Technologically and linguistically adventurous EFL teacher, trainer, writer and manager

Posts tagged ‘Crimea’

Returning to Sevastopol

I spent July back in Sevastopol after nearly a year away. So what changes have there been? And do people still believe they made the right choice at the referendum and they are better off in Russia?

The most striking change for me was how busy the city is now. There are a lot more people and traffic jams are much more common. At least half of the number plates are Russian, and they come from a wide variety of regions. When I first arrived in Sevastopol I think the population was about 500,000. On this trip, I was told that it’s grown to about one million, although nobody is really sure. A lot of the difference in numbers is due to refugees from Donetsk and other parts of Eastern Ukraine. It was also the peak of the holiday season when I was there. Flights from Simferopol airport are constantly booked up, with people arriving from all over Russia, plus other former Soviet states like Kazakhstan. This means it’s now very difficult to find accommodation in the city and the price of rent has risen considerably.

The rest of the changes I found out about were less obvious.

There now seems to be some recognition in the outside world that Crimea is no longer part of Ukraine, although not yet that it is part of Russia. When I visited Skyscanner to book a flight, Crimea was listed as a separate place in the country list. I found it interesting that it was listed in Roman characters on the Ukrainian list, rather than in Cyrillic, and wonder what prompted that decision.

Skyscanner Crimea

Skyscanner Crimea English

Sanctions have not had as much of an effect on commerce as I expected, as you can still buy many ‘Western’ products, like Mars bars, Bonaqua water, Laughing Cow and mascarpone. However, the majority of these are actually produced in former Soviet states, which is why they have slipped through the net.

They have affected my friends in other ways though. Those who have opted for a Russian international passport* can no longer get a Shengen visa, meaning they cannot easily travel to or work in Europe. The only way to get around this is if the address your passport is registered to is outside Crimea, for example in Moscow or Saint Petersburg. It used to be possible to get Shengen visas without leaving Crimea, but this is no longer possible.

Even if you have a Ukrainian international passport, you still need to have a Russian local passport to meet the requirements of daily life in Crimea as far as I know. If you cross the land border from Crimea to Ukraine and the Ukrainian border guards find that you have a Russian passport, they can fine you heavily (about £500 if I remember rightly), remove the passport and destroy it. This means that most people now travel via mainland Russia rather than crossing the land border (though it is still used). That adds another layer of complication for those with Ukrainian passports, since they require a Russian entry visa to come back into Crimea. This is only valid for 90 days. I’m not really sure what happens if they overstay that period.

While we’re on this topic, the only area in which people said it was better being in Ukraine was the bureaucracy. Although it was long-winded, Russian systems tend to be even more complicated. There is also the added problem that Crimean officials are still trying to get their heads around the Russian systems, and don’t always know how they are expected to do things in their new country.

One positive change I noticed was that money seems to be flowing more freely than when I left in August last year. At that time, one or two cash machines were starting to work, but it was still largely a cash economy. From what I could tell, most cash machines seem to be functioning normally now, and card machines in shops are also back in use. There is now a Russian 10 rouble coin featuring Sevastopol, and another featuring the Swallow’s Nest in Yalta.

2014-Russia-Crimea-Sevastopol-10-ruble-coins

Having said that, not all of the money from the Russian government is making it to where it should. One person told me that Sevastopol was given $5 million to repair the roads in the city centre ready for the 9th May Victory Day celebrations, but there was no evidence of any repair when I was there in July. Apparently the money ‘disappeared’.

Overall, everyone I asked said that they still believe they made the right decision in the referendum to leave Ukraine and join Russia. However, some of the optimism has worn off a little, as their high expectations have not been met. While there have been some improvements in their lives, there is still a long way to go before life becomes free and easy again.

*In Russian, the word ‘passport’ is used to describe both the local/national identity document and the one used to travel internationally, hence the distinction here.

Existential angst

It’s just after midnight at the close of Christmas Day 2014 and I can’t sleep because I’m thinking about my future. It’s not the first time this has happened recently, but it is the most persistent. Normally I can fall asleep within 10 minutes of going to bed, but now it’s been nearly an hour and I seem to be falling deeper into my thoughts, rather than drifting off to sleep. I hope writing will get this out of my system, at least for tonight, although I don’t know if or when I’ll ever publish this*, and certainly not until after I’ve spoken to Olga, the director at IH Sevastopol.

For the last month, my feeling of uncertainty about my future has become more and more persistent.

This time last year, I knew I would be in Sevastopol for at least a few years, helping the IH there to grow and flourish, training up a team of teachers and working to make our school the best in the city, and hopefully in the region, making it a place to be admired and looked up to in the area.

Now, I don’t even know if I’ll be there after the end of this academic year.

Whatever people may think, it’s nothing to do with the political situation. I know that Sevastopol being part of Russia may scare or upset many people, but for me it’s a fact, and I believe the city is better off there, even if I may not agree with the way it all came about. I love the city and the beautiful region of Crimea, and I’ve made many friends in the area who I will miss deeply. I’ve just started crying as I write this because I feel like I would be abandoning them and the school if I left.

However, the economic situation worries me greatly. When Sevastopol first went on to the rouble in June, there were 60 to a pound. Now, there are 80. A couple of weeks ago it got as high as 105. All this instability will settle down at some point, I know, but our school needs it to be settled soon. We rely heavily on Cambridge exams, the fees for which are paid in pounds. If the prices go up so much, our students won’t be able to afford them, and we will suffer. That’s not to mention the already so-expensive-it’s-difficult-for-anyone-to-contemplate CELTA course. And that’s all providing British businesses are allowed to continue working with a school in Crimea, and that fresh sanctions won’t ban trade with the area. Locally, prices have risen, including the rent on the school building, a fact which has caused a lot of headaches.

With such economic uncertainty, it is difficult to find any kind of reliability with student numbers. Our school is young, and we were just beginning to build up our reputation when the crisis hit in March. We are also expensive, and who’s to blame students for going for a cheaper school if there’s one available, when they don’t really know the difference?

When I was in Sevastopol last year, I was one of very few native speakers in the city, a number which reduced even more after March. Although I know it shouldn’t matter, and it frustrates me that it does, that does make me a selling point for the school, and a sought-after commodity. That could help. But I am also very expensive: my salary is paid in the equivalent of dollars, and I get accommodation too. My visa and flights also cost money. There are only so many hours I can teach, especially since I am supposed to be doing DoS work too, and no matter how much I may want to throw my heart into the school, in the last couple of years a lot of things have taught me that I need to keep a healthy work-life balance.

IH Sevastopol has taught me a lot about adaptability and flexibility. It has called on my creativity and problem-solving skills. And in practical terms, I have built on my management skills, learnt to do observations, and started to do more teacher training. Most importantly, it was there I got the amazing opportunity to become a CELTA trainer, working on the basis that I would be the second trainer (with Olga) on all courses run at the school.

If I stay, I will be working with a school where the future is uncertain. The core team of three teachers, including me, are very committed, and between us we have a lot of experience to draw on. The rest of the team is still settling and changing as the school’s and their needs change. I have no idea whether we will be able to stay in our building, and whether Cambridge will renew their contracts with us. I don’t know if we will get more students. No matter how much Olga, Anna and I want the school to succeed, wishes alone can’t make it happen. As I write this, it makes me sound as if I have given up, and I don’t want that to be true, but at the same time I have to be realistic.

I know that if I stay in Sevastopol I will find work for myself, whether at IH Sevastopol or elsewhere. I know I will make the most of it, and be able to create opportunities for myself. But I’m no longer sure that that’s what I want.

So what do I want?

In three months, I will be 30, and right now stability appeals a lot.

I want to choose somewhere I know I’m going to stay for a while. When I went to Sevastopol, that’s what I thought I was doing, Now, it feels less right. I want to get my own flat and start to settle down. I have no savings at all, so I need to be somewhere where I can afford to save up a deposit. I want to live in the same place as my things, instead of having them scattered around three or four different places in two or three countries. I’m sure I could live much more minimalistically, but the memories encoded in my possessions are incredibly important to me. I want to have a place to call my own, because in the last nine months I haven’t really had that in the UK any more (although family (and a lot of my stuff!) still live in the family home, I don’t – it’s a long story, and one with no animosity at all, but it is a fact). In the last two months I have felt particularly rootless, because when I was in Sevastopol, at least I had my own flat. People asked me again and again where I was from, and where I was going back to for Christmas, and I repeatedly thought how nice it would be to have an easy answer to that question, and to be fairly certain it would be the same next year.

I want to get married and have a family. I don’t know where, when or if that will happen, but it’s a thought that’s always there.

I also need stability and consistency for my health, now that I have been diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, a condition which needs to be monitored. In 8-10 years this monitoring will have to be stepped up to another level as it leaves me with a higher than average risk of bowel cancer. It is also a condition which is triggered by stress, and uncertainty about my future doesn’t help me to reduce my stress levels.

But most of all, I want to be true to myself professionally. I have worked very hard to get where I am now.

When I went to Sevastopol, I truly believed that it was perfect: to be part of a growing school, with the chance to influence its growth. The opportunity to develop my management skills and become a CELTA tutor, while still being in the classroom regularly. Working with people I had heard a lot about and already admired before I met them. Living near the sea (one of my dreams), in a beautiful area. Good weather all year round. Learning a new language.

Sandy in Sevastopol

Now I think I want something very different. I’ve really enjoyed CELTA tutoring over the last few months, and while there’s no way I will do it that intensively again, I’d like to keep it as a major part of my portfolio. Whatever else I might decide about my future with relation to Sevastopol, they will always be my first priority when it comes to training on CELTA, since they made me a tutor, so even if I don’t do anything else there, as long as they want me and I can get a visa I will be back to do that.

But I also want the opportunity to go to conferences regularly. I love presenting at them, and I know it is something I am good at and can develop in. Getting to conferences from Sevastopol is expensive (even more so now with the rouble as it is) and time-consuming, and means longer absences from the school than I would like.

Apart from that, I’m not really sure. I’d like to do other teacher training, not just CELTA, but I don’t want to be completely absent from the classroom either, since I don’t believe you can really train properly if you are divorced from it like that. Maybe I could do some writing too, but that is a lot of work for not much money, and a lot of being solitary. I can do it, and I was so proud when my first materials appeared recently, but I’m not sure it’s financially worth it.

In the best of all possible worlds, I’d still be working for IH, because I love the ethos of the organisation. Maybe I could look for a management position at another school? But would that give me the chance to continue with the CELTA training?

There’s no easy resolution to all this. I’ll be talking to Olga tomorrow, and maybe that will change my mindset completely. I’ll be applying for my visa on Monday. Maybe that will do it. Maybe going back to Sevastopol will make all the difference – being away from it, it’s easy for me to over-analyse. Maybe I should look for a mentor to see if they can help me.

Ultimately, though, I need to do what is best for me in the long run, however much I don’t want to leave Olga and the team in Sevastopol in the lurch. Even writing this post, even knowing it might not be published, feels like a betrayal of a kind. I’m going to send it to Olga to read before I speak to her, and I’m going to hope that now I’ve written it, I’ll be able to sleep better. Good night.

Three days later

I spoke to Olga the day after I wrote this, and we decided that it’s better for me not to go back to Sevastopol at the moment. Things are getting harder there, with blackouts and transport links being cut off. The situation is changing constantly, and my being there won’t help at all.

People boarding the Kiev to Sevastopol train, Tuesday 8th April 2014

People boarding the Kiev to Sevastopol train, Tuesday 8th April 2014

We hope I’ll be able to return in the summer for a CELTA course, or earlier if things settle down faster. I’m thinking about my friends there all the time, and I hope the situation improves quickly, for their sake more than mine. My letter of invitation is valid until November, so there’s still time for me to get a visa when I need one.

