SIMFEROPOL, Crimea — On the wall of the Crimean parliament building in central Simferopol a new marble slab reads: “On 26 February 2014 in the parliament of the Crimean Republic occurred a landmark event which began the restitution of historical justice: the return of Crimea to the Russian Federation.”
The notice records a mass meeting outside this building on Feb. 26, 2014, when pro-Russian demonstrators clashed with a pro-Ukrainian crowd of mostly Crimean Tatars (the peninsula’s indigenous people who returned in the early 1990s after being deported on May 18, 1944).
After the meeting broke up with no major violence, in the early hours of the morning Russian soldiers without insignia surrounded the parliament, other government buildings and Ukrainian army bases throughout Crimea. Behind locked doors, the Crimean parliament voted to hold a referendum on the status of Crimea, which had become part of independent Ukraine in 1991 after a nationwide referendum.
Two weeks later, in a referendum on March 16, allegedly 96 percent of Crimeans voted to join Russia in a vote regarded internationally as a sham.
Most of the world considers Russia’s actions an annexation and occupation. Those in Crimea who oppose annexation – notably the Crimean Tatars – face fines and prison sentences, while international non-recognition and sanctions limit trade relations and mean Crimeans cannot get travel visas in their new Russian passports. But in the two years since this “landmark event,” Russian Crimean authorities have been busy erecting monuments in Crimea reinforcing Russia’s version of recent and historical events as “historical justice.”
The monuments’ subjects include Catherine the Great, who first annexed Crimea in 1783 (a copy of an older statue pulled down and replaced with Vladimir Lenin after the Russian Revolution); “polite people,” as the unidentified Russian soldiers in spring 2014 were quickly nicknamed; the three world leaders Joseph Stalin, Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt, who met in Yalta in 1945 to divide up spheres of influence in Europe after World War II, and last winter’s blackout when Ukraine cut the electricity supply to Crimea.
I asked local people I met near these monuments what they thought about them, and how the history and events they commemorate had affected their lives. Many people did not want to speak to a foreign journalist. Those who did echoed the story these monuments are intended to tell.
Catherine the Great monument, Simferopol
“I and my husband were so glad when they put up the Catherine statue, because it’s thanks to her that Crimea became part of the Russian Empire and we were born in Crimea. Well, my husband was born in Krasnodar but he lives here and thinks of himself as Crimean. Crimea is very dear to us, and it’s very dear that justice has been done and we joined the Russian Federation. We always thought of ourselves as Russian; me and my mother always considered the capital of our homeland to be Moscow.
“I was born in 1967, so I remember Soviet times; they were good times. Perestroika really hit people hard, my husband’s father died, he couldn’t survive Perestroika, many men died of the stress. It was really such stress, what happened to such a powerful, strong country, it just needed reforming a bit…
“We voted in the referendum in 1991, me and my husband always took part in everything. We wanted to stay with Russia even then, many voted for that but no one listened to us. Kyiv didn’t listen, it did what suited Kyiv, and not what suited people… “Then when we finally got our celebration [on March 16k 2014], it was like the birth of my child, honestly it was the same emotions… In the evening we went to Lenin Square and we were like children, we were so happy… It’s because it is my identity, although in fact my father is Belarusian, he was born in Belarus, then when he was sixk war started and they collected up all the Belarusian boys and took them to Germany… I don’t know in what year he was evacuated to Crimea, but that’s why he ended up in Crimea and met my mother and I was born. My Ukrainian mother was born here; my grandmother is inviolably Crimean.”
— Antonina Fedisko, Simferopol
“It isn’t like everything turned upside-down in Crimea, all that happened is that we have returned. Catherine united us in 1783, and Khruschev just gave us away in 1954.
“We’re so grateful to [Crimean government head Sergei] Aksyonov, he’s so clever, he’s reviving Russian history and culture. Look at this Catherine monument. I was the first to donate money for it; I came with my friend and was the first to make a donation from my pension. They collected more than 40 million rubles for this monument…
“There was never a war here on religious or ethnic grounds. That’s our uniqueness… Of course it’s more beautiful where you live, more civilized, cleaner, of course the roads are better, but we wouldn’t exchange it. Ukraine never put anything into Crimea, it just took away. Now Russia is building new roads, bus stops, kindergartens… Now we’re confident in the future. Before, we lived only for today, but now we know that everything will always be fine with us. Of course there are many inadequacies, maybe we don’t have a lot of things, but we have peace, not like in Donbas or Abkhazia.
“We’re tolerant towards everyone. Our marriages are all mixed, Russian and Ukrainian, we’re all mixed and how can you divide us now? They say a bad peace is better than a good war, and we live with that principle.
“My son left for Kyiv, he couldn’t accept Russia here and went to Kyiv. And my second son is the opposite, he’s only for Russia. And my daughter is in England. That’s how this situation has divided us. What can you do? We suffer because we can’t go anywhere, we can’t go to Europe. With my passport I can’t for example to go to England because my new international passport is not valid. That’s hurtful.”
