Observations from an average American’s “flash inspection” of the Crimea
Recent Western-conducted public opinion polls and observations from a French fact-finding delegation clearly contradict official US representations of the Crimea as a “kingdom of terror”. I am no mere casual observer – I speak Russian fluently, and with over 3 decades of involvement, have a deep understanding of the history and culture of both Russia and the former USSR. I also have perspective gleaned from closely following Russia media. The West’s labeling of the latter as “propaganda” is in and of itself ill-informed and dangerous propaganda. The West (more specifically the State Department) certainly has the right to its own opinion, but not its own facts.
Historically, the Crimea had been an integral part of Russia proper since before US independence – up until 1954 when Khrushchev (then Ukrainian head of the USSR) “gifted” it to the then Ukrainian Socialist Soviet Republic “. This gift, incredibly, was made without regard for the wishes of the hugely predominant Russian population, and in direct violation of the USSR’s own constitution. Until 1991, “collateral damage” was limited since the Ukraine remained an autonomous republic within the USSR.
To understand Russian passions here, consider the hundreds of thousands of Russian lives lost battling foreign invaders: Turks in the 18th century, the mid-19th century Franco-Anglo-Turkish alliance (the setting for Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade”), and Nazi’s during World War II. Traveling throughout the Crimea, one comes upon monuments and graveyards everywhere honoring not only Russians, but even fallen French and English soldiers, but tellingly, not “Ukrainians”. Russians – not Ukrainians – accordingly formally honor Sevastopol, the epicenter of these battles, as a place of special battlefield glory. Think Pearl Harbor, the Alamo, and 9/11 sites, then multiply the resulting human losses and suffering by 100s.
Culturally speaking, even further back, in 988 A.D. Russian Prince (later Saint) Vladimir formally accepted Christianity for Russia in the ancient Greek-founded city of Cherson (Chersones in Russian) just outside Sevastopol. Hugely significant for Russians and their Russian Orthodox Church, not for Ukrainians.
The ticking time bomb, however, was the 1991 dissolution of the USSR when the Crimea, again with no input from its residents, was “left behind” (betrayed if you ask local residents as I did) as part of the new Ukrainian state. The Ukraine made a bad situation worse by eliminating the Crimea’s long-standing status as an autonomous republic, subjecting its predominantly Russian population to centralized Ukrainian rule. Imagine Texas learning its officials would be appointed – if not at least approved – by Washington.
Based on this, the March 2014 events should not have surprised any reasonable observer. The West, however, immediately insisted Russia used massive military force to illegally seize the Crimea, then force its residents – “under the muzzles of Russian guns” – to vote for reunification with Russia. The State Department’s latest July 15, 2015 warning (“The Department of State warns U.S. citizens to defer all travel to Crimea…, and recommends those U.S. citizens currently living in or visiting these regions to depart”) suggests the current government is kept in place only by dint of ongoing massive, armed repression of the local population.
From my visits, it is hard to even imagine any need to “control” the Crimea’s still predominantly Russian population (65%) seething under direct Ukrainian rule for 23 years. Especially considering Ukrainians comprise at best a mere 15% of the population, a close tie with Tatars, another minority, one equally unhappy with centralized Kiev rule.
Everywhere I went, I saw happy, satisfied people, truly overjoyed at being reunited with their historic homeland. I was constantly greeted by smiles – very unusual for Russia where Americans are frowned upon for always smiling. What I saw, felt and experienced a very relaxed, “Southern” lifestyle – and hospitality – not “armed repression”.
What I did not see or experience anywhere during my extensive travels – any sign of armed troops or military equipment. In fact, there was a decided absence of even local law enforcement. Given my obvious “American” appearance, based on US official claims, all those poor, repressed souls to should have shared their concerns with me. Instead, the consistent message I got was “please tell your government we are safe and happy…please stop punishing us… leave us in peace”. Nor did authorities do anything to control me. I have never felt safer or more welcomed – even as an American.
Economically speaking, there is no lack of goods or foodstuffs. Frequent traffic jams even during non-rush hours, and well-dressed people, also contradict tales of any economic distress. In fact, I can only imagine how envious the folks “left behind” in the Ukraine must be given the current economic collapse there, with the country being kept afloat only by massive, ongoing Western loans.
This summer I also with local media representatives – journalist Alexander Makar from First Crimea TV, a news anchor from a local TV station, and local web publication journalist Olga Apanasova. Despite their relative youth and “local” status, their professionalism, perceptiveness and extensive knowledge of world affairs compared very favorably to their “colleagues” on a national level.
My conversation with Elena Markina, First Sevastopol TV’s savvy, veteran General Director was most informative. Being from the same late Cold War generation as myself, Ms. Markina has not only extensive media experience, but first-hand knowledge of Crimean life and history. I learned from her that pleas for secession started after the USSR’s ill-fated 1991 dissolution, as did Kiev’s subsequent heavy-handed orders to replace Russian language TV broadcasts with Ukrainian ones. In bravely declining to do so, Ms. Markina was ironically following simple “free market” logic. For her customers – viewers – Russian remains to this day their first language – including among minority Tatars and even Ukrainians. In a final act of civic courage, in January 2014 Ms. Markina dared to broadcast the decidedly non-peaceful Maidan protests – angry, violent mobs hurling hundreds of Molotov cocktails, employing small-arms weapons, and setting buildings on fire. Ms. Markina graciously accepted my ironic, belated congratulations on “earning” a resulting arrest warrant.
Ms. Markina concluded “Please tell the whole world that we are happy to be citizens of Russia, we once again have a true homeland. We love our country and believe in our President. Since we returned home, there have been a lot of very positive changes, while those difficulties we have encountered , mainly adapting to a new legislative process, are by comparison quite insignificant – and we will easily overcome them.”
All I will add to this is the Crimea indeed has also suffered as a result of Kiev “punishment” – it first by damming a river supplying a major source of water, then periodically stopping delivery of electricity. Despite being depicted by Kiev as an aggressor, Russia has never done anything like this to the Ukraine. To the chagrin of Kiev and the delight of Crimeans, Russia has rapidly and effectively addressed both these challenges.
How has all this been possible? I think a lot can be attributed to the overall attitude and approach reflected by billboard signs I saw immediately after the Crimea rejoined Russia: “Russian Spring…what’s next?” That is, “we appreciate that you are all excited to be back home, but let’s not get too giddy, we have a lot of work to do”. If you know Russians, and appreciate the actual situation in the Crimea, you know these folks are up to the challenge.
In conclusion, while Russian actions and motivations are quite clear and reasonable to me, I am at a loss to understand the ill-advised and wrong-headed “warning” about the dangers of the Crimea. Either this is based on continued “bad intelligence” (and related “ignorance”), or, worse, it is a pitiful attempt to prevent average citizens in the US from finding out the truth. Either explanation does not bode well for peace in our future.
Stephen Ebert is the Russian language translator and political commentator.
Bakhchisaray, Crimea, September 12, 2015. Crimean Tatars greet Russian President visiting the town.