That means I’m currently unemployed and looking for work, at least for the next 6 months. My only plans are going to the IH DoS conference in London from 8th-10th January, and the IATEFL conference in Manchester 10th-14th April. If anyone knows of any work they think I would be suitable for, particularly CELTA training, please let me know. All help is gratefully appreciated.

I’ve also spent some time looking at MAs over the last couple of days, and I think I’ve found one I’m interested in for the 2015-2016 academic year. It focuses on materials development, which is an area I’m interested in, and this unintended break in my career seems like a good opportunity to do it if I can get the money together. It’s somewhere with a lot of language schools, so I may be able to get a few hours of part-time work if I’m lucky, but if anyone else has ideas about how I can fund the course, I’m happy to take suggestions.

Whatever happens, I don’t regret the decisions I’ve made, and I’m still very happy with my life. I’m lucky to be in a position where I have every likelihood of getting work, and where my family will support me until that happens. I’m still a very lucky person, for which I am grateful.

So that’s the answer to the question ‘What’s next?’ which I posed in my last post, if you can call it an answer. Watch this space for what happens next…

* I decided to publish this unedited, as it’s how I felt when I wrote it. I know that I’m not abandoning my friends or betraying the school, but at 1:30 in the morning, that’s what it felt like. Editing it feels like editing my thoughts and I don’t know what to change, so apologies for the length and the rambling nature of this.

Three months on

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.

Of tourists

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.

Summer's here

Summer’s here

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’!

IMG_8526

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.

Happy birthday Sevastopol

Happy birthday Sevastopol!

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.

Two months on

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.

Just over two months since the Crimean referendum of 16th March 2014, and Sevastopol is rapidly becoming a fully-fledged part of the Russian Federation, in some cases much more rapidly than originally expected.

On Tuesday 13th May, a week ago, in the traditional word-of-mouth way in which most news about the transition seems to be spread, I heard from two different people that the rouble would be the only currency accepted here from June 1st, 2014. This is a bit faster than originally planned – it wasn’t supposed to happen until January 1st, 2016! I haven’t seen any official announcement of this in English news sources, but having just done my first proper Google search in Russian (ever!), it was apparently announced by the speaker of the lower house of the Russian Duma (parliament) on May 12th. Gazeta.ua reports that there are now about 300 branches of Russian banks in Crimea, and that there are enough roubles in circulation to make the change.

Genbank - the first advertising for a Russian bank which I noticed

Genbank – the first advertising for a Russian bank which I noticed

However, the bus drivers obviously don’t think it will be a smooth transition, as they have stated today that June 1st will also mark a change in paying for public transport: rather than paying as you get off, you’ll have to pay before you get on. This is because they don’t think everyone knows about the switch to the rouble, and they don’t think there are enough coins in circulation yet. I’ve only seen two coins so far, so I suspect they might be right!

There have been no Ukrainian banks here since 7th May, which again I found out the next day when I was asked if I knew they’d closed. Luckily, I’d taken all of my money out of my account a few days before, but I know others who hadn’t, and now have to work out how to get their money back.

I got my first pay in roubles a week ago, although I haven’t used them to pay for anything yet. I’ve nearly used up all of my hryvnia, and a lot of people are reluctant to take them. Everyone’s trying to get rid of them, particularly small notes and coins. I’ve seen a few people paying in roubles, but not many.

My first roubles

My first roubles

Prices have been displayed in both currencies for a few weeks now, and I’ve finally got the hang of which prices are in roubles and which in hryvnia. I got the bill in a restaurant a few weeks ago and was shocked at the price, then realised it was roubles, not hryvnia – as you can see, the exchange rate is about 3RUR to 1UAH, although this varies slightly in each place you go to.

Prices in UAH and RUR

Prices in UAH and RUR

Even when you think you know the exchange rate, prices are unpredictable. This is partly because of uncertainty, partly because some places are taking advantage of the changeover to up their prices, and partly because there are sometimes supply issues. When I went to the hairdresser today, I paid in hryvnia, then asked her how much my cut would cost in roubles next time. She replied that it depends on the prices in the shops. Some places don’t bother putting prices at all, although they’re not consistent. These are from the same supermarket as the label above:

No prices on the shelves

No prices

No prices on the shelves

No prices on the shelves

Some places have told me that they only take roubles, but when you argue, they always accept hryvnia. They have no choice at the moment.

The financial uncertainty has meant that some shops have closed, which obviously doesn’t help because it leaves more people without money. Another problem is that some supplies seem not to be getting through. It’s not a question of shortages (yet?), but there are gaps on the shelves.

Quite empty shelves

Quite empty shelves

My local supermarket closed off about 1/10 of it’s floor area within a couple of weeks after the referendum, and their shelves were looking emptier and emptier. Something seems to have got through now though, as they were restocking when I went a couple of days ago. The local pharmacy has resorted to putting (what I think are) prescription medicines on their display shelves, in place of the normal tissues and cough sweets.

Card machines are still conspicuous by their absence, although some cash machines are apparently working again. A lot of them were switched off a month or so ago, and haven’t been on since. To get around the potentially thorny issue of distributing Russian currency on what many still believe is Ukrainian soil, Sberbank have come up with the ingenious solution of putting 20 cash machines onto a ferry. The ferry counts as Russian soil, so no international laws will be broken.

The non-financial side…

Post seems to be trickling through. This is a postcard from South Africa which arrived a week ago, having been sent on 24th March. I don’t know if it would have taken that long normally, but 7 weeks seems like quite a long time.

Postcard from South Africa

I went to the main post office, as I’m not sure if the small ones are working or not. The displays are mostly bare, where there used to be lots of different stamps, cards and other things you could buy, but I managed to send a parcel, covered with about 20 Russian stamps. I don’t know if/when it will ever arrive!

People are continuing to apply for their Russian passports (or ‘internal’ ID – they use the same word for both here). One student told me his company arranged for someone from the passport office to come in for a couple of days so none of them would have to queue. I bet a lot of people here wished that would happen for them too – at one point people were queueing for over three hours for passports.

The Victory Day/9th May celebrations went off without a hitch, and talking to students since I’ve discovered that they weren’t much different to normal – there’s always a party atmosphere, it’s always a big thing, and it’s always very bombastic. The only difference this year was that it was pretty much a Russian-only affair. In the past, I was told, veterans and others have attended from Poland and the UK, among others, having fought with the Soviets in the Second World War.

9th May poster on a bus

9th May poster on a bus

While waiting for the parade to start, an older woman started talking to my companions about why she was happy to see the Russian military in the parade. She described how her son had gone from being a Ukrainian soldier to a Russian one. In the Ukrainian army he had almost nothing supplied to him, just a uniform. He had had to buy pretty much everything else himself. At the weekends, he would eat at friends’ houses because the food they were given really wasn’t great. When he and his colleagues went to work for the Russian army, they took all of their equipment, and were amazed to discover that they didn’t need any of it – it was all supplied. When they went into the canteen on the first day, there were tablecloths on the tables, and a good range of food. He didn’t regret changing allegiances.

Another area in flux is the educational system. I was told about problems with the Sevastopol Banking Institute. The Institute was set up about five years ago in a beautiful new building funded by the National Bank of Ukraine, with the aim of training “highly qualified specialists for Banking and Finance system of Ukraine”. With the changeover to Russia, I was originally under the impression that it would be taken over by the Central Bank of Russia, although understandably this was a contentious issue considering where the funding had come from. Late last week, a group from the local council replaced the director of the institute, as he was said to be blocking this move. Teachers and students were asked to leave for the day. Nobody knows how they will finish their studies, or how degrees will be awarded. Yesterday students asked Putin to help resolve the situation at the Institute.

My teenage students are particularly worried about education now, as they don’t know where they will go to study, or how much they will be handicapped by having had a largely Ukrainian education if they choose to go to Russian universities, where they will have to take the same entrance exams as those who have been through the Russian system.

That’s how the situation looks after two months – some things are resolving themselves, other things are being added to the mix. It’s an interesting time to live through, and life is certainly never boring!

Victory Day, 9th May 2014, Sevastopol

At the end of April, these stickers started to appear on public transport across the city.

9th May stickers have been on every bus since the end of April

9th May, Sevastopol

Then a couple of brand new trolley buses appeared on the streets.

9th May trolleybus

Victory, 9th May

This minibus too…

9th May minibus

All of the advertising in the city centre was replaced with images of war veterans, accompanied by their names and a paragraph about them, every poster showcasing a different person or couple.

Posters showing the veterans and describing what they did

Other posters and banners appeared too.

Victory Day signs and billboards from around Sevastopol

70 years victory / Victory Day Greetings / Honor the actions of our fathers and grandfathers / For Victory Day

Red, white and blue flags were put on every other lamppost.

Flags on lampposts

The main memorial in the centre of the city was cleaned, and the trees near it were chopped back.

The wood on the benches in the city centre was replaced, although not all of the old wood was taken away!

New wood on the benches

Even the lines on the roads were repainted.

New lines on the road

For the week leading up to 9th May the events of Victory Day were the main topic of conversation, with speculation on what exactly would happen on the big day, including whether Putin would visit. Everyone had a different idea about what time things would happen, and nobody really seemed to know exactly how the day would pan out. One thing was clear though: it would be a day that would go down in the history of the city.

On the morning of 9th May, I left my flat early. Or at least I thought I had. When I got to my bus stop there were about 50-60 people there, with more arriving all the time, and every bus going past was so full of people it just drove by. I walked back two stops, to find the same at both of those. In the end I got the bus in the opposite direction, travelling for more than 10 stops before finding a stop with few enough people to try to get into the centre from. There was more traffic than I’ve ever seen going into the city, and almost nothing going in the opposite direction. The 20-minute journey took me nearly an hour.

When I finally made it, I found a party atmosphere. There was a buzz of excitement, and the 9th May balloons were everywhere.

9th May balloons

People were standing anywhere they thought they would get a view.

Thousands of people on the stairs

Even a downpour of rain didn’t deter them.

A sea of umbrellas

At 10:15, we heard an announcement, and the first parade started. It was led by drummers, and consisted of cadets from the many military academies in the city.

Cadets
The next part of the parade was a display of military hardware. People started chanting ‘Россия, Россия’ (Russia, Russia).

Then came the part of the parade everyone had been waiting for: the veterans. They came from all over Crimea, and perhaps even from further afield. Each group was led by a banner stating the unit, ship or submarine they were from. 
Veterans' parade

As they went past, people were chanting ‘Спасибо, Спасибо’ (Thank you, thank you).

Children waited with flowers to hand them to the veterans as they passed.

Children waiting to give flowers to the veterans

The veterans had huge smiles on their faces, and were grateful every time someone gave them flowers.

Veterans receiving flowers

Those who were absent were also represented in the parade.

Honouring those who were absent

The emotion was palpable, and the veterans were clearly touched by the appreciation shown to them.

There were flags everywhere.

Flags

The red star and hammer and sickle is the Soviet era naval ensign, which has been superseded by a St. Andrew’s Cross (a blue cross on a white background, the opposite colours to the Scottish flag), but which is still a very popular symbol here. The black, blue and red flag represents the Donetsk People’s Republic, an area of Ukraine which is holding a referendum as I write this. The 9th May flag shows the black and orange ribbon of St. George and the highest medal awarded to Soviet soldiers for valour in the Second World War. The ribbon was being worn by well over half of the people I saw during the day. It’s all over the city, tied to cars, bags, and even prams.

After the parade finished, the streets in the city centre were still closed for a while. People were looking at old vehicles from the Second World War and posing for pictures with those who owned them.

Just one of the reenactors

There were bands in a couple of places, with people dancing to the music. This one was next to a war memorial made from an old tank.

Band near memorial

I went to the fairground with my friends, where we went on the ferris wheel…

Ferris wheel

…visited the defences from the First Defence of Sevastopol during the Crimean War…

Crimean war defences, Sevastopol

…and walked around the park, where people were having picnics.

