Three years in Crimea

At 7pm on 18th March 2017, a group of schoolchildren from the Crimean city of Sevastopol clambered onto a hastily assembled stage in Nakhimova Square, near the waterfront promenade. The choice of location was symbolic: Vice Admiral Nakhimov was one of the Russian heroes who led the defence of Sevastopol during the Crimean War when it was besieged by British, French and Ottoman forces. The besieging forces later destroyed the city. Russia rebuilt it.

The children, wearing fur-lined coats to ward off the chill Black Sea air, sang a medley of traditional Russian songs including ‘Legendary Sevastopol’ (sample lyrics: “Legendary Sevastopol / Impregnable to enemies / Sevastopol, Sevastopol / Pride of Russian sailors!”). They were applauded by a modest but enthusiastic audience who had come to celebrate the third anniversary of Crimea rejoining Russia.

After the music, a video lit up the big screens on either side of the stage. It was a Vladimir Putin propaganda film glorifying the president’s achievements and showcasing Russian military prowess, including the obligatory shots of goose-stepping soldiers. The small clusters of Putinophiles began to break up and head home as a sense of fatigue descended on the square. Among the Russian flags which fluttered around them was the more controversial blue cross on a red background of Novorossiya – the name given to the area around Donetsk and Lugansk which was part of Ukraine but is now disputed territory. The design is unavoidably reminiscent of the American Confederate flag, and a reminder that Russian expansionism in the area hasn’t gone entirely smoothly.

The harbour in Yalta

The road to Russia

The path that led to the decisive 2014 referendum began 420 miles to the north, in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev. In November 2013, as his country teetered on the brink of economic meltdown, president Viktor Yanukovych faced a decision: accept the short-term pain and long-term opportunities presented by a trade deal and greater integration with the EU, or take a $15 billion loan from Russia and accept the closer ties that this implied. This long-term Putin ally chose the latter, a move that sparked huge anti-Russian protests in Kiev’s Independence Square.

These were met with heavy-handed, Soviet-era methods of crowd control, approved by Yanukovych but which only stirred up further unrest. The focus of the crisis then shifted south to Crimea, where soldiers without insignias began to arrive at the behest of Russia and seize checkpoints and government buildings. Whether these ‘little green men’ had come to liberate Crimea or annex it depended on your allegiances, but it became clear that neither the EU nor the US were prepared to arm the pro-Europeans and risk a proxy war. Indeed, there was little appetite for bloodshed anywhere apart from in the most Russia-centric eastern regions of Donetsk and Lugansk.

Yanukovych fled Ukraine on 22nd February 2014 as the parliament voted to remove him from power. Constitutional battle lines were drawn, and the Crimean supreme council duly picked its side. The Ukrainian revolution was condemned as a coup and a plebiscite to decide Crimea’s future was announced while the peninsula was still occupied by ‘little green men’. Crimea had a long history of association with Russia: first annexed by the country in 1783, Crimea became part of Ukraine in 1953, but was still effectively controlled by the Soviet Union – and therefore, ultimately, by Russia – until 1991.

The referendum on 16th March 2014, which was overseen by Russia, offered two options to Crimeans: join the Russian Federation, or restore the 1992 Constitution of Crimea, which would hand power to the Crimean parliament, now effectively controlled by the little green men. That constitution included the option to join Russia again. So in effect, the referendum options were join Russia or “join Russia”. When the results were announced by Vladimir Putin two days later, any pretences of a free and fair vote were shattered. The Russian president claimed that 96.77 percent of the population had voted to join the Russian Federation.

18 March 2015

I arrived in Crimea a year later, keen to gauge the reactions of normal people to this massive, purportedly democratic realignment. I found emotions still raw and consensus elusive.

One of the first people I spoke to was Anatoliy Tavrichesky, still a Communist at heart, who broke off our interview several times to toast the motherland on the first anniversary of Crimea’s return to her bosom. “Pirates must drink first, then everything else will follow,” he said conspiratorially before draining half a tumbler of Crimean brandy. He was drinking spirits in part because there was no alternative.

