Dispatch

Putin’s Peninsula Is a Lonely Island

Putin’s Peninsula Is a Lonely Island

SIMFEROPOL, Crimea — “Dear guests and residents of Crimea,” intoned the stern female voice of the airport announcer in Russian, as passengers from the most recent flight from Moscow waited in the baggage claim area. “Please, be aware that Ebola is a life-threatening disease with mortality rates of up to 90 percent. To receive more information about the symptoms of the disease, contact one of our representatives or the ticket desk.”

It was late 2014, and I had just arrived in Simferopol, the capital of Crimea, on a direct flight from Moscow. Ebola panic over the outbreak in West Africa was still in the news. But that anyone here was worried about the disease finding its way onto this now-lonely peninsula came as something of a surprise.

Simferopol International Airport, once bustling with air traffic from all over Europe and Asia, was international no more, servicing only “domestic” flights from a few Russian cities. No large cruise ships docked at once-famous Crimean resorts. Crossing the militarized border with Ukraine had become a logistical nightmare that could take anywhere from a few hours to a few days; getting to the Russian mainland without flying — via a ferry across the Kerch Strait — was both treacherous and time-consuming. All in all, chances of somebody bringing in Ebola here seemed as slim as a message in a bottle making it all the way from Monrovia to Sevastopol.

Nearly a year after Putin’s annexation, the Crimean Peninsula — unrecognized as Russian by the vast majority of U.N. countries, and facing severe international isolation — is virtually an island. The place feels sad and forlorn — like an abandoned amusement park. Gone are the bustling days of tourism, of boisterous vacationers. Foreigners have become as rare a sight here as they were during the Soviet era.

It was not supposed to be this way. Back in March 2014, when Crimeans voted to rejoin Russia and “return home,” the air was filled with hope and excitement — a belief that everything was changing for the better, especially the economy. Though the referendum was hastily organized and yielded suspicious results (82 percent turnout, 96 percent of whom opted to join Russia), there was little question that at least a simple majority of the Crimean population yearned for some kind of change. As part of Ukraine, Crimea had been suffering from the general malaise of the post-Soviet era — high unemployment, low salaries and pensions, a collapsing infrastructure.

Putin’s Russia, with its supposedly muscular economy, seemed to offer a better alternative. Most understood that moving from one country to another would not be easy, but the real hardships still appeared distant and abstract back then, obscured by a patriotic carnival of flags and songs. But with the holidays over, the reality of the new Crimea has reasserted itself. For better or worse, Crimea is Russian now and there is no turning back.

* * *

Though the celebrations have died down, signs of the euphoria that once accompanied the annexation are still scattered around the peninsula. Driving from Simferopol airport to downtown, the roads are lined with freshly painted murals depicting happy children, flowers, and Russian tricolors next to maps of the peninsula. Russian flags flutter from every administrative building; Ukrainian signs and plaques have been removed from the walls, leaving behind their cheerless contours like the missing photographs in the house of a divorced couple. In Sevastopol, another mural, taking up the entire outer wall of an apartment block (painted there by the pro-Putin nationalist hipster group Set), shows President Vladimir Putin in a military uniform, striding toward the sea through bright yellow fields of wheat with the Kremlin in the background. Souvenir kiosks sell T-shirts with Putin’s image (Putin in dark shades like a mafia boss; Putin calling Obama “chmo” [jerk]; Putin cradling a puppy sheepdog). There are even a few cafés that, in a gesture of loyalty, à la 2003’s “Freedom Fries,” have decided to change the name of the Americano coffees on their menu to Rossianos.

But “the transition,” as it is commonly called around the peninsula, isn’t all cheery patriotism. Widespread confusion and, in some cases, anxiety lurk not far below the surface. In one set of billboards scattered around Simferopol advertising a law firm, a Crimean man with an umbrella tries to shoo away a T. rex. “Scared of the transition period?” it asks playfully, and provides a number to call — presumably for aid in sorting out the various messy contracts and clauses that come into play when one country becomes another. The transition has thrown people’s lives into bureaucratic chaos: There are problems with real estate registries, new legal codes, new taxes, the overhaul of the educational system, and the issuing of new passports and license plates. Even the simple change of phone numbers, as Ukrainian operators shut down and Russian ones moved in to fill in the vacuum, has proven difficult. Many Crimeans have lost touch with neighbors and friends they have known for years. It is as if everyone has suddenly, collectively had their phones stolen.

