If every western expert who had an opinion on Crimea as it was in March 2014 had been there, the 27,000km2 territory would have been densely populated indeed. As it was, they weren’t there, the towns, mountains, beaches, of the 2.4 million populated peninsular, gifted to Ukraine in 1954 which no one really noticed at the time as it was all the Soviet Union, was much as it would have been.
I was there, drove in in a car with no numberplates (stolen in Odessa – as Euromaidan went on, a feeling of anarchy set across Ukraine, crime spiked). For all the reports of access restricted, cited as reasons for western journalist non-presence there was no problem getting in, in a registrationless car, without any letters of journalistic accreditation – and I wasn’t working for any media at that time.
At the border – a pro-Russia blockpost. I got there late on February 28th, as less than a week after Ukraine’s former president, Yanukovych, fled (actually to Crimea), and an unelected, far-right government swept to power in Kiev, with policies directly opposed to the Russian culture ever the core of Crimea, Crimea rose up, mobilised in protest. Blockposts went up, airports, admin buildings were taken in a seeming mirror of Euromaidan, but one that stood entirely against that Kiev revolution. Protests against the western-driven Kiev revolution, of which anti-Russian sentiment was a centrifugal force, had been growing week on week, notably in Sevastopol, at that time a semi-autonomous city in an autonomous republic, of which some 60% were ethnic Russian.
I went there, wrote this for Politico magazine, all the text pretty much mine – can’t say I was delighted about the title or cover phtoos, and spent a couple of days on my first time in the place called in the Russian as ‘Krim’. I’d never been to Crimea under Ukraine, but aware that Crimea had never really considered itself such, 97% using Russian as their main language, a veneration of Soviet statues at that time crashing down in the fall-out of post-Euromaidan Ukraine.
I’d been to Russia a couple of times as a tourist, this felt very much like the third time. It also felt like it shared the premise of Euromaidan – a revolution against a power – but that it was the anti-Euromaidan in every other way. Whereas that had been a chaotic melange of protesters, increasingly fewer ‘peaceful’ as it went on, given a free rein by a forgiving media to run amok among admin buildings, a mass of wreckage, rubbish, damage, Crimea was an organised, clean, polite even revolution. The parliament at Simferopol in the hands of pro-Russia forces (a combination of locals and Russian troops stationed on the island having mobilised, seemingly with the goodwill but without any direct instruction from Moscow), the atmosphere on Saturday March 1st was calm, friendly even with locals turning out to support, and those men the western media got somewhat obsessed with referring to as ‘little green men’ largely happy to pose for photos –
Next, the 50 mile, hour and a bit drive to the port city of Sevastopol, some 340,000 to Simferopol’s 400,000 the main of some of 12 ports on the peninsular, and one founded in 1783 for the Black Sea Fleet synonomous with the city, Crimea itself. One of the key parties in Kiev’s hastily assembled post-Euromaidan government, neo-Nazi party Svoboda, had long had as one of their key policies the removal of this Black Sea fleet from Crimea, apoplexy at this prospect, with the city ever thus effectively a Russian naval port, a key fuel in the swift, decisive Crimea movement.
En route, another blockpost, but amiable, I breezed through again. A few representatives of the iconic ‘Night Wolves’ there, a sign saying ‘Where we are, Russia is’. Russian orthodox believerers holding a prayer session.
Nearby, locals had parked their cars across the way to the military airport, explaining to me ‘we’re looking after our own‘, not wanting anyone getting too close to those troops there, but again friendly, offering tea even.
Then, Sevastopol itsself, the city awarded hero status due to its 250 day battle against the Nazis in WWII, its liberation from them in 1944. Scenes of almost surreal serenity admits reminders of the backdrop of turmoil – petrol prices going up as Ukraine’s hryvnia collapsed, as canoeists paddled –
Then, Sevastopol the city, as evening fell, and thousands of locals headed down to the central square for a concert, speeches, the referendum already brought forward from May to March 16th, now in just two weeks, crowds out to show their colours, hearty Russian music, seemingly a mass exhalation of relief that Russia, actually just a couple of kilometres over the sea from Kerch, was throwing them a lifeline from what was a Ukraine sinking into crisis.
The scenes were those of pure, unabridled joy, I remember speaking to people at the time, countless telling me the same thing, or variations – ‘Crimea was never really Ukraine’, ‘we put up with Ukraine before, but now we can’t’, ‘we want to go back home to Russia’. There was a huge feeling, a mass exhalation, a love for Russia never able to express itself in this way before suddenly let out. A cry out to Russia to come and take them, a confidence that this could happen. The concert that night, the most emphatically Russian to ever be rendered. First up, a choir of sailors giving delivering a merry rendition of power pop-shanty –
Then, Russian folk music, supercharged, delivered with gusto, roared along by crowd chants of ‘Spasibo’ and ‘Rossiya’!
Looking, roaring on – a crowd of locals of all ages, veterans of a certain age –
A panoply of placards, posters on display – Crimea had a lot it wanted to say –
Crimea is a City of Russian Sailors
Sevastopol doesn’t surrender!
We are against the destruction of historical monuments –
Save Sevastopol from Nazism!!!
Sevastopol is against fascism
Kharkov – hang in there!
Here, a jaunty Russian van, as everything seemed to suddenly be in Russian colours –
There’s no question there was heavier hardware than a transit van. Russian military presence has never been in question, the fact is there were Russian troops on the island peninsular anyway. Along with locals, they mobilised, and there’s no question that’s exactly what the populace of Crimea wanted.
Later on, I film this –
Earlier, in Sevastopol, the night had wound down, the crowd dispersing into the night, believing that better was to come, Russia was to come.
Locals here, done out in Russian colours, guard the admin building in Sevastopol to prevent signature Euromaidan style occupation, which had notably placed a poster of WWII Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera, reviled in Russia, in Kiev’s central government building.
If more western journalists had been there to see this, feel this, so much of the nonsense we’ve all read about Crimea and its ‘annexation’ in the last year could have been averted.
Leaving, the blockpost guards, locals in jeans, asked e about my cat. And that was that – Crimea, early March 2014
More to come soon….