There had been no water supply to his building in Sevastopol for weeks. Ukraine had built a dam on the North Crimean Canal soon after the annexation, cutting off the source of 85 percent of Crimea’s drinking and irrigation water. If Crimeans didn’t want to be part of Ukraine, they could go without water from the country too. At least, that seemed to be the message. “This is typical corrupt behaviour of the Ukrainians – they wish to punish us. It proves we made the right choice,” said Anatoliy.

The referendum, overseen by Russia, offered two options to Crimeans: join Russia or ‘join Russia'”

Taps in his claustrophobic kitchen and bathroom were turned all the way on; buckets and mason jars were placed beneath to catch anything that should emanate from them. He had long since used up the water from the toilet’s cistern.

Sudak castle and Soldayya hotel. Photo: Paul Stafford

With his dirty old tracksuit and wispy beard, Anatoliy had the air about him of Fidel Castro gone to seed. Having worked as a hydronaut for the Soviet Union, bringing up plunder from Black Sea shipwrecks, relics of countless wars and empires through the centuries, he was now a diver without water to drink, let alone explore. What resembled piles of tat dotted around his home were in fact, he explained, historical artefacts amassed over a lifetime of collection. “This one I found off the coast of Feodosia,” he said, removing a stack of empty lever-arch files and a loose tile of beige carpet to reveal an intact Greek amphora, its 2,000 year old surface covered by the remnants of barnacles and the faintest whispers of its original design. “This is from a British pirate ship I found in the Chagos Islands,” he told me with a grin, brandishing a ship’s bell with ‘The Rebow Friget 1700’ written in relief on its side. It was now in the possession of a modern-day buccaneer, in a chunk of Ukrainian territory that had been seized, pirate-fashion, by Russia.

Anatoliy sank into a nest of dirty sheets masquerading as a bed. “After Soviet times, they closed the marine research base, I lost my job and things have been getting steadily worse. Until now,” he said. “This situation is only temporary until they build the bridge to Russia,” he said. “Then we won’t need to rely on anybody else.”

Long-term plans to build an 11.8 mile-long Kerch Strait Bridge were expedited two weeks before the 2014 referendum, with the goal of bypassing Ukrainian-controlled territory and providing a land route from mainland Russia to the Crimean peninsula. As the Ukrainians erected a dam, Russia was building a bridge. The cost and the environmental challenges – including a strong current, seismic activity and extreme weather conditions – have made the project controversial.

However as EU sanctions imposed after the referendum began to bite, it felt like a worthwhile investment for Vladimir Putin. Significant shortages and suffering had been triggered for many Crimeans as no European, US, Canadian or Australian company was allowed to do direct business with Crimea and a ban on imports from the peninsula was put in place.

“They are targeting anything that Russia can profit from,” said Aleksei Petrov. “That includes the travel industry.” Aleksei was marketing director for the Soldaya Grand, a new luxury hotel in the southern coastal resort of Sudak, 115 miles away from Anatoliy’s booty-filled flat. The towering karst and sandy beaches of the so-called ‘Russian Riviera’ captivated successive Tsars, as well as Chekhov and Tolstoy, and the loss of this coastline with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 was a major upset for many Russians. Aleksei was preparing for their return, in a hotel whose rooms were still under construction, and had been since before the annexation.

The return of Russian tourists would be vital for Aleksei, as the flow of western tourists had stopped. In 2013 Yalta, between Sevastopol and Sudak, welcomed 95 cruise ships from around the world. In 2015, there were none. “We are confident that the Russian people will come back here in large numbers,” said Aleksei. “Our land is Russian land, and now that Russians don’t need a visa, they will come flocking.”

Despite the abrupt halt in international visitors, Aleksei’s colleague Mikhail was pleased with the referendum result. “If the little green men had not taken control so effectively, Crimea would have turned into another Donetsk,” he said. “Thanks to Putin we can live peacefully.”

