Bohdan Lu, for “Fakty”
I hitchhiked from Kyiv to Crimea by car. Along the road, at traffic police posts there are reinforcements made out of sandbags. Frequently, people in army camouflage can be seen next to the traffic police.
Our old “Ford” was not stopped by anyone. It seems that luxury cars evoke more interest. The close to the south, the more frequently we see roadblocks with sandbags. Night falls. After Kirovohrad the armament at the roadblocks is more serious: we see armoured personnel carriers and missile systems. In Kherson oblast, there is a lonely roadblock on one of the empty parts of the road. The lights of our car spot two soldiers in the darkness. They are sleeping without a care in the world next to the bags.
The Russian government awarded the medal “For the return of Crimea” to six… dogs.
Morning. There is a Ukrainian-Crimean checkpoint in front of Krasnoperekopsk. Everything surrounding it emphasises its temporary status: there are trenches instead of service rooms. Instead of offices – armoured personnel carriers. A “Gazel” is adapted to be used as a passport control booth. Two border workers are frying inside under the Crimean sun.
The customs officer did not wish to approach my car. However the border worker from the “Gazel” turned out to be quite thorough. Either he didn’t like me personally for some reason, or my Ukrainian passport. And the colonel started a boring questioning: “What date were you born? What is your patronymic?…” After the tenth or eleventh question, I exploded: “Listen, you, Mr. Sherlock Holmes, don’t you want to ask your questions to the mercenaries in Sloviansk? You lost Crimea, now you’re carping peaceful civilians?” The face of the border worker immediately turned into one single well-wishing smile: “Oh, sorry, I can already see that you are ‘ours’.”
The Russian checkpoint is at a distance of a good rifle shot. As opposed to the Ukrainian one, everything here has been established solidly and for a long time: new carcass buildings, fresh paint, fresh asphalt.
The picture is completed by the faces of the border workers with stark Asian features. Among the “government people,” a darkly tanned skinny worker with a Slavic exterior stands out starkly. He is chipping away at the new asphalt with a perforator while kneeling. This one, it seems, is crimean. While they are inspecting the car, I ask: “Ukrainian? From Crimea?” The worker nearly dropped the perforator in indignation: “Are you, mister, overheated?! I have been Russian since March!” Our conversation was interrupted by the Dzhinghiz-Khan border worker without any reservations. He thrust the passport at me, thus allowing me to cross to the land of my country.
We head for Sevastopol – “the Crimean Lviv,” as the driver of our van dubbed it. On the way, we cross the springs of the Crimean irrigation channel several times. Whether the channel is close or not, I honestly did not understand: some of its parts are filled with water, some are really dry. Whether they had been planted before drying out is more of a political issue than an agrarian one.
On the road, there are many cars with St. George’s ribbons and Russian flags. The “UA” sign on many Ukrainian cars with Crimean registration is covered with the Russian tricolour by the “idealistic” drivers. But no: the most “idealistic” ones have already received Russian technical documents for their vehicles and are now showing off the three sevens on new Russian licence plates. “777” is one of the codes of the Moscow region, which was given in good faith by the “high order” to the new Russians as a sign of benevolence to them.
In Sevastopol I talk to Grigoriy Apresov, a 56-year-old pro-Russian activist, Armenian and military pensioner, who was awarded with the medal “For the return of Crimea. 20.02.2014-18.03.2014” three weeks go. We noted: “You think I am the only Pavlik Morozov-like hero here? The medals in Sevastopol were awarded to all self-defence fighters, and there are about two thousand of them there.”
“After the cessation of Crimea from Ukraine, do you maintain contact with friends on the continent?”
“This is a very painful topic. Many people I have been friends with for decades have not stopped speaking to me.”