— Marina Ismailova, Simferopol
‘Polite People’ monument, Simferopol
“We’re really grateful to those boys, the ‘polite people’ who stood here and protected us. I really made friends with them. I’m grateful to their parents who brought them up so well, for their patriotism that is only found in Russia, that spirit and pride…
“If it hadn’t been for Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin] we would have been left together with the Tatars, and it would have been the most terrible thing on the whole planet. At that meeting [on Feb. 26, 2014] the Tatars would have just destroyed us…Every May 18 [when Crimean Tatar commemorated their deportation] we couldn’t go out because the Tatars were coming and we were afraid because they were everywhere, it was terrible, every year, we were afraid even to go to school…
“No one is violating their rights now, it’s not true what they say, they have everything, they have cultural centres and schools, they get given more because they were deported and they’re pitied. It’s us who get nothing special, they tell us: you can manage, it’s your home and you should help and accept everyone. That’s what we were always taught.
“You know what miracle happened? For the 23 years we lived in Ukraine, all Crimea celebrated two New Years, one in Ukraine and one in Russia. We celebrated at 11 p.m. at Russian time, and then at Ukrainian time at 12, with exactly the same champagne and fireworks. All those 23 years we were with Russia. And for these last two years, now we celebrate only one New Year, with Russia.
“The most important thing is peace; not to let war come here. When those boys stood there and protected us we kissed their hands and feet in gratitude… All Russia stood up and supported us. We pray for them, we’re so grateful they didn’t abandon us. We understood that at last our lives mean something to someone.”
–– Irina Antonova, Simferopol
Yalta Conference monument, Livadia
“Let’s start with Stalin. Stalin did a lot good for Russia, and not a little bad too. All the same it’s a double-sided attitude, some have a positive attitude and some a negative one, but he’s still a historical personage… We hope relations with Russia and Britain and the United States will get better again, over Crimea…
“I’m a seaman, I was 30 years at sea. In 1991 we got a radiogram on all our ships, telling us to hold a referendum on the fate of Ukraine, the U.S.S.R. and Crimea. We were given ballots, there were no secret cabins or anything, we just sat down and filled them out… There were 60 people on our trawler, 60 percent Russians and 40 percent Ukrainians, and what was the result? The questions were: should Ukraine stay in the USSR or become independent; and, if Ukraine becomes independent, should Crimea join Ukraine or go back to Russia? Almost everyone voted against independent Ukraine and for a Russian Crimea…
“We were opposed to the U.S.S.R., no one wanted the Communists to stay in power. We all gave in our [Communist] Party membership cards… But we voted against independent Ukraine, and all Crimeans did the same.
“We came back on the trawler to Sevastopol in what was now Ukraine, and got together outside our fishing firm, and started to talk and complain because we all voted for one thing and we got another. I met a friend… He said “I dealt with all the voting process, I saw that all the results from all the boats were a vote for independent Ukraine and Ukrainian Crimea.” So I went round all my acquaintances and asked how they had voted – and it turned out almost all had voted against Ukraine and against Ukrainian Crimea. But the results were the opposite.
“I can explain why. Our bosses in Sevastopol couldn’t do anything without permission from Moscow, we were completely dependent on Moscow. And those local managers thought, if we’re cut off from Moscow and there’s no new system here, then there’s a gap. There was no administration in Moscow anymore and there was no administration in Kiev yet, and what started was total robbery. Scrap metal, equipment… The Sevastopol director became a dollar millionaire…
“We wanted to remove the Communists from power but keep the integrity of Russia – alright, the Caucasus, Georgia, Armenia, even the Baltics could go, even though my wife was born in the Baltics… but we wanted Russia, Belarus and Ukraine to stay together, so it was a shock when this happened… Crimea always wanted to return to Russia, it was just that all those events like Maiden [demonstrations in Kyiv in 2103-14] speeded up the process…
“We should live in peace, like when we were victorious together in 1945. All was fine then. Yes, our political system was not the right one but in 1991 that political system didn’t exist, so why did we have to be divided up? All we understand, is that no one loves the strong. And so they started to break up the army, they started breaking up the military-industrial complex, until Putin appeared and started to rebuild it we were sitting on our bare arses. Then he started to revive and rebuild Russia and of course neither America nor anyone else likes that. Sanctions are useless though, the more they pressure us the stronger we get, we’re such a people.
“But we would be friends again with pleasure, and fight against terrorism or any kind of disorder together with the Americans and the British.”
— Vladimir Maklakov, Sevastopol
Lightbulbs installation, Yalta
“We think this installation is for the blackout last winter. I really like it. It was put up last spring. Honestly speaking, people totally didn’t suffer or worry during the blackout. Yes it was a bit tough and cold and we had no light, but on the whole the mood was very positive and friendly and united, we survived it very well. Yes it was bad that Ukraine cut us off, but they ended up just harming themselves, and we’re not dependent on Ukraine anymore…
“I’m from Kazakhstan but I’ve lived and worked here for a long time, I fell in love with this place. It hasn’t changed so much. Well of course the overall situation has changed, there are new laws and regulations now. It was lot simpler earlier, you could take some money and settle a question in a day, it just depended on the size of the problem and the amount of money. Now it’s not so open, it’s got a lot more complicated with bribes. Medicine is free now, that’s really good… I think of course there’s still corruption here as everywhere. All the people who were in charge before are still in charge, and they can’t change in one day. But they got a bit more modest, and there’s a fight against them.
“I have a Kazakh passport and I’m thinking now how to get Russian citizenship, so I can stay here. I don’t have any basis for it, I’d have to get married or have close relatives here. I think I need to have a marriage of convenience.”
— Svetlana Yefremova, Yalta