Transition is nothing new for Crimeans: They have been living it for almost a quarter of a century, since the country became independent from the Soviet Union in 1991. For most of them, that transition was an utter failure. The promise of a better and brighter future never materialized, just like it never did during communism. The economic collapse of the post-Soviet years, the low salaries and pensions, the lawlessness and corruption, the dilapidated infrastructure, the lack of investment in education — the bad news never really ended. Crimeans were tired of moving toward elusive goals they could not see or understand; they were sick of being afloat with no land in sight. It was this general unhappiness, coupled with virulent nationalist propaganda, that persuaded so many Crimeans to choose Russia over Ukraine. Even though Russia still suffered from many of the same problems, Putin appeared to them like the man who had done the impossible: He had ended Russia’s transition.

“Following the end of the Soviet Union, Ukraine did nothing for us. It made no real investments in infrastructure, it didn’t improve our lives, it didn’t provide jobs, it did absolutely nothing for us, so people were naturally frustrated and felt no particular allegiance to Ukraine,” said Oleg, a middle-aged taxi driver in Simferopol (he preferred not to give his last name). Like so many other Crimeans, Oleg voted on the referendum for unification with Russia. But Oleg’s life shows no signs of getting easier nearly a year later. He used to run a small scuba-diving business, conducting underwater surveys for beachside construction projects, but after the annexation, numerous companies from Russia relocated to Crimea and took over the local markets, he said. Oleg’s company was no match for the competition, and he recently had to start driving a taxi to scrape by. “The transition period has been difficult, but I think everything will gradually come to its proper place,” he told me. “Maybe it will take a year, maybe two, maybe even five — it’s hard to tell. For now we just have to suck it up and survive. At least we don’t have war here.”

Small businesses like Oleg’s have been especially hard hit by Crimea’s continuing isolation. Andrej Prozheev, the owner of a clothing store and a fashion accessories shop in Simferopol, told me that sales have fallen off by around 40 percent. The shipping costs for bringing in merchandise have doubled, as regular supply routes have been disrupted because of sanctions. Meanwhile, contraband networks and black markets for all kinds of goods have blossomed. “You can do business only when the economic situation is stable, but when the economy wobbles, everything becomes uncertain,” he said. Although Prozheev voted in the referendum for Crimea to remain officially part of Ukraine, he made a decision to stay after the annexation. “We lived through one traumatic change of country in 1991 and I guess we’ll just have to live through another one now,” he said, matter-of-factly.

Back in March, many Crimeans shrugged off fears that the economy of the peninsula would suffer in any major way because of the annexation, but the change has proven dire for tourism, Crimea’s main industry. With its dramatic coastline, ancient history and culture, and numerous hotels and sanatoria, Crimea used to be a magnet for tourists not only from Ukraine and Russia, but from the entire world. Nearly every day in summer hundreds of foreigners would disembark from luxury cruises to spend hundreds of dollars in restaurants, gift shops, and museums. This year, however, the summer season has been a serious failure, attracting fewer than 3 million visitors, or about half the number that came in 2013. Many were Russian workers at state-owned companies “urged” to vacation in Crimea by their employers.

When I went to see Anton Chekhov’s house-turned-museum in Yalta and the guide realized I was a foreigner, she suddenly cheered up: Crowds of Germans and British used to come here, she told me, but those days are gone now. As I walked through the empty rooms and came upon Chekhov’s study on the second floor, I remembered a line from his play Three Sisters, which he had written in this very place. “Moscow! Moscow! Moscow!” exclaims Irina, one of the main characters, sick of her empty provincial life and longing to move to the big city.* Figuratively, at least, Crimeans have done just that. They’ve realized a dream to rejoin the motherland — just with some unintended consequences.

