Author: Erich Follath
It’s been two years since Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine. Since then, President Vladimir Putin has been cheered for liberating the peninsula and scorned for usurping it — depending on who you ask. But what do the Crimeans think?
These days, the Kremlin needs a hero like Sergey Karjakin. The 26-year-old, chess grand master was born in Crimea and is a fan of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Soon Karjakin will have the chance to face-off against Norwegian world champion Magnus Carlsen, a duel that approaches the legendary contest between Spasski and Fischer, which took place at a time when East and West were adversaries in the Cold War. Back then, the face-off was also a symbolic battle about the superiority of a political system.
Now it’s once again East versus West, this time under the peculiar auspices of the Crimean crisis. Karjakin had decided to play for the Russian national team as early as 2009. When Putin annexed Crimea just over two years ago, he cheered the Russian conquest and still appears in public in T-shirts bearing Putin’s likeness.
At a referendum on March 16, 2014, 95 percent of Crimean citizens allegedly voted to join Russia. Neither the EU nor the US believed the vote was fair and free; in their eyes, the annexation did and does violate international law, and the territory still belongs to Ukraine.
The Russian press these days portrays the situation in Crimea as heavenly — as a peninsula filled with happy people who are grateful to have been “freed” from Ukraine’s yoke. The media in the US and Europe, by contrast, paint a radically different image: of a frustrated population longing for the old times in which Kiev had control over the peninsula.
What is the truth? Why is Crimea, a relatively small region with a population of 2 million, so important to such a large number of Russians? So important that, despite the downsides of the annexation, they praise their president for his military Blitzkrieg and give Putin high popularity ratings? And what do the people in Crimea think?
YALTA: The Difficult Beauty
There is a Mediterranean smell in the air, lemon trees and rosemary, the lightness of being, with hills reminiscent of the Black Forest, palm trees like on the Cote D’Azur and a deep blue sea. With its seaside promenade and hotels in renovated art nouveau villas, it is immediately clear why Baden-Baden and Nice are Yalta’s sister cities. It is imbued with the spirit of bygone eras: sometimes gaudily chic, sometimes crassly proletarian, always a touch sentimental. In a region viewed by Russians with dreamy nostalgia, Yalta is the epitome of weepy romanticism. Ever since the end of the 18th century, when Catherine the Great incorporated it into her empire, it has been seen as the Arcadia of an entire nation. The country’s greatest writers, from Pushkin to Chekov and Brodsky, all praised Crimea as if it was their beloved. A beloved that they and their countrymen are, of course, entitled to.
It is springtime in Yalta, just before the tourist season is set to get going in earnest, and Yalta is sprucing up. In the five-star villa Elena and traditional hotel Oreanda, the cracks in the walls are being puttied, facades are being repainted and pools cleaned. Executives in the city’s tourism industry say the past two years have been difficult, with 50 percent fewer bookings. This year, though, is supposed to be different. Moscow is subsidizing flights to Crimea, and because an increasingly antagonistic political climate has made Turkey and Egypt less appealing vacation destinations for Russians, it might work.
But international guests will continue to stay away: Because of the sanctions, their airlines cannot land in Crimea and Western credit cards are blocked. The British Street Store on Yalta’s seaside promenade has been taken over by a local chain and the Big Macs are gone, with McDonald’s, once located right behind the Lenin memorial, having closed its doors. The zoo was also closed for a long time after Russian owner Oleg Subkov, 46, quarreled with the new political leadership. Yet early on, Subkov, who become a millionaire businessman in Ukraine, had been so excited about the “reclamation” of Crimea two years ago that he named a pair of newborn tiger babies “Referendum” and “Russian Spring.”
Subkov sits in his office between wild cats made of marble and crocodiles carved out of mahogany, and talks about his disappointment with his new masters: “They repeatedly bullied me with new regulations, denied me my personal rights, and refused to give me an additional generator for heating at night.” Apparently they expected financial gifts from him. “But my principle is: I don’t pay any bribes,” says Subkov. The little tigers, Referendum and Russian Spring, died in his hands.
