EXCLUSIVE: The True Cost Of Remaining Ukrainian in Crimea
2 April, 2018

Over the last few years, Hromadske has systematically shed light on political repression in Crimea – in particular, the religious persecution of Crimean Tatars. By 2017, the number of children with parents in jail for political reasons had doubled, from 50 to 100. Last time we traveled to Crimea, among other things, we looked at the economic conditions the residents of Crimea have to live with. This material is primarily focused on the people who are trying to preserve Ukrainian language and culture, and what the price for rejecting Russian citizenship is. For safety reasons, some of the names of some of our interlocutors have been omitted.  

“This summer I sold fruit at the market,” says a Crimean woman, who refused a Russian passport. “Near the same stall where I used to buy fruit for my own clients.”

Before the annexation, her family owned a successful business, which mainly dealt with foreigners visiting the peninsula. Now she decided to refuse the lifetime job she dedicated 25 years to. And, despite the fact that EU citizens are allowed into Crimea with a Russian visa and (if they enter via a Ukrainian checkpoint) they don’t break any laws; this family deems earning money in such way under occupation unethical.    

Lenin Square in Simferopol. The building on the right is the so-called "Council of Ministers of Crimea." March 5, 2018. Photo credt: Nataliya Gumenyuk / HROMADSKE

Apart from personal reasons, such as age and housing, many people remain in Crimea out of principle: they don’t want their native land handed over to another state.

“If we leave, there will be even fewer people who disagree with annexation,” she explains.

Having visited Yalta or Simferopol every year, we notice how fast the region is being russified, how many people move here from Russia. It’s mostly security service officers,  state employees and ordinary Russian citizens who want to live closer to the south coast.

Simferopol railway station. March 5, 2018. Photo credit: Oleksandr Nazarov / HROMADSKE

No rights, no money

The family who prior to annexation had higher-than-average income now has to count every penny. Even ordinary household items have become a luxury, let alone holidays. Another family member who used to be a teacher now makes a living as a laborer on a construction site.

Those who have kept their Ukrainian passports and received permits to live in the Russian Federation have to annually confirm that they earn no less than 111 thousand rubles (just under $2,000) per year. Part of it has to be earned on Crimean territory. And if you have a child, this amount doubles. By local standards, it’s a significant amount of money for a family with two children. To pass these checks, many resort to borrowing money from friends and relatives. This money is then deposited into their bank accounts until the Migration Service of the Russian Federation looks at them. In some cases, the Migration Service allows people to declare their income for half of the year by proving they have half the amount.

The Soviet term “refusenik” has gained a new meaning here. This is what they call those who have refused Russian citizenship and held on to their Ukrainian citizenship, and, therefore, cannot be employed by the civil services or state-funded organizations. Although officially there is no express prohibition on employing Crimeans with Ukrainian documents, employers have become more cautious in this fearful environment. This is also the case for jobs which involve communication, such as in the tourism and in the service sector.   

A small food market in Alushta, Crimea. March 6, 2018. Photo credit: Nataliya Gumenyuk / HROMADSKE

Even pensioners who have refused Russian citizenship have to declare their income. But they do not receive Russian pensions and receiving money from Ukraine is only possible once they leave Crimea for good and register as internally displaced people. Receiving bank transfers from Ukraine or elsewhere is also impossible because of the sanctions. Only some Russian banks make these operations possible.

Although the road to the checkpoint is not that long, pensioners are not always able to make the journey. And if one has a car and wants to keep using it in Crimea, that person needs to get a new Russian number plate. If the car owner chooses to leave their vehicle on the mainland, for example in the Kherson region, where locals provide this service, they have to take into account the fact they will have to pay for parking services.

Real estate offers in Crimea on Yalta's seaside., Crimea. March 6, 2018. Photo credit: Nataliya Gumenyuk / HROMADSKE

It’s also impossible for Crimeans with Ukrainian citizenship to obtain deeds for land and property if this was not completed properly when Crimea was under Ukrainian control. And many plots of land fall into this category. So for these people to leave Crimea would mean to literally gift their land to the occupying authorities.

