Writing from the peninsula, Moscow-based American expat Caroline Steele implores us to look between media reports from the West and the Kremlin to glean what’s really going on.
Above: Maxim in his ‘BMW’ Jeep. Image courtesy of Caroline Steele
Above: Tourists on the Alushta boardwalk. Image courtesy of Caroline Steele
Russian tourists waiting on the runway for their plane to Crimea. Image courtesy of Caroline Steele
Like many of their compatriots, they did their best to assimilate, eschewing Russian or Yiddish in the house. They resented their motherland and were remiss of Jewish practices. My great grandmother even converted to Christian Science as an adult, only to further veil these roots; eventually, my family’s connection to the motherland simply ceased.
Despite spending two enthralling years in Russia, I remain absolutely confounded by the biggest country in the world – even more so since its disputed annexation of Crimea in March. For many Americans, the word Crimea conjures images of violence, Ukraine’s crisis and old Soviet power. For most Russians however, Crimea remains a relatively cheap, ocean-side summer retreat and now, it’s even better. As an American expat in Russia, I went to Crimea in order to find out what life is really like there.
My guide into Crimea was college student, Dmitry Shuvalov. After finishing his lesson with me two weeks earlier, he mentioned he was going to Crimea. Confused and slightly horrified, I’d asked him why. “Crimea’s fine now. It’s Russia”, he laughed. When I didn’t believe him, he told me (half-kiddingly) I should come along and see for myself.
Three days later, there we were in a taxi driving through Simferopol, Crimea’s seemingly innocuous, slightly humdrum capital. On the plane, I’d seen the raging smoke and fires enveloping the besieged cities of Donetsk and Luhansk below, but arriving at Simferopol Airport, it seemed like any other tourist destination, only packed to the walls with Russian tourists.
Driving through Crimea, I was reminded of Malibu Canyon in California. The rolling green hills and serene sights of sea conjured the landscape of home, save the ubiquity of Russia’s flag. Our driver, Misha, sported a Russian flag on his dashboard as well as an orange and black ribbon of St. George, the symbol of pro-Russian separatists – noteworthy contrasts to the radio blasting American rap in the background.
I stayed in Alushta, a city on Crimea’s southern coast, a sister city of Santa Cruz, California, or at least it was when it was still Ukraine. Our accommodations were at Alyye Parusa Lager’ (Red Sails Camp), a rundown beach camp, largely taken over by the Moscow Aviation Institute (MAI), Dmitry’s Alma Mater for the summer. As we walked to the check-in area, Dmitry explained that he had to plead with the Camp Director to give me a room since I wasn’t a student of the institute. “Oh, also be prepared; I didn’t tell her you’re American,” he told me.
“Thanks for your faith in my Russian skills, but isn’t it obvious I’m not Russian?” I fretted.
“Of course! It’s even more obvious you’re American! But it’s fine; you’re here now. She won’t turn you away,” he said – as if it were reassuring.
Natalya Galushko, the Camp Director, a forty-something maternal figure with an indelible smile, asked me to turn over my passport. “Caroline’s from America,” Dmitry said.
“Thank you. I can see that,” she replied sarcastically.
“You’re not in shock?” Dmitry asked.
“No, why?” she replied. Dmitry seemed shocked that she wasn’t. “Hello and welcome,” she recited in her best English.
“‘Ukraine. Russia. I don’t care, as long as we have tourists. And right now, business is bad,’ he said”
I would have preferred to keep a low profile but Dmitry made sure that was not the case. As it turned out, the entire camp knew I was there. No one seemed at all put off by my presence. They surrounded me, offered me drinks and bombarded me with questions. I felt a cross between VIP and an extraterrestrial.
“Why are you here?”
“Aren’t there more interesting places?”
“What do you think of Obama? What do you think of Putin?”
“Why does America hate us?”
“Do you hate us?”
“We don’t hate you.”
“Well I hate your president, but not you.”
Russian flags in Alushta. Image courtesy of Caroline Steele
On the way to Jur-Jur waterfall the next day I talked to our Jeep driver, Crimean-native Maxim Vasnetsov. Maxim’s Russian flag decal was the biggest I’d seen yet. Maxim had also taken the time to replace his Jeep logo with that of a BMW. After establishing a rapport with him, I asked what I went to Crimea to find out: “Is life better here now than before?”
“Da,” he said without hesitation. Maxim explained that he never identified as Ukrainian. “I’m Crimean first, then Russian. I was never Ukrainian. You mustn’t make that mistake” he chastised. I asked him whether he thought most Crimeans had a similar attitude. “It was always Russia; even when it was Ukraine,” he said.
We explored Yalta, Alupka and Vorontsov Palace. Afterward, we took a cable car up to Ai-Petri Peak, where I met Elvis, a local Crimean Tartar. Elvis didn’t project the same sense of Russian pride as Misha or Maxim, identifying with neither Russia nor Ukraine. “Ukraine. Russia. I don’t care, as long as we have tourists. And right now, business is bad,” he said. Dmitry cast me a look that suggested my American prying wasn’t appropriate in this particular context.
