Life in Annexed Crimea: Year Three
7 March, 2017

Three years ago, on the night February 27th, 2014, armed men seized the Verkhovna Rada of Crimea. They turned out to be from the Russian military. Russian president Vladimir Putin later confirmed this. That’s how the annexation of the peninsula by the Russian Federation began.

"It is difficult to accept that you live in a concentration camp" – one person says. Meanwhile, others have adapted to it and openly talk about the differences between life in 2 countries. Also, there are those who celebrate the annexation.

It’s a risk for people who’ve decided to stay in Crimea to talk about prices and the state of roads. That’s why we’ve decided to give their remarks not mentioning their names.

Soldiers with no identification marking in Simferopol, March, 2014. Source: Radio Liberty

Border Service workers from the Ukrainian-controlled side still require, in a loud voice, for me to say my profession and place of work. Everyone who stood in line heard it. Though there were few people, only those who have a serious need to cross the border. For example, two migrants speaking Ukrainian were going to Sevastopol to work in construction.

To get to the other side you have to get out of the car, take your luggage and walk for about 15 minutes to the Russian border crossing point. 2.30 a.m., no lightning, stars shine bright. You can even hear the sound of the sea in such silence.

“We’ll have a sober Crimea”

When you enter Crimea, cell phones switch off. Only Russian mobile operators work here. You can buy a local sim-card only with a Russian passport, although a year ago I managed to buy it without a document, but it was three times more expensive.

The visit coincided with 4 days off in Crimea as they were celebrating Defender of the Fatherland Day.

"Such a state of affairs, the night has passed, everything was bombed out" --a song of a modern Russian pop-band, which makes covers about songs about World War II is heard. Here is a rally, organized by the Liberal democratic party of scandalous Russian politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky. This is the sixth time when he wants to become a president.

Pupils are wearing St. George’s ribbons and sing patriotic songs.

The monument to the victims of OUN-UPA is located in the same square, and a few meters away there is the monument to the Soviet dissident - General Petro Grigorenko to which people bring red carnations. He, in fact, stood for the rights of the Crimean Tatar people to be respected.

There is a monument to “polite people” not far from the Verkhovna Rada of Crimea. A girl gives flowers to the military. Exactly here, on the 26th of February in 2014, the first two rallies were held. One - in support of the territorial integrity of Ukraine, another – organized by the "Russian Unity" movement.

Despite the weekend, there are serious traffic jams in Simferopol. It’s a car boom in Crimea. Cars have become cheaper: a "Lada" costs about 10,000 rubles ($ 200), meanwhile a new Ford costs $9,000.

Moreover, Russian military, security officials, and bureaucrats were redeployed to Crimea. In the prosecutor's office, courts, police and state agencies there are many "varyags" as they call them here. Of course, they brought their families with them.

A helicopter garrison was built in Dzhankoi. There is ongoing active construction in the town. Prices for property have gotten significantly higher. The apartment, which cost $25, 000, now costs $35, 000.

"Have you seen that giant resort, which belongs to administration of the president?” – a woman with a noticeable Russian accent says to her husband when passing by Simeiz. - "It’s called Mira or something like that".

They are talking about the ‘Mriya Resort & Spa’. The Ukrainian word (‘Mriya’ - ‘A Dream’) is written in Latin letters in the name of the resort. The reconstruction of this Soviet boarding house was started by Russian “Sberbank” before the annexation. The reconstruction designed by British architect Norman Foster began in autumn 2013. The hotel was opened in August 2014. The complex is managed by a Turkish hotel chain Rixos, despite the fact that Turkey does not recognize the annexation of Crimea.

Seeds "Tambov wolf", "Smolensk stew", "Tula sugar", sour "Kuban burenka", clinic "Siberian health". Strange for the Ukrainian people, names are signals of how quickly this process of replacement can occur.

According to Google maps, one of the central streets in Yalta is still called Kyiv Street, although it was renamed to Moscow Street.

"8 million people in Russia have a dependence to alcohol," – said the supporter of the Russian struggle against alcoholism. "A sober Crimea is invincible. Hear us Chukhotka, Ivanovo, Novorossiysk”.

“The Unbearable Lightness and Heaviness of Being”

“I always take another road in order not to see the city. We’ve created a parallel world and live in it. But you can go nuts living like that.”

“Fear and emotions make people weak.”

“First we felt outrage, then pain, now we feel indifferent. You should have little goals…to give an education to your child…and in such a way, step-by-step you’ll move in right direction”, says a Crimean.

The parallel world, in which there are no arrests of Crimean Tatars, exists for those who agreed with the status quo. Some residents of the peninsula defiantly don’t believe in prosecution. Others appeal to statistics and to the fact that “the conditional majority of people” have gotten used to the changes. The phrase “conditional majority” doesn’t have a single exact meaning and is widely used to express personal opinion or impression regarding total frustration, nationwide support of the regime; to show the discontent of one people or the unity of others.

“You can leave when you are in danger, or at least when you can influence the situation from the mainland,” says a Ukrainian pensioner.

Stalin's deportation of 1944 explains the choice of Crimean Tatars to not leave Crimea. However, they are not the only ones who disagree with the occupation of the peninsula. About 3,500 citizens of Ukraine in Crimea have refused to get Russian passports since the occupation began. Life without Russian documents creates a tremendous amount of problems for people. That’s why it was necessary to get them as quickly as possible. In particular, after receiving the second administrative warrant, a person appears under threat of deportation from the peninsula.