Ukraine has also tried to wield what powers it can to cut off and punish its renegade province: All trains that until recently ran from Kiev to Simferopol, as well as bus services, have been discontinued. Cars here with new Russian license plates are not allowed to enter Ukraine over land, while Crimeans’ new Russian passports are usually confiscated at the border, leaving them no choice but to turn back home. Electricity, which comes from a mainland Ukrainian grid, has become intermittent, with long hours of power outages. The closure of the North Crimean Canal, the main irrigation source for Crimea’s interior dry steppe lands, has adversely affected agriculture, the other major industry here: numerous crops have failed; rice production has suffered a total collapse. Some farmers have tried to mitigate the situation by drilling wells, but underground water has often proved too saline, destroying the soil. As Leonid Kaganov, a contemporary Russian writer, put it in a blog post in September, the overall situation in Crimea could be compared to stealing an expensive cell phone without its power cord.

The Russian Federation has tried its best to make the transition in Crimea as fast and as palatable as possible, pouring in enormous amounts of subsidies (Putin has pledged $18 billion for development) in an attempt to turn the peninsula into a model province, though little of that money is visible yet. Crimea has also seen a huge influx of administrative and security personnel from Russia — the population of Simferopol has increased so much that that traffic jams have become a common sight in what was once a tranquil city. Many of these personnel have taken top positions in the local military, political, and economic bureaucracies — a colonial administration of sorts, as Moscow does not seem to trust even its staunchest local allies.

Government pay has tripled and sometimes quadrupled, and pensions have been substantially raised to match levels in the rest of Russia, but salaries in the private sector have stayed nearly at their old levels. Some have gotten lucky: “People definitely live better now,” said Olga Cherevkova, a former law student who used to drive a taxi back in March but has now found a good position in a state company. Olga was initially against Russia’s annexation, but has since come around. “We can afford more things now and enjoy a better standard of living,” she said. Yet, prices of basic commodities and rent have increased substantially due to sanctions and the falling ruble, as well as demand spurred by the newcomers from mainland Russia and a flood of refugees from eastern Ukraine. For some Crimeans, at least, the transition has come with a high price tag.

* * *

The people who have borne the worst of the new transition have been the Crimean Tatars. The only politically united, vociferous opposition since the takeover, comprising about 12 percent of the population, they are seen by both the Kremlin and the current authorities in Simferopol as the biggest security threat to Russian rule. Discrimination and prejudice against the Tatars, a Muslim people native to the peninsula, is nothing new in Crimea — in 1944, Stalin deported the entire population to the wilds of Uzbekistan. They were allowed to return only in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but the move was resented by many local Russians who had already made their home in Crimea. The annexation has only accelerated ethnic tensions; in March, during the Russian takeover, Tatar groups fearing for their lives formed self-defense units that staged night patrols of their neighborhoods. Formally, Putin has extended an olive branch by “rehabilitating” the reputation of Crimean Tatars as a group, calling them victims of Stalin’s regime, while the new Crimean Parliament has made Crimean Tatar an official language in the province, on par with Russian and Ukrainian. But the reality on the peninsula since annexation has been very different.

Two of the most prominent Tatar leaders who vociferously opposed Russian rule, Mustafa Dzhemilev and Refat Chubarov, were banned from entering Crimea in April and July, respectively, while the headquarters of the Mejlis, the Tatars’ self-governing body, was seized in September. According to the latest Human Rights Watch report, the Crimean police, together with Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), have conducted a number of raids of mosques and Islamic schools in search of drugs, weapons, and extremist literature, while several Tatar activists have been abducted, some of them found murdered.

“The Russian authorities pretend to accept us, but they don’t allow even the smallest gesture of opposition. They’re showing us that times have changed and we have to live according to their rules,” said Abduraman Egiz, a Mejlis member. Back in May, shortly after the annexation, Egiz was violently beaten by members of Crimea’s “self-defense” forces, a paramilitary organization, after refusing to show them his passport, and has been on guard ever since. The Russian strategy right now, Egiz explained, is to create new power centers among the Tatars that can dismantle the unity of the current Mejlis and spread internal discord. There are already two alternative Tatar organizations, which have expressed willingness to fully cooperate with the Russian authorities. Egiz understood that some kind of cooperation would be inevitable — the question was of degree.

“We are for dialogue and our goal is to keep the situation calm and stable, and not to engage in any provocative actions,” he said, “If we want peace, there is no choice for us. We understand that what is happening in Crimea is part of a bigger game.”

