginning. “Everyone was crazy out of happiness! The whole meaning of my life has been crystallised – I understood what I was doing in my job, and I was ecstatic to be reunited with the land, where my ancestors are buried.”

Viktor Aleksandrovich Bezverhiy, 63, Head of Leisure of Dyulber, a sanatorium that used to belong to the Verhovna Rada (Supreme Council) of Ukraine and now passed on to the Kremlin, expresses similar sentiments about his hope for the regeneration of his crumbling workplace. An aesthete, quoting Khalil Gibran, while talking about the history of this unusual, Oriental-style Palace built by Grand Prince Peter Romanov, Viktor Aleksandrovich confides that “during the Ukrainian reign, nothing was done here, everything was falling apart. Now we have hope. Already I’ve met our new bosses and they are totally different set, serious people. They are not just about ‘vodka i seledka’ (vodka and Herring) like the guys before.”

Crimean-born Igor, a 32 year old organiser of concerts who developed patriotic feelings for Ukraine though not to the extent as to “wear Ukrainian embroidered shirts”, confidently states that even though in his opinion the referendum was illegal, “because the rules of the referendum were broken and sovereignty of a country was violated”, he doesn’t doubt that majority of Crimeans voted to be with Russia. He is sceptical about reasons for such voting: “Only 20 per cent of people are sincere Russian patriots, the rest are just pragmatic people, who see it to be more “profitable” to be part of a bigger economically more powerful neighbour.” He is convinced that it was Russian media that influenced people’s opinions: “I just hope for all the people that voted for Russia, expecting ‘golden mountains’,that those golden mountains will come to them.” Personally he did not vote at all because he “prefers to be free and he doesn’t want his rights to be curtailed in Russia.” When I ask him which particular rights he’s afraid he might not be able to exercise, he replies “in Russia, you can’t even re-post Navalny’s blog and I prefer to live not such a rich life, but to be free.” At the end of the interview, when I ask him whether he’s going to move out of Crimea, he admits that even though he has the means to do so, he’ll stay as he’ll be able to “live with it all”.

To get a minority perspective, I speak to Mustafa Seitumerov (60s), a leader of the Tatars of the Southern Part of Crimea, who confirms that during the time of the referendum some of his people had a lot of fear because of the history of forceful deportation by Stalin. However, the war in Donbass make them grateful to be living in peace. He also reminded me that they used to be represented by Party of the Regions, which is now very weak and has no chances of winning in the near future. This means that even if they remained part of Ukraine, they would have no hope that their interests will ever be represented in the Ukrainian Parliament. However, he did express his regret that joining Russia happened in such a hurried and forceful way and said that even though some of his friends instantly hung tri-coloured (Russian) flags on their homes, for the majority it will take a longer time to change their hearts. He shared his hopes that Tatar people will not be fooled and that the promises made to them by the new government (e.g. 20 per cent of MPs in the Crimea parliament), will be fulfilled. He denies rumours that Tatar people are planning an armed uprising against the new government: “Tatars fought for 70 years for their rights and we never took up arms. We want to be working with the new government, we do not want to be pushed away.”

During my second trip to Crimea in August, I get a chance to get the opinion of a Tatar man in his thirties, who works in the main Mosque of Crimea in Evpatoriya. He tells me that it’s untrue what the media says that all Tatars are united by one attitude. “Different people have different opinions. Some are pro-Ukraine and some are pro-Russia. We are peaceful and cooperative people. We want to be respected and we will respect back.” Already during the short time that Crimea has been under Russia, the Tatar language has been legalised as a state language (which Ukrainians refused to do for years) and one of the main Tatar holidays was made into a national holiday for the whole of Crimea.

Women of the Karaites faith in Crimea, from the website of the Karaites Kenasas temple complexFinally, I go to Karaites Kenasas (temple complex )in Evpatoriya to find out what Karaites Jews feel about being part of Russia. An answer is provided to me by the building itself – in the central yard there is a marble obelisk to Russian Emperor Alexander I with a Russian golden eagle on the top. Karaites, unlike Tatars, have no history of conflicts with Russia and on the contrary, they have always collaborated with them, have fought on Russia’s side during all wars, and many Karaites have taken high positions of power under previous Russian rule.

Overall, despite a slower touristic season, the majority of Crimeans seem happier to be part of Russia than Russians themselves, even though with any new political change there will always be those who are unsatisfied. The question is whether despite legitimate questions on how it came about, one chooses to respect Crimeans’ right to self-determination as per the Autonomous Republic of Crimea’s constitution, or whether one chooses instead to disregard this right for the sake of other geopolitical and economic agendas. It’s clear that majority of Western governments and the press are choosing the latter.


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