Picnics on Victory Day

Around the city there were many other things to see too.

Main children's library - artwork

Children’s artwork at the main children’s library in Sevastopol

Children's art school - work by pupils

A painting by a child in the window of a children’s art school

Photos of Russian military hardware

Photos of Russian military hardware

Photos of veterans

Photos of Second World War veterans

Photos of Sevastopol during World War Two, showing the destruction of the city

Sevastopol during the Second World War: veterans and ruins

After that I had a break for a couple of hours, during which President Vladimir Putin arrived in Sevastopol. This was the most controversial part of the day for the outside world, as reported by (for example) The New York Times, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Guardian and The Washington Post.

I saw part of his speech on Russia 24 television, which had dedicated the majority of their coverage to Victory Day celebrations across the Russian-speaking world, with the only other news covered being the situation in Ukraine, mostly in Mariupol. You can read a full transcript of the speech Putin made in Sevastopol, or watch a video showing parts of the day, including the speech.

He was also on the main stage in the centre of Sevastopol a little later, although I can’t find any links to the speech he made then, and people were chanting ‘Спасибо, Спасибо’ (Thank you, thank you) again. Many people in the crowd were crying, and I know from someone in the crowd that at one point Putin had to stop speaking because he was so choked up.

The next big event was an air show, with the highlight being a joint display by the Russian Knights (the large blue planes) and the Swifts (the smaller red planes with blue stars on the bottom), two aerobatic teams from the Russian Air Force. There were also other military planes in a flypast, and examples of planes refuelling in mid-air. This article has a video showing the view of Sevastopol from the planes of the Russian Knights. What I didn’t realise was that it would be divided into two sections, so I was surprised later when the planes started displaying again. These photos are all from the first display.
Airshow

In the bay, 10 warships were lined up. Before Putin’s speech, he travelled past them on a launcher for the crews to salute. I took this photo later in the day:

Ships lined up in Sevastopol bay

The day ended with a huge fireworks display. The ships in the bay were lit up, and the crowds were huge. To give you an indication of how much of a celebration Victory Day is here, the man in the picture below choose the beginning of the fireworks to propose to his girlfriend, and she accepted.

Night time on Victory Day

The next day, a feeling of celebration was still very much in the air. This huge tall ship, Kruzenshtern, apparently one of the biggest sailing ships still in operation, was visiting Sevastopol for a couple of days. I didn’t go on her because the queues were hours long, but I spent a while taking photos and absorbing the atmosphere.

Kruzenshtern - a four-masted tall ship which visited Sevastopol for Victory Day

Why is Victory Day so important?

Victory Day marks the capitulation of Nazi Germany to the Soviet Union at the end of the Second World War. Over 20 million Soviets died during the Great Patriotic War, as it is known to Russians. My friend told me that this equates to about 13 people every minute, throughout the whole war. Everybody here is related to people who died, on a scale which it is difficult to comprehend as an outsider.

That means that for the Russian-speaking world:

Victory Day is Russia’s most important secular holiday and a key element of the country’s national identity, honoring the armed forces and the millions who died in World War II. 

Taken from: The NY Daily News

I first became aware of its importance late last year, when my students started telling me about it. They were surprised that we don’t celebrate it in the UK. I was told that there would be a parade of veterans and a fireworks display. After the Crimean referendum in March, the anticipation started to increase, with people telling me that this year’s Victory Day celebrations would be bigger than ever because they would be allowed to show off more of the military.

Important anniversaries

It’s 230 years since Catherine the Great ordered Grigory Potemkin to build a fort here and name it Sevastopol. 2014 also marks 70 years since the city was taken back from the Nazis after the Crimean Offensive on 9th May 1944.

70 years without war - billboards

’70 years without war’ – billboards showing various images are all over the city

7th May 1944 was the assault on Sapun-Gora, the final line of defence outside the city itself. There was a reenactment there last weekend which I also went to.

70 years - 1944-2014

A flyer dropped from a plane during the reenactment

The Nazi takeover of the city in 1941-1942 and its subsequent recapturing by Soviet forces is one of the defining events in the history of Sevastopol. During the Siege of Sevastopol over 95% of the city was destroyed. Those who died are commemorated in a monument which dominates the main square.

Memorial to the Second Defence of Sevastopol, 1941-1942

This is where Putin laid his wreath on Victory Day this year.

Flowers left near the memorial for the Second Defense of Sevastopol

Flowers left near the memorial for those who died during the Siege of Sevastopol

Victory Day 2014 was never just going to be a celebration of the veterans in Sevastopol. It was always going to be a time of celebrating freedom and appreciating the sacrifice of those who fought and died for it. I feel the Western media has missed this side of it, as exemplified by this sentence from the BBC report on Victory Day in various cities:

Victory Day is supposed to be about remembering the sacrifices of World War Two, but today in Sevastopol it became a party.

70 years without war - thank you, grandad, for victory

70 years – ‘Thank you, grandad, for victory’ – a sticker on many cars

That’s not to say that I didn’t feel conflicted at various points during the day. It’s hard not to be caught up in the atmosphere when everyone around you is cheering and excited, but it didn’t stop me feeling slightly uncomfortable during the display of military hardware, not knowing whether this was a normal part of Victory Day here, or whether it was a show of force for the outside world because of current events. However I felt, attending Victory Day in Sevastopol was a fascinating insight into a different culture, and one which I’m glad I was able to experience.

Some final thoughts

I’ve grown up in a country and a culture where I have been conditioned to mistrust Russians, through the messages that have been fed to me by popular culture. During the reenactment at Sapun-Gora I thought ‘I’m watching both of our groups of enemies’ and it felt strange, then had to remind myself that the Soviets were our allies at that point. I am here, I can speak to locals, I can get an idea about what they think and feel, and even then it’s taken a long time to change my filters. After nine months in Sevastopol, I still occasionally catch myself questioning people’s motives, the people I am surrounded by and who I know are just people, like me and you. A lot of the outside world seems to tar everyone with the same brush, the brush they were taught to use by growing up in cultures like mine, where Russians are automatically the bad guys.

What is happening now worries me a lot. The events in Crimea, the actions of Putin, the lack of dialogue and understanding between all sides, the division between families and friends, the rhetoric. It’s impossible to know what will happen over the next few days, weeks and months. Whatever it is, I sincerely hope that the events marked by Victory Day are never repeated, and that in the 21st century we can find other ways to resolve our differences than through violence.

One month on

One month ago today, on the 16th March 2014, there was a referendum in Crimea to decide whether it would remain part of Ukraine or ask to part of the Russian Federation. I’ve blogged extensively about the whole process of what has been happening in Sevastopol, and will continue to do so for as long as there seems to be something to say.

Today in Ukraine

As I write this, Ukraine has launched ‘anti-terrorist’ action against protestors in the Donetsk region. In the last couple of hours, Putin has warned that Ukraine is ‘on the brink of civil war‘. Some suggest that Russia have forced Ukraine’s hand by sending people into the area to incite violence and will use this as an excuse to send in their own troops. I have no idea if this is true or not, or how comparable this is to what happened in Crimea (as has been discussed), but I don’t believe the Ukrainian government is entirely blameless either. As I’ve said before, their unwillingness to accept Russian as an official language or to seek closer relationships with those in the east has inevitably alienated people. There have been attempts in the last week or so to remedy this, but I feel it’s too little, too late.

The Guardian has set out five possible scenarios for what might happen next. As with the whole process, the problem is that nobody really knows how this will all unfold. And that uncertainty is the overriding problem with life in Sevastopol now…

Travel

My worries about getting back to Sevastopol were completely unfounded. My train journey from Kiev to Sevastopol was uneventful. The only difference between the journey out and the journey in was one extra passport check: on the way out only the Ukrainian border guards checked, on the way in both Ukrainians and Russians checked, about an hour apart. No comment was made about my Ukrainian visa, and I was asked no questions at all, unlike when I flew into Simferopol at Christmas.

The train was as busy as one might expect for a mid-week one, and the BBC video about people leaving Crimea on the train did not reflect the fact that people are still travelling in both directions. The man I shared my compartment with was from Kiev, but works in Dzhankoy in Crimea. The train still seems to be a viable travel option, for now at least.

People boarding the Kiev to Sevastopol train, Tuesday 8th April 2014

People boarding the Kiev to Sevastopol train, Kiev station, Tuesday 8th April 2014

Soldiers and sailors

In the week before I went to the UK, and the week since I came back, I’ve seen more military in Sevastopol than I had done for the previous six weeks. Yesterday seven or eight military trucks drove past me, a sight which was fairly common until the start of February when they all disappeared. On Monday I saw 17 buses (helpfully numbered) drive past in convoy, all full of military personnel – I guess there must have been over 400 of them. I assume that means they’ve all come back to their bases. It feels like things are largely back to normal here in terms of military presence.

Time zones

I’m a big fan of the new GMT +4 time zone, although I was assured it’s not actually new and is what Crimea (and all of Ukraine?) used to be on until 1998. Now I’m being woken by the sun at 07:00 instead of 05:00, and it’s still light when I finish work at 20:00, and for about an hour afterwards, instead of being dark at 18:00. It seems to make a lot more sense, although whether that will be true all year round with no change for winter remains to be seen.

Post

For two weeks, no post arrived at the school. I was told that the Ukrainian postal services were no longer operating, and when I got something yesterday I don’t know who it was delivered by. I want to go to the post office, but I’ll be waiting for a while until it’s clearer whether the postal system is still functioning or not. It’s not clear what will happen to any backlog of post that might build up in the meantime.

Pensions

Another thing that Ukraine have stopped providing is support to pensioners. The money now all comes from Russia. Because the exchange rate that pensioners are paid in is different to the one on the street, they apparently get the money in roubles, then change the money into hryvnia and end up with more to spend!

Registration plates

Car art and Russian registration plate sticker - Version 2

A sticker to make your car Russian? (and some bonus Sevastopol car art – very popular here)

The picture above shows a fairly typical sight now – stickers are on sale all over the city so people can change the country on their registration plates. I estimate about 15-20% of cars in Sevastopol have some form of Russian flag on the number plate now, and over 50% of them have Russian flags in or on them somewhere, like the one on the dashboard here. A lot of the buses have small flags attached to their wing mirrors.

Documents

Queuing for Russian passports

Queuing for Russian passports

I don’t know how many different places people can go to get a Russian passport, but these people were queuing at one in the centre, and I know this is not unusual. The people on the left-hand side of the street are reading information about what they need to do to get their passport. Apparently while I was in the UK there were big queues at photo studios for people to get their new passport photos, although those seem to have disappeared now.

One teen student came to class a bit late because she’d just spent three hours in the queue to submit her documents, but was really excited because that meant she was going to get her Russian passport. The same 16-year-old has the Russian national anthem as her ring tone.

Another student has just turned 16, and a couple of weeks ago wasn’t sure what to do about getting her ID, which here is also confusingly called a passport. As far as I know you have two passports – an ID document and one for international travel, although I may be wrong! In Russia you get official ID from the age of 14, but in Ukraine it’s 16. Now she’ll definitely get Russian ID, and her grandma said they would have a special dinner and champagne to celebrate because it proved she was officially an adult. I love this idea!

Others are waiting until the rush dies down to get their new passports. Ukrainian passports will still be valid for a while, although as with everything else I have no idea how long for.

Roubles and hryvnia

I’ve seen roubles now, but they’re still not particularly common. I’ve had a couple of coins given to me as examples, but haven’t used them in transactions yet. Some of the coins have the coats of arms of cities across Russia on them, and a friend was excited that Sevastopol would soon be on the coins too.

