What is Happening, and What Do They Want in the Crimea?

March 5, 2014
...in protest of internet censorship in Russia

“Russia, Russia!” chanted the people on the square in front of the Crimean parliament. The only Ukrainian flag is hanging on the building of the Supreme Council, but in the crowd, there are only Russian and Crimean banners. At first glance, they look like twins, except the Crimean flag has first a red stripe, then a broad white stripe and the blue on top. Evidently the external similarity was the main criteria in designing the flag in the early 1990s, therefore it was easy to confuse. However only those who don’t know Crimea would equate the two. And, as recent events show, beyond the borders of the peninsula, there are rather a lot of such people.

Maidan in the Crimea – a Mess

The Crimea and Sevastopol are two different administrative units. “The city of Russian glory” is subordinate directly to Kiev; its own head of administration here is appointed from the center, who along with Sevastopol also manages Inkerman, Balaklava and a dozen and a half other population centers. Last week during the mass rally of Sevastopol residents, the “appointee,” Sevastopol Mayor Vladimir Yatsuba, turned in his resignation. Right there on the square, people chose a new head for themselves, businessman Aleksei Chaly. A bit later, the city council confirmed him in his post. A violation of procedure? Possibly. But this sort of thing has gone mainstream in Ukraine, in case you hadn’t noticed.

Meanwhile in Simferopol, the capital of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, there have not been any other personnel backflips. A rally also gathered here, people demanded from the deputies that the Constitution of 1992 be returned – under it, the peninsula gains de facto state independence. The deputies hesitate – they are squeezed between the Scylla of street protest and the Charybdis of laws in effect under which the Fundamental Law of the Crimea has to be agreed with Kiev. Time after time, the decision on the issue is postponed.

Sevastopol and Simferopol have not been like this for 20 years. The last time in the Crimea where the street demanded the status of a subject was in the early 1990s when the peninsula gained and lost its broader autonomy. The majority of Russian-cultural residents of Crimea are now at this point of bifurcation. They really hope that the frozen pendulum will swing right now in either direction. Not surprisingly, this is Maidan all over again. Only now in the Crimea.

What the Crimea Wants

The Crimea, like the rest of Ukraine, also wants changes. The main difference is only that this wish is focused not on the future, but on the past. After the Soviet Union, the whole Soviet myth of the peninsula was smashed to bits. And a new one has yet to appear.

“The past” in the Crimean collective unconscious is the lost Soviet paradise. The multi-million armies of vacationers, the sanatoria packed to the gills, the overcrowded beaches – in a word, everything that gave Crimea the right to consider itself “the pearl of the Union.” Apologists for “the past” sincerely believe in Pablo Neruda’s formula: “The Crimea is a medal on the chest of the Planet Earth.” The formula is very convenient: if it is a “medal” from nature, then what else does it have to do? It’s not important that the popularity of the peninsula among tourists was guaranteed by an iron curtain and a system of state purchase orders. In the matrix of Crimean welfare, there is no place for understanding the simple fact that in its climate conditions, the Crimea cannot equal even the South Mediterranean. And there is nothing surprising in the fact that the Crimea remains one of the most pro-Soviet regions of the former USSR: nostalgia for the Union for many Crimeans is a form of escapism. It is a flight from reality to the mythology of the recent past.

But the issue doesn’t end with the results. Starting from the times of Catherine the Great, for the last 300 years, the Crimea was a military fortress. First, there was the dream about the gulfs, then the logic of the “unsinkable aircraft carrier, then it achieved the role of the support base for the space troops. The fall of the Soviet Union put an end to this history as well – Ukraine did not need a military place d’armes, but the port, transit and trade functions were distributed to neighbors, including Odessa and Novorossiysk. The old paradigm was exhausted, a new one did not appear.

As a result, the Crimea plunged into a dream of its own past. There is no notion of “today” in the mindset of the majority of the residents of the peninsula. There is only “yesterday” and “tomorrow.” They believe that for the onset of the golden age, they need to return to Russia and cast off Ukraine; others think just the opposite. For both categories, the “present” is only a temporary misunderstanding, serving only as a battlefield for the “era of prosperity.”
Moreover, regardless of their ethnicity, Crimeans have another mental drug – grievance. It simplifies a lot – there aren’t criticisms of oneself, there isn’t accountability, and both action and inaction are justified. Everything that lies beyond the bounds of the collective “we” falls into the category of “hostile” and “unjust.”

Crimean Autonomous Republic

In recent history, the Crimea changed its status several times. In 1921, the Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR) appeared as a component of the Russian Soviet Federation of Socialist Republics. In 1945, the Crimean ASSR was “dismantled” into the Crimean Region. The peninsula would again acquire autonomy only in 1991 – after a referendum.

The motives for renewal of the autonomous republic were dictated by the moment. The first point was that if Ukraine was leaving the USSR, then the Crimea, as a subject of the Union Treaty, would remain in the Soviet Union. The second idea was to intercept the idea of autonomy from the Crimean Tatars returning from deportation who dreamed of national self-determination.

Today, both positions have lost their relevance. The Crimea has wearied of its semi-independent status – in the degree of its powers, the republic differs little from other regions. Although the head of the Crimean Council of Ministers is approved by the Crimean parliament, the Ukrainian president nominates him. Local decisions must fit in the track of general Ukrainian decisions. It is possible that Kiev sees in the Crimea Athos, while the peninsula itself looks in the mirror and sees Count de la Fère.