In a bizarre legal battle, the state charged him with neglecting the animals. In response, he closed the zoo and went to court. Then, night after night, he was alone the animals — with the four elephants, the giraffes and the hyenas — in the zoo, located in the countryside just outside of Yalta.
Yalta was once the site of a momentous political event: In the Livadia Palace, Tsar Nicholas II’s summer residence, Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill divided up in the world in February 1945. Central Committee General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev and many of his successors regularly spent their vacations in Yalta.
Yalta-born historian Igor Yenoyev says: “It was never in doubt where Crimea stood, with two-thirds of its population having Russian roots. Even when Communist Party leader Nikita Khrushchev came up with the crazy idea of giving Crimea to his home republic of Ukraine, nobody was thinking about the end of the Soviet Union. The tragedy only began when the USSR fell apart and Ukraine became independent.” Yenoyev has no problems with the fact that Putin unilaterally suspended the treaty — signed by the Kremlin — which delineated the region’s borders. “Nothing, nada, njet,” he says. “It had to happen.”
SEVASTOPOL: Damned to Heroism
The stretch along the coast west of Yalta is among the nicest in Crimea. Here, near Alushta, Russian oligarch Alexander Lebedev opened his first hotel years ago. He wants to build more extravagant lodgings here. “I didn’t know why this couldn’t become a second Dubai.”
Among business leaders in Putin’s empire, the billionaire Lebedev is seen as the most critical of the Kremlin. Novaya Gazeta, the newspaper he helps finance, even dared to examine and report on the Panama Papers, which connect the president’s circle to dubious shell corporations. But Lebedev didn’t have one negative word to say about the annexation of Crimea — much like most of the rest of the liberal opposition. Even Mikhail Gorbachev, otherwise oriented toward the West, had understanding for Putin’s decision: “I wouldn’t have acted differently with Crimea.”
The coastal road ends in Sevastopol. Expectations that the city, which is home to Russia’s Black Sea fleet, will be a military metropolis bristling with weapons are pleasantly disappointed. Broad park paths lead down to Artillery Bay, where fish restaurants and small cafes do their best to attract customers. Tour boats head out to sea for a closer look at the warships, the pride of the Russian fleet.
It is only at second glance that Sevastopol reveals itself as a historic “Hero City,” with monuments and museums recalling the Crimean War, when English, French and Turkish troops only managed to defeat the city’s defenders after a bloody, 11-month siege in 1855. It was a moment of heroism that was horrifically repeated: Starting in October 1941, Nazi Germany laid siege to Sevastopol for 247 days. When the Germans withdrew in 1942 following their bloody victory, they left behind a destroyed city. Twice defended at high cost, twice burned to the ground, twice rebuilt: It is a legend that still survives today.
In Sevastopol, too, disillusionment has set in following the initial post-annexation jubilation. Things aren’t moving forward, says Aleksei Chaly, 54, the millionaire businessman who pushed for the pro-Russian “revolution” with his fervid speeches and significant amounts of money. Chaly has long been considered the city’s strongman and is still popular in his position as city councilor. He does everything he can to encourage investors to come to Sevastopol. But the authority now lies elsewhere, with the Putin-appointed governor Sergei Menyailo, a “patriot” and vice-admiral of the Black Sea fleet who stood firmly by Moscow’s side during the critical hours of spring 2014.
In the Hero City’s market squares, people complain about increased prices, saying that everything has become over 50 percent more expensive. Nobody complains about the Kremlin, though. Instead, residents tend to blame the local authorities. In the minds of the vast majority of Russians and almost all residents of Sevastopol, Crimea belongs to Russia both geographically and psychologically. It is a part of the Russian identity. “Owning Crimea is the apex of our historical mission, the raison d’être of our culture,” says the Moscow-based historian Andrei Zorin.
BAKHCHYSARAI: Crimea’s Fairy Tale
Crimea is supposed to have always belonged to Russia? To make such a claim, Kremlin historians must ignore a great deal — such as several entire centuries, for instance. They also have to overlook a number of people who left their mark on the peninsula — and not just the Ukrainians.