The Tatars also remain the guardians of one of the last sources of independent media in Russian Crimea. Immediately after the occupation, Ukrainian TV channels were taken off the air, swapped for Russian ones disseminating Kremlin-approved messages: broadcasts about the glory of the Russian army, the values of Orthodox Christianity, the danger of introducing foreign words in the Russian tongue. Sometimes, these stations just run “news”: Putin attending a hockey game; Putin discussing politics; Putin opening a new hydroelectric power plant; Putin questioning a regional governor about the development of the fishing industry.

In an effort not to excessively antagonize the Tatar community, the Crimean authorities have allowed the Tatar television network, ATR, to remain on the air — but it has been effectively neutered. Before and immediately after the annexation, ATR was bitingly critical of the Russian occupation, but it has since been cowed into submission. After receiving vague accusations of “extremism” from the Crimean authorities and facing the possibility that it may not be able to re-register under Russian law, its management decided to take political talk shows off the air and retain only cultural Tatar programs and basic news.

“The Russian authorities couldn’t point to a particular incident. They just said that something was not quite right, that we had a certain tone, a certain subtext,” said Elzara Islyamova, the head of ATR. “So we had to soften our stance. Our aim is to save the channel and its essentially cultural mission to preserve Tatar identity — not at any price, of course; we won’t engage in propaganda and lies. But when we are not allowed to say the truth, we prefer to keep silent.” The station carefully steers clear of words like “annexation” and “occupation” these days.

But even that has not satisfied the Russian authorities. In late January of 2015, special operations forces raided ATR’s headquarters, seizing equipment and servers with archival footage of anti-Russian protests from last year. It seemed that not criticizing the Kremlin was simply not enough; in the new Russian reality, every media needs to actively engage in positive propaganda, and even silence signals dissent.

* * *

It is difficult to say what the future holds for Crimea. Russia has sought to create a feeling of dull normality, of routine, as if nothing has ever happened. The peninsula’s current isolation — though logistically troublesome and expensive — has played into this perfectly. Crimea has virtually dropped off the map, disappearing from the news cycle as suddenly as it emerged. Though Crimea is still internationally unrecognized, almost every country in the world now sees the Crimean situation as a fait accompli.

Toward the end of my stay in Crimea, I met Vitaly, an IT specialist in his mid-30s and a former volunteer with Simferopol’s paramilitary “self-defense” forces, which are still active and now an official organization paid for by the state budget. He proudly showed me his “self-defense” card, which identified him as a former member; he took out his phone and flipped through photos of himself and his buddies, all of them dressed in mismatched fatigues. During the early days of the occupation, Vitaly’s unit was tasked with preserving order in the streets and keeping a visible presence to ward off would-be opponents, but occasionally it also engaged in raids and the takeover of public buildings. Each member was paid 100 hryvnias per day (about $10 at the time; by whom, it’s not clear) — a tiny amount even in Ukraine, but better than nothing.

“We idolized Russia,” Vitaly told me (he asked me to change his name to protect his identity). “I was fighting for my country, Russia, and for my ideals. We thought that Ukrainian nationalists could invade and that some Tatars were engaged in radical Islam. Naturally, we were afraid and had to protect Crimea.”

After Crimea’s annexation, Vitaly stayed for a while with the self-defense forces in Simferopol, but the dreams of a better future he harbored gradually came apart. His mother, who ran a chain of small stores for household items, lost almost half of her business as a result of the worsening economic environment; his father, a longtime manager in a factory, was forced to retire after refusing to engage in shady deals with the new authorities. As the months wore on, Vitaly became more and more disenchanted and finally decided to leave his paramilitary unit. “It was nice to look at Russia from afar, but we’ve begun to find out how authoritarian and repressive it can be,” he said. “The government is tightening the screws, but slowly, so that people won’t notice and won’t protest. There’s lots of banditry going on right now, lots of properties changing hands. I sometimes feel that Russia used Crimea as a patriotic chewing gum.” Vitaly’s candor was breathtaking, so I decided to ask him one final question. If he could turn back the clock, would he enlist again in the self-defense unit and aid in the Russian takeover?

“Yes,” he said. “I would do it again.”

Travel for this project was funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

*Correction, Feb. 7, 2015: St. Petersburg was the capital of Russia during the time period in which the play Three Sisters was set. An earlier version of this article mistakenly referred to Moscow as the capital at the time. (Return to reading.)

Photo credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images