I managed to get money out of the bank again the other day, and was given the option of having it in roubles of hryvnia, but decided on the latter as I think it’s still more useful. However, the exchange rate is going up against the pound/euro/dollar in both currencies, and I’ve exchanged some of my pay into pounds to try and protect my money a bit. I know this is the kind of thing that doesn’t help, but I need to make sure the money doesn’t all disappear.

Tablets which I currently have to buy every 25 days have gone up drastically in price, from 642UAH last time I bought them to 802UAH a few days ago. I’m lucky because I have a comfortable salary, and I don’t know how people manage who aren’t – they must have to go without, which will ultimately add more strain to the system.

The money that Russia has promised to spend on Crimea and Sevastopol is already worrying them, and could be adversely affecting the GDP. I wonder whether it will ever come through?

Banks

Queues outside the bank

Queues outside the bank

Queues are still quite normal outside banks. I think this one was caused because there were rumours that roubles had arrived there, although I’m not really sure.

Banks are not doing international transfers, and some Ukrainian banks have stopped working here completely. Large Russian banks don’t seem to want to open branches here in case they are hit by sanctions, which paves the way for smaller banks. However, the smaller banks are also having trouble making international transfers which is causing the school some problems. This is the area where uncertainty seems to be greatest: the banks don’t know if they will be there from one day to the next, making it very difficult to plan for the future. The problems with the banks also don’t help with paying taxes – it’s not clear how these transactions can be made.

Feelings

I know people who are still thinking about leaving Crimea, and I know others who were going to leave but have now decided to stay. Those who are staying are still pretty positive about the whole change to being Russian, although the uncertainty, particularly about money, can be wearing. People are moving around a lot more, and I feel safe enough to hopefully start exploring Crimea a bit more from this weekend.

On a final note, the signs below were all along one of the main streets in the centre of the city by the weekend, and today have appeared all along my street. I’ve been told they are quite rude, although Google Translate isn’t very helpful with this. No idea who’s paying for them all, but on the plus side a lot of the referendum ones seem to have disappeared, although unfortunately not the one I can see from my window. I wonder how long these ones will last for?

Sevastopol/Nato

Sevastopol/Nato

After the referendum

I’m sitting on the train from Sevastopol to Kiev, on my way to the UK for a trip which has been planned for months.

Sevastopol to Kiev trainUntil yesterday, I wasn’t sure if I would be here. I waited to buy the ticket until the last minute, with no idea whether the trains would be running, or whether Kiev would decide to cut off this link.

Ukraine International Airlines, the national carrier, have stopped all flights between Simferopol (the capital of Crimea) and Kiev, at least until 29th April, but maybe for longer. Turkish Airlines have cancelled all Simferopol-Istanbul flights, although it’s not clear how long for, and they still appear on the departure boards. I’m hoping they restart by 6th April, when I’m due to fly back in. The only flights now are those to Moscow.

Cutting this link to Ukraine is just one of the moves which make me wonder what they and the West really want to happen in Crimea now.

The edge of Crimea

The edge of Crimea

Before the referendum, it was being denounced as illegal. Since then, various statesmen and organisations have repeated their declaration that it is not valid, including Obama, William Hague (the British Foreign Minister) and the UN. In the latter case, it’s interesting to note quite how many abstentions and votes against the motion there were: it wasn’t quite as clear-cut as the Western media I’ve seen likes to make out.

Alienation and abandonment?

In the two weeks since the 2014 referendum happened I have read and heard little which makes me think that Crimea would be better off as part of Ukraine. Instead, I’ve seen a series of actions which strike me as the Kiev government repeatedly shooting themselves in the foot.

During a press conference in which Ban Ki-Moon welcolmed the fact that Russian would become an official language, Oleksandr Turchynov, the acting President, corrected him and told him this would not happen. Linguistic politics is an incredibly complex thing, and every country has a different solution to it. Ukrainian and Russian have very different histories, and there has been suppression of Ukrainian at various points in the past. However, the fact that so many people speak Russian in Ukraine means that it should be an official language in the country, so that those who chose to be educated in Russian-medium schools are not disadvantaged. The government are not trying to punish people for speaking Russian, but they do make life a lot harder for those who are not comfortable in Ukrainian. For example, those in Sevastopol who finished school before Ukrainian independence never studied the language at school. They were then thrust into a world where all contracts and official documents had to be in Ukrainian. Those who say that Ukrainian should be the only official language of Ukraine are clearly threatened by Russian, but I think if they allow people to use it in official situations, they might be more willing to accept Ukrainian on equal terms. The division this has created has exacerbated many of the tensions of the past month. Surely agreeing that Russian can be an official language would go at least some way to appeasing those in cities like Donetsk and Kharkiv?

To counter my own argument, I’m sharing my train compartment with a Russian-speaking family: parents and 30-something daughter. The father has a USSR-Iran tattoo on his arm, so I assume he fought in the Soviet army at some point. When they found out I’d come from Sevastopol, the first thing they asked was whether there were soldiers in the streets. I’ve seen more army trucks in the last few days, but I think that’s because they’re returning to bases. The family are travelling overnight from Melitopol in Southern Ukraine to Kiev, a 12-hour plus journey, specifically to hear Yulia Tymoshenko speak in Maidan tomorrow afternoon – Saturday 29th April 2014. They believe she will be President after the May 25th elections. This is one example of how difficult these linguistic ‘divisions’ really are: Tymoshenko is incredibly pro-Ukrainian; I have no idea what her views on language are.

Sevastopol to Kiev train

A confined space = much discussion

The way that the Ukrainian government treated their servicemen in bases in Crimea is another problem area. For days, servicemen were left to deal with a difficult situation with no direct orders from Kiev. They asked what to do, and were left hanging. When violence kicked off at a base, resulting in the death of a Ukrainian officer, little mention was made in Western media of the Russian who was killed at the same time, and possibly by the same sniper, in what seemed to be an act of deliberate provocation. They were buried in a joint funeral, which again received little coverage. Pro-Russian forces (who may or may not have been official Russian army or navy forces) stormed bases and ships and forcibly evicted many of the Ukrainian servicemen. I don’t understand why this was felt necessary, since Crimea is clearly Russian now, and a Ukrainian invasion started from their bases in Crimea was obviously never going to happen. I suspect the pro-Russians just wanted the whole thing done and dusted, which it seems to be now. However much I might disagree with it, it happened, and the Ukrainian government’s only response, as far as I can gather, was to authorise the servicemen to use weapons in self-defence.

The Ukrainian Prime Minister warned that “the conflict is shifting from a political to a military stage” and claimed that “Russian soldiers have started shooting at Ukrainian servicemen and that is a war crime”. His government, he added, has now authorised the use of firearms for its forces surrounded in their bases in Crimea.

Thankfully, noone took them up on this. Kiev eventually gave orders to retreat, but this was too little, too late. This was a very difficult decision to make, and I don’t envy the people who had to make it, but blaming Ukrainian servicemen for going over to Russia after they’ve been through all this seems to lack understanding.

A sign in Kiev train station, offering help with accommodation and 'life needs' to Crimeans in the city

A sign in Kiev train station, offering help with accommodation and ‘life needs’ to Crimeans in the city

There is also the rumour of a new law being drafted at the moment. I have seen nothing in Western media about it, but here is an article from RT (an English-language Russian news source) describing it, along with a statement from the UN Refugee Agency expressing concerns about the law. This is the main reason I didn’t get my train ticket until last night – it made people here worry about me going to Kiev, and saying I should travel via Moscow to be on the safe side. This is the third time I’ve travelled on this train, and the first time I’ve had my passport checked. It seems that Crimea will be declared as ‘under occupation’ and that those deemed as helping Russia to get Crimea may be liable for up to ten years in jail. I have no idea about whether the law will be passed (last I heard it had been returned for consultation with over 200 suggested amendments), or how exactly it might be enforced, but they’re going to need some pretty big sticks, and some pretty big prisons, if it’s actually true. And if such a law is passed, what do the government think it will actually achieve, apart from alienating the people of Crimea even more? Also, surely there are more important things they should be worrying about.

Money, money, money

The most noticeable change since the referendum has been financial. I have never been so aware of how the flow of money works as in the last two weeks.

Cash machines have all been empty since a couple of days after the referendum. Apparently, banks are worried about sending money here. Part of this goes back to rumours of the law mentioned above: they may not want to be seen to be ‘helping’ Russia in any way.

PrivatBank, one of the biggest banks here, appear to have pulled out of Crimea completely. Their cash machines were the first to empty out. Shops and restaurants which have card readers supplied by them are entirely reliant on their customers having cash. I’ve never seen the café next to school looking so consistently empty.

I have no idea how long businesses will be able to hold out under this pressure. I managed to get cash at the bank, but I don’t know people with PrivatBank accounts are coping.

It’s not clear what exactly will happen with Privatbank or the other banks here: whether they’ll continue as they are or be bought out or replaced by Russian banks. A couple of Russian banks were already here, but I’ve been told they operate via Kiev, so their status is also up in the air.

Prices have started to appear in roubles, although the Ukrainian hryvnia (UAH) should still be accepted until 1st January 2016. The problem is that the roubles to pay those prices don’t seem to be here yet, although officially they’ve been accepted since Monday 25th March. Things also seem a lot cheaper in roubles, and there’s a lot of confusion over the exchange rate. The official exchange rate is 3.8 roubles to 1 UAH but prices I’ve seen are normally 1 UAH to about 2.5 roubles. Again, surely that will cause economic problems down the line?

That’s not fair, Mr Putin!

Russian and Sevastopol flags flying over a local government building

Russian and Sevastopol flags flying over a local government building

As far as I’m concerned, Crimea is now Russian. I don’t believe that this was anything other than capitalising on the lack of stability in Ukraine at the end of February and the clear desire of Crimeans to be part of Russia, or that it’s in Putin’s interests to add any more territory to the Russian Federation, no matter how many reports there are in the media about where Putin might grab next. There are even rumours that he might be thinking about taking Alaska (I like this Forbes parody). But nowhere else has quite the pull of the Crimean peninsula on the Russian psyche, combined with such long-lasting connections and such an easy way to take control.

The West can’t be seen to let Russia get away with this, so they’re going through the motions of trying to decide on appropriate punishments, but can’t agree what those punishments should be. So far, sanctions have been dismissed by those targeted, and reciprocal sanctions put in place by Russia are likely to have just as little effect. The fact that Russia would be very stupid to try and take any more territory from any country, Ukraine or otherwise (unless there is a genuine threat to Russians there, instead of the trumped up ones their media has been creating), means I think it’s unlikely a next level of sanctions will be put in place. I hope I don’t regret writing that in a few weeks.

It feels like a playground fight which nobody will be able to win.

So where does this leave Crimea?

As I write this, there is an ever-increasing level of distrust between the West and Russia, which is still being reported on during Obama’s visit to Europe. Crimea has become shorthand for the West’s fears of what Putin might be capable of, fears which are being stoked across much of the media I have seen.

People I’ve spoken to here (in Sevastopol) are riding a wave of optimism caused by turning to Russia and distancing from Ukraine. Everyone is excited about what the future will hold and the benefits of being part of a ‘strong’ country.

I am proud to be from Sevastopol. We are one Russia.

“I am proud to be from Sevastopol. We are one Russia.” (apparently quite a common type of billboard around 9th May every year anyway, but these ones have appeared since the referendum)

But Ukraine and the West refuse to recognise that Crimea is part of Russia, and will continue to do so. If they do, Putin will have won.

Crimea will continue to be listed as Ukraine in anything official outside Russia, which will leave it in some kind of legal limbo. Crimeans who want to go abroad will have to get visas from embassies in Kiev, and I assume that visas obtained via Moscow will be considered invalid. This is just one among all kinds of other problems that this in-between status will cause, like where it appears on Wikipedia.

