Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

In Crimea, It's All Back to Front

  • Pro-Russian rally under statue of Lenin in Simferopol, March 5, 2014. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images. © Getty Images)
    Pro-Russian rally under statue of Lenin in Simferopol, March 5, 2014. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images. © Getty Images)

The talk of civil war should have started with talk of Crimea. If anything of the sort is happening, it’s here rather than in Kiev, where the people were confronted by security forces protecting the authorities. For now, the security forces in Crimea are protecting the people, despite what Sergei Aksyonov, the newly-declared head of the Council of Ministers, is ordering them to do.

Yesterday there was a spontaneous gathering of “pro-Ukrainian activists” – although it’s rare for anyone here to use such a nice term; they usually call them "Banderists” or "fascists” – outside the military unit in Simferopol. No flags, no slogans – they were there to protect the security forces. Some of the activists were invited to stay the night inside the base, just in case.

A colonel came out and promised that the military remain on the people’s side no matter what happened. One would like to believe him, as he sounded since. One sensed he was having a hard time.

While the colonel was talking to the activists, a group of “titushki” – that’s what we’d have called them if we’d been in Kiev – gathered near the military base. Red faces, drink on their breath, cigarettes between their teeth – a sorry sight. In Crimea, this sort of people are called “self-defence units”.

Everything in Crimea is completely back to front. Instead of Ukrainian flags, people carry the [Russian] tricolour. Yellow-and-blue ribbons are like an infectious disease here. If you wear Ukrainian insignia, you’re a Nazi, a “Banderist”. If you speak in Ukrainian, you’re an agent provocateur. That label is also used for anyone who asks too many questions.

The “pro-Ukrainian activists” have to tread softly. No one uses the phone to arrange to meet any more.

In a tent set up by the Ukrainian Communist Party on Lenin Square, they were polling people on what to do with the monument to the Leader. There were three options – move it, leave it, or replace it with a fountain. Most people apparently voted to leave it where it was.

“Why take it down? It’s my history!" said an angry veteran of the Soviet war in Afghanistan. He already knew me. A few days earlier he had told me he’d had Molotov cocktails thrown at him in Kiev. “If anyone wants a fountain, it can go in front of Lenin. What about it?"

An old lady is holding up a poster with “Our Russia” written in red and a drawing of a hammer and sickle. “Why the Soviet symbol if you are for Russia? I asked her.

“Because Russia is the Soviet Union,” she said. “Didn’t you do history at school?”

Another elderly women tackled me at that moment and said I was filming lies. “I’m filming it to show online,” I said in justification. “I will show whatever you are saying.”

“You’re still lying anyway!" she shouted, grabbing me by the arm. There were murmurs of agreement from people behind her.

People on all sides come up to say how they want a Russian-Ukrainian-Belorussian union to be set up. “Old man Lukashenko [Belarus president] should come here and impose order.”

UPSIDE-DOWN CRIMEA

People came out onto the Maidan in Kiev to call for change and for progressive development. Here, though, people want to reverse things. On the Maidan, people looked one another in the eye with a new mentality far removed from Soviet thinking, but in Crimea it’s the look of a past, discredited era.

As they carry Soviet symbols, Crimeans are in reality calling for Russian imperialism. It isn’t left-wing communist values they warm to, but the myth of Soviet wellbeing.

For them, the Maidan reflects a world they aren’t ready to accept. So they believe in nonsense like “Banderists”, without knowing who Stepan Bander actually was.

The phrase “Glory to Ukraine” is said here only quietly, as is the response “Glory to the heroes”. But no one is shouting “Glory to Russia” either. The cry is just “Russia”, no glory.

Crimea is a place of mass cognitive dissonance. Only someone who’s lived here can understand Crimeans who want unification with Russia, the re-establishment of the USSR, or a separate entity.

For many years, unfortunately, central government paid no attention to Crimea, perhaps regarding it as a toothless appendage used as a holiday resort. And over this period, the appendage built up a lot of resentment towards those who continually neglected it. Only Russia, the loyal, powerful friend, did not neglect it.

For these reasons, the self-defence units here are defending against pro-Ukrainian “titushki” activists, seemingly normal people wear Russian or St. George’s ribbons, and the organisers of the Stop Maidan movement are counted as heroes.

The presence of Russian troops in Crimea is nothing compared to the combat that is taking place among civilians.

This article republished from Ukrainska Pravda with kind permission.

Original article in Russian.