I never thought I really cared about politics, and I never really thought they would matter to me. I always voted, but there didn’t seem much to choose from between the people I was voting for, and I never really felt like anything would actually change.
In the last three weeks, I’ve learnt that it does matter.
It changes lives. It changes borders. And it’s all a game.*
I moved to Sevastopol in September 2013 to start a new job at a language school here. I’ve fallen in love with the city, and what little of the surrounding area I’ve managed to see so far.
Cape Fiolent, 15 minutes south of Sevastopol. There is a military base on the point.
Before I came, I deliberately avoided reading up on the city and the country. I like to get to know my new homes first-hand, without preconceived notions. I was surprised to find out that most people here speak Russian, as I always thought most people spoke Ukrainian. I also knew that the Russian and Ukrainian Black Sea Fleets were based in the city, and that it was quite common to see soldiers and sailors in the street. Little did I know how important these two facts would become.
Sailors on the street in Sevastopol, October 2013
When the protests in Kiev were at their most violent, just three weeks ago, I watched in disbelief at what was happening to the country I had chosen to live in. But it was worlds away, and it didn’t feel like it would affect me.
On Saturday 22nd February, I went to school for a seminar. Before I left at 10:00 I checked the news, and it seemed things might be coming to their conclusion with the signing of a deal by Yanukovych and the opposition the day before. When I got back at 16:00, the situation had changed completely, and events that take months in other places happened over a single day.
With Yanukovych gone, it was time for Ukraine to wipe the slate clean. An interim government was presented to those at Maidan on February 26th, presidential elections were announced for May 25th and it was time to mourn for those lost in the protests and move on with building a new country.
The situation started to affect me a little, with the exchange rate reaching a 10-year low, but apart from that, life continued as normal.
A change of focus
February 24th saw mass protests in Sevastopol, against what were seen as ‘fascists’ in Ukraine. This prompted my first post about the situation, in which I highlighted that without the internet, I would never have known about the protests.
On February 28th, the situation changed again, with armed men appearing at Simferopol and Sevastopol airports and in the Crimean Parliament. This time, it was closer to home. These armed men wore no insignia, but all the signs seemed to point to them being Russian. I started to get messages from friends and family telling me to stay safe, worried at seeing Sevastopol and Crimea mentioned in the news. This is what I posted on facebook at the time, in response to news sent to me that Sevastopol Belbek had been taken over:
Just saw it on BBC. It’s a military airport to the north of the city, not near where I live at all. Didn’t even know it existed until about 15 minutes ago! Keeping up-to-date with the news, and watching carefully to see what happens, but still feels safe for me at the moment.
On the same day, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office changed their travel advice, urging British citizens to leave Crimea.
I really am grateful to the people around the world who have sent me messages through social media, emails and my blog. I have been online as much as possible, following the news and trying to make an informed decision about staying in Sevastopol, as well as keeping people up-to-date with my views.
I blogged again on 2nd March, describing the situation as I saw it and what I thought should happen next. I had decided to stay after a very emotional day. My decision seemed reasonable to me, but the messages from people in other places was making me doubt myself. One friend phoned me and pointed out that if I left, it would put a lot of people’s minds at rest. This was true, and it made me cry because I hate how much worry I am causing people, but there still seemed no reason to leave, despite having seen my first evidence of unusual naval deployment.
Military ship out to sea, 2nd March 2014
The next day, Monday 3rd March, I received another call. Having come to peace with my decision again that morning, I was remaking it every time I read the news and saw that more forces were arriving, and every time I got a new message from someone. The words used in the call were completely reasonable, and the caller had a responsibility towards me which they fulfilled by strongly requesting that I left Sevastopol, in line with the FCO advice. I know the person who phoned me had no desire to force me into anything, but it tipped me over the edge. I decided I would leave, not because I wanted to, but because I couldn’t keep making the decision to stay over and over again. I couldn’t stand the tension any more.
A few days in Kiev
I arrived in Kiev on Wednesday 5th, and have spent my time here so far learning about how our sister school works. It’s been a productive few days, and I’ve particularly enjoyed seeing all the flowers for International Women’s Day, but I’m still spending every available moment looking at the news and trying to work out how the situation is developing.
Men buying flowers to give to women to celebrate International Women’s Day, Kiev, 7th March 2014
Yesterday, the big news was that the Crimean Parliament had voted for Crimea to become part of Russia and had announced a referendum on the issue for the 16th March. I now need to adjust to the idea that in 10 days I might be living in Russia.
This afternoon I attended the British Embassy briefing on the situation in Ukraine. The ambassador updated us on how law and order is being restored in Kiev, and spoke about Crimea. The ex-pats in the room clearly want to support Ukraine in making a fresh start, by offering their expertise to the government in an advisory capacity if it will help.
During the briefing, my ex-colleague, whose (long-planned) move from Sevastopol to Kiev happened last Friday, and I talked about the situation in Sevastopol as we saw it. Interestingly, we have both formed different impressions of the mood of the people in Sevastopol. I believe that a referendum would show that greater autonomy is the preference, whereas he thinks people want to be part of Russia.
What’s my next move?
Tomorrow I hope to go to Maidan (not alone) to see where it all started, and to add that experience to the list of things I never wanted to see or do or have to think about, but know I have to if I want to have as full a picture of the situation as possible. (I know how that makes me sound, but as I said before, I never really cared about politics.)
On Sunday I have a ticket to go back to Sevastopol. I know that for many people, this may seem like a stupid decision since my government is advising me not to be there. When I spoke to the ambassador today I was very clear that I planned to return and he didn’t try to dissuade me at all. Apparently there are probably only about 25 Brits in the whole of Crimea. The FCO advice is precautionary, and they have to say that, but I don’t think there is any danger for me in Sevastopol. In fact, I feel safer there than in Kiev, because at least I can be out alone at night there!
I’m going to share here a slightly edited excerpt from an email I sent (to the 3rd March caller) earlier today:
My decision to go back to Sevastopol is completely my own, and I am clearly stating now (for future reference if need be – I hope need doesn’t be) it is on my own head. I have considered it very carefully, because I know that if the worst came to the worst and anything did happen to me, it could [cause other problems] as well, and I would never want that to happen either. I know that wouldn’t be your first reaction, but it is something you have to consider too. I truly believe that there is no danger for me there, and that if the situation changes I will be able to deal with it. I definitely do not court danger, and in fact, go out of my way to avoid potentially dangerous situations. [...] I am sorry to go against your advice, but I have to follow my gut feeling in this.
It is 23:00 on Friday now. I have about 42 hours until my train leaves Kiev. As we’ve seen over the last 3 weeks, a lot can change in that time. I fully intend to be on that train, but will only go if I continue to believe that the situation is safe.
I’ll leave you with a link to live webcams of Sevastopol, so you can see for yourself what the city is like. Click on the links below the video window to move between them, and if one doesn’t work, click pause and play a few times. As you’ll see, I hope, life is going on as normal there, and I have no good reason to stay away.
*P.S. The post I thought I would write is very different from the one I ended up writing, but it’s too late now to write the other one too. Hopefully in the next day or two I’ll have time to share my interpretation of the situation, rather than just a list of events.
The brick mosaic at the end of the building I’m staying in, Kiev, March 2014