Crimea is a peculiar entity – geographically, ethnically and historically. Some claim it’s Russian, others Ukrainian. Because of their position on the world map, the Crimeans found themselves in the midst of a great conflict. Squeezed between geopolitical games and strategical interest so big they turned Crimea into everyone’s and no man’s land, its inhabitants are stuck in, destined to live in eternal transition, without any control over their own destiny.

THE PAST

After landing in Simferopol I immediately got hit by ambivalent impressions. While I was spinning around on a naked runway, eyes fixed on the yellow hills, a cold wind, completely out of line with the Mediterranean-looking landscape around me, was hitting me on the face so hard that I didn’t hear the airport staff shouting to carry on towards passport control.

With several colleagues from Serbia, I passed through the citizens of Russian Federation gate. Once out of the airport, I turned around myself again, trying to absorb the space around me, but I couldn’t shake of the feeling that I came to a very well-known place, like so many other small Balkan towns.

Everything seemed so familiar: the communist architecture, dusty “Welcome” sign, cars from the end of previous century, middle-aged men leaning on taxi vehicles and mini-vans calmly calling for customers while holding cigarettes in their mouths. Seemed like I am not far from home.

Soon enough I was in a bus on the way to Yalta, a famous mundane retreat where the last Russian emperor, Nicholas II Romanov, spent his summers. While driving along the coast, following the longest trolley line in the world, I was rethinking the history of Crimea, that started more than 2.500 years ago and has grown so large since, that it is tiring with its sheer weight. For centuries, Eurasian powers broke their spears, fighting for this piece of land understood in so many different ways, as number of rulers it had.

For the ancient Greeks and the Byzantines, Crimea, or Tauris as they called it, as a sort of “Siberia”, a place far from the civilized world, worthy only of those exiled. The first pope and heir to Saint Peter, Saint Clement of Rome, met his end on it. Romans, though, were the first to grasp its strategic importance. That’s why they turned the peninsula into a naval base from which they could control the barbarian tribes and vassal kingdoms on the northeast coast of the Black Sea.

After the fall of Rome and the Byzantium, new masters came and went, and a chance to leave its mark on rich Crimean history was given to Goths, Mongols, Khazars, Tatars, Turks… A whole bunch of peoples considered Crimea their home long before the Russians came.

Only in the end of the 18th century did the Russian empire conquered the peninsula, after defeating the army of Crimean Khanate, turning it into a part of Taurid governorate in 1802. It remained part of Russia until 1954 when soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev practically signed it off as a gift to its birth country Ukraine, to ease the tensions on the west wing of the USSR.

After the breakup of Soviet Union, the Russian majority of the population in the peninsula felt as ending up in Ukraine by accident, and viewed Khrushchev’s move as a “mistake to be fixed”. Attempts of the Crimean parliament to declare independence ensued in 1992 and 1994, but Kiev held the situation firmly under its control. At the same time, Russian authorities, struggling to stop the inevitable economic and social collapse, weren’t particularly interested in supporting the initiative. Ex-president Boris Yeltsin even signed an Act of friendship in 1997, vowing to respect the borders of Ukraine, more precisely its sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Throughout this period, in hearts and minds of ordinary Russians, Crimea still held a prominent spot, primarily in religious sense because it is the place where the Kievan Rus adopted Christianity some thousand years earlier. Saint Vladimir (Vladimir the Great or Vladimir of Kiev) in 980 took the oldest fortified town of Chersonesus, a Greek colony founded in 5th century BC. With this victory, he ensured himself a favorable position in negotiations with the Byzantines, to whom he promised to leave the town if he is given the hand of princess Anna Porphyrogenita. Constantinople accepted the offer under the condition that Vladimir is previously baptized, which happened in 988. It was the first time in history that a non-Greek ruler is given the hand of a Byzantine princess. From Crimea, Christianity started spreading among Kievan Rus and other Slavic tribes, united under Vladimir’s crown.

Given that the Russian empire, and the Russian state in general, always promoted religion, war heroism and art as three key values of Russian national identity, it is not surprising that Crimea has such an importance for the Russians – it has an unbreakable bond to all three.

Crimea is also important for the Russians as a site of great sacrifice. In the Crimean war, the siege of Sevastopol by the French, English and Turkish forces lasted eleven months, during which over 100.000 Russians lost their lives. The siege in WWI was even more brutal and lasted 247 days. Despite the defeat in these battles, because of the immense courage of the defenders, Sevastopol was declared a City of Heroes.
As for art, it is enough to say that Crimea influenced the works of Alexander Pushkin, Anton Chekhov, Lav Tolstoy and many others. With this in mind, it seems a bit clearer why most of the Russian population here chose to go for reunification.