There are also medical payments, additional taxes and various fines for those whose children who have lived in Crimea for two years without documents, as passports are issued in Russia from age 14, and, before 2016, they were only issued to Ukrainians from age 16. This is yet another daily inconvenience that people have to get used to if they have decided to retain Ukrainian citizenship.

Numerous new buildings in Gurzuf, Crimea. March 6, 2018. Photo credit: Oleksandr Nazarov / HROMADSKE

READ MORE: Who’s Breaking Western Sanctions in Crimea

Refusing Russian citizenship was only made possible during one month in spring 2014. Russian statistics claim that there were only around 3,000 people who did so. But not all Crimeans believe this information. Just in Sevastopol – widely considered the most pro-Russian city in Crimea –  there were around 1,000 people who refused to receive Russian passports. Apart from Sevastopol, this option was also available in Simferopol, Yevpatoria, and Yalta. For those who did not do this in time, there was a choice: become a citizen of the Russian Federation, or, live without any documents at all (which also means you won’t be able to travel to the Ukrainian mainland).

It’s impossible to say how many Crimeans have refused Russian citizenship, or have simply not received Russian passports, and are now de-facto living without documents.  But there are a lot of them.

“They issued residency permits in 2014 for five years. We’ll see in a year’s time whether they will let us stay on, or if they will label us ‘unreliable’ – a term used by teachers in schools where children with Ukrainian citizenship study,” our interlocutor says with hesitance.

No church

In this cathedral, people gather every Sunday to pray in Ukrainian and sing Ukrainian songs. While a service is taking place, during which they mention Patriarch Filaret of the Ukrainian Orthodox of the Kyivan Patriarchate, a trolleybus passes by the window, emblazoned with campaign posters for the upcoming Russian presidential elections. The Ukrainian Orthodox Equal-to-the-Apostles Volodymyr and Olha Church in Simferopol is a small center of Ukrainianess. We’ve been told that Crimean Tatars – who are mostly Muslim – also come here to show their support.

“It’s a tinderbox for us here,” says the Simferopol and Crimean Archbishop Klyment, the head of the Kherson diocese of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyivan Patriarchate. Most of the priests and their families left for Ukraine in the first year of occupation. The priests come for the big holidays, on average about once a month. We try not to film the faces of the churchgoers. Many of them are elderly and have just come here to pray. They do not feel safe.

A view from the Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate in Simferopol, Crimea. The advert on the bus says " Choosing a president is choosing your future." March 4, 2018. Photo credit: Nataliya Gumenyuk / HROMADSKE

In the summer of 2014, the Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate came into conflict with the church in Perevalne, and then with the church in Sevastopol. They burnt their property in the village of Mramorne.

“Every service – whether I want it or not – I subconsciously think of as my last. There is no open persecution, there’s no open pressure, there is conflict with the estate fund. Politically, no one is going to close it, nobody needs a political scandal so that the Kyiv Patriarchate church ceased existing, but everything has been done so that the church itself ceases to exist. The estate fund requires me to pay unimaginably high rent on the building,” Archbishop Klyment told Hromadske two years ago.

It has only become more difficult since then. According to the bishop, the plot of land that was previously allocated for building a Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate cathedral has already been claimed by another religious organization. At the same time, the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture has still not come to an agreement on the procedure for registering the church on the occupied territories, and this uncertainty and the delay in the transfer of the cathedral building could lead to the loss of the Ukrainian church in Crimea altogether.  

READ MORE: Is Ukrainian Religious Society Diverse Or Divide?

Churchgoers at one of the services at the Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate in Simferopol, Crimea. March 4, 2018. Photo credit: Nataliya Gumenyuk / HROMADSKE 

Klyment explains that he has appealed to Ukraine’s Ministry of Culture’s department of religious affairs numerous times, demanding that they put together some kind of document that would regulate the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyivan Patriarchate’s existence in Crimea. However, these documents were not provided. They previously replied that, if the Crimean diocese of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyivan Patriarchate registers in occupied Crimea, then they will be “taken off” the registers in Ukraine.

