Waiting for ‘Swan Lake’
The date of the Russian presidential election last month was chosen to coincide with the anniversary of the day Russia claimed Crimea, 18 March 2014. In the main streets of Sevastopol, loudspeakers blasted old Soviet songs. ‘Russia, better with you,’ the posters said. A young woman who sold me a sim card told me that the city had come up with the idea of giving a medal to people who had voted both in the referendum on joining Russia – which wasn’t recognised by Ukraine or most other countries – and in this election. ‘They say it’s to mobilise our moral spirit, so it will mobilise the moral spirit of pensioners. And because everything in this country is bullshit, they haven’t made enough medals,’ she said. ‘Will you get one?’ I asked. ‘Well, maybe,’ she said. ‘If I vote.’
Getting to Crimea these days is complicated. You can take a direct flight from Moscow to the capital of the peninsula, Simferopol, and be there in under three hours, but travelling to Crimea via Russia can lead to a long-term ban from Ukraine. Foreign journalists are supposed to get a special permit from Ukraine’s Ministry of Information, in Kyiv. On the day before the elections, I left Kyiv, which was covered in snow, early in the morning, and took a seven-hour train ride to the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson. The old people next to me tried to remember the Soviet names of some of the towns we passed through. ‘Maybe it’ll be spring, where we’re heading,’ they said. From Kherson I took a minibus and, two hours later, was walking across the de facto border separating Ukraine and Crimea.
It was windy on the isthmus and smelled of the sea. A Czech colleague and I showed our documents to the Russian border guards, who took us to a prefabricated office. I waited for my colleague for an hour, chatting to an FSB officer who had recently read two books by Maupassant, and didn’t believe Russia’s secret services had been involved into Sergei Skripal’s attempted murder (‘We’d have done a more discreet and more effective job’). Then another officer asked me to show him my phone and its IMEI identification number. I declined. ‘Write the truth!’ they told us when we left.
‘I was thinking of moving to Russia but it moved to me,’ the taxi driver who drove us south in the night said. His divorce and remarriage had coincided with the change of rule in Crimea. ‘If I had lived in Russia for long I probably wouldn’t bother voting but it’s the first time I can vote for a Russian president so I’ll go tomorrow in Armiansk. Mind you, there’s a joke doing the rounds on Vkontakte that says you don’t need to go out and vote, you can just stay on your couch, turn the TV on and nod your head for Putin.’
Ludmila Tomichina, in charge of a polling station in the centre of Sevastopol, wouldn’t speak directly to me at first, as I didn’t have the right accreditation to cover polling stations. She would only answer my questions if I addressed them through a properly accredited colleague from Novaya Gazeta. But eventually she forgot about protocol. She reminisced about her Soviet youth, and told me about Crimea’s ‘rightful return’ to Russia. ‘I was head of the polling station for the referendum too and I haven’t seen as many people voting since then. We were given away to Ukraine on a whim. Four years ago, people went to the referendum to exert their rights. Today, everyone understands what the result will be. Many are voting for Putin. He’s not handsome, he’s not tall, but he has strong shoulders to carry a strong country,’ she said.
During Soviet times, Sevastopol, a base for the Black Sea Fleet, was a closed city. It is now officially Russia’s third federal city. Putin held his last meeting before the election here. ‘This place endured two sieges. An admiral lives in every building. Here never felt like Ukraine,’ Tomichina said. ‘Oh and do you want a medal? We hope you’ll help us return to a good relationship with the world.’
On Lenin Street, I visited the headquarters of a group of unofficial Putin supporters. Aleksandr Syniavsky, the middle-aged head of a children’s sports organisation, has pale blue eyes and the square shoulders of an amateur kickboxer. He played videos of himself in camouflage, taking part in the pro-Russian mobilisation in Crimea four years ago. He said his support for Putin was an expression of gratitude, ‘as he didn’t spill blood, and held a referendum’. He also said he would go to Donbass to fight if necessary, as his brother had done.