Crimea - a sculpture at the edge of the peninsula

Crimea – a sculpture at the edge of the peninsula

My main question now, and what all this scene-setting has been leading up to, is: what is the outcome which Ukraine and the West are aiming for with regard to Crimea? Crimea will never be part of Ukraine again, but how long will it take for the outside world to realise this? What price will Crimeans have to pay for their choice to be recognised? And why can I only find one article asking this in the media?

The future for Crimea

At 13:00 Crimean time, President Putin gave a speech. It was watched by many people here, and they were talking about it for the rest of the day. People gathered at Nekhimov Square to hear what he had to say:

Patrick Jackson
BBC News, Sevastopol

Nakhimov Square may not have been packed out for the broadcast of Vladimir Putin’s speech but the numbers were decent and the mood good-humoured. Small children cut arcs in the air with the Russian tricolour as their parents’ faces creased into smiles in the sunshine.

The striking thing was the relaxed mood. Security was minimal and nobody seemed bothered by the media presence now. Presumably supporters of union felt they had got their result and could breathe easy.

Afterwards families headed down to the nearby quays to photograph each other against the picturesque backdrop of the bay, tricolours in hand. The waterfront, scene of many tragic chapters in this city of sieges, is a happy place this afternoon.

Afterwards, Putin signed a treaty with the Crimean President Sergey Aksyonov and the mayor of Sevastopol Alexei Chaliy to make Crimea and Sevastopol part of Russia. Sevastopol has a special status, and is officially separate from the rest of Crimea.

More reactions

The general mood of the people around me has been jubilant, with lots of people telling me how happy they are that Crimea will now be part of Russia. There are a lot of smiles, and the mood seems to be much lighter than it was before the referendum.

As I said yesterday, I don’t agree with the way this has happened, but I do think that the results are what the majority of people here truly want, even taking into account the number of people who abstained from the referendum. I don’t believe Crimea can ever truly be part of Ukraine again, no matter whether the international community recognises it as part of Russia or not. From now on, I will assume Crimea is Russian.

What Putin said

Echoing many people here, Putin stated that “In the hearts and minds of people, Crimea has always been and remains an inseparable part of Russia.” (all quotes from the speech taken from here).

He mentioned the courage, bearing and dignity of Crimeans, and I would extend this to the Ukranian soldiers and sailors who have faced a very difficult situation and remained calm.

“He denied Russia was interested in annexing more territory.” I believe this is true. Crimea has a special status in history which means that it has always been much more Russian than other areas. It is a clear-cut area geographically, and relatively easy for Russia to take control of. Regardless of however much other areas might want to be part of Russia, it will be nowhere near as easy as it was to get Crimea.

He also said: “We have to decide for ourselves, are we to protect our national interest or just carry on giving them away forever?” This seems to be the crux of the matter…

And Ukraine?

The words and actions of Ukraine have really not helped the situation. There were people here who would originally have voted for autonomy within Ukraine, but the perceived weakness of the Ukrainian government and the West, and the ‘strength’ of the Russian government, as embodied by Putin’s statement above, have swayed them towards Russia.

The current government in Kiev has done very little to address the concerns of the pro-Russian factions.

Max Seddon, BuzzFeed tweets to the BBC: The failure to reach out to Russian-speaking Ukraine has created a huge vacuum for Russian propaganda. It spreads like wildfire in Crimea.

This is one attempt they made today, which I feel is too little, too late.

On Tuesday, Mr Yatsenyuk said that “for the sake of preserving Ukraine’s unity and sovereignty”, Kiev was prepared to grant “the broadest range of powers” to Ukraine’s other mainly Russian-speaking regions in the south and east, which have seen pro-Moscow protests in recent weeks.
In a pre-recorded address on Ukraine’s 5 Kanal TV – delivered in Russian – Mr Yatsenyuk said the reforms would give cities the right to run their own police forces and make decisions about education and culture.

From the BBC

Throughout the process, the Ukrainian government has declared the referendum to be illegal and illegitimate, but they haven’t provided an acceptable alternative. I think this was a major stumbling block. If I were Crimean, I would want to be able to choose my destiny now rather than wait for some indeterminate future fate.

I’ve heard people ask what Ukraine has done for Crimea, which I can’t comment on as I don’t know the history. People here talk about all the potential benefits of joining Russia, some of which I will try to discuss below, along with what I perceive to be the drawbacks or the obstacles which will have to be surmounted.

Europe and sanctions

The initial protests in Kiev were sparked after President Yanukovych refused to sign an agreement creating closer ties between the EU and Ukraine. It’s clear that Europe didn’t really think through how Russia would react to this agreement.

As officials now admit, the drafting of the association agreement withUkraine – which was the trigger for the current crisis – was largely left to technocrats.

[…] Perhaps careless of Russia’s history, it involved pulling Ukraine into the European orbit. As one official observed “we never had a substantial debate over where we think Ukraine belongs?”

He went on to bemoan that there was no big debate as to how Russia would react to all this.

From the BBC

They could probably not have anticipated that this would open the door for Crimea to rejoin Russia. Now, along with the US and other parts of the international community, they are fighting a losing battle of putting sanctions in place to try and reverse a fait accompli. The individual sanctions put in place already don’t seem to have phased the Russians at all. Perhaps if the sanctions get worse, it may affect Crimea itself, particularly with regard to the economy. If Russia starts losing money, it will be less willing to invest in Crimea.

Precedents

The events in Crimea have caused other areas to request the right to become part of Russia, chief among them the Trans-Dniester region between Moldova and Ukraine. The citizens of Donetsk, a city in eastern Ukraine, have also requested a referendum, amid much violence by pro-Russian protestors. I don’t think it will be anywhere near as easy for either of these places to join Russia, since they are both geographically isolated from it (and yes, I know about the Kaliningrad Oblast).

I also don’t think Russia will send troops into either of these areas. The only thing that might change that is if Ukraine cannot find a way to stop the violence in Donetsk and pacify the people there themselves. I think the situation there is much more volatile than it ever has been in Sevastopol.

Of course, there is also the risk that all of this jubilation will be short-lived, and that Moscow will not follow through on its promises. The hopes of the people of Sevastopol and Crimea could be dashed, especially if the corruption those in Ukraine were hoping to escape by getting rid of Yanukovych remains endemic in the region. The New York Times has compared the situation here to what happened when South Assetia first became independent from Georgia.

The economy

In my opinion, this is the area where joining Russia will have the biggest effect, and I think there will be many economic problems here caused by the change over. The Russian Federation will need to invest a lot of money in Crimea, and this may not sit well with other parts of the country. They also may not be able to put their money where their mouth is, and corruption is very much part of life both here and in Russia, so there is no guarantee money will actually get to where it needs to be.

Within a couple of weeks, the Russian ruble will be the official currency of Crimea, with a transition period where the Ukrainian hryvnia will still be accepted.

People are clearly unsure about money they have in Ukrainian banks. I saw long queues at a Privat Bank cash machine today, with about 25-30 people waiting to get their money out. Other Privat Bank cash machines weren’t working at all. This seems to be the main bank people are worried about.

Some people believe that they will earn more as part of Russia than they can in Ukraine.

“In Russia I can earn over three times what I do in Ukraine,” said Svetlana Dzubenko, a Crimean employee on Ukraine’s rail network in her 20s.

“My pay now is 3,000 hryvnias ($300) a month, but in Russia I would earn 45,000 roubles, or about 12,000 hryvnias… I have nothing left once I’ve paid for housing, heating and food. What if I want to save up? What if I get sick?”

From Reuters

This view seems particularly prevalent among pensioners, who state that the Russian pension will be higher than the Ukrainian one. Here’s one man in Yalta. I’ve read other mentions of this, but can’t find them now.

One of the children I taught today was very happy that Crimea had ‘gone home’ to Russia. He said his mum was too, but his dad is not so sure because his business, selling technology like mobile phones, is mainly with Ukraine. It is the small- to medium-sized businesses like these which I think will suffer most from the transition. They do most of their trading with Ukraine and will now have to build up new reputations and new trading partners within Russia, as I think it’s unlikely their Ukrainian partners will want to continue working with them, given the current relations between the two countries.

The Tatars and the Ukrainians

One of the main arguments against Crimea becoming part of Russia has been the status of both the Tatars and pro-Ukrainians living in the region. In his speech this afternoon, Putin had this to say about the Tatar community, which I think is very positive:

The Russian leader adds that most of the other groups are also oriented towards Russia. He mentions that Crimean Tatars were unjustly repressed in the past. He says measures should be taken to finish rehabilitation of the Tatars who returned to Crimea from internal exile.

From Putin’s speech this afternoon, as reported by the BBC

Fears of potential ethnic cleansing, at least from the official Russian side, seem to be unjustified, and in fact, Putin is stating that he wants to help the Tatars.

Bakhchiseray

Bakhchiseray is one of the areas with a large Tatar population.

Some Ukrainian soldiers have been given the option of joining the Russian army, or being allowed to uproot their lives and leave for Ukraine. I don’t know if Russia will make a deal for Ukraine to lease bases in Crimea, but I doubt either side would find it possible to reach an agreement on this, as Ukraine still considers Crimea to be theirs. I also doubt they could find the money to pay for such a lease.

I don’t think it would be in Russia’s interests to persecute the Tatars or the pro-Ukrainians in any way. They already have enough to worry about on the international scene, and they and many of the citizens of Crimea have managed to get what they wanted without violence. It would be pointless to change that now.

However, there is always the risk of stupid people, not controlled by any form of government or military, who take action into their own hands. It is still unclear what exactly happened to one Tatar man who was killed during the last two weeks. As I write this, reports are also coming in of a Ukrainian base near Simferopol being attacked by pro-Russian forces, with reported fatalities, although it is not clear how many or which side they are from:

18:15 GMT: John Simpson, BBC World Affairs Editor, Simferopol

It is clear that the attack on the military base in this city was not directly carried out by Russian soldiers but by armed men sympathetic to Russia.

Rule of law

The roadblocks set up by pro-Russian forces outside cities like Sevastopol, and on the border between Crimea and Ukraine, will have to disappear at some point. It is these people who worry me, far more than the soldiers. They have taken the law into their own hands, and it is not clear exactly who is running them, and where exactly they think their authority is from. Nobody seems to have any control over them, and a lot of them have guns.

One of my colleagues was searched on his way back from Yalta. I have no idea what exactly they were expecting to find, or how their ‘protection’ helps the city in any way. This is one of the reasons why I have postponed my exploration of Crimea and stayed in Sevastopol, despite the beautiful weather of the last couple of weekends.

Other claims of violence and disappearances also need to be verified, investigated, and if proved true, the perpetrators need to be punished.

The legal system

Another transition will be that from Ukrainian law to Russian law. Russia has said that those practising here will be allowed to continue without having to retrain, although there will obviously be a period while they learn how to operate within Russian law.

Two of my students who are related to notaries said their relatives are worried about their jobs, as there is not as much notarising required under the Russian legal system as there is under the Ukrainian one. There is also, apparently, a quota of notaries in each area which is much lower than the current number of notaries in Sevastopol. Despite this, one of them still voted to join Russia. I’m not sure about the other one.

My main concern here is what it means for my legal status in Crimea. I have a Ukrainian work visa and residency permit. I don’t know what I will have to do to make sure I am legally allowed to continue working here now, which is a particular concern since I’ll be going to the UK for a week at the start of April. I’ll be coming back in via Simferopol, in the centre of Crimea, so I’m just hoping they let me back in. There is one major benefit for me and my school here (if the information I found can be believed) – a Russian work visa is only about £35, compared to the £900 my Ukrainian visa cost me.

My Ukrainian residency permit

My Ukrainian residency permit

Education

One of my students is choosing her university for next year. She really wants to study in Kiev as she loves the city, but her mum is now trying to persuade her to study in Russia. There are rumours that students from Crimea will not have to take entrance exams for Russian universities if they plan to start their courses in September.