This sense of non-subjecthood turns into a defensive discourse. The future of the peninsula is seen only in the context of relations between Moscow and Kiev. And the Crimea simply doesn’t see itself within the framework of the Black Sea region. Any events occurring in the two capitals (which are a distance of 1,500 km and 900 km from the Crimea, respectively) are perceived as more significant than what happens in Bulgaria or Turkey (300-500 km). Although it is in this region that all of the Crimean competitors are located – both as to trade routes and as to the resort and sanatoria business.

Crimean Ukrainians

When the law on regional languages was abolished after the victory on the Maidan in Kiev, this was a signal for the peninsula. In local social networks, only two topics remained: the invasion of Russia being prepared and the impending visit of the Banderaites slung with machine guns. Everyone was afraid of something of his own. The shortage of information unites both concerns – no one knows for sure what will happen in the country and is ready to fight against “everything that is dangerous.”

Even so, to be honest, there is practically nothing “Ukrainian” in the Crimea. The most Ukrainian here are the Crimean Tatars who make up approximately 13% of the population. They are united in solidarity and in this, the atomized Russians see a threat to themselves – even though in the last 20 years, there has been no major conflict with bloodshed in the Crimea. By contrast with Nagorno-Karabakh, Trans-Dniester or Kosovo, it is a wonderful model.

Many in Kiev connect the danger of Crimean separatism with the fact that the peninsula is the only region of Ukraine where Russians predominate in number. In a state of peace, this is not sufficient for mobilization – beyond the ethnic connection are superimposed other fractures which divide unity and confuse interests. How should land ownership be handled? Should it be a military fortress or a tourist cluster? Should there be paternalism or liberalism? But the current burst of protest is only related to the fact that for the Crimean Russians, Maidan is above all a nationalist phenomenon. As soon as they perceive the social in events in the capital, then they will develop more complex markers of identity. And the unity begins to fracture.

Russian and Tatar – Brothers Forever

Nevertheless, there is a collective myth of the Crimeans – the topic of the Great Patriotic War. Thus in the echo of the slogan “Glory to Ukraine – To Heroes Glory,” Russian Crimeans hear Stepan Bandera, and in the Maidan Self-Defense brigades, soldiers from the OUN-UPA. On the peninsula, people continue to believe that a “Ukrainian” is ethnic, not political. But meanwhile, for Crimean Russians and Crimean Tatars, the topic of the war can serve to cement relations.
The Russian mythology of the war does not leave a place for collaborationists among the heirs of the Great Patriotic War. They are not honored at a state level, are not recognized by veterans and people are not even prepared to sympathize with them as victims of circumstances. That distinguishes them from Western Ukraine, in the historical myth of which the USSR and the Third Reich are on the same moral and ethnic plane. But in the Crimean Tatar community, such analogous historical concepts were not created – the military medals of the old men here are hardly considered anything shameful or unworthy.

Every year, on the 9th of May the Medjlis – the unofficial Crimean Tatar parliament – places flowers at the memorials to the Muslims who fought on the side of the Red Army. Even the initiative strenuously blocked by the Crimean parliament on the re-naming of the main airport on the peninsula is only a discussion about whether to bestow the name of a twice Hero of the USSR, fighter pilot Amet-khan Sultan on the sky gates of the autonomous republic.

When various hot-heads begin to discuss how the Crimean Tatar are a collaborationist people, and the deportation was justified, then there is a blow to the collective equilibrium. Refusal of the right to the Victory provokes only a search for another conception of the war distinct form the Russian one – with all the ensuing consequences. Myth is not destroyed by facts; they only provoke the creation of an alternative Myth.

Crimea and Russia

Russia’s problem is that people here consider the peninsula to be pro-Russian, but in reality, it’s pro-Soviet. It is the natural fate of any isolated enclave – it is frozen at that point in history in which the break occurred. For the Crimea, this is 1991.

The Crimea today is something like the Russian fleet in Bizerte [last resting place of the White Navy] circa 1930. Already six years had passed since the recognition of the Soviet government, but 1936 had not yet come, when the last ship, the battleship General Alekseyev would be sent for scrap. A military manner still gives away the doormen in hotels but the ballroom pianists with the difficult Slavic names are already learning new songs. That’s how it is with the Crimea – it is dreaming about a Russia that no longer exists.

The Crimea doesn’t know the problems of migration and the story of [ethnic pogroms in] Biryulyovo. Here the Soviet answers for what is good and what is bad remain in their virginal purity. Anyone who travels there is tested on the topic of the Great Patriotic War. It’s right out of Gogol: “Do you believe in 9 May? And in Pokryshkin and Kozhedub? Well, if you believe, then you know which kurin to join.”

While Russia was battling gays, the Crimea was holding pickets against NATO exercises. While Moscow was discussing labor migration, the peninsula was exposing the Dulles plan. People here don’t read [the Russian nationalist web site] Sputnik & Pogrom, and are baffled by the “Russian marches” [of nationalists] in Moscow. By inertia, they believe in internationalism and the Soviet commonality. No Russian “skin-heads” have appeared here; a person who gives a “Heil Hitler” salute can still get their face punched.

And at the same time, the Crimea continues to absorb Ukraine into itself, without noticing it itself. My colleague Pytor Oleshchuk described this better than others. Imagine a Russian city where the citizens get together for a rally without permission from the authorities. At the rally, they send the head of the region off to retirement, and don’t heed the calls of the prosecutor to obey. They choose a mayor on the square and force the deputies to confirm him. They change the flags on the administrative buildings and resolve questions of internal politics, and demand and achieve change.

Is such a thing possible in principle in Russia? Will Russians begin behaving like this? Only the Ukrainians do this. In the political sense. Even the people of Sevastopol themselves don’t realize this.