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SIMFEROPOL, Crimea — As the silent flow of Russian troops into Ukraine sparked the greatest confrontation between Moscow and the West since the Cold War, life in the eye of the storm — Crimea's capital of Simferopol — went on mostly unchanged. Women strolled with their small dogs around the pleasant pedestrian mall at the city’s center. In the crowded underpasses, flower vendors did brisk business in advance of International Women's Day. A cat expo was held.
The part of Simferopol where things had most obviously changed was the central Lenin Square, where the statue of the leader of the Bolshevik revolution remains standing tall. Here, formerly apathetic citizens gathered to discuss the dramatic events unfolding around them — should we be part of Russia? Ukraine? What level of autonomy should we have? Conversations formed organically, with passers-by joining in, and while the debates were often heated, they almost always remained respectful. This level of public civic engagement is extremely rare in the former Soviet Union. The irony was that this civic discussion took place as decisions about what would happen to Crimea were being made without their input, and rapidly.
Crimea is an autonomous region within Ukraine, and when the central government in Kiev was overthrown in February and replaced by pro-Western Eurocrats and Ukrainian nationalists, Crimea refused to go along. The regional parliament called a referendum on whether to rejoin Russia, of which Crimea had been a part until 1954 when the Soviet authorities transferred it to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. But the parties in favor of remaining part of Ukraine boycotted the vote, saying a fair vote was impossible under Russian military occupation. That point was underscored when the authorities revealed the exact wording of the ballot for the referendum: It would have no option to vote for keeping things the way they were. On March 6, the parliament voted to rejoin Russia, and framed the referendum as a means of validating that decision. Crimean officials visited Moscow, and the Russian parliament quickly passed a law allowing for the annexation of Crimea.
Until that point, even very pro-Russia Crimeans would say that they favored staying in Ukraine, but under maximal levels of autonomy guaranteeing their right, most of all, to speak Russian. Many said they would like to join Russia but simply didn't think it was possible. According to a poll taken in February, only 41 percent of Crimeans favored annexation to Russia. But after the parliament vote, absorption into Russia swiftly went from impossibility to inevitability.
Many of the men on Lenin Square were wearing orange-and-black ribbons, known as the Ribbon of St. George, a Russian symbol of World War II commemoration. They were the newly organized pro-Russia “self-defense forces,” formed with the ostensible purpose of protecting Crimea from the kind of chaos that roiled Kiev during the protests throughout this winter that ultimately ousted President Viktor Yanukovych and set in motion the Russian incursion into Crimea. The Kiev protests — known as “Maidan,” after the square in which they were centered — featured a substantial presence of far-right groups, some with Nazi sympathies. Western media, often wedded to a narrative of plucky, pro-Western protesters vs. pro-Russia corrupt autocrats, tended to play down this element of the protests. The Russian media, on the other hand, covered little else.
And so in Crimea, if you asked the men of the self-defense forces why they were wearing a symbol of a war that ended 70 years ago, they would tell you, with full sincerity, that it was because they were “against fascists.” Frequently, the arguments on Lenin Square would feature a pro-Ukrainian person exasperatedly asking a beribboned man, “What fascists? Where!?” and the man countering by asking what the person's father or grandfather did during WWII, implying they may have been less-than-loyal Soviet citizens. Nevertheless, there was conversation. But by March 6, the atmosphere in the city had grown tenser and the pro-Ukrainian Simferopolians seemed to have given up on engaging their opponents in conversation, and moved their discussions to Facebook or to smaller demonstrations outside of the city center.
