I was a first year PhD student when I went to the Crimea 15 years ago. I was enrolled at Simferopol State University to study Russian as a Foreign Language. There were five of us and we probably accounted for the better part of the university’s funding. I moved into the university’s ‘bloc’ for foreign students. Every morning, I heated five pans of water on the gas stove of the shared kitchen and used a sixth to mix hot and cold water and then pour it over my head. My Russian teacher set me up with a Russian student for conversation practice. Katya, the student, invited me to dinner in the room she shared with two others. The dormitory had been built in the 1980s. Cockroaches were everywhere, even lukewarm water was unknown and gas was available only at certain times. Katya came from a military family in Sevastopol. Her father, a retired navy officer, was living in Rostov on Don in order to get a Russian pension, which was much higher than the Ukrainian one. When I knew her, she hadn’t seen her father for three years. Back in Sevastopol, she lived with her mother and siblings in a concrete high rise on the beach. The nuclear submarines were stationed in the next bay along. On a return visit a few years later I went to the then newly opened village of Balaclava, where the French, British and Ottomans fought the Russian Empire in 1854 and where the Soviets repaired the submarines in an enormous tunnel pushed through a rock opposite the harbour. On the dockside there was a rusty repair ship: a local restaurateur had made it into a fishing station, serving bass straight from the (radioactive?) sea. Kids dived from it into the harbour waters. But Balaclava’s wild days were numbered; even then it was earmarked for the yachts of the Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs.
When I arrived in the Crimea it was tranquil. And it was beautiful. Calm blue seas, with mountains dropping steeply into the water, leaving little rock alcoves and beaches. Every year thousands of extra trains were laid on from Kiev and Moscow to accommodate the many holidaymakers travelling to the Crimean sanatoria (they still are). When I first arrived the sanatoria were just as they had always been. There were strict times for breakfast, lunch and dinner and in the evening there was collective entertainment. Rooms were allocated hierarchically with stand-alone cabins at the top end. Rules were posted everywhere with administrators – all women over a certain age – enforcing the proper enactment of the holiday. Alongside the organised holidaymakers, the Crimea lived off the so-called wild tourists – people who came with their own cars and organised their own accommodation. Tourism shaped the Crimean economy, but also the Crimean roadside. On the road from Simferopol to Yalta you were guaranteed to find several things: plaited strings of onions, petrol in cans, people offering their own homes for rent and stranded travellers looking for a ride. At night you could also see devushki – prostitutes. I never found out their price. But generally everything in the Crimea at the time was cheap, even life. Everybody knew someone who knew someone who had been murdered as a result of power struggles in the criminal underworld. Everybody knew that the Crimea was ruled by shady Mafia bosses. One of them was known as Goblin. Today he is the leader of the Crimean parliament.
The road from Simferopol to Yalta was freshly tarred and well-signposted. The rest were in terrible shape and fatally potholed. The road on which I lived was unpaved – and still was last year. In the rain it became impassable. Leonid Kuchmar, who was then the president, came several times each summer to the south coast. Every May the entire route from Simferopol airport to his house in Yalta was paved afresh. No other road was ever touched. The Crimeans, who had lived in one of the richest and best-served regions under Soviet rule, felt they were neglected and discriminated against by the Ukrainian government. They hated going to Kiev, where they were forced to speak Ukrainian in administrative offices (not legally, but by ‘common’ law); many of them could hardly speak it and almost all despised it as a peasant language. The few Ukrainian words I learned in my six months in the Crimea were from billboards. Kraft had bought a Ukrainian chocolate brand called Korona and advertised it heavily with the word Smachno! – tasty.