Upon Hromadske’s request, the Ministry replied: “The Ministry of Culture has prepared all the documents, ready for consideration at the level of the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine, regarding the legal status and balance transfer of the diocese’s management of the estate, in which the centre of the Crimean diocese of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyivan Patriarchate is located in the city of Simferopol.”

“The Ukrainian church is the only Ukrainian thing that’s left in Crimea,” Klyment says with a noticeable fatigue and irritation. It becomes clear this is not the first year he has to repeat these obvious statements.   

“Where are you from?” asks an elderly churchgoer, who smiles at us welcomingly. When she realizes that we are from mainland Ukraine, she asks: “Isn’t it scary there in Kyiv?”

No language

Finding a place to talk to journalists, especially in Ukrainian, is problematic. Many people worry that the hotels are unreliable (you could be overheard at any point). In the cafes, there are too many onlookers while speaking Ukrainian on a bus, taxi or cafe could attract unwanted attention; it would be an indicator of dissent, a political stance. The occupation government and those who support it have nothing to say in response to the fact that Crimean Tatars are the indigenous population. While the refusal to assimilate by some Ukrainians in Crimea is seen as a deliberate choice.

“By specialization, I am a Russianist. But this word now has a new meaning,” says activist from the Ukrainian Cultural Centre in Crimea Olena Popova. “It says on my diploma that I am a teacher of Russian language and literature. And literature is also part of our spiritual life. I have always loved and continue to love Russian literature. The same way I love Ukrainian literature.”

The center is now home to the only Ukrainian-language publication in Crimea – “Krymsky Teren.” It prints around 500 copies and features stories about Ukrainian culture, such as that about the memorial evening for Ukrainian poet Lesya Ukrainka.  

“People who love the Ukrainian language, people who need the Ukrainian word in Crimea, can read our publication. I don’t want to say that we are a propaganda outlet, like I was asked. What kind of propaganda outlet are we anyway? We’re a bunch of amateurs. I’ll tell you right now that we don’t have any professional journalists, the publication is unregistered, we don’t have any editorials. Our colleagues in Kyiv even called us a ‘semi-newspaper.’ Well, let us be a semi-newspaper then.”

The situation annoys Popova to some degree. She says that what they do does not need heroizing. If the motives of these people, who simply want to preserve the Ukrainian language, are exaggerated, then this draws attention to and politicizes the publication, which could put them in danger.

Yalta's coast, Crimea. March 6, 2018. Photo credit: Oleksandr Nazarov / HROMADSKE

“I think we relaxed too much. When we spoke to journalists while publishing previous issues, we said that nobody was touching us, that people treat us decently and, when we hand out newspapers in the streets, there are never any incidents,” Popova reflects. “Now it all turned against us. Some people think: Why are we not reacting to this? We need to react.”

“That’s why I don’t want to talk about this in much detail [anymore].”

Popova says that she doesn’t know what tomorrow will be like for them: if the newspaper will still exist and the editorial team’s course of action. But at the moment, their work is still possible.

“This is our food for the soul, we do it first and foremost for ourselves. There is no mission – I will not use inflammatory words like that. But we think it is necessary because there have already been responses from people who say that it’s great.”

Popova explains how the newspaper has stopped advertising embroidery courses (a traditional Ukrainian craft). Those who want to embroider, do it anyway: it’s their personal form of meditation. And another reminder about these courses would only expose them to danger.

The main theme of the previous issue was the collapse of another Ukrainian center: the Lesya Ukrainka museum in Yalta. Ukrainka was one of Ukraine’s most prominent late 19th - early 20th century writers. She was also an advocate for political activism and feminism. The museum was closed down for refurbishment two years ago, in spring 2016, when the roof caved in. Most of the exhibitions have been deposited.  

Having traveled to Yalta, we saw the museum for ourselves. What once took up the second floor of the beautiful building, now takes up only a small corner – pictures spread across two tables in the premises of Yalta historic-literary museum.

