Voices from Russia

Monday, 5 January 2015

A Renaissance for the Crimea? Peninsula Looks with Hope to the Future

00 crimea. pro-novorossiya rally. 05.01.15


A few days before the end of 2014, I visited Crimea to see the immediate effects of its reunification with Russia. I found a peninsula largely content with its historic choice, but grappling with a future that, whilst promising much, won’t be easy. The Azov Sea winds roared and the waters were choppy. A lone Russian policeman is trying to keep order among hundreds of frustrated car drivers on the approach to Port Kavkaz, from where it’s only 4 kilometres by ferry to Crimea’s Kerch. I’ve been slowly inching forward for five hours. Frustration is general and rain lashes down. I approach the officer, asking if I can expect to reach Crimea tonight. He explained, whilst pointing towards the sky, “Normally, it only takes an hour or two, but the weather was horrible all day. Until we build a bridge across the strait, we’re at His mercy”. As I return to my vehicle, a man in a Sevastopol-registered car rolls down his window and asked for an update, “What’s he saying?” I replied, “That God will decide when we get there”. He shot back, “I hope God knows we’re trying to get home for New Year. I’m tired. I’ve already driven from Rostov”. I retorted, “Maybe if Crimea goes back to the Ukraine, God would call off the storm?” My interlocutor moaned, “No, No, No! Crimea is never returning to the Ukraine! I’d sit here for six months rather than do that”.

I’d arrived at Port Kavkaz at 19.00. Eventually, we rolled onto the ferry at 01.00. It might have been the music, Damien Rice was monotonously warbling on my stereo, but I instantly fell asleep. At 05.00, the angry occupant of the car behind knocked at my window, “Wake up! Wake up! We’re here!” So, we go off the boat, into Kerch. There are no lights at all. The Ukrainian authorities cut off electricity to the Crimea. Better to head for Simferopol then than wait for Kerch to wake up. The roads aren’t as bad as I’d feared; clearly, the new Russian authorities have already made some investment in them. However, the evidence of two decades of Kiev’s misrule is hard to miss. Wild dogs roam the villages and material poverty is obvious. Bear in mind that I’ve crossed from the wealthy Russian southwest… Sochi, Anapa, Novorossiysk. Compared to the glitz, glamour, and modernity of prosperous Sochi, this is another world. It’s akin to leaving San Diego and immediately entering Albania.

In Simferopol, the power is back on. It’s breakfast time at the Hotel Moscow. I asked the server, “Where are you from?” She replied, “Yalta, Russia”. Yalta is a legendary Tsarist and Soviet resort; until a year ago, it was the Ukraine’s “summer capital”. Oddly, when I was in Yalta in 2013, a friend from Lvov asked me what it was like. I answered, “Russia”. The differences with the mainland Ukraine were already glaring then. At the next table, Dmitri and Leonid, two local entrepreneurs, are having a pow-pow. I seize the opportunity to gauge their feelings about the new Crimea. Dmitri said, “Imagine you’re a dog at the pound and you’ve just given up hope, then, suddenly, a kind man comes and takes you home… that’s how we feel”. Leonid butted in quickly, “Putin adopted us, rescued us. I’m 30. I’ve lived in a failed state for most of my life. This is the first time I feel there are real prospects for the Crimea. Kiev didn’t care about us… only to steal from us and have holidays here. I noted that the new sanctions from the US would surely affect the business climate. Dmitri laughed, “Obama’s a donkey, let me be clear. When a drunken Ukrainian from the Donbass [Soviet leader N S Khrushchyov] handed the Crimea to the Ukraine, did the Americans have sanctions then? No, they didn’t. I had American English teachers from the Peace Corps. These Americans were always talking about democracy and freedom. We democratically voted to rejoin Russia. If they love democracy so much, why do they sanction us for our free choice?” As I left, Leonid shouted, “Crimea was Russia, Crimea is Russia, and Crimea will always be Russia!”

The next stop is Sudak, where I promised to meet a Tatar who contacted me via social media after reading a piece I wrote about the Crimea earlier last year. Tamila defines herself as Ukrainian and is just back from Kiev. She said, “It’s like communism here again”. I replied, “It seems pretty capitalist to me”. She shot back, “I mean it’s like the Soviet Union”. Tamila doesn’t like Russia, although she’s never been to the mainland. She supported the Euromaidan, but is disenchanted with the movement. “Of course, the Ukraine’s destroyed. Of course, we’re economically better off than them. Of course, Poroshenko betrayed the Maidan. However, I don’t trust Russia. Stalin deported my ancestors”. I counter that Stalin was Georgian. Tamila exclaimed angrily, “He was the ruler of Russia then”. I asked her, “What do you really want?” She said, “I think Crimea should be independent, its own country, but if that isn’t possible, I’d rather be managed by Kiev instead of Moscow”. Tamila accepts that most locals prefer union with Russia, saying forlornly, “The people think they’re going to be rich because they joined Russia. The Kremlin wants Crimea for its strategic military value. The Byzantines, Ottomans, even the British fought for this place. I understand that Russia won’t let the Americans come here, but I’d like to see another way”.

Driving toward Feodosiya, I spot a Ukrainian flag painted on a lamppost. It’s the first I’ve seen all day. Entering the city centre, there’s a traffic accident. A Russian-plated Toyota smacked into the rear of a Ukrainian-registered Lada. A crowd gathered… perfect timing to try talking to a few locals. Igor is an off-duty policeman. Although he’s not wearing it, my question is how does he feel in his new uniform? He told me, “I’m not political, but I know one thing, in the Ukraine, they paid me 2,000 grivna a month, which is about 8,000 roubles (819 Renmnbi. 8,352 INR. 132 USD. 157 CAD. 165 AUD. 112 Euros. 87 UK Pounds). It isn’t possible to live on this money. Suddenly, we joined Russia and my salary increased to 50,000 roubles (5,114 Renminbi. 52,655 INR. 823 USD. 967 CAD. 1,028 AUD. 697 Euros. 545 UK Pounds). So, one month pays more now than six did before. My wife’s a nurse, she also got a bigger amount of money, and the Russians are fixing the hospital”. I take a spin around Feodosiya, which is where the Crimean Riviera starts. At the main promenade, I buy a souvenir from a kiosk. The sales assistant, Galina, gave me a clear opinion, “When the USSR ended, we were promised the sun and stars; instead, for 20 years, it got worse here every year. My view is that the Ukraine’s a failure; it’s too weak. People here have more in common with Vladivostok than Lvov. It’s another world. The Ukraine should be like Yugoslavia and just break up into parts where everyone can be happy”.

Leaving Crimea was easier than entering it. The weather was calm and the crossing took only four hours from the start of the queue to landfall in Port Kavkaz. However, the urgent necessity for a bridge from the peninsula to the rest of Russia is obvious. Another stark observation is the difference in living standards between old and new Russia. Despite current economic problems, western media commentary fails to mention just how prosperous Russia is in comparison with most of its former Soviet satellites. During its time in the Ukraine, Crimea fell to pieces. Currently, Crimeans have hope. They earnestly believe that their economic nightmare under Kiev’s rule is over. How Russia responds in this regard will be vital. If it keeps its promises and invests money in great quantities, Crimea could be poised for a golden age. However, if Moscow fails to honour commitments, the mood may change.

5 January 2015

Bryan MacDonald



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