Crimea lived very much by itself: Moscow and the rest of Russia came to them. Tourists (most of whom were from Russia) were seen both as saviours from economic collapse and as infants to be treated with benevolent mockery. In the referendum on 16 March, 97 per cent of the turnout voted to join Russia. Putin signed the necessary papers the next day. The Russian parliament is certain to follow. But while the Russians know the Crimea well – there is no Russian who doesn’t know the significance of Koktebel as a retreat for writers and artists, Gurzuf as Chekhov’s holiday home, Novy Svet as the birthplace of Crimean sparkling wine and Yalta with its many connotations, of which the conference of 1945 is the least important – it isn’t clear how well the Crimeans know Russia. The influential online magazine Snob has just posted a satirical piece called ‘Welcome, dear Crimeans’, in which they tell their new compatriots a few home truths: television is censored, their sons’ conscription into the army will be strictly enforced, social services have been brutally cut and their coastal region will be destroyed through development.
The figure of 97 per cent – the percentage which is supposed to have voted for Russia – obviously doesn’t include all those who boycotted the elections, a great many of them Crimean Tatars. The Crimea is neither a physical nor a sociological unity: when I arrived in 1999 the university, the library, the administration and most people in the neighbourhood were Russian; everybody selling in the market, driving a marshrutka (the small private vans which are used as buses) and running a café serving Central Asian food was Tatar. Everybody living north of Simferopol was also likely to be Tatar, while everybody living in the south was Russian (with a few Ukrainians, Greeks, Armenians or Karaimites). The south was pretty, developed and had water. The north was steppe, an infrastructural nightmare, and had no water. The Tatars, pushed to the less hospitable regions, were far worse off than the Russian population. They have not forgotten the night in May 1944 when, in the space of a few hours, a quarter of a million Tatars, mostly women and children, were deported to Central Asia. It is said that up to half of the deportees died on the way in train carriages or in the first year of exile. The Crimean Autonomous Republic was liquidated overnight and became a Russian oblast; Tatars prefer Ukrainian incompetence to Russian power. Their heritage is Turkic, and since the break-up of the Soviet Union, Ankara has reminded the Turkic population across the Black Sea of the cultural and ethnic links between them. Turkey is on the rise, and once again it isn’t happy with Russian ownership of the Crimea.
Turkey was a much more popular destination than Russia when I lived in the Crimea: it was recognisably a buy-and-sell culture like Crimea’s. Almost everybody in Crimea bought something somewhere and sold it somewhere else for a bit more. The partner of my language teacher bought vegetables and drove them in his Lada to sanatoria for tourists’ thrice daily meals. He was a trained engineer. The advantage was that you could buy anything almost anywhere: underwear on the train, books in the underpass, pastries at the top of a mountain. Food was homemade, but near enough everything else was made in Turkey. When I went back last year, after a long absence, I was surprised how little the economy had changed.
Halfway through my time in Simferopol in 1991, I moved in with Natasha, my phonetics teacher. As a member of the Russian intelligentsia she was no longer any use in modern Crimea. Russian linguists had no practical skills and she lacked the instinct to go where the money was. So she counted the kopecks and washed her plastic bags to be reused (one thing that has changed is that plastic bags are now free). One day her situation was bad enough for her to go to the surrounding villages to barter clothes against food. She returned with a beautiful live goose, which we christened Louisa. Nobody knew how to slaughter her. Not long afterwards, the goose flew off or was stolen from the garden.
I wasn’t sure how Natasha would vote in Sunday’s referendum. There was no doubt she felt Russian. She had married a Ukrainian and picked up her husband’s native language. Her children thought of themselves as Ukrainian. And surely, she couldn’t like Putin, could she? But she was in favour of the annexation. People here don’t like Ukrainian politics, she said. Who would? Who could like somebody who had had a gold toilet installed? Yet Crimea had voted overwhelmingly for Yanukovich several times. What she was really saying was that people don’t like post-Soviet life. People don’t like living in permanent chaos. Among the many Russian flags flying to celebrate Crimea’s unification with Russia were a good number of Soviet ones. The two stand for the same thing for Crimeans: hope for an end to the post-Soviet era.