Crimean Tartars – once Crimea’s indigenous majority – have endured a history of persecution under Russian rulers. Now Tartars account for only 12 percent of Crimea’s population, most of which boycotted Crimea’s referendum to join Russia on March 16th.
I put my inquiries on hold until I met Kosta Asatiani, an exuberant Georgian-native with Russian, Greek, and Turkish ties. Kosta was in the Soviet Army until the collapse of the USSR after which he met his Crimean wife and moved to Alushta where he has been a cabbie ever since. “Crimea’s not better yet, but it will be. It’s safer,” he said. Then he joked, “It’s always been Russia! Khrushchev just got too drunk one night and gave it over!” He sneered, “Politics. Stupid drunks.”
At a cafe in Generalskoe Village, I met Nikita, a native Crimean of Russian descent – though, he considered himself solely Crimean.
He declined to tell me his surname and after hearing his story, I understood why. Nikita told me he’d served in Crimea’s military. When Ukrainian nationalists occupied Crimea in the beginning of March, Nikita was on the defense. He said Ukrainian nationalists had taken him, and fifteen other Crimean combatants, through six different checkpoints. At every checkpoint they were forced to recite: “Slava Ukrayne! – Heroyam slava!” (Glory to Ukraine! – Heroes of the glory!)
“At each checkpoint some of us were beaten, some executed”, he told me. “By the sixth checkpoint there were three of us left. My friend Viktor and I were the only two to survive. Misha was buried alive.” I asked him why he thought they didn’t kill him or Viktor. “I don’t know. Luck?” He answered diffidently. I got the feeling Nikita didn’t want to delve further. He backed off. “It’s Russia now. I’m alive. You’re alive. Let’s drink!” He shouted and scurried off to the other end of the bar before I could collect myself and follow-up.
Above: The monument reads ‘Fell in the struggle for Soviet power’. Image courtesy of Caroline Steele[/one_half]On my last night there, I found myself amidst heated discussion with a group of Muscovites and Crimeans on the beach about Crimea’s annexation, the MH17 Malaysia plane crash in Ukraine, and the current state of Russia-US relations.
“Where Russia blames Ukraine and the US, Ukraine and the US blame Russia,” said Alexander Sevastiyanov, who was born in Sevastopol and now lives and works as an engineer in Moscow. He brought up Russian ‘evidence’ that confirms Ukrainian troops shot down the Malaysia Airlines flight. “But the US also has evidence that Pro-Russian separatists shot it down. I have not seen legitimate evidence from either,” he added.
I told them about Nikita. I couldn’t and still haven’t found any reports of such an incident in either Western or Russian media.
“America doesn’t want you to know about this. Your media would never report it,” said Tanya, a resident of Alushta.
“Neither does Russia. No one wants you to know anything,” retorted Misha, a Muscovite.
“‘Crimea’s not better yet, but it will be. It’s safer,’ he said. Then he joked, ‘It’s always been Russia! Khrushchev just got too drunk one night and gave it over!'”
I asked them whether or not they believed Nikita’s story.
“I believe him,” Tanya immediately answered.
Before Misha could respond, Alexander interjected: “Now we have an information war. Russia is afraid of America. America is afraid of Russia. It’s hard to understand the truth when everyone is scared.”
Living in Moscow, I’ve observed astounding discrepancies between Russian and American media accounts of the events in Ukraine, and subsequently public opinion. Thanks largely to Crimea, Putin has taken on what can only be described as hero status in Russia, with an approval that has skyrocketed from 54 to 87 percent.
The traditionally politically apathetic Muscovites and Russians I know – even once outspoken Putin-bashers – have now largely reconsidered their positions. “Yeah, he’s cool now. He took back Crimea and our economy is better,” asserted my roommate Jenya Buchakov. A year ago when I moved into our apartment, Jenya either left the room when I brought up politics or would simply say “all suck” and change the subject.
Meanwhile, Russia’s hero is vilified in much of Western media. Unsurprisingly, Western and Russian media are painting very different pictures of the same events.
As I write this in September 2014, the media’s attention is once again on the region as newspapers fill with conflicting reports from the ground in Donetsk, and threats to cut off power-supplies to Crimea by the Ukrainian government. What is daily life like today for the people that I met on my visit? What are their reactions to these latest developments and newspaper headlines? Have their attitudes changed since I was there?
My experience in Crimea showed me one thing above all, which my research supervisor, Dr. Dmitry Ushakov, stated best: “Crimea’s precarious,” he said, “and it will be as long as there’s miscommunication.” Crimea may not be an exemplar of peace and stability, but I didn’t have to try very hard there “not to get myself killed”.
Caroline Steele has a master’s in Psychology. She has spent the last two years living in Moscow doing research and teaching English.