…Every hour the city clock performs the beginning of the city anthem: “Legendary Sevastopol, the city of Russian sailors!” 24 hours a day. 8 thousand 760 times a year. In the 23 years of Ukraine’s independence, the clock has played the anthem about 200 thousand times. I will not claim it is hypnosis. But… if Simferopol had a different anthem, for example, “the Cossack went over the Danube,” which would have been performed the same number of times over the same umber of years, who knows how the events would have turned out now.
Before I leave I find out the in Sevastopol the medal “For the return of Crimea” was awarded by the Russian government to… six dogs, as well: Khaza, Asia, Darina, Lucky, Graf and King.
There are practically no Ukrainian children in Artek camps this summer
At the railway station I was approached by three policemen to “just check” my documents. I said that they don’t have the right to “just” check documents of citizens. For this, a weighty reason is necessary. A quite friendly conversation took place. We even got acquainted. It turned out that one of the policemen was Chechen, another from Krasnodar region. The third was a local. It turned out that this winter the local policeman and I were on Kyiv’s Maidan at the same time this winter, however, on different sides of the barricades. As soon as these facts in our shared biographies were discovered, the Chechen and Krasnodar guys managed to react faster than us: they firmly took their friend by the arms and ran around the corner without saying goodbye.
From Sevastopol, my route lies through Yalta, Alushta and Simferopol to Kerch. The weather is sunny. The beginning of the season. But the beaches and sanatoria of the Southern Coast of Crimea are practically empty, regardless of crowds of budget tourists promised by the Russian government.
“Yesterday my frequent holidaymakers from Ternopil called,” says a border meat seller in Parthenite to a lone customer. “They say: ‘You are traitors! We will not come until the last Russian soldier is gone!’ You see what horrible people they are?!”
“Horrible, really horrible! Banderites!” agrees the customer while stuffing a fat Ukrainian chicken into her bag.
“But they want to come, of course, otherwise they wouldn’t have called! They forgot that we are always happy to see them here, the vermin,” the seller doesn’t stop.
“It will be difficult for another four years,” the customer tell her. “Before Putin builds the bridge. But it’s fine, we can wait.”
The Crimeans have high hopes for the bridge – trains, cars, water, oil and the most important raw material for the peninsula, the tourists, are to come by it from Russia. But I would not say that the ferry cannot manage the cargo and passenger load at the moment. Four ferries are passing through the gulf. It is probably preferable not to have more because of safety reasons. And it is not necessary – the currently active ferries are not overcrowded.
A bunch of taxi drivers has nothing to do near the bus stop in the village of Kiparisnoe. Since the morning, none of them have had any work. And it is already lunchtime. They entertain each other with vague conversation: “There are no holidaymakers at all.” – “What do you mean, none? My brother’s neighbours is hosting an entire family from Donetsk for the summer!” The taxi drivers tut jealously: “The people want to take a break from war. A very correct decision, especially if they have money.”
The head of “Artek’s” press centre Tatyana Grigorets is Russia. She is from Zabaykalie. After graduating a Donetsk university, she has been living in a hostel with the camp for 20 years now. She has no perspectives of ever having her own home. Every winter, when the camp closes, Tatyana Anatolievna has no work. “Isn’t it easier to return to Zabaykalie?” I ask the naïve question. “Well I moved this year. But together with Crimea,” answers the woman.
This summer only three out of ten Artek camps were filled. There are practically no children from Ukraine there.
The headlines of Crimean newspapers are shocking. “Komsomolskaya pravda in Crimea” offers the following topics: “In Donetsk the Ukrainian army bombs an 8-month-old baby,” “Ukraine owes Crimea almost 2 billion Hryvnia,” “Kuban waters may be sent to Crimea,” “The executors surrender to the rebels.” And only “Pervaya Krimskaya Gazeta” has an understanding attitude towards the country. “Ukrainism cannot be cured” – this is the headline this medium has on its pages.
The Ukrainian government is called by Crimean media nothing else but the fascist junta, Ukraine itself is “dependent,” Ukrainians are Ukrs. I expressed my indignation to Arkadiy Petrovich, a senior intelligent-looking Moscow citizen I talked to at the Simferopol railway. The Muscovite looked at me in surprise: “I don’t understand why you’re complaining: is someone making you read THAT?”
