This is part of a series of posts I’ve been writing about the situation in Sevastopol/Crimea, where I currently live. I’m hoping to show what life is really like here.
Of roubles and hryvnia
It’s now three months and five days since the Crimean referendum of March 16th, with the biggest change in that time being money. On June 1st, the rouble became the only currency accepted in Crimea, and it’s amazing how quickly that has become normal. I’m still getting my head around the numbers: 1 hyvrnia is about 3 roubles, so something that used to cost 60 UAH is now about 180 RUR for example. This means it feels like I’m getting through money a lot faster, which isn’t necessarily true, but is hard to work out because of the price rises that always come with a currency change. One of these price rises is a near doubling in rent on one property I know about: between now and January 2015, the rent will go from $1200 per month to $2300 in a series of incremental increases. I just hope that salaries rise in a similar way to cover the costs…
Having said that, the transition from hryvnia to rouble went a lot more smoothly than expected, considering the haste with which is was done. The week before and the week after June 1st were both quite stressful for anyone who had to deal with money. Before the changeover transactions were taking a very long time because people were trying to get rid of hryvnia or paying in a combination of both currencies. Most people only had large notes in roubles, making giving change very difficult. One evening I waited for over twenty minutes in a supermarket queue – there were two tills open, each with at least fifteen people in the queue, and every transaction took three to five minutes because of money problems.
There was also the problem of getting used to the currency itself – although there are many people who are Russian or have lived in Russia here, and have therefore used the rouble, it’s a different thing for everyone to be dealing with it on a daily basis. I saw a pharmacist and customer getting increasingly irate with each other because they couldn’t work out the correct combination of notes/coins that would enable the customer to get the right change.
Nobody wanted small change in hryvnia in the final few days, and I heard about more than one bus driver who was angry because the passengers gave them coins. One even apparently threw coins back at a woman and rudely expressed his disgust at her temerity in giving them to him. There were very few rouble coins in circulation in the first week, which added to the complications because most people seemed to be saving them for the buses (partly due to the aforementioned tempers!)
It’s hard to believe that was still the case only two weeks ago: it now feels like roubles are completely normal, and there don’t seem to any problems with the circulation of cash at all, or at least not that I can tell. Cards are still a problem, and I don’t think anywhere has got their card readers working yet, so the local economy is still entirely cash-based, but rumours are circulating about banks which are issuing Visa cards, so I imagine that will change before too long too.
Tourism was one of the issues I talked about when speculating on the future for Crimea in the aftermath of the referendum. The tourist season is now here, and I know that there are people visiting as I’ve seen them on the buses, and number plates from Belorussia and Lithuania, among other places, are more visible. We also have some Russian students who have come to Sevastopol to spend the summer here, as they do every year. The weather has mostly been great, and there are lots of people on the beaches.
Simferopol airport is very busy again, although I don’t know how this compares to previous years. Flights are planned to at least five different countries in my quick scan of their schedule. Apparently a lot of the flights are already booked, and it’s difficult to find free seats. I’m not sure if that’s in both directions (i.e. into and out of Crimea), but either way I think that’s a positive thing as it means people are being able to move relatively freely.
Of an assortment of things
I know that post is getting through, as one of my students has had seven or eight postcrossing cards in the last three weeks. Unfortunately, I still haven’t had any post since the end of March, except for one postcard for my students. I’m hoping that I’ll get it all at some point, since I’m expecting (at the minimum) one letter and about 12 postcrossing cards.
Russian political parties are very much present, with many new offices having opened in Sevastopol. There’ll be an election in the autumn, I believe. Cars with loudspeakers regularly pass, at least one or two a week, with students tuning in briefly, then dismissing them with ‘politics’. There are billboards advertising all of the parties, including the Communist party, which I have to admit causes me to do a double-take every time I see one. The offices below the school are occupied by a party called Родина. They replaced the Ukrainian Батьківщина party, and apparently the name of both parties translates to almost the same English word, the former being ‘motherland’ and the latter being ‘fatherland’!
I’ve been told that all of the universities in Sevastopol have been combined into a single organisation now, but don’t know the name or any more details about it. (Sorry!) I don’t know what that will mean for the students at the universities, and how that will affect them going forward.
Other organisations have become Russian too: the shop nearest the school, which I thought had been closed, was instead renovated and reopened as a Russian local store. As far as I know, all businesses in Crimea need to be registered in Russia by the beginning of next year, which is a complicated process because (as with most things during the changeover) nobody quite knows how to do it, and many records are being held in Kiev and not released.
June 14th saw the 231st birthday of Sevastopol, two days after Russia Day, a national holiday. There were parades, concerts and fireworks for the weekend, but I was on a roll working and decided not to go. Clearly I regret that now, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. One student told me that the concert on the 14th included a choir of hundreds of children who had sung at the Sochi Opening Ceremony, bussed in from Russia specially for the birthday celebrations.
As for the people here, there are still at least two pro-Ukrainians I know who are planning to leave, but there is no sense of urgency to it – they will leave when all of their plans are in place, but are enjoying their lives in the meantime. The Tatars are just as present as they always were, as far as I can tell, with no particular changes to how they’re living their lives. We had Tatar students taking exams at the school, and one of my students is half Tatar. I think that the fears about how Tatars and Ukrainians would be treated in a Russian Crimea have so far proved unfounded, and I hope that continues to be the case.
Unless anything particularly striking happens here, I’m planning to share my next update in three months time, when six months have passed since the referendum. Watch this space…
Note: I am very much aware of what’s going on in Ukraine at the moment too, where hundreds of people have died in the fighting in the east, but feel like that’s out of the remit of my updates: they’re meant to reflect my first- and second-hand experience(s) of the changing situation in Sevastopol during the transition to becoming a full part of Russia. As I’ve said many times before, I hope the situation in Ukraine is resolved as soon as possible.