ETERNAL TRANSITION

Compared to the crumbling and neglected capital Simferopol, Yalta seems like a complete opposite. From start to end, sea coast is lined with renovated buildings in neoclassical style; bars and coffee places are teaming with life; couples are relaxing on the beach enjoying the sound of waves mixing with music coming from the promenade. Immediately it is obvious that Yalta lives off tourism. 

The blockade of goods coming from Ukraine, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to distort the local trade that much. All kinds of vegetables and pickled specialties cover the stands, market shelfs are full and the fish market is in full throttle.

While passing next to the monument of Lenin, one that you can see in every soviet-influenced town, I started a conversation with a group of students. Out of five of them, only one was Russian, the other were Ukrainian. When I asked them how life changed in Crimea since it became part of the Russian Federation, their smiling faces became lethargic.

“From the economic side it’s absolutely the same… Maybe a little bit better. Still, we are not really happy about the annexation. It was far more lively before, we used to talk about everything freely. Now the system is much stricter, and the youth is being controlled. Besides, we can’t travel anywhere. We can’t even go to Ukraine because they don’t recognize our plates and they can confiscate the car. In Europe, they don’t want us too. We feel like we are stuck here”, 18-year-old philology student Roman Bezruchko told me. His peer, student of medicine Adam Idrisov added: “In Ukraine there was more freedom, it was a democracy. We had greater chances with Europe. Now, they don’t accept our degrees. We can work only in Russia”. Young Russian in the group carefully monitored our conversation before jumping in. “Yes, but at least now we live better. It’s good to be home”, he said. “Don’t listen to him. He is a separatist”, his friend Adam responded, laughing and hugging him.

I really wanted to find out what other people think about this control. What kind of control is it, how is it manifested and what it relates to? Soon enough, I met two girls that are on the final year of their law studies, and asked them a bit more about it. They asked me not to publish their names. “It is true. There is control. We cannot talk against the government and the system publically, and we have to be more careful about what we write on the internet. Besides that, everything else is the same. We are happy to be back in Russia, despite increased social control”.

Fear of free speech is deeply rooted in these people, in young ones too. Even though they don’t remember the Soviet times, their instinct to recognize an ever-present threat develops from collective unconscious.

Contrary to most of the youth, elders are not that interested in freedom of speech as much as existential questions. Fyodor Gvozdyev, 35-year old telecommunications engineer employed in the local post-office, was in mood to explain how the annexation impacted him as someone with a full-time stable job. “Things are looking better now, but because we are still very happy about the reunification, we strongly believe that we will progress even more. It was hard living in Ukraine. We were discriminated. Our language, culture… It was all brushed aside, and the idea of getting into Europe didn’t fulfill us, because we knew it’s nothing but an empty promise. Ukraine did nothing for us. They didn’t invest one grivna, but they were taking all the profits from tourism. If they have given us more rights, a chance to speak our language, and if they have respected the Russians living in Crimea, I think that the situation would be completely different. This way, we were living under pressure for years. Since 2008 they started whispering about going back to Russia and the last three months before the referendum, tensions finally became so intense that it was obvious something is about to happen”, he said.

Still, Fyodor admits that those working in state-run companies have incomparably better time than entrepreneurs. According to the locals, private sector went through fiasco after the change of peninsula’s status.

After declaring the officials results of the referendum and ratification of the document that incorporated Crimea into the Russian Federation, a new period of transition, so well-known to the Crimeans, had begun. It is this never-ending failed transition, that lasts since the fall of the USSR and seems will go on forever, combined with the patriotic feelings both the Russian and Ukrainian government are trying to promote, created an atmosphere that made a lot of Crimeans want to try their luck in “another country”.

“Stability lies in Russia. Crimea was rotten from corruption, salaries and pensions were disastrous, anarchy omnipresent. Now we know that we have a strong government. I think that Putin is the right man to put this place in order”, Gvozdyev believes.

Even though the annexation turned their everyday lives into a Kafkaesque nightmare, most people respond by saying: “At least you can see an end to it”. Used to crisis times, the Crimeans are trying to live through the chaos with new passports, register plates, phone numbers and educational system as yet another step in preparations for a “better tomorrow”.

Like any other, this administrative plot has its winners and losers. With over 200 new laws set in place to adapt the local judiciary system to the federal one, businesses of economists and lawyers entered a golden age. “Since we are a part of Russia, the business is booming. I have more clients than ever because people are completely lost in the new order of things. No one knows what to do and how, what is legal and what is against the law. Lately I don’t know how to keep up with the growing amount of work. I spend entire nights studying new laws and procedures, but the new stuff just keeps coming. Often I have to employ my colleagues and share the profits with them, just so that I wouldn’t reject a client”, a 53-year old lawyer Alexey told me.