On the big boards dedicated to May 9th: a front line soldier who overcame fascism and a “green man”
However the pensioners, of which there are more than enough on the peninsula, who have seen enough Russian television, consider themselves experts in Crimean-Russian-Donetsk-Ukrainian issues. My 80-year-old aunt from Alushta is foaming at the mouth while demanding to stop eliminating peaceful people in Luhansk. To my noting that the “peaceful civilians” are armed with firearms, she answers: “What are you telling me? I know the entire truth! I watch TV every day!”
The owner of “Korona” hotel in Kiparisnoe who did not wish to state his name, claimed: “Five-six months will pass, and the guys from Donetsk, together with the Russians, will chase you, khokhli, all the way to the Carpathians.” When I asked why he was so sure, he answered: “We have Orthodox faith. And in Ukraine, there is an Antichrist – the Kyiv patriarchy. In Russia, we have the legitimate Moscow Patriarch.”
The hotel belonging to my interviewee stands on the coast, practically on the pier.
“But the Russian government threatened to tear down the buildings which are closer than 200 metres to the sea. This means that your business will suffer too, right?”
The businessman looked at the long row of hotels and answered: “No, they won’t do it. Crimea will have special status just like it did in Ukraine!”
Billboards were set up around Crimea for the 9th of May. The published image shows a front line soldier who beat fascism and… a “green man.” Take a guess what kind of “vermin” the “man” has beaten?
Meanwhile the real “green men” are being mass exported from Crimea through the strait of Kerch. Some are throwing coins overboard – it seems they want to return here again.
An activist of the Crimean self-defence is selling an armoured personnel carrier on the Simferopol-Alushta road near the village of Mramornoe. “Why should I need it?” The man opens up. “The war here is over, and for such a toy you can be sent to the White Sea in Russia.”
In Simferopol, the only Ukrainian state flag on the peninsula proudly stands on the building of the Mejlis. Pro-Russian self-defenders tried to take it down, but the flag was won over in harsh hand-to-hand combat. No, not the tatar rebellion and not the soldiers of “Right Sector,” but three desperate Tatar women: a pensioner concierge Zodie, press secretary of the Mejlis Lilia and accountant Marlena.
On June 1st Crimea started using roubles. A sufficient amount of big banknotes was imported from Russia. The Moscow governors did not think about change. Retail, public transport and service are spheres where small change is always needed, and they ended up on the brink of collapse.
“A plane with 40 tons of change has already departed from Moscow to Simferopol,” I was assured at one of the railway exchange points in Simferopol, when they gave me thousand rouble bills.
The driver of the Simferopol-Yalta trolleybus at the small resort station near the Botanical gardens kicked off a women with two small children who gave him a hundred rouble bill. “I don’t have change,” screamed the driver, spitting. “I won’t drive you around for free!” The woman turned out to be a tourist from Murmanks. “It’s interesting whom this driver voted for at the referendum?” I thought.
In Dzhankoi I was once again asked to show my papers. This time the introduced themselves as the local self-defence. I categorically refused to show my documents: “Call the police!” The police came. I asked the sergeant to show his service papers. He shows… a Russian passport with Dzhankoi registration and a paper without any stamps that he is part of the Dzhankoi police service. I could barely contain my laughter. My mirth was seen by the policeman differently: “Why are we checking documents – the times are worrisom. Yesterday there was a peaceful-looking citizen, and he had a gun in his bag.”
None of the Russian banks is working in Dzhnskoi. They say that there is a glitch in the program. There is nowhere to exchange Hryvnia for roubles. And the train tickets are only in roubles. I barely managed to convince the owners of the railway pawn shop to take my hryvnia for a third of the price for the roubles. And, of course, with a rate. He took them, crunched the bills and wished me a safe journey…
Translated by Mariya Shcherbinina