The city of Bakhchysarai, set in the hills between Simferopol and Sevastopol, feels like the setting for Arabian Nights, with its magnificent Khan Palace, Big Khan Mosque and Fountain of Tears. The inhabitants are almost all Crimean Tatars, descendants of the Khan who ruled the peninsula until the end of the 18th century. They make up about 12 percent of Crimea’s population — and are opponents of the Kremlin. The Muslims overwhelmingly see the Russians as occupiers: Many boycott them and a small number even fights the Russians underground. Moscow, for its part, places the minority population under general suspicion of terrorism and doesn’t shy away from using kidnapping and torture to keep them in line.
Near the palace, Elmira Chiygoz talks about her family over Turkish coffee and baklava sweets, constantly glancing around at her surroundings. It wouldn’t be the first time she was waylaid by the military police, she says. The last time they came to her house wasn’t long ago. It was nighttime and they went through all of her drawers and cupboards. Her husband, Akhtem, was arrested in January 2015 and accused of “organizing mass unrest.” In reality, Elmira claims, he had calmed an angry crowd rather than inciting it. She’s afraid her husband will be locked away for years — as a deputy head of the Mejlis, the parliamentary representatives of the Crimean Tatars, he is a thorn in the side of the new rulers.
The Kremlin recently banned the Mejlis, accusing them of being “extremists.” The European Union called the ban a “serious attack against the rights” of the Crimean Tatars, saying it showed “a further devolution of the human rights situation” on the peninsula. “All we want to do is preserve our culture and observe our faith,” says Chiygoz, who visits her husband in jail as often as possible. She is determined to not give up. She is the kind of strong woman that can be found all over the former Soviet Union. Only Chiygoz’s eyes betray just how forced her smile sometimes is.
Like all people in Bakhchysarai, she knows the story of the Crimean Tatars — and this makes her suspicious of Russian rulers. In 1944, Stalin had the entire ethnic group deported from the peninsula due to their alleged collaboration with the Nazis. Tens of thousands died on their way to Central Asia. It wasn’t until after Gorbachev’s assurances in the age of perestroika that many people returned.
Now the Kremlin is making new insinuations about the Tatars — anti-Moscow Islamism. And a number of Tatars have, in fact, begun to fight the Russians with acts of sabotage. To that end, the Kremlin’s accusations could become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the moderates from the Tatar’s parliamentary representation, like Akhtem Chiygoz, could be pushed into the background.
For the Tatars, Ukraine’s victory at this year’s Eurovision Song Contest by the singer Jamala was simultaneously a triumph and a danger. Jamala’s song, which was about her grandparents’ expulsion from Crimea by Stalin, hit close to home for many who now fear Putin will sharpen his position against the Tatar minority. Putin regarded Jamala’s win as a humiliation, and the vice president of Crimea denounced it as a supposed “anti-Russian plot.” Pro-Kremlin journalists threatened to drive to next year’s Eurovision contest in Kiev “in tanks.”
And so, Crimea once again finds itself at a crossroads: not paradise, not hell, but purgatory. It isn’t hopelessness that shapes life, but a strongly tempered sense of hope.
In the east of the peninsula, Putin is spending billions on a bridge across the Kerch Strait that will connect Crimea to the Russian mainland. In the north, the Russian and Ukrainian armies are deployed within sight of each other along the border. The enmity between the two countries even extends to the preparation of borscht, the traditional soup made from red beets: The Ukrainians say it should include garlic, but some Russians insist it only calls for bay leaves.
The Russian soldiers repeat what the propagandists drum into them every day: Over there, fascists are in control who must never be allowed to get Crimea back. They claim it wasn’t an annexation at all, but a “reclamation” that was carried out “without firing a shot” and “democratically legitimized” through a referendum.
In 1783, Prince Grigory Potemkin called upon Catherine the Great to annex Crimea: “Russia needs a paradise.” When the peninsula was conquered, she wrote him back: “Occupying territory is never unpleasant for us. What we hate is giving it up again.” Putin now had larger-than-life-sized posters hung up all over Crimea, with only three words surrounding his triumphantly smiling face: “Crimea. Russian. Forever.”