But not everyone welcomed Russia’s return in 2015. Taras Manasov owned a construction materials importer in the Crimean capital of Simferopol. In his penthouse apartment, which looked out towards a power station whose chimney was emblazoned with a portrait of Lenin, he spoke admiringly of Elon Musk as an emblem of Western progressiveness.

“Russians are more concerned about revenge for the past than improving things in the future,” he said. Behind him was a vision board with pictures of the Tesla Model S and what looked to be a McMansion in Las Vegas. “There are so many of us, especially in business or with a good education, who didn’t vote to join Russia.” His voice was hushed, almost tentative. “Nobody feels secure enough to speak openly now, but those referendum results were not accurate.”

He shrugged dispiritedly. “What can we do? I’m thinking of starting a business in America. This is not my Crimea any more. Even the restaurants have stopped selling anything that isn’t Russian or Ukrainian food. The only place you can find a decent restaurant here is around Pushkin.”

Pushkin Street is a disconcerting blend of western-style coffee shops and Russian flags. Simferopol’s cosmopolitans have long gravitated here.  “A lot of students come here after class,” said Kamilla Aksyonova, a law student of Tatar heritage. “Most of my friends want to study abroad where the education system is better,” she told me. “I can’t wait to start my masters in Lithuania. I can finally feel as though I’m part of a system [the EU] that works.”

The situation is temporary until they build the bridge to Russia” – Anatoly Tavrichesky

A minority Muslim group in Crimea, the Tatars have endured mistreatment at Russian hands since the late 18th century. In 1944, Stalin accused them of colluding with the Nazis, seized their lands and deported them to Central Asia in cattle trucks. Many died in transit.

The Tatars were welcomed back to Crimea after 1991 and the Mejlis, an executive-representative body, was established. Yet calls to repatriate their territory were dismissed and instead Tatars had to buy back their ancestral lands bit by bit. In 2015 their position remained precarious. The Mejlis had been accused by the Russian authorities now ruling Crimea of crimes including drug production and political corruption and its authority had been systematically weakened after it called for a boycott of the 2014 referendum. Kamilla felt that the Tatars had been abandoned by the international community. “Is anybody on our side?” she asked me. “I don’t feel like Tatar people are important enough for anyone to care.”

While she was excited to travel to Lithuania, Kamilla’s appraisal of the EU was tempered with pessimism. Sanctions by the west were seriously impacting the Tatar community which was heavily reliant on tourism to sites like Bakhchisaray, the centre of its political life and the capital of the former Crimean Khanate.

“A lot of intelligent people will leave Crimea,” said Kamilla. “Life is so much harder and sanctions are not going to change people’s minds by making them starve.”

March 2017

“This is normal now,” said Taras Manasov as he weaved his new Lexus around a Russian armoured personnel carrier that had rear-ended an old Fiat. “People do not respect each other on the roads because they see how the government doesn’t respect them.”

I returned to Crimea two years after my first visit, and Simferopol felt positively vibrant by comparison this time around. The roads were freshly paved and filled with far more cars, a brand new sports stadium was emerging from a mess of scaffolding and the airport had been renovated, with a gleaming new terminal.

But not everything had gone according to plan. In the last two years, a fund from Russia to primp up Pushkin Street yielded less-than-satisfactory results; poor quality construction and corruption left the project unfinished before the snow set in and the work disrupted electricity cables, causing part of the street to catch fire. “The corruption never went away. The company employed homeless guys to do the work and pocketed all the money for themselves,” said Taras.

Taras looked well, with a crisp new shirt and an expensive haircut. “I started a small company in America but it failed,” he said. “It was a company that shipped products around the country. The American government changed the tax I had to pay so I lost my profit and couldn’t make payments on the products I’d bought.” Undeterred, he spoke of his plans to buy property in Las Vegas and start a new venture in the States.

Sanctions are not going to change people’s minds by making them starve” – Kamilla Aksyonova

His Crimean business, however, had thrived. “I have expanded my main company and started a new one in home surveillance. Business is good because there is a lot less trust now.”