The recognition of Ukrainian degrees in Russia, and Russian degrees in other countries, particularly Europe and the US, is a major dilemma. I can’t imagine having to factor this kind of choice into my university decisions – it was hard enough choosing a course and a city as it was!

Those training to teach Ukrainian language and literature will now probably have to move to mainland Ukraine to get a job.

There is also the question of what will happen to the Ukrainian schools in Crimea. Will they be allowed to continue to operate, or will they be changed to Russian schools?

What will happen to the curriculum in all schools? Will they have to change it completely? If they do, that means buying a lot of new resources, textbooks, etc., all of which will cost money, as well as causing the inevitable problems with teachers being less familiar with new subject matter.

Utilities, supplies and transport

At present, most of Crimea’s gas, electricity and water comes through the northern tip of the peninsula, where Crimea meets Ukraine. If Ukraine chooses to close off these links, there will be major problems here. It will take a long time and a lot of money for Russia to create the infrastructure to send these things through Kerch, in the east of the peninsula, or to create the means for Crimea to generate the electricity and water it needs by itself.

The transport system is in a similar state. There is a train line from Sevastopol to Kiev, and onwards to Moscow, running through the northern tip of the peninsula. What will happen if Ukraine decides to cut off this connection? There is a ferry from Kerch to Russia, and there are plans to build a bridge linking the two.

Flights from Simferopol airport currently go to Istanbul, Kiev and Moscow. I don’t expect the Moscow flights will stop, but I think there’s a possibility that the ones to Kiev might be stopped by the Ukrainian government, and the ones to Istanbul might be stopped because the Turkish government supports the Tatars.

Tourism

Tourism is one of the pillars of the Crimean economy:

Last year, Crimea welcomed nearly 6m visitors, and, according to one estimate, earned as much as $1.5bn from them. A collapse in revenue could endanger the livelihoods of thousands of people employed in the tourist trade.

From the Financial Times

However, since the unrest started in Kiev, well before it arrived in Crimea, cancellations started being made. Now there have been almost 100% cancellations in Sevastopol, according to one of my students in the tourist industry. This summer will probably be very quiet, and there will be a knock-on effect for the Crimean economy, as without the money the tourists bring, there will be a huge hole in the finances here.

The little things

As well as all of these major areas, there are lots of little things which are going to change in life here over the next few months, or maybe even longer.

Underlining the confidence authorities have in the outcome of the referendum, cinemas will begin dubbing Western films in Russian rather than Ukrainian. [This will help me, as I’ve been studying Russian!]

From Reuters

Here are a few others:

  • From the 30th March, we will be on Moscow time (GMT +4), rather than Kiev time (GMT +2). I think we should actually be on GMT +3, but I won’t complain about the few extra hours of daylight in the evening, and not being woken up so early by the sun in the morning!
  • Website addresses will have to be changed to reflect the change of country. Many people here in Sevastopol already have .ru email addresses. In fact, I don’t think I’ve been given a single .ua one, about from the one of my school.
  • The country code for phone numbers will also have to change.
  • Cars will have to be reregistered to have Russian number plates, rather than Ukrainian ones.
  • There is also the question of passports: will people have to change to Russian ones, or will they be able to continue using their Ukrainian ones until they expire? Will there now be a lot of Ukrainian ‘expats’ who choose to stay in Crimea on Ukrainian passports?

I’m sure there are many more changes which will happen, and other ones occur to me all the time. They are certainly interesting times to be living in. Although I could have had no idea about all of this before I came to Sevastopol and was worried about it for a while, I now think it is fascinating to be here and experience this from the inside.

A disclaimer

I’m an English teacher, not an analyst or politician, and until a few weeks ago I had no real interest in politics, and no knowledge of Ukrainian or Russian politics at all. Everything I’ve written in these blog posts has been my own views, shaped by what I have seen and heard in the press and from the people around me.

If I seem to be treating some things more lightly than they perhaps deserve, it is because I and the people I live among will have to deal with all of these changes. There are enough serious issues in this transition that I have to find the silver linings. Having said that, I do not regret my decision to stay in Sevastopol, and I hope to be here for a good while yet.

If you want to read a more professional analysis, The Washington Post has a very good analysis of how things could change, including many of the areas I’ve touched on in the this post.

Reading through my posts shows how my views have changed over time. It is impossible to know what will happen next, but these are undeniably important times for Crimea, for Ukraine, for Russia, and for the world. I only hope that none of the issues raised here will lead to war.

Reactions to the Crimean referendum

Unsurprisingly, the Crimean referendum resulted in a landslide victory for those wishing to leave Ukraine and join Russia.

The incredibly high turnout reflects the fact that this wasn’t just a vote for another politician who probably isn’t going to make any real difference. Instead, it is a vote for the future of the region, and it will have real effects on the people here. I’m still thinking about those, so will write about them later. Instead, here are some of the reactions I heard today.

Some question the legitimacy of the figures quoted after the referendum, citing particularly the fact that many Tatars and pro-Ukrainians abstained and this will have skewed the numbers. This was one of the issues I mentioned in a previous post. What is, however, true is that most people here who voted chose the option they wanted. Nobody I’ve spoken to today felt pressured to choose one way or the other, and all but one of them (of about 10) chose Russia, which I’ve just realised reflects the ‘official’ figures.

The pro-Russians

Long live the Russian fleet!

‘Long live the Russian fleet!’ has been on this building at the mouth of the bay for a few years now

Eugene emails: Hello, I live in Sevastopol, Crimea. I want to assure the citizens of Europe that the holding of a referendum in Crimea 16.03.2014 was absolutely transparent and honest. It may seem that all intimidated in the Crimea, but it is not so! Crimeans long dreamed reunited with their homeland – Russia!
Elena, Sevastopol, emails: Nobody tried to take my vote. Most of the people I know, friends and family, gave their voice with a full heart and were very happy to be able to vote… In my city, most of the people that were born here or live here feel like they are Russian. We live like Russians, we think and talk in Russian… When my friends from all over the EU ask me where I am from, I’ll answer that I am from Sevastopol and that I’m Russian. Everybody is waiting to see what Russia will do now.
From the BBC live feed of events today

In the first class I taught today, one of my older students (a woman in her 60s) came in with a huge smile on her face. In Russian, she asked the two younger students (in their 20s) ‘Happy?’ She told me that this was a decision for the future, and that young people might not understand, but she hoped it would help her children and grandchildren.

Another person told me she and all her friends voted for Russia because it was the right thing to do. She said they had made a free choice in the vote.

The BBC interviewed a lawyer in Simferopol yesterday who reflects the views of some of my students, and slightly surprisingly for me, falls into the younger age bracket. One of my youngest students, too young to vote, posted on social media in Russian that she was pleased with the results too.

The pro-Ukrainian

Long live the Ukrainian fleet!

The Ukrainian fleet responded in kind: ‘Long live the Ukrainian fleet!’

One student said she had voted for Ukraine, but her mum, who may have trouble finding work in Russian Crimea, still voted to leave Ukraine. My student seemed to have taken the result well though – I don’t think she expected anything else.

On a side note, the Sevastopol office of Yulia Tymoschenko’s very pro-Ukrainian ‘Batkivshchyna’ (Fatherland) party, which used to be in the offices on the floor under our school, have disappeared over the weekend.

The not-so-sures

A couple of people were non-committal about the results, and weren’t really sure whether it was a good thing or not that Crimea has voted to become part of Russia. I don’t know if they voted or not. They are waiting to see what will happen next.

The celebrations

There were big crowds celebrating in Sevastopol yesterday, which I saw on the webcam but didn’t take a screenshot of. The BBC showed celebrations in Simferopol, which seemed to be even more ecstatic. At 8pm tonight there was a fireworks display in the centre of Sevastopol to celebrate the results of the referendum.

My opinions

I don’t remember if I’ve said this before, but I strongly believe that people here should have a right to choose, but the way that the Crimean Parliament has gone about it is completely wrong. There has been no considered debate, a large proportion of the Crimean population have been cut out of the argument completely and propaganda has been used to confuse people (not saying that it has changed their minds, but it doesn’t allow clear thinking).

I also wonder who Sergey Aksyonov is and what right he has to have voted in as the Prime Minister of Crimea. This is the one vote I’m aware of which really could be said to have been at the barrel of a gun.

Despite all that, I think that people here do want to be part of Russia. There is now no doubt in my mind that this is what the majority of people in Sevastopol, and across Crimea want. The phrases ‘A dream come true’ and ‘We’re going home’ have been used repeatedly in videos I’ve watched of people talking about their choices. Even if everyone voted who could have done, the referendum would probably still have gone in favour of Russia, although it would have been much less of a landslide.

I don’t believe there is really anything short of military action which anyone can now take to make Crimea part of Ukraine again, and I don’t think the world is willing to do that. Nobody wants a war. That’s not to say that there should be no repercussions for that way that this situation has unfolded, but that those repercussions should be against the people who have pushed the whole process, rather than the normal people in the street who have exercised their rights to vote.

So now it remains to be seen whether the ultimate consequences of holding this referendum will be the positive ones many people here expect, and just how long the fallout period will last.

The eve of the referendum

I went for a walk in the local park today.

Walk in the park Walk in the park

I saw this in the distance.

Ship sailing pastIt joined its friend.

Military shipsI don’t know where they’re from, but I’d be surprised if they’re not Russian. They’re outside the entrance to Sevastopol harbour. They join this ship, which has been inside the harbour for at least a week now, maybe even two or three. (My sense of time is completely gone, since everything is moving so fast here.)

Ship in the mouth of Sevastopol bayI also (unintentionally, on the bus) went past two Russian naval bases in a part of the city I haven’t visited before. The sailors near the entrance seemed to be relaxed, no different to how I’d seen sailors in other bases before this all started.

While in the same part of the city we went into a café, which turned out to be one of the polling stations for tomorrow. People periodically came in and went through this door to collect their polling cards.

Get your polling cards hereTomorrow, they will weave their way past the café tables, take their polling cards into these booths and cast their votes.

Polling booths

The BBC shows how another polling station has been set up in Simferopol. On a random note, I notice that the curtains are in the colours of the Ukrainian flag. I wonder how deliberate that is, and whether anyone has even noticed!

Talking about flags, there were considerably more of them on display today, and they were all Russian. People were carrying them, had them tied to bags, they were hanging from shops and flats, and I even saw a pram with one. The flags were in all of the parts of the city I visited or travelled through today.

When I was in the centre yesterday, I saw a cavalcade of cars flying Russian flags beeping their horns loudly. There were enough to completely surround this roundabout. (No, it’s not a real police car.)

Cars flying Russian flags Cars flying Russian flags

They went past my flat today.

About half an hour later a lot of bikers went past, who I assume were the Night Wolves.

While I was writing this, a referendum van went past with a loudspeaker I can’t understand, but which was clearly sharing pro-Russian messages. This is the third or fourth time I’ve heard the van in the last few days.

This evening, when my bus went past Nekhimov, the main square where people gather here, I noticed a stage has appeared (I don’t know when) and people were beginning to gather. I’ve just taken this screenshot from the live webcam of the square.

Webcam screenshotThere are a lot of Russian flags in the crowd, and from what I could see in the brief glimpse I got, there was a large banner hanging at the back of the stage with the Russian flag and Россия written on it.

The first part of this BBC video is all filmed in Sevastopol, including the first man interviewed. I’m not sure if the woman who follows him was in Sevastopol too. The BBC have also been going to other parts of Crimea to interview people there, for example in Saky (I echo this man’s reservations about the lack of background knowledge about the Crimean Prime Minister) and Novo-Ozyorne. I’m pleased  that they are trying to give a voice to those who support autonomy too, because they seem to have been completely shut out here.