Ukrainka spent at least three years of her life in Crimea. A museum employee mentions the poet in passing, only when asked specifically. The museum’s old management left after the annexation of the peninsula. The new employees are very careful in their responses. They say that the museum should be receiving some finances soon, arguing that there was a shortage of funds back when Ukraine controlled Crimea.

No beach

Igor Baryshnikov, who is in his 50s, plays up his Soviet upbringing. He was born in the Soviet Union and studied in Russia. Love for Russia and its literature were a predetermined part of his life growing up. “Crimea moved under Russian jurisdiction,” he says while talking about the annexation. The event wasn’t a tragedy, quite the opposite, he says: life got better, in particular, healthcare and government services.

But despite welcoming the annexation, he accuses the new local authorities of corruption and neglecting the interests of the ordinary Crimeans like himself.

Photo credit: Nataliya Gumenyuk / HROMADSKE

We met Baryshnikov in front of the Alushta City Court building where he came to support two activists accused of blackmailing local authorities in a case that many believe to be fabricated. Pavel Stepanchenko, a city council member, and Alexey Nazimov, an editor at an Alushta newspaper, supported the annexation but openly criticized the local politicians who came from Ukraine’s pro-Russian Party of Regions and then joined Russia’s ruling United Russia party. For that, they were arrested in October 2016 and are still awaiting their trial.

Photo credit: Nataliya Gumenyuk / HROMADSKE

Baryshnikov is an activist himself. He comes from the coastal town of Gurzuf – one of Crimea’s most picturesque places where the iconic Soviet-era camp Artek was founded in 1925. To attend Artek was a sign of privilege: children flocked to the camp not just from Soviet states but from various communist countries all over the world too. But after the annexation, the now Kremlin-controlled management of the children’s center adopted an aggressive policy towards locals. They took over a big chunk of Gurzuf land surrounding it with a 3 meter-tall and 14 kilometer-long brick wall. The construction of the wall started in 2015. Since then, the aberration blocked many people’s sea view, as well as restricted access to a popular beach, which the Artek management decided to privatize.

READ MORE: Crimea Legendary Youth Camp May Be Turning Into Oligarch Estate

Hoping to resolve this issue, Baryshnikov started a campaign and took the case to the court. His point is that the land is municipal and does not belong to Artek. They had a second cassation but received no positive news. Now Baryshnikov and his fellow campaigners are considering taking the case to the higher European level.

Photo credit: Nataliya Gumenyuk / HROMADSKE

We follow Baryshnikov to a top of the mountain, from which the big-scale construction works and many new buildings are seen. He says that some were built before the annexation but most surfaced after the new authorities took over. The activist argues that this area of Gurzuf is a natural resort and carrying out construction works here is illegal. These processes are damaging to ancient historic sights prevalent in the area and lead to an increase in the town’s population, for which there are no right infrastructure and emergency water treatment facilities.

After the annexation, the remains of Gurzuf’s autonomy were all gone. Political power has been centralized and smaller towns are now part of the Yalta municipality, which made communication between the residents and the authorities a difficult task.

We ask Baryshnikov whether he’s afraid to speak out. He says he’s got nothing to hide but cautiously adds how much the arrest of the Alushta activists shocked him. It showed to him that people can be detained without any evidence.

He doesn’t draw parallels between the recent issues and the annexation. He says he never had issues with Ukraine and hopes that the “friendship between the two nations rekindles.” He genuinely believes the official Russian rhetoric about Ukrainian nationalists from the Right Sector threatening Crimea in 2014.

No choice

The Kremlin scheduled this year’s Russian presidential election for March 18, which symbolically coincided with the fourth anniversary of the annexation of Crimea. On this day in 2014, the Russian Federation brought the occupied territory under its control. President of Russia Vladimir Putin flew to Sevastopol a few days before the elections for a rally, which was announced as the culmination of his fairly weak presidential campaign. His speech lasted just over three minutes.