Perhaps the only thing more surprising than Russia’s baldly annexing part of another country's territory is that they would rally the population's support under the banner of the Soviet Union. As the turmoil in Ukraine was at its peak, in many parts of the country protesters were tearing down Lenin statues. That may have seemed irrelevant to the current political crisis, but the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) saw fit to issue a statement: “National radicals continue to scoff at monuments in different Ukrainian cities, while like-minded persons in some European countries besmear memorials to Soviet warriors.” And when Bulgarians painted a WWII monument in the capital, Sofia, with colors of the Ukrainian flag, the Russian MFA sent an official protest to Sofia: “We trust that the Bulgarian official authorities will take all necessary measures to prevent mockery of the memory of Soviet warriors, who fell for the liberation of Bulgaria and Europe from Nazism.”
In Simferopol, someone affixed a sign to the pedestal of the Lenin statue, imploring “Don't touch our leader!” and next to it stood a sign, “Crimea against Nazis!” On a WWII monument nearby, a sign decorated with the Soviet hammer and sickle said “Hands off our history! Memory! Pride!” At pro-Russia protests, people brought Soviet flags and portraits of Stalin.
The ubiquitous epithet for those supporting the anti-Russian protests in Kiev is “fascist” or “Banderovtsy.” The latter refers to supporters of Stepan Bandera, a Ukrainian nationalist who fought for an independent Ukraine during WWII, carrying on a sporadic collaboration with Nazi Germany, and who is a hero to many of those protesting in Kiev.
The appeal of the Soviet revival is inchoate and symbolic — not the return of the political system per se, but the days when their country was a superpower and economic stability was guaranteed. “Crimea is returning home, to Russia!” said the deputy chairman of Crimea's parliament, Rustam Temirgaliyev, at a March 9 rally drumming up support for the referendum. “Today the Banderovtsy government in Kiev threatens Crimeans with the cutoff of electricity and water. But they forgot that on Crimean territory are two hero-cities (an official Soviet designation referring to their actions in WWII): Sevastopol and Kerch. Crimeans will not be forced onto their knees! The Russian Federation awaits us; higher pensions, higher salaries, long-awaited development, await us.”
At the rally, a 30-something civil engineer, Denis, was carrying a huge Soviet flag. “The Soviet Union was a great country, with friendship among the peoples,” he declared. “And now Ukraine is falling apart, unfortunately, because of what happened on the Maidan. It's the third revolution — first in 1991, then 2004, now 2014. People are tired; there's no work, no money.”
A revival of Soviet nostalgia has been gathering force in Russia for several years, from homey Soviet-themed cafes and restaurants to a rehabilitation of Stalin's legacy. The world saw a glimpse of the revived Soviet aesthetic at the opening ceremony of the Sochi Olympics, which presented the Soviet era as a time of avant-garde art and stylish, rebellious youth. But what has been seen in Crimea is no doubt the greatest burst of neo-Soviet politics in the post-Cold War era. Like the American Tea Party, Crimea's neo-Soviets are animated less by a coherent political philosophy than by a gauzy memory of a mythical past of strength, morality and prosperity. “We used to be proud of huge things, huge policies, huge buildings, huge achievements of huge countries,” said Iryna Brunova-Kalisetska, a psychologist in Simferopol who works on peace-building projects in Crimea. “It's much easier to be proud of that than to be proud of your own achievements.”
One writer and pro-Ukrainian member of the Crimean parliament, Leonid Pilunskiy, talked about a recent conversation he had with 70-year-old cousin, who called him a “Banderovets” for supporting Ukraine. “You've been zombified by the Americans, and the only people who can save us from the Banderovtsy are the Russians,” he said she told him. “She was young in the Soviet Union; then it collapsed and she got old. And now men don't flirt with her any more. And now she sees Russia like the Soviet Union. And she thinks that if we go back to the Soviet Union, men will flirt with her again! That's what you see day and night on TV: We're going to go back to the USSR and everything will be great!”