Wandering the streets of Yalta, I have talked with many people and two separated impressions came through, both opposing each other as much as the general opinion of the Crimean situation, yet so both so unbreakably connected; so many winners, so many losers, those satisfied, and those that are not, all of them gathered on a single pedestrian strip on the coast of the Black sea.

Down at the local souvenir market, t-shirts with Putin’s character, Russian war ships and other similar motifs are hanging everywhere around. The grannies selling them seem very relaxed. “Putin sells better than Yanukovych and Poroshenko combined. You don’t have to be a journalist to see it.”, one of them told me.

On the other side of the street, shop owners just ten meters away complain how their sales have dropped almost a half, while the price of shipping goods inside had drastically increased. Political situation hit the clothes retailers particularly hard. Crimea is de facto functioning as an island since it only has a land border with Ukraine, which is closed, and all the goods come in exclusively by ships. Prices skyrocketed to a level higher than in developed cities, and small local trades have been kicked out of the game by big Russian corporations ready to invest big sums of money into transport. 

When I asked Konstantin Mikhailovich Bakharev, the vice-president of the Crimean parliament, why the prices jumped so significantly in certain sectors, he responded: “It is a bit pathetic to say it, but we were thinking only of returning home to Russia. I think most of the people is happy with the average salary that is now around 260 euro, and with average pension that is around 190 euro”.

EARLY WAKING FROM A WINTER DREAM

In one of the most popular restaurants in Yalta, I have tried to put homeland and living standard onto scales to see how big part of an average Crimean salary would have to go on a proper restaurant meal. For around 1.500 rubles (approx. 22 euros), I was served an excellent borsch soup with fish, Ukrainian sal consisting of dry spicy ham, horseradish and pickles for appetizers, a glass of vodka and a main dish.

No matter how good this price might look, when you previously take the bills and food expenses of an average salary, an average Crimean resident would be left with around a 100 euros in his pocket. Hardly anyone will spend another 20 on a lunch that is obviously an unnecessary luxury. That’s when I realized that the people sitting around me are either rich locals or Russian tourists.

Having in mind that over a year passed since joining Russia, with all the failures on social and economic plan, the euphoria that most of the inhabitants feel about their “return home” turned out to be an incredibly successful factor in keeping peace. The referendum on leaving or staying is still looked upon as a choice between the cold fist of the West and warm hug of mother Russia.

Although territorially the biggest country in the world, Russia took a huge risk by annexing the Crimean Peninsula, not just by destroying its relationship with the West, but also with gambling with its people future. Politics, of course, doesn’t care that much about cultural, historical or religious questions, as it does about mineral deposits, geopolitical value and strategical position of Crimea in the Black sea region.

Best-case scenario for Russia, vast sums of money spent on maintenance and investments into local economy will be used the right way – to improve the living standard of the Crimeans, and return what was invested through profits. But if the corruption eats up everything, poverty and lethargy will take euphoria’s place.

Moscow already payed the heavy price of annexation. Official forecasts say that around 4.5 billion dollars in yearly investments s needed to make the Peninsula sustainable. Add to that a staggering 4 billion dollars’ bridge that will connect Crimea with mainland Russia and planned 18 billion for infrastructure and development.

According to Bloomberg, Moscow covers around 75% of the Crimean budged, it subsidizes pensions and other public expenses, all to cover the losses from the collapse of the tourist industry that formed a lifeline of Crimean economy before the annexation. Number of tourists dropped for about 30 percent and would probably drop even further if Moscow haven’t started a campaign, calling for the citizens to go for a more patriotic holydays and visit Crimea instead of going abroad.

The mayor if Yalta Valeriy Kosarev was in the mood to answer Newsweek’s questions concerning the state of tourism and commerce in Yalta. Answering how the sanctions affected the local economy, he said:” Not much. I think that the Western sanctions aren’t working. Crimea is developing culturally and as a tourist destination, not only as a recreational area. What’s important is that Crimea is finally useful for Crimeans. Money is no longer flowing out to Kiev. Budget for education is doubled since the reunification and the funding that Yalta receives from the federal budget is significantly bigger.”

If both Russia and the West would pause for a moment and divert their attention from their own political gain to wellbeing of the people, in this particular case the Crimean people, the true potentials of this beautiful piece of land could truly be fulfilled, and people would finally control their own destiny. Paradise lost would become Paradise regained. And not just for the Russians or Crimeans.

Written by Novak Lukovac
This text was originally published in the Serbian edition of Newsweek magazine, October 2015.