Since yesterday, a lot of the buses have been carrying poster versions of this billboard:

Home, to Russia

16 March. Home, to Russia. (The text on the right is the two referendum questions, with a tick in the ‘Russia’ box)

The bus I went into town on today accompanied said poster with two more sheets of A4 with four or five sets of statistics/graphs comparing Russia and Ukraine. From what I could understand they were all connected to the economy, and one of them was definitely about the financial reserves of the two countries. I think another one was about petrol prices. With my beginner-level Russian, I’m pretty sure they were trying to show that Crimea would be better off financially in Russia.

Those who are organising the propaganda campaign are certainly leaving little to chance.

Debunking a few myths

There are lots of myths floating around about the current situation in Ukraine, and particularly in Crimea. Here are a few I’ve been asked about which I’d like to debunk.

Is the internet still working there? I heard it had been cut off.

Erm, yes. Hence the barrage of blogposts. Apologies to those who really aren’t interested, but I promise I’ll get back to teaching stuff at some point in the future when I run out of things to say about this.

Are the mobile phone networks jammed?

Nope. All working fine as far as I know.

Are there restrictions on cash withdrawals?

The BBC reported that there are rumours of restrictions on withdrawals to 300UAH (about $20), but today I managed to take 1000UAH out of my Ukrainian account with no problem at all.

Having said that, I’ve seen a queue at a cash machine belonging to PrivatBank. This evening, the card readers weren’t working in the supermarket I normally go to, and I think they’re supplied by PrivatBank too, but that could have been a glitch in the system. There’s nothing on the PrivatBank website about any restrictions, as far as I can work out with Google Translate.

Isn’t it dangerous being in Sevastopol right now?

Only if you have no common sense. It’s no more dangerous than anywhere else. I avoid large groups of people, and don’t go out by myself at night, but that’s pretty similar to when I’m abroad anywhere else in the world. Nothing’s really changed that.

My life is the same as it was before, except that now every conversation ends up being about the referendum and what will happen on/after Sunday. Here are a few more webcams showing the city (the middle one is very close to my school).

A spring afternoon in Sevastopol

I took this in the centre of Sevastopol at about 5pm today

What about the soldiers? Don’t you feel under threat?

Nope again. I’ve seen less soldiers since they ‘invaded’ than I did in the run up to it. That could of course mean the Russian ones are all busy barricading Ukrainian soldiers in their bases instead of hanging around Sevastopol, but I don’t really know.

And Kiev?

My students here were very surprised when I said I was going to Kiev. Since I’ve come back, their first question is normally ‘What was it like there?’ and they are surprised when I say it was fine. Even Maidan was calm when I was there.

One thing that hasn’t been mentioned…

The prices are starting to creep up here. I first noticed it with the buses, which went up by 50 kopecks (0.5 UAH) per journey on the 5th March. That may seem like a tiny amount when it’s exchanged, but here it’s quite a rise, increasing prices from 2UAH to 2.50UAH on the cheapest buses. Food prices are rising too, and the medicine that I buy every 25 days has also increased by about 30UAH (up to 657UAH). I’m lucky that I’m on a good salary, but many people were already struggling and this will just make it worse.

Exchange rates are also higher here. According to xe.com, the rate was just over 15UAH to £1 yesterday, but when my friend changed money for me it was 18UAH.

I don’t know if this is only in Sevastopol/Crimea, or if it’s also happening across other parts of Ukraine.

Any more for any more?

Crimean referendum billboards

They’re everywhere. Every set of billboards between my flat and the school I work at has at least one of them. And I can see one from my bedroom window:

Fascism or Russia

On the 16th March we choose, …or…

Thankfully it doesn’t fill my window anywhere near this much. It’s the one I dislike the most, although it’s a close-run thing.

I took all of the following photos during a 20-minute walk from my flat.

This one started appearing in a couple of places about three weeks ago, but there are more of them now. As far as I know, the painting is from the ‘Defence of Sevastopol‘ during the Second World War. The photo on the right shows red and black flags, which are considered fascist by many here.

Defend Sevastopol

‘Defend Sevastopol’

Do not be afraid

Referendum – 16th March. Do not be afraid. Change for the better.

Spring

16 March – referendum. Spring. Sevastopol – Russia.

Home, to Russia

16 March. Home, to Russia. (The text on the right is the two referendum questions, with a tick in the ‘Russia’ box)

There are four billboards about the referendum in this photo, although you might have to look closely to spot them all:

Four referendum billboards

There are also the two billboards I’ve already shared:

'Stop fascism' billboard

‘Stop fascism’, ‘Everyone go to the referendum’, ‘Pravy Sektor’ (crossed out)

16 March billboard

The least militaristic of the billboards here: ’16th March: We choose our future!’ (although the colours are still those of Russia…)

There is another one which I haven’t managed to get a photo of yet, but the BBC have, showing marching feet and the slogan ‘Vote in the referendum to stop fascism’.

(Update: I photographed it a couple of days later. Here it is.)

Fascism will not pass!

Fascism will not pass! Everyone to the referendum.

The same BBC article describes the range of ways in which Crimeans are being urged to vote for Russia. My students have commented on the fact that there are now no (or only one – it depends who you talk to) Ukrainian language TV stations being broadcast in Sevastopol.

The large TV screen in the photo below shows video advertising accompanied by music. It’s just around the corner from my flat. When I walked past there was a series of slogans like ‘Our history’, ‘Our heroes’, ‘Our city’, all accompanied by pictures, with the phrase ‘Все на референдум’, loosely translated as ‘Everyone to the referendum’, at the end.

TV screen

And then there’s the graffiti:

Crimea - Russia

Crimea – Russia

As I said yesterday, there is no pro-Ukrainian advertising at all. The Moscow Times had this to say:

In a distorted local propaganda campaign, the referendum is often presented to Crimeans as a choice between securing peace, prosperity and security as a Russian protectorate, or being subject to discrimination and violence under a “fascist Ukraine.”

So it seems pretty much a given that this time in four days I’ll be living in Russia. Bridget Kendall, from the BBC, shows how the map of Ukraine has changed over time, and it looks like it’ll change again soon.

Moscow is apparently already sending humanitarian aid to the city of Sevastopol, although their definition of humanitarian aid differs somewhat from what I always thought it was. Hospital supplies, fair enough, but computer equipment for schools and bonuses for war veterans sound slightly suspicious to me.

On a side note, I’ve noticed that the range of flags which used to adorn bus drivers’ dashboards have largely disappeared. A month or so ago, you could see Russian, Ukrainian, Black Sea Fleet, Sevastopol, and Mercedes Benz (!) flags in various combinations, including the Russian and Ukrainian flag side by side on the same dashboard. I can only remember seeing a couple of Sevastopol banners (230 years of the city) in the past three weeks, although I’ve noticed more Russian flags appearing in cars instead.

The BBC’s Christian Fraser interviewed some Crimeans (in Simferopol I think) about their views of the future. The generation gap is visible again. He also talked about what Ukraine has threatened to do, in terms of cutting off food and fuel supplies. As we were saying today at school, that’s hardly likely to encourage people to vote to stay part of Ukraine.

The Moscow Times has also talked about how the residents of Crimea see the future. I’ll leave you with the final two lines, which are particularly telling:

While the situation in Crimea is often represented in clear-cut, unequivocal terms, people living on the peninsula seem to be more perplexed than anything else.

“Many people are in favor of Russia, many are against it, but most do not even understand what is going on,” Meshkov said.

Update: 19th March 2014

Today I went to Yalta, and saw three more referendum billboards which we didn’t have in Sevastopol/I missed – the ones I shared before are still all over Sevastopol, although they’re gradually starting to disappear.

16 March - historic chance!

16 March – historic chance!
Literally: ‘Error will not forgive any ancestors or descendants’
‘A mistake will not be forgiven by (y)our ancestors or descendants’
The ribbon is the St. George Ribbon

Together with Russia! 16 March - refendum

Together with Russia! 16 March – refendum

16.03.2014

16.03.2014 – everyone to the referendum

Crimea, from a Brit who lives there

When I arrived in Sevastopol on the Crimean Peninsula, my friends and family didn’t really know where it was. Now, everyone does.

Over the past two weeks it has become the focus of intense media attention as troops have surrounded key strategic sites, ships have blockaded Sevastopol Bay, and politicians in Europe, America and Russia have played power games. I’ve written about my reactions to these events in another post.

The soldiers

From within, it doesn’t feel like an invasion. I don’t know what an invasion should feel like.

The troops (whatever you may call them) have arrived gradually, and have focussed on military bases and strategic points. One student (in his 40s) told me that it’s not an invasion because the troops were already here, and the land is rightfully Russian, and he’s not the only one who’s said this to me. He didn’t mention the agreement which gives the Russian military permission to be here, requiring them to confirm troop movements before they are made. He did say that it was inevitable that the peninsula would become Russian again sooner or later.

This view was echoed by two older ladies from Simferopol in my compartment on the train back from Kiev, who took time to patiently explain (in Russian) that ‘Crimea has always been and will always be part of Russia’ to the younger woman from Sevastopol who was in the same compartment.

Another student described the fears of his Jewish wife, who had heard about a rise in anti-Semitism in other parts of Ukraine, including attacks on Jews. They were so worried that they spent two days at Simferopol airport trying to leave the country. As more troops arrived in Crimea, they decided that they didn’t need to leave any more, as they were now safe from attacks from the rest of Ukraine. This is what the Jerusalem Post has to say about claims of potential anti-Semitism in Crimea.

He’s not the only one who has told me that the presence of the troops makes them feel safe. There are examples of it in the media too. Here’s a retired actor who lives in Crimea, and is old enough to remember the Second World War:

So what did he think when Russian soldiers suddenly appeared last week on the streets of the regional capital city, a silent, heavily armed presence that surrounded the local parliament and deployed around Ukrainian military bases?

He was relieved. “If the Russians weren’t here, the government of Ukraine would come and occupy us,” said Vladimir Sukhenko, a retired stage actor. “They would make us speak Ukrainian.”

From The Washington Times

Of course, all of the people I’ve spoken to have been in Sevastopol, so I imagine this is not reflected across all communities and across the peninsula. In fact, I would be very surprised if it is.

The soldiers on both sides, Ukrainian and Russian, have remained admirably calm, and I put the fact that there has been no outright violence down to their control.

Maybe it is obvious, but it is worth stressing, that despite the movement of Nato hardware on Europe’s borders, no-one sensible is talking about military action. Indeed, it is striking that not even stupid people are talking about military action.

From Mark Mardell on the BBC

Kiev

When I told my students in Sevastopol that I was planning to leave the city for Kiev, many of them told me it would be more dangerous there. This echoes what Ann Loseva (who lives in Russia) said in a comment on a previous post of mine:

It was only yesterday that in a family conversation (very tense too) I told my parents about your situation, and they were a bit shocked about the decision to go to Kiev. From what we/they get from the news, Kiev seems to be a far more dangerous place to be staying at…

There seems to be a feeling that Kiev is a city of anarchy, and this is not even close to what I saw when I was there last week.

Shevchenko park, Kiev

As in Sevastopol, life is continuing as normal away from Maidan (where the main protests took place), and even on Maidan there was a very subdued atmosphere. Even when I was out at night with my friend, I felt safe.

This mirrors the fears of those outside Sevastopol about the situation here.

As far as my opinions on the government in Kiev go, while I now wouldn’t go so far as to say they’re illegitimate (which I did originally think, but have now reconsidered), I do believe that they do not truly represent the people of Ukraine. Therefore, they should not sign long-lasting agreements like those with the EU, and I am not happy that the EU is letting them do this, and (maybe) even encouraging them to. That should only be done by an elected government, as there are many in the country who do not want closer ties with Europe. They should instead focus on the internal problems of the country, and working towards far-reaching reform. The interim government clearly have a lot of work to do to rescue the country, and as the prime minister stated, the changes they have to make will be difficult to swallow:

“We are to undertake extremely unpopular steps as the previous government and previous president were so corrupted that the country is in a desperate financial plight,” Mr Yatsenyuk told BBC Ukrainian.