Mikhail Mossin, a member of the “self-defense forces” who had lived in Oregon for 20 years — and looked the part in a waterproof shell and fleece cap — was standing guard on Lenin Square. He was born in Siberia but went to the University of Oregon for a master's degree, and then stayed on in Eugene, working as a dishwasher and at Barnes & Noble. But he decided to move back to the ex-USSR, and after traveling around searching for a place to live he settled on Simferopol, for the relatively mild Crimean weather and relaxed pace of life. He arrived in September and has tried to make a go of being an English tutor, but has found that students are less interested in “real American English” than in just knowing what they need to pass their tests. “Then this came about and I figured 'Well, I'm not doing anything; I might as well come and do something useful.'” Many of his comrades-in-arms feel as if they've regained a sense of purpose that they had lost, he said: “Everyone is saying, 'Man, I feel young again!'”
He said that “unfortunately” many of his colleagues did long for the Soviet Union. “The old ones forgot all the bad things, and the young ones only heard the stories of greatness,” he said. “And Ukraine isn't a superpower.”
While he disagreed with the results of the Maidan protests — “Kiev is controlled now by nationalists and extremists” — he acknowledged that Russian and Crimean politicians have exaggerated the “fascist” threat to Crimea. “Someone raised this SS insignia (in Kiev) and these are the signs that people immediately understand. And then, of course, probably Russian propagandists ... and politicians here used that to their advantage,” he said. “Now Putin's best friend is the western Ukrainian nationalists. He probably was thinking for 20 years, 'How am I going to get Crimea back?' … And here they just handed it to him on a golden platter, for free.”
That Crimea would be celebrating its WWII heritage is a cruel irony to the peninsula's oldest inhabitants. In 1944, the Soviet authorities deported the entire population of Crimean Tatars — nearly 200,000 — to Central Asia because some of them had cooperated with the German occupiers. Nearly half died as a result of the deportations.
At the end of the 1980s, the Soviet authorities let the Tatars return to Crimea, and they did, en masse, and now represent about 12 percent of Crimea's population. However, one rarely sees Crimean Tatars on Lenin Square.
As the referendum approached, the Communist Party of Ukraine had set up a booth on the square and was running an informal opinion poll. Residents could fill out a paper ballot choosing one of three options: to keep the Lenin statue, to move it to a less central part of the city or to remove it altogether. While the elderly ladies running the poll said that about 95 percent of people had chosen the first option, one of the first people to come up, a man who appeared to be Tatar, checked the “remove” box. The women objected: “What do you have against Lenin? He gave us free education. Free health care! And this is our history; we can't just remove our history! Without a past we have no future!” The man hurried away; when asked if they thought Crimean Tatars, given their experience, might have a different take on Soviet rule the ladies said, “Well, it wasn't right that they got deported, but that was so long ago! All of the people who signed those orders are in the grave now.” Suddenly, history was ancient.
Like many pro-Russia Crimeans before the parliament voted in favor of joining Russia, she said that she would like to be part of Russia but didn't think it was possible. Instead, she said she wanted autonomy within Ukraine, citing Scotland and Catalonia as positive examples. When asked what the central government in Kiev had done that she mistrusted, one of the polling women said, “They banned the Russian language.” She acknowledged, “Yes, we're speaking Russian now. But go to Lvov” — the most famously Ukrainian nationalist city in western Ukraine — “and try speaking Russian. You'll get beaten up.” As it happened, the night before, the mayor of Lvov appeared on local TV speaking in Russian in a special recorded address to Crimeans, lamenting the misunderstanding that had led them to invite “the army of a foreign power” onto their soil. “We support the desire of all Ukrainians — Ukrainians, Russian, Crimean Tatars, Jews — to peacefully develop their own culture, speak in their own language, remember their own history,” he said. The pollster from the Communist Party scoffed, “That was the first time in his life he'd ever spoken Russian.”
The Crimean Tatars are perhaps the strongest supporters of Crimea’s remaining in Ukraine, the strong presence of nationalists in Kiev notwithstanding. The Crimean Tatars’ mistrust of Russia is rooted in history: It was the Russian army of Catherine the Great that conquered the land the Tatars had ruled for centuries, and it was Moscow that deported them. “The situation today is very dangerous,” said Abdumanan Egiz, a member of the informal but influential Crimean Tatar governing body, the Mejlis. “Crimean Tatars don't feel safe; with Russian troops all around there is no guarantee for anything. We're afraid there can be violence.”