As a small group of Putin supporters gathered in the main square to celebrate his expected victory, I met with a young man who used to be involved in left-wing politics. He hadn’t told me his real name, only how he would be dressed. We walked along the seafront. The small shops which used to sell crappy souvenirs had all been torn down after Russia came to power, he said, improving the view. We sat on a bench, where a parking lot had recently been turned into a pedestrian square. He got up when a man sat next to us. A number of people involved in radical left-wing politics had recently been arrested in Crimea, continuing a violent crackdown against anarchists which has taken place across Russia. He told me our meeting had never happened. ‘People always say Sevastopol endured two sieges, but what they forget to say is it capitulated twice,’ he said. Four years ago he had spoilt his ballot paper; he hadn’t voted this time. ‘When it comes to Putin, it’s like people are under hypnosis. It was the same with Stalin. People shed sincere tears at his funeral. When Putin dies they’ll wake up and wonder how to change things.’
Putin reportedly won more than 75 per cent of the vote across the Russian Federation, with a turnout of nearly 70 per cent. In Crimea he won 92.2 per cent of the vote on a turnout close to 80 per cent. International observers such as the OSCE refused to monitor the elections in Crimea. Reuters journalists at 12 polling stations across the Russian Federation reported various irregularities. At polling station number 265, in a technical college in Simferopol, they counted 797 voters; official figures put the number at 1325.
Most people I spoke to in Sevastopol told me they had adjusted to the new reality. They liked that Russia was investing in infrastructure, building roads. They didn’t understand Western sanctions. ‘Even admitting Crimeans fell prey to Russian imperialism, why punish them by sanctions that prevent bank transactions or Google Maps from working? I fail to see the point,’ a young woman running a hostel in Sevastopol told me. Foreign bank cards don’t work; visitors have to bring cash. In Sevastopol, the McDonald’s has been replaced by a Mir Burger. Crimeans wait for the bridge that will link the peninsula to mainland Russia, hoping it will diminish their sense of isolation and boost the local economy.
Cars have got cheaper since the annexation, and the traffic in Simferopol has got worse. A few days after the election I met with Remzi Ilyasov, a pro-Russian Tatar and member of the Crimean parliament. We had tea in his beautiful office on the top floor of the once futuristic parliament building. He showed me a golden Koran given to him by the speaker of Chechnya’s parliament. Once a member of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar people, a governing body outlawed by Russia in 2016, Ilyasov was critical of Ukraine. In 23 years it had done little for Crimea, he said, ‘except for privatising sanatoriums’. He thought that the unrest in Kyiv during Maidan could have spread here. ‘This place could be like Syria,’ he said, ‘but Russia made sure this wouldn’t happen.’ And for this reason, Vladimir Vladimirovich, whose photo was on the wall, had Ilyasov’s support. I asked him about the repressions of Tatars. He said it ‘only targets those who break the law’.
Zair Smedlyaev, the chairman of the central election commission of the Qurultai of the Crimean Tatar People, takes a different view. We had lunch in a quiet room in a Tatar restaurant. ‘I never called the referendum a referendum,’ he said. ‘There is no Ukrainian law allowing for such a referendum to take place. There were people in arms, and mass falsification. Results for every polling station weren’t available because some places are 90 per cent Tatar so falsification would have been visible immediately.’ According to Smedlyaev, many people who voted for Crimea to join Russia actually wanted a return to communist times, ‘when a kilo of sausage cost 2.10 rubles’. ‘All of them think they’d get to be the ones that lived well under Stalin. What they don’t realise is they’d be the first ones to be sent to the gulag.’ Smedlyaev, who lives in Krasnogvardeyskoye in central Crimea, told me he saw buses ferrying voters from one polling station to another.
‘I didn’t say don’t go vote. I could be sanctioned for extremism. I just said I wouldn’t vote for a president who kills people in Ukraine and Syria, has people abducted and arrested unlawfully. People are smart, they understand,’ Smedlyaev said. As we parted, in a street where the snow had melted, creating giant puddles, he told me: ‘In Soviet times, when a head of State died they played Swan Lake on TV. They played it when Brezhnev died, and when his successors died. We shall wait for Swan Lake, again.’