So Russia invaded Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. I’m surprised that anyone is surprised. I’m hardly an expert on Ukrainian history or politics, but I’ve been there, and I’ve been to the Crimea, and this was just obvious. It was obvious to me even before Viktor Yanukovych became president.
I drove down there from Kiev in late 2009 with my friend Sean LaFreniere and wrote about it in my book, Where the West Ends.
The photograph on the book's cover, by the way, was taken in the Crimea.
Here’s a brief excerpt of what I wrote then.
Night fell before we reached the Crimea. Sean and I were both too tired to drive, so we pulled into a gas station to buy cans of Red Bull. CDs were on sale next to the soda and chips. Sean grabbed a couple at random, plus Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. The dramatic intro, O Fortuna, seemed like the appropriate thing to listen to when arriving in the one part of Ukraine everyone knew might one day, through either war or secession, be reunited with Russia.
Crimea is in Ukraine, but it isn’t Ukrainian. This part of the country really is Russian. By this point I had learned the alphabet well enough that I could read, so I knew the gigantic words “Автономной Республики Крым” announced to all visitors at the border that Crimea is an autonomous republic.
Crimea has its own flag. It hosts the Russian navy’s Black Sea fleet. It defiantly refuses to place itself within the Ukrainian time zone. Though it’s dead south of Kiev, it uses the more easterly Moscow time zone instead. It doesn’t have its own national anthem, but I heard the Russian national anthem playing loudly on the boardwalk of Yalta.
This is a town that is long past its prime. It’s undoubtedly a nicer place now than it was during the communist era, but, unlike Odessa, it’s provincial and tacky. Only a Russian could travel thousands of miles to vacation there without feeling a little let down and that’s only because Yalta is Russian and warm. Ukrainians go there because it’s nearby and warm.
Only a fourth of its citizens are ethnic Ukrainians. Less than a sixth are Crimean Tatars. Most of the rest are Russians. The government in Kiev has been trying for years to teach everyone in the country the Ukrainian language, but in Crimea it’s meeting the stiffest resistance.
One thing the peninsula has going for it, however, aside from an agreeable climate, is its spectacular scenery. While most of Ukraine is flatter than Iowa, the steep craggy Crimean Mountains shoot straight up out of the Black Sea, which shimmers in sun-drenched glory year-round. Even though Yalta is significantly north of the Mediterranean, the climate, at least for a narrow little band near the beach, is startlingly subtropical. It’s one of the only places in the world where a native Russian-speaking population can grow palm trees. It’s not only the language, but the political autonomy, and the general Russian-ness that set Crimea apart from Ukraine. It’s also those mountains and the trees and the moderate sea breeze.
Sean and I hadn’t booked a hotel, so we checked out a few places at random. The first was prohibitively expensive. The second, a chopped up former apartment building that must have been beautiful in its heyday, reeked of piss.
A third place was cheap, adequately clean, and had a large room with two beds, so we took it.
A Russian communist-era movie played on the TV. I couldn’t understand the dialogue, but it was at least passively propagandistic. The main characters, scientists in white lab coats, worked in a sparkling clean high-tech facility, the kind of place science fiction writers of the 1950s imagined were in our future. The movie portrayed an entirely staged idealized version of an advanced communist utopia without gulags, without long lines for potatoes, and without the NKVD. Ukrainians don’t need communist-produced re-runs. They, like the rest of us, need a serious film about Stalinism for a mass audience, a Schindler’s List of the Soviet Union.
In the morning we strolled the boardwalk. The weather was unseasonably cold, almost freezing even though it was only early November, but the sunshine and the palm trees gave the illusion of warmth. Yalta isn’t exactly Miami, but Crimeans really do enjoy a charmed climate, especially compared with the climate Russians suffer in everywhere else.
At the north end of the boardwalk stood an angry-looking statue of Vladimir Lenin. I had the feeling he was still up there not because he was a communist, but because he was Russian. Communism is as dead in Yalta these days as it is in Warsaw. Just a few hundred feet away, and comically in the direct line of sight of Lenin’s sculpted furious face, was a McDonald’s.