Photo credit: Nataliya Gumenyuk / HROMADSKE

No matter where we went in Crimea – the Ukrainian churches, the Lesya Ukrainka museum, visiting the families of Crimean political prisoners – envelopes, letters, and posters with the Russian flag and the slogan “Choose the Future” were never far from view. And there was a lot of pre-election campaigning. We only noticed images of the main presidential candidate – Vladimir Putin – in a few places.  “Vote for the future” – the call to come to the polling stations and the official slogan of the election campaign. It’s clear what is meant by “future.” The billboards along the roads and streets, which at one point promoted the “Crimean Spring,” now promote ideas such as, “We are building a bridge. We are building the future,” “We are building Crimea. We are building the future.”

Campaign advertising in Simferopol, Crimea. The photo below shows the Simferopol cinema. March 5, 2018. Photo credit: Nataliya Gumenyuk / HROMADSKE

The biggest question surrounding the election was only turnout, therefore, the main task was to make sure the turnout was high. This would prove that Crimeans came out to vote and therefore support Russia’s annexation of the peninsula.  

One of our interlocutors recalls a conversation she had with her friend at the sauna:

— Girls, the elections are coming up, let’s talk about who we are going to vote for.

— What is there to talk about, it’s clear who we’re voting for.

Yalta's seaside, Crimea. March 6, 2018. Photo credit: Oleksandr Nazarov / HROMADSKE

There could be no opposition here because those who do not recognize the occupying government and have other opinions on the matter, do not recognize the elections themselves. Voting in the Crimean peninsula brings into question the legitimacy of the Russian president, voted in by illegal elections. However, despite the criticisms from human rights activists, the international community has recognized the previous parliamentary elections in Russia, mainly ignoring the issue of Crimea.

Those who didn’t go to the polling stations, mostly remained silent. But complaints about administrative resources– government employees forcing people to vote – appeared on private groups on social media.

Campaign advertising in Yalta, Crimea. March 6, 2018. Photo credit: Oleksandr Nazarov / HROMADSKE 

On March 1, employees from the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Russian Security Service (FSB) carried out searches on the  Sevastopol anarchists. Three days prior to this, one of them Oleksiy Shostakovich posted in the “Anarchists of Sevastopol” group on the Vkontakte social networking site, announcing plans to hold a protest on March 10, under the slogan “The presidential post is a monarchist throwback,” and reminding citizens of their “constitutional right to not take part in the elections.”  Force was used against Shostakovich and his colleague when they were arrested and accused of proliferating extremist material. They were sentenced to 10 and 11 days administrative detention because their group “planned a provocation at the time of the Russian Federation’s presidential election.”

We find Siberian tea in Simferopol shops and strawberry jam made of “Siberian berries” in Yalta. Very fast every corner of Crimea becomes filled with Russian names.

Jam made of "Siberian berries" on the shelves of a Yalta supermarket in Crimea. March 5, 2018. Photo credit: Nataliya Gumenyuk / HROMADSKE

“We often wonder what will happen after de-occupation. What will be left here? How will we get rid of all of this? Will we have the resources?” asks one of our interlocutors. “They keep telling us here that there are no Ukrainians in Crimea. Both the representatives of this ‘government’ and outsiders [from the mainland]. But as soon as we leave, we will not be able to write about what is going on here because we won’t know what it’s really like,” I recall the words of Olena.

READ MORE: Flouting Sanctions: Who’s Doing Business with Russian-Occupied Crimea

Only one Ukrainian-language newspaper left.

Ukrainian church as “the only Ukrainian thing left in Crimea.”

Lesya Ukrainka corner instead of a full-fledged museum.

As well as internal migration and socialization only within families.

The very presence of these people in Crimea – with whom we spoke and who preserve their Ukrainian citizenship, culture, language – acts as a reminder of the fact the peninsula is occupied. They each feel as though they are the last ones here. Despite having similar views, they communicate with each other with extreme caution and rarely meet up. Out of fear for their safety.  

/By Nataliya Gumenyuk

/Translated by Sofia Fedeczko