Excited about what was expecting me in the land European media had been talking about for the last year I stepped out into the Crimean airport. A fresh breeze of seawater wafted towards me. I instantly smelled the scent of salt in the air and it felt like going for summer vacation to some Mediterranean country.
The excitement grew further, as we got into the taxi, headed towards the Crimean Capital: Sevastopol. How often had I heard or read that name during the last months and always in context of terms such as annexation, conflict, interests! But this time it was different. I was going to spend a weekend in Sevastopol; I was visiting the city as an actual tourist not virtually, by just skimming articles regarding that same place.
The ride towards the harbour of Sevastopol took us a good hour. I was looking out the window, observing the exterior world slipping past me. Deep blue water was passing my iris, in symphony with the green spots of the trees and the edgy white figures of the rocks that appeared in between: a perfect combination of blue, green and white. And these three colours accompanied me throughout the whole stay in Crimea.
The breath-taking nature as well as the kind, warm-hearted people, fascinated me. I awaited frustration in the society, resentment maybe, after all that had happened, after all the turbulent times and the fact that they had undergone a transition from one country to another, without having been properly consulted on the matter first. But to be honest, little was left of what could have been a conflict only a few months ago: drawings on a wall and phrases, reminding of the volatile time; Russian flags decorating buildings’ facades as well as people’s balconies and windows. Here and there, a huge poster of Vladimir Putin’s smiling face, saying “Крым. Россия. Навcегда – Krim. Russia. Forever”, could be seen. That was all that was left over from the Crimean crisis, just some fading memories like the crackling plasters on a wall.
“Europeans think that it’s hell down here. Media is talking about war and all that stuff but it always has stayed pretty calm down here, nothing has really changed that much. In fact, we have always been part of Russia.”
After his statement the taxi driver looked at us in amusement, like a father looks at his naïve eight-year-old son that has just asked why stars can’t be seen in the daylight. And it wasn’t only the driver’s opinion. In the days that followed I talked with a few more people, all of whom were happy with how things had gone. 90% of the population there is Russian speaking. What about the rest of them? What about those, who may still have parts of their family in Ukraine?
“ There are some tensions between Russians and Ukrainians, that’s true. A colleague of mine, his wife is Ukrainian. Her parents still live there, and they don’t talk to each other anymore. For the moment it’s not easy for him. But it’s temporary, because everything is still so fresh. I am sure we will pull ourselves together and continue sharing life in harmony, just as we always did.”
The man’s eyes flash in the rear-view mirror for a moment. We exchange glances; he smiles at me as if to reassure me, his look full of hope. It seems that the euphoria of the moment tends to let people forget the dark side of things. The first moment of change, the start of a new era and all the excitement leads people to close their eyes in front of what it means for many families to suddenly find themselves in another country. Suddenly, the problematic nature of such changes, brought about without the necessary legal procedures, are forgotten, or maybe just ignored. Probably, if you look at it from a utilitarian point of view, people’s general opinion can be very well understood. Doesn’t the end justify the means?
“Things are good this way. Times are harder now of course, because taxes have become much higher. But it doesn’t matter because Russia will take care of our little spot here. Life will get better. Houses and better streets will be built.”
That these are urgently needed was clear to me as soon as we drove into the city of Sevastopol. At first, when I saw the ragged houses, the bad roads and lack of infrastructure, I attributed it to the fact that we were still in the countryside. It didn’t get better when we reached the capital. People are well aware of the country’s deficit and blame the Ukrainian government for that. After all these years of abandon, it is somehow understandable why they put so much hope in Crimea’s incorporation to Russia.
“They are going to build a bridge! From Crimea to the Russian mainland! And that bridge will make it possible to deliver the raw materials easier, so that we finally can continue building up the city.”
Even about that I have absolutely no doubts. After all the turbulences around Crimea and the resulting consequences Putin took into account, he surely will invest in this new piece of his land. He will show the world that it was worth it, that Russia can offer more, that Russia can bring wealth. Not considering the economic deficit right in front of his door, and the fact that the money would be urgently needed in other sectors. But in my opinion, it shows the Russian attitude towards appearance very well, especially towards symbolic power. It is more important to give the idea of strength rather than to actually possess the necessary foundations for it, in this case wealth, satisfaction of its own people, perspectives and a stable economy.
The signs of such an approach can already be seen. When we arrived at the hostel, we realized that it wasn’t actually a hostel, but rather a construction site. Such construction sites can be found all across Sevastopol. I am sure that much of this renovation and construction will help the peninsula become a great tourist attraction. At least, it’s what I hope will happen, as the nature and the landscapes really deserve that recognition.
But let’s leave the cab for a moment, no matter how soft its pillows in the bright backseat might seem, or how tempting the gentle, green hills rolling by in the rhythm of the car, might be. Let’s drift back for an instant to the Russian capital city from where I started and let’s ask the people there, how they look at the whole story. A lot seem to be happy about it. Russia finally reunited. No one cares about the additional costs the investments could mean for the local economy. This illustrates the Russian mentality I have so often seen: stick together no matter what. The harder the times, the more team spirit and cohesion become important. It’s a kind of thinking, European individualists probably won’t understand. Where I come from, there would have most likely been much more criticism and protest. But Russians know that many Crimean people wanted to belong to Russia, they know how abandoned the area was under the Ukrainian influence, so now they are aware of the necessity to rebuild this new member of their family, make it compatible, bring it back to great power.
This may be true, as it is a seemingly justifiable argument for the positive features of Crimea’s shift to Russia. But does society’s hope legitimize the political steps taken by Russia? I’ve always held that people are the legitimization. But who are the people? In this case, it is not a homogenous mass; there are minorities to be considered. I think, as many benefits as the new order may bring for most of them, the fact that it was an illegal act shouldn’t be ignored by Russian society.
The taxi-ride was finally over, we stopped in the parking lot in front of the construction site that was going to be our hostel for the next three days and witness of our crazy nightly homecomings. We said good-bye to our friend, the taxi driver that had so nicely given us an insight into the common view of most of Crimean inhabitants. We kindly shook hands. Ironically I told him that I was sure that soon Sevastopol would become a big metropolis and look like Moscow. He looked at me in seriousness and said:
“ No, it will become even better!”