For dinner we found a place with translated menus. Yalta just barely gets enough Western tourists once in a while that it occurred to a few restaurant managers to have a handful of menus laying around in the back in other languages.
Two young college-age women a few tables away heard us speak English. They laughed. They giggled. They tittered. This went on for at least a half-hour. And they couldn’t stop staring. Sean and I were like zoo animals. An Arab, a black African, or an East Asian would have a hellish time visiting this place.
Yalta was nice in a basic sort of way, but it lacked the polish and vibrancy of Kiev and the relative cosmopolitanism of Odessa. No one should ever fly from the other side of the world just to go there. It reminded me of what Samuel Johnson once said about a bizarre volcanic basalt formation in Northern Ireland called the Giant’s Causeway. “Worth seeing? Yes; but not worth going to see.”
Crimea is a de-facto independent Russian-speaking republic, but if it weren’t for Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev it would still be part of Russia. In 1954 he moved an internal Russian border around and placed Crimea in Ukraine. It didn’t seem like a fateful decision at the time, one no more significant than giving Idaho a slice of Montana. He had no idea any part of Ukraine, let alone all of it, would ever break loose from Moscow. He should have known it was possible since it had happened before, but he did not see it coming, or at any rate didn’t care, so this Russian-majority region is marooned outside of Russia.
Perhaps the only reason Russian leader Vladimir Putin hasn’t moved to “correct” Khrushchev’s mistake is because there isn’t much point. Ukraine’s current government headed up by Viktor Yanukovych was friendlier than the previous government of Viktor Yushchenko, which Putin did everything in his power (short of invasion) to smash.
Ukraine’s 2004 election was rigged. Yanukovych was declared the winner when the majority wanted the pro-Western Yushchenko instead, whom somebody almost fatally poisoned with dioxin. His face was hideously disfigured by the toxin for a while, but he slowly recovered. The results of that rigged election were reversed by the Orange Revolution, when general strikes broke out and thousands took to the streets and said no.
In 2009, Russia turned off its supply of natural gas and let Ukrainians freeze in the winter, purportedly because of a financial dispute over prices and debt. The punishment was preferable, of course, to Stalin confiscating Ukrainian food in 1921 and 1922, but the message was a familiar one: if you don’t follow dictates from Moscow, you will be punished.
The crisis likely wouldn’t have been triggered at all if Ukrainians had elected a pro-Russian government. Moscow was already cheesed off by Yushchenko’s noises about Ukrainian ascension to the European Union and NATO. The Russian media portrayed Ukraine as a traitor state over it. There wasn’t much Moscow could do to stop the likes of Lithuania and Poland from joining NATO, but it won’t likely ever let its Kievan Rus cousins leave without resistance.
These kinds of problems don’t exist between Russia and Crimea. It might mean war if they did, or if a stridently pro-Western government in Kiev expanded its writ a little too enthusiastically, but that hasn’t happened.
Moscow doesn’t actually care very much about Yalta. The city made history when Stalin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill met there at the end of World War II to agree about which parts of post-fascist Europe would be in the Western camp and which would be in the communist bloc, but it has been a backwater ever since even if it’s a slightly pleasant one nowadays.
What Moscow cares about in Crimea very much is Sevastopol. That’s where Russia’s Black Sea fleet makes its home. Neither Sean nor I dared take any photographs of it, not even discreetly from the car as we drove past. It’s not a good idea to take pictures of military installations anywhere in the world, especially not Russian military installations.
In Sevastopol, once again, I found myself forgetting I wasn’t in Russia. The overwhelming majority of people who live there are Russians. The language they speak is Russian. Actual Russian soldiers and sailors were all over the place.
When the Soviet Union cracked up and Ukraine declared independence, Russia initially refused to cede Sevastopol and Crimea at all and only later relented when it signed the Peace and Friendship treaty with Kiev. Moscow need not worry overly much. Its fleet’s lease won’t run out until 2042. And if Ukraine tries to revoke it, Russia will almost certainly seize it by force, most likely to cheers and applause by locals who would feel liberated. Ukraine barely holds onto the Crimea oblast as it is, and on even numbered days I can’t help but wonder how long even that is going to last.