Russia has made a bid for Crimean hearts and minds, assuming the role of benefactor through liberal investment in the face of sanctions from the west. Meanwhile those same sanctions, combined with plummeting oil prices, have left the Russian economy looking shaky: between January 2014 and January 2016, the rouble lost 58 percent of its value against the US dollar; its recovery has been slow and faltering.

“I can only do business with Russia, so I cannot build links with the rest of Europe,” said Taras. “But it can be slow. We have to wait for everything to be shipped from Russia. Once the bridge is completed, there will be no turning back.”

He gestured in the general direction of the foundations of the Kerch Strait Bridge, which snakes out from the eastern tip of Crimea, an umbilical cord to the motherland. Taras conceded that many of the changes since the referendum have been positive, from Russian investment in infrastructure to cheaper cars, even if the major beneficiaries have been those with the means to adapt and the influence to capitalise on opportunities.

“Most of us are actually glad to be free of Ukraine now,” he said. “Two years ago, no. But look at [Ukrainian president] Poroshenko’s government. It’s a mess and he’s failed everybody. The only thing worse than corruption to us is promising to get rid of it, then doing nothing when you get into power.”

Yet for all the material wealth the change has brought him, Taras remained despondent. “Things in Crimea could get worse so easily,” he said. “We have a saying in Russia that a fish rots from the head first. Everybody sees the way the Russians treat the Tatars.”

Anti-Tatar prejudice has worsened since 2015. When power lines near Kherson in Ukraine, which supply electricity to most of Crimea, were destroyed on 22nd November that year, Tatars were blamed. While some Tatar activists may indeed have been guilty – they publicly tried to impede work to repair the grid, and Mejlis spokesman Mustafa Dzhemilev was quoted as saying the pylons had simply “fallen down” – the whole Tatar community has since paid the price.

The following year, the Mejlis was decreed an extremist organisation and outlawed. “They seem to bunch extremism and Islam together, like every other government at the moment,” said Kamilla Aksyonova. We talked over email, as she had moved to Kiev after finishing her master’s degree in Lithuania. She couldn’t afford to take a trip back to see her family. “I am miserable and practising law for next to no money,” she said.

Kamilla’s move was part of one of the biggest displacements of people in recent times. The UN’s refugee agency, the UNHCR, stated that by 2015 some 1.35 million people had been displaced across Ukraine. The crisis didn’t just force people from the warzone in the south-east, but from Crimea too, where they moved according to a preference for Russia or Europe.

In Sudak, Aleksei Petrov was now out of work, but he still did not have a bad word to say about Russia: “At least I get to spend more time now with my family,” he said. His predicament, he believed, is the fault of the west’s sanctions, rather than Putin, the man who is “doing more for Crimea than anyone”.

Back in his cluttered apartment, Anatoliy Tavrichesky had more cause to question the Russian leader than he had anticipated two years earlier. As fireworks erupted from the Sevastopol shoreline, fired from beside the Black Sea monument that commemorated those who had died in the siege, he presented me with a battered file brimming with letters.

“This is about the illegal deforestation of juniper trees in Crimea,” he said. “It was going on under the Ukrainians but it has not stopped. I thought the Russians would do something. I wrote to everybody about it. I even wrote to Putin, but nobody has replied. Before long they will all have been cut down.”

He yearned for the Soviet era. Instead of a better life for all Crimeans, he believed that Russia had brought only its own version of capitalism and its endemic corruption. “Such a disappointment,” said Anatoliy. “Life did not change at all for us after the referendum. Communism is still the best system, but it needs the right people to operate it.”

As Anatoliy nurses his dreams of the old days in Sevastopol, on the other side of the peninsula in Kerch, work continues in stormy seas and treacherous conditions on the new bridge linking Crimea with the Russian mainland. Putin has demanded the bridge be finished by the end of 2018, determined to delineate in steel and concrete the end of Crimea’s close association with Europe and the beginnings of a more fruitful one with Russia.

The Russian president will be well aware that only one other such bridge linking the two sides has ever been completed, by the Red Army in 1944. It was destroyed by icebergs within six months.

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