It’s true that salaries increased. However, official information differs from the figures we heard from locals. According to the official information, the average salary is 14,500 UAH ($516), but in reality it’s 8,600 UAH ($318). The military receives the highest salaries.

Different calculations show that the ratio of prices to salaries got bigger. One of the reasons why goods are more expensive than on average in Russia is that they are sent by ferry across the Kerch Strait. The "Crimean bridge" (a bridge across the Kerch Strait connecting Crimea and Russia) is a new dream, which replaced the expectation for "Russian pensions and salaries."

We trust that the quality of Russian goods is of poorer compared to Ukrainian goods. But in order to compare prices, we went to the supermarket in the center of Simferopol. The average price for goods is as follows:

A Dozen eggs: 27-36 UAH ($1.00- $1.30)

Sugar: 32 UAH ($1.19)

350 g of cream: 45 UAH ($1.67)

Meat: 68-136 UAH ($2.52 - $5.04)

Cheese: 175-318 UAH ($6.48 - $11.78)

People also complain that medicine is of poor quality. In Russia, they replace import medicines with domestic, despite the fact that the quality is poor.

Roads are another indicator of quality of life. The road repair is ongoing, but the holes in the roads are huge. The former prosecutor and now a deputy head of  the Russian Duma Committee on Security and Combating Corruption Natalia Poklonskaya demanded that officials bear criminal liability for defective repair of roads – the TASS informs. The defiant fight against corruption people see on TV screens is another indicator of modern Crimea. But even three years later, the occupation authorities say that they’ve inherited this from Ukraine.

Those who support occupation and those who don’t have noticed how the state apparatus is organized, the rate at which changes were introduced, and the availability of public funding for farmers. For example, there is an option of a non-repayable loan for uprooting vineyards, as well as for some agricultural equipment.

People who aren’t supporters of the occupation authorities confirm that this winter, there was no electricity cut-offs. Last year, it took the self-proclaimed leadership of Crimea 4 months to restore electricity supply after the cut-off. The generators were brought very quickly then.

“Cut off water and electricity supply made Ukrainians turn away from Ukraine” – such an opinion also exists. But probably the most significant reason not to complain is the Russian-Ukrainian war in Donbas. “Here, a lot of people whose relatives live in Ukraine, whose children received a summons to the army, and here there is no mobilization,” they explain to me.

 “If a twenty-year-old Crimean guy raised on Russian TV programs goes to serve in the Russian army and shoots at the same Crimean guy fighting for Crimea’s return to Ukraine, that would be the worst situation.” Despite everything, the opinions of Crimean Tatars on how to return Crimea differ.

"You're trying to see your enemy in every shade, because there is no fight without an enemy, and there is no victory without a fight. Your task is to identify the enemy, to catch up with him, to become better than him," - the voice from the screen in one of the squares is calling to join the contract Army in Sevastopol.

Balloons in the shape of tanks are sold in the art bay. We are passing through an excursion for Russian tourists. A tanned athletic woman wearing bright red lipstick is explaining how Ukraine was going to unload coal in the local port and the city was under risk of becoming black like Donetsk.

The couple from Rostov-on-Don asks how to get to one of the war memorials. Another elderly woman, in good Russian, explains that she doesn’t visit the place they want to get to anymore because there used to be a private collection at the Ukrainian museum, which was then taken away from there, and they don’t take people there anymore. She complains that, although Russia takes care of this Yekaterynsky Square, under Ukraine it looked better.

-  What has changed in these three years?

- It got tough. Mountain Gasfort was given to the "night wolves." It’s terrible. And this artificial patriotism… Your patriotism is clear, you teach children from childhood to be patriots. But in Moscow, as I saw on TV, they create a Park of patriots. What is this militarization of society for? Sorry, I understand that you are military. (My friend has managed to explain that he is retired, and I’m a guest from Kyiv) But give me an answer, what are people primarily taught in the army? In reality? What do they learn?

- Obedience.

- Absolutely! To obey and not to think, otherwise there won’t be any sense in it. What else? Well, think, what else do they actually learn there? Say it… She insists on the answer.

- Well ... to kill ...

- Absolutely! You are right, to kill.

She herself was born in Russia, studied in St. Petersburg, has been living in Sevastopol since 1976. She confronted her friends, most of whom attended the "referendum".

Finally, I’ve noted that theoretically, a Russian woman from Sevastopol would have to support Russia.

"Why do you think so? We’ve become a provincial piece of land like Abkhazia,"  it starts raining and we say goodbye to each other. But she returns.

"You’ll be ok. That's what I mean. I believe in it. You’ll pull through", she says before leaving.

"Good news from Ukraine supports us here. I used to look at our leadership, political experts with enthusiasm, but at some point, I realized that they seem to live in a parallel reality.  They understand neither the motives nor the actions of the opponent,” says a retired Ukrainian officer.

"How is Ukraine? What is really happening there?” Probably each of my conversations ends with such questions.

"What can Ukrainians do for Crimea?" - I ask again. - "Demand to return the territory of their country."

/By Nataliya Gumenyuk