Our train, heading from Kyiv to Simferopol, has already been stopped for an hour and a half at Melitopol railway station. The passengers mix in a sleeper-car, watching the Ukrainian border guards through the windows. We can see that the conductor gets nervous when we ask: “When will the train finally leave?”
My fellow travellers are a teacher from a music school in Simferopol – Yelena; and Oleg – a former soldier.
Yelena says: “We do not feel this change. We were scared of the Green Men, but I only saw them a few times in Crimea. But this month my salary is paid on time, on the third, like never before. I am only worried about my son: he is leaving for Kyiv soon, he is 21; the Ukrainian border guards might find a fault with him. I just want them to let him in.”
And Oleg: “My father decided to move to Crimea. As it happens, he feels better here, calmer. But it is impossible to transfer his [Ukrainian] pension money onto his debit card. So I have to get the money myself. Banks aren’t operating in Crimea, and I do not trust money transfer systems”.
While we are talking, three Ukrainian border guards come into the room with a big German Shepherd. The dog, called Ayran, sniffs the baggage. The children from the next sleeper-car pet the dog; the border guard smiles softly.
After one and half hours of inspections the trains sets off. The passengers sigh with relief. But there is another checkpoint in Dzhankoi.
As we cross Perekop, Oleg checks his watch. “Well, time to change to Crimean time. I am going to change to my Russian SIM card, so I can talk with my brother, who lives in Russia.”
“There are Russian mobile phone providers in Crimea, but they do not operate yet,” remarks the teacher of music.
“How is that? Two months have passed. They must have started operating here. Perhaps you are wrong. Let’s check”. Oleg changes the SIM and calls his brother.
“Right, it’s roaming. That’s pretty strange. How is that? Two months passed and no Russian mobile phone providers!? That’s a huge marketing opportunity!” the man blasts off.
The Russian border guards take much less time; there are many more guards. They refuse entry to two passengers from Ternopil.
“Who can we talk to, to find out the cause of the refusal?”
“The Embassy of the Russian Federation. Here’s the phone number. Call, find out” says the guard, noting down the passport details of the passengers.
Because of the five hour delay, I do not manage to see the military parade – with Mr Putin, in Sevastopol.
“Crimea is Ours”
Simferopol meets me with the Russian flag. The flags are everywhere. The taxis are decorated with the Ribbon of St George. “To Alushta, Sudak, Yevpatoria”: the drivers states the price, in rubles.
– When Aksyonov declared that hryvna would stop being the means of payment, people rushed to get rid of it. The banks were still operating then, and the queues were huge. Then it looked like the situation stabilised; before a rumour started that Kyiv has issued a new kind of hryvna. I am told this by a young waitress in one of Simferopol’s cafes, who is trying to make it clear what currency I should use.
Myths about Kyiv, about Right Sector, and Euromaidan are a new topic, wide-spread among the Crimeans.
For instance, it is considered that the Ukrainian authorities drain water from North Crimea channel into the sea in order not to let it Crimea have it; that whatever happened in Odesa occurred after Right Sector chased a peaceful May Day Rally (though it is accepted that the events took place on the second of May), beat people up, drove them into the trade union building, and set it on fire. People were at Maidan only because they were paid. The last story is supported by a story about some acquaintance who managed to earn 20 000 UAH this way, in three months.
“How do you live there, on the Right Bank [of the Dnipro, in Kyiv]?” a young computer games salesman, Valera, wants to know. “Right Sector demands tributes from ordinary people. A friend of mine reported it on Vkontakte website – he even moved, to avoid paying them.”
Valera seems proud that he has already got a picture for a Russian passport, which he’ll be getting soon. “I will try to find a job in Moscow” he continues. “I have wanted to move there for a long time – here is my chance”.
In recent times, Valera has been a salesman at a local market; his daily income depends on sales.
“Sales are low recently,” he complains. “Food is very expensive now, so people are probably not interested in computer games; but it is temporary.”
Despite prices rising by ten – sometimes thirty – percent, the local markets and supermarkets are very popular among the Russians. After border checks between Ukraine and Russia disappeared, people from Krasnodar come here shopping.
“We sell out at the weekends. They buy everything – pasta, meat, vegetables,” says a saleswoman, Zarema. “They say that it is of better quality and cheaper, even with the higher prices.”
Growing prices is not the only issue that bothers the Crimeans, after the annexation. The biggest problem is the lack of Ukrainian banks. The problems began right after the occupation, as Crimeans could not get cash from Privatbank. Now, almost all the bank branches have closed, hanging notices outside.
“I am meant to pay a loan – a small sum; and I will not go to Melitopol to pay it. What do you think: when Ukraine is back, will I owe a great amount?” Zarema asks.
Have the Crimeans got used to living in Russia? It is a difficult question. I have met people who are completely happy to live in Russia, also those who still cannot believe it.
Says Zarema: “It is hard to accept when the flags of another country replace the old ones. My niece is a first grade student in a college, and since April they have been learning the Russian Constitution. We calm ourselves down with the fact that hryvna is still here; and outdoors there are signs in Ukrainian. But we understand that these will change too, with time”.
Translated by Crimea SOS, Edited by Jon Barrow