He is incredulous at the idea that Russians' rights could be trampled by the new government in Kiev. “Everything is in Russian here. Wherever you go you speak Russian — the government, parliament, local governments, all use Russian. Education is in Russian in Crimea. What more could be done? This is the motherland of Crimean Tatars, they are the indigenous people of this land, and they don't have this right. This is part of Ukraine, and you can't feel that this is Ukraine except for the flags. So what kind of violations are we talking about?”
He said that while most Crimeans understand Russians have a privileged position, Moscow has adroitly manipulated the emotions of a vocal minority. “The majority, still today, live with that Communist propaganda; that's why the only thing they're talking about is World War II. The rest of the world forgot about this,” he said. “Moscow is doing well using them as a tool. They're not talking about development, peaceful coexistence and other things; they're talking about World War II. They have another agenda.”
Asked if he was worried about the “self-defense forces” eventually being used against Tatars, he said, “You can expect anything from marginal groups. They're being used as a geopolitical tool.” He continued, “I don't like to talk about this, but we remember the former Yugoslavia. This was also in Europe, just 20 years ago and very close to Crimea. And this was a very similar situation where in a small territory many different groups are living, with different religion, language, culture, but this is used as a tool to rearrange the territory.”
Even those who want to remain part of Ukraine acknowledge that a series of feckless governments — including the current authorities — bear a significant portion of the blame for letting Crimea fall into Russia's hands. Even the pro-Russia governments tended to neglect Crimea, and more nationalist governments, like that of Yanukovych's predecessor Viktor Yushchenko, attempted a “Ukrainianization” of the country in a way that alienated Russian speakers, psychologist Brunova-Kalisetska said.
When Ukraine gained independence, much Russian-language television in Crimea was quickly replaced with Ukrainian broadcasting. “I was born in Sevastopol and until I was 18 I didn't hear a word of Ukrainian,” Brunova-Kalisetska said. “And in the 1990s, when Ukrainianization started, it was very scary for me.”
And under Yushchenko, “it was horrible for people here,” she continued. “He wanted to unite the Ukrainian nation, but he took the markers for 'Ukraine' from the western parts of Ukraine without understanding how it would look in the south and the east,” she said. And that has continued with the Maidan protests and the current authorities. She said that while she supported the Maidan protests, and briefly took part, she warned her friends active in the protests to try to tone down the nationalist imagery and rhetoric. “And even people I've worked with for many years on different projects told me, 'if the eastern part doesn't want to help us remove this dictator Yanukovych, it's their decision.' I said 'Guys, it's not ideal. Try to find the possibility of communication with those who would support you without these nationalistic colors.'”
Then, one of the new government's first acts after taking power was to eliminate a law that had allowed Russian to be used in government business in Russian-dominated areas of southern and eastern Ukraine (distorted by the Russian media so that it was perceived as a “ban” on Russian to many people in Simferopol). When asked about the address by the Lvov mayor, Brunova-Kalisetska wondered, “Why didn't he do that a year ago?”
“Now people who are afraid of Banderovtsy, they don't trust him any more.”
For their part, the Crimean authorities have recently striven to emphasize ethnic tolerance. At every pro-Russia rally, speakers took pains to emphasize that they would respect the rights of Crimean Tatars, and the regional parliament has said that Tatar (though not Ukrainian) will continue to be an official language of Crimea even under Russian rule. This, perhaps, is the positive side of the revival of the ideals of the Soviet Union, where “the brotherhood of peoples” was an ideal.
The weekend before the referendum was to take place, billboards popped up all around Simferopol. “On March 16 We Will Choose,” they read, over two outlines of Crimea's borders. One was Crimea in red, with a black swastika. The other was Crimea with a Russian flag.