Arriving in Simferopol Airport, a red eyed and sluggish specimen fueled by caffeinated apprehension and a vague paranoia, it was easy to forget that here lay a freshly notorious key battleground of perhaps one of our fledgling centurys’ more significant international confrontations. My fellow passengers, colorfully dressed Muscovites who had erupted with rapturous applause upon landing, set immediately about their holidays. Still unconvinced that a mere passport stamp entitled me to safe passage, I dodged army fatigues and haggled a taxi fare by deploying hand signals, a calculator and a command of Russian which spawned additional zeros with each mutilated word uttered. Inside the battered cab overlooking the dashboard hung the tricolors of the Russian Federation and the black and orange ribbon of St George, an emblem of support for pro Russian separatists in east Ukraine, providing a handy clue on how to tackle the fevered political discussion ahead with Dmitri the driver. This was Russia, and make no mistake about it.
With Crimea occupying headline news for much of the year I felt that it was important to try and see what was really going on here behind the guesswork and exaggeration of media revisionism. The British foreign office advises against all travel to Crimea, describing it as essentially a warzone due to the ongoing sovereignty dispute. This bureaucratic folly is in itself symptomatic of the entire deadlocked debacle that briefly threatened to sabotage common sense as hawkish commentators on either side of the re-imagined iron curtain loudly pondered troop deployments with unmistakeable glee. Western foreign offices have to say this as a point of political maneuvering despite the absence of any conflict or simmering tension. Just as they have to protest the ‘annexation’ and just as the Russians must whip up nationalistic fervor to sustain it. There is a time tested set of rules attached to international power struggles and this rugged peninsula bears no exception.
Crossing the archaic roads of the transit hub Simferopol where stray dogs chew on discarded shashlik, young people congregate over water pipes and Romanian disco music, while soldiers chat with their local girlfriends, it is impossible to shake the feeling that the absorption of Crimea is a fait accompli. In the capital Sevastopol the impression is further cemented as visitors and locals alike don sailor caps and proudly tour naval monuments as street vendors hawk machine gun Putin t-shirts for toddlers. Speaking with residents, there is an almost unanimous sense of joy at this long awaited ‘liberation’. Sergey, a hotel worker and ex paratrooper, was firmly of the view that an historical wrong had finally been corrected, while young barman Kos was delighted to have his true nationality finally made official “I was made in the USSR, there we had money and power, what is Ukraine anyway, just some made up place with crisis after crisis after crisis, we don’t want any part of that” he exclaimed.
Sevastopol itself is a beautiful port city which, although largely reconstructed following WWII, forms a natural testimony to the essence of the Russian psyche. On the coastal periphery Orthodox pilgrims visit the site where Vladmir the Great was baptised over a thousand years ago, before returning to Kiev and uniting the warring tribes which became the Russian people. The waterfront is dotted with formidable battleships marking the Federations’ Black Sea presence whilst on land military museums surround the famous landmark of acclaimed Admiral Nakhimov. Touching mementos abound such as that of the 35th Battalion whose bravery in defending the city from German advances is resolutely sanctified and will never be forgotten. It is a sense of history brought to life that defines this compact city which chaotically ascends up each of Crimeas’ three mountain ranges taking in astonising views from 19th century garrisons revealed to those willing to make the effort. Crimeans also boast an imperious if bloody antiquity that extends beyond the colossal memories of the current inhabitants to classical times of Greek, Roman and Byzantine conquest. This too serves to chisel a sense of character and purpose that will remain defiant in the face of international interference.
The depth of feeling is much stronger than portrayed in western media which, in dismissing the referendum, deprives the debate not merely of this engaging context but of all the subtle moments that reveal the character of a people. Four months ago this was Ukraine and now that is a dirty word, families gather around television sets shaking their heads collectively at hellish news from Donetsk played over, interspersed with clips from old Nazi parades, the implication unabashedly transparent. As a westerner I’m asked by genuinely confused teenagers why the Americans would want to support Nazis, can’t they see what they are doing to people in Ukraine? It’s a strange and unfortunate business feeling compelled to justify polices from the west while not actually agreeing with them simply to bridge the disconnect which is opening up between otherwise kindred cultures.
People here are politically astute and opinionated even if the opinions happen to be generally identical. An exception to the collective mindset though does exist. Away from the vibrant cities and in the quiet mountainside around Bakhstasaray, seat of the former Muslim Khanate, the Tatar minority use the Scottish situation as a metaphor for their own predicament. Here is a more feral and desolate Crimea where the Russian appeals to centuries of dominance, before Khrushchevs’ moment of drunken grandiose in passing the territory to Soviet Ukraine, hold little sway with the sinewy faces of ancient Tatar lineage. Many of the Russians are visitors (formerly known as tourists) who descend upon the sleepy villages in summer time much as hordes of Americans, Japanese and English temporarily occupy many a European capital in a chattering storm of ice cream, souvenirs and flash photography. Perhaps sensing an ally, Elzara, a Tatar waitress, confided in me “everyone thinks that it is natural, that it’s normal, that they’re doing the right thing, that this land is theirs now, but it’s not ok, not for us” she whispered, darting a glance either side of us. She claimed that many of the doom laden images shown on television from Ukraine were actually taken from the Syrian civil war and was plainly fearful what would happen once the dust settled. While it seems unlikely that mass Stalinesque deportation to Siberia will occur, the Tatar way of life certainly faces a new challenge as road signs are changed and properties quickly snapped up.
Perhaps more than any other issue of realpolitik, it is this lingering uncertainty which casts the most problematic shadow over Russias’ reacquired territory on either side of the debate. Patriotic young Russians, delighted to be recognized as fully fledged, card carrying members of the motherland, are nonetheless fearful of the visa implications for future travel. Sanctions are not a mere buzzword here and while they might fear and loath the fascistic impulses of Svoboda and its perceived American backing, the younger generation popularly harbor dreams of travel, whether it be New York City hot dogs, easy money in Abu Dhabi, or surfing in Northern Ireland. It is these dreams that must be put to rest for the time being as the formidable anchors of politics, war, culture, and religion sink deeper with each passing controversy, as past national triumphs and catastrophes are put to political use, while the west employs its own tactics of demonization, neoliberalism and sanction. As the borders realign around this ancient battleground without a shot fired in anger, truth and dialogue remain the unsung casualties.