From the BBC

Stop fascism!

When the government first changed hands in Kiev, some people told me they were worried about how the interim government was made up. There was condemnation of the fact that members of far-right parties were included. It was not uncommon to hear the words ‘neo-Nazi’ and ‘fascist’ to describe the government as a whole.

Since I came back to Sevastopol on Monday it’s difficult to miss this interpretation of the ‘threat’ to Crimea. It’s on billboards all over the city:

'Stop fascism' billboard

‘Stop fascism’, ‘Everyone go to the referendum’, ‘Pravy Sektor’ (a far-right party, crossed out)

This is one of about six (maybe more) different billboards I’ve seen which are intensely pro-Russian, many of which use the word ‘fascism’. The one which I particularly dislike is shown in this article from NBC news, and an example of it has appeared outside my window. I would be very interested to know who’s paying for all of these billboards.

The pro-Ukrainian/pro-autonomy billboards are conspicuous by their absence.

The role of the media

This is all part of the information war going on between Ukraine and Russia, with both sides laying on the propaganda very thick.

There has been a lot of coverage of the way the state-controlled Russian media has been used to support what is happening in Crimea. Here are articles about it from the BBC, CTV news (Canada), The Daily Beast and The Guardian newspaper (UK). Mediaite have collected examples of the stories being shared in some Russian media. I have heard some of these media claims repeated by various people I know, for example about the spread of fascism if Crimea is not protected, that the overthrow of Yanukovych was somehow masterminded by the West/Americans, and that those manning the road-blocks into Crimea and around cities like Sevastopol are protecting the local people.

The Russian media also discuss the propaganda put out by Western media. There is also a new radio station in Sevastopol, set up to broadcast the ‘truth’ about the situation. As a Westerner, lucky enough to grow up in the country of the BBC, which I believe is as balanced and neutral as possible, it’s hard for me to take these claims seriously. That’s not to say that the Western media aren’t choosing to cast events in a certain way to play to their audience, but bias and propaganda are not the same thing. It is important to read everything critically, however much you may trust the source.

The Ukrainian media is not completely blameless here either, and I’m surprised that it is not being analysed just as much as the Russian media. While I was in Kiev I was informed that:

Putin said if the West don’t want World War Three, they’ll give him Crimea.

This was hot off the Ukrainian TV station the speaker was watching, but was not reproduced anywhere in the media sources I read. I also found it very interesting that last week two different ultimatums were reported by Ukrainian sources, then denied by Russian ones, and never followed through. This was the first, and the second was quoted in one of the BBC live feeds during the week, but I can’t find it again now.

The referendum

On March 6th, 78 MPs from the Crimean Parliament voted to become part of Russia, with 8 abstaining. A referendum was scheduled for 16th March 2014, four days from today. It has been moved forward from the original dates of 25th May, then 30th March.

The council of Sevastopol, a city which has a special administrative status and is not officially part of Crimea, also voted to become part of Russia, and the people of Sevastopol will be able to vote in the referendum too.

The questions will be presented in three languages: Russian, Ukrainian, and Crimean Tatar. Voters will be asked to choose between becoming a federal state of Russia or remaining as part of Ukraine but with greater autonomy.

It has been widely condemned as being illegal for various reasons, not least of which is the military occupation of the peninsula. This article clearly explains why what Russia appears to have done in the run-up to the referendum is illegal.

Regardless of how the outside world has reacted, it looks like the referendum will still take place. It’s undeniable that the people of Crimea need to be given the chance to decide on their own fate, rather than having it decided by politicians and then having to suffer the consequences.

16 March billboard

The least militaristic of the billboards here: ’16th March: We choose our future!’ (although the colours are still those of Russia…)

Will it be fair?

As far as I’m concerned, there are a lot of issues with the referendum.

The speed at which it has been planned.
Although I doubt it will change anyone’s minds, there should be an appropriate period in which people can be informed about the benefits and drawbacks of both choices they could make in the referendum. This is what has been happening in the UK in the the run-up to the Scottish referendum.

The fact that the decision has been made before the people have voted.
The Crimean Parliament started off  by declaring that Crimea is now part of Russia, then set the date for the referendum. As John Simpson reports, the referendum may make no difference at all.

The way the world has reacted to it.
There has been outright condemnation of the referendum, with no offer of another date/time/strategy for Crimeans to decide their own fate. By saying ‘no’ but providing no alternative, it is difficult for people to back out of. Perhaps if the Ukrainian government had offered more support for the idea of a referendum they would be more respected here. (entirely my own impression, and not something I’ve discussed with anyone else)

Whether it will be overseen by international observers.
If neutral observers are allowed to observe the referendum, then it will be clear whether the vote really reflects the will of the people, or whether they are being forced to vote one way or the other on the day. There is also the question of ballot-rigging, and whether there will be a fair count of the votes cast.

What will happen when the result is declared.
If the result clearly shows that Crimeans want to be part of Russia, it will be a lot harder for the West to deny them that chance. If the result goes against Russia, how can the West draw back from its statements about the illegality of the vote? What will Russia do?

Russia or Ukraine?

The outcome of the referendum is really not clear, but the more people I talk to and the more propaganda I see (it’s difficult to call it anything else when Ukraine is not represented on the billboards at all), the more likely I think it is that the vote will go in Russia’s favour.

I’ve noticed a clear generational divide, with only one or two exceptions, between those who want Russia (mostly over 35/40) and those who would prefer autonomy within Ukraine (younger, under 35, maybe under 30). The BBC and the New York Times have both interviewed people across the peninsula, and it’s obvious that opinion is divided. I think it’s also visible in the photos and videos of those at pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian rallies, where the average age looks considerably higher at pro-Russian rallies.

If that’s really true, it would make the voting pool much more pro-Russian, because the older age-group outnumbers the younger, and many young people are also off studying or working in other places, or have decided to leave Crimea because they anticipate a Russian victory. I have students who have left temporarily, others who are considering leaving permanently, and still others who have sent away family members just in case. Two students are related to notaries, and they said that the number of people getting notarised permission for one parent to take children out of the country alone has increased dramatically over the last few weeks.

What complicates the outcome further is that Crimean Tatars do not want to participate and some pro-Ukrainians are also planning to abstain because of the ‘illegality’ of the referendum, which will obviously sway the final results.

Me (!)

I really have no idea which country I’ll be ‘officially’ living in this time next week, and how much a potential change to becoming part of Russia will actually affect me, the people I work with, the school, and the city.

I decided to come back to Sevastopol, rather than stay in Kiev. I am now registered with the FCO Overseas Crisis Service, at the suggestion of someone at the British Embassy. I don’t really think it will be necessary, but better to be safe than sorry. As I’ve said before and will say again, I would never willingly put myself in a dangerous situation.

It’s now just a question of wait and see…

The last 3 weeks, and my response

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.*

The background

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

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 in Sevastopol

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.

Emotional tension

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 off the Sevastopol coast

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.

Buying flowers

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.

Kiev brick mosaic

The brick mosaic at the end of the building I’m staying in, Kiev, March 2014

Sevastopol, 2nd March 2014

Last night our school had a quiz which happened as normal, although there were only about 12 students there. The pub was near the main square where people have been gathering here. At 5pm, when I went past, there were knots of people, and a couple of Russian flags, but not many. An article on the BBC talks about a relaxed atmosphere and a kind of Saturday stroll in Sevastopol, and this is how it felt to me for all of the five minutes I was outside walking from the bus stop to the pub.
After the quiz, I went to a friend’s house to play a game and try to forget about the situation for a few hours for the first time in a couple of days. This worked until he got a message saying “We’re at war.” I deliberately didn’t look at the media until this morning, and when I did I discovered that about twenty minutes after I last checked it yesterday, the whole situation had changed again, or at least crystallised. Obama’s veiled threats to Putin on Friday have become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Looking out of my window this morning, everything is normal. It’s 8am on Sunday and the streets are just beginning to wake up. I’m not going to put myself into dangerous situations, and even if there is an invasion, they aren’t going to start randomly picking off civilians in the streets. It will be focussed on key strategic points, which I’m not anywhere near. I sincerely hope that Putin and the Ukrainian government are sensible enough to stop before it gets to the stage of violence.
Part of the frustration is the comparison between the fighting at Maidan two weeks ago, which was seen as in some way acceptable because it was fighting for the ‘right’ reasons, and the pro-Russian protests, considerably less violent in most cases, which are apparently seen negatively by the media.
The rise in tension and associated violence (for example in Kharkiv yesterday) seems to be happening because of the lack of reasoned dialogue. Instead it’s a case of hot-headed people standing off against each other, with none of them really wiling to talk and to come to a compromise over the situation. The Crimean parliament is led by a man who nobody has elected, and who has taken control of most areas of the government without any real authority, including taking it upon himself to ask Putin for support and protection. This worries me, because they are playing with the lives of thousands of people. However, the Ukrainian government is in exactly the same position: nobody has elected them either. The help they are asking for may be mostly financial, but they are still following the same path of making large-scale decisions which potentially alienate sections of the population and could have important repurcussions for the future of Ukraine. Agreements for closer ties with the EU fall into this category, and I don’t think anything like that should be signed by an interim government, because there will always be an argument that people did not elect them, and therefore they do not have the right to speak for the country.
The BBC have interviewed four people from Crimea and this seems to be a fairly representative spread of opinions to me. It also shows the kind of information people are drawing on to form their opinions.
I would like to see representatives from all of the affected groups gathered together and discussing exactly what it is they want, listening to each other, coming to a compromise and working out how best to achieve the stability and security Ukraine and Crimea need so much right now. For me, this discussion should include the current Ukrainian president and prime minister, and representatives of each of the main political parties from Kiev, the Crimean leader, representatives of the pro-Russians, Tartars and any other large groups from Crimea, Putin, and an EU representative. The last two should be there as outsiders to be consulted with as they are likely to be the closest economic partners in any Ukrainian/Crimean future, but Ukraine/Crimea should not need their approval for any decisions. I don’t believe that Obama has any place in the discussion unless America are willing to offer financial help. The restrictions associated with any economic aid, wherever it comes from, should be realistic and should not place additional burdens on the country, and I can’t help feeling that they should be tied to economic and not political requirements. I also don’t see what use visits by random international politicians, like William Hague, can actually do on the ground, apart from distracting politicians here from doing the work they need to.
Everything I’ve said in this post are my personal opinions. They are an idealistic view of what politics should be designed to achieve, and of a sensible, patient group of people who are willing to cooperate to achieve the best for this country. Unfortunately, this is not what I can see at the moment, with those concerned sitting in their isolated castles posturing at each other, and all trying to be the strongest man in the situation, with a general air of distrust and accusations and rumour flying all over the place.
I have no idea what will happen next. I’ve been asked whether I’m going to leave Crimea, as advised by the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office. At the moment the answer is no, because I don’t think it would help. In my daily life, I feel completely safe. I actually see fewer soldiers, sailors and military units on a day-to-day basis than I did before the whole situation began. I’m constantly thinking about whether my decision to stay is the right one, but leaving would cause problems for the school I work for, would leave me with nothing to do for an indeterminate period of time, and would leave behind people I care about and worry about, people who don’t have the same luxury of being able to drop everything and leave. No matter what I’m doing, the situation is always at the back of my mind, even when I try to forget about it. I just hope it can be resolved soon, and without any more violence.

The entrance to Balaklava Bay (photo by Sandy Millin)

Sevastopol, right now

For those of you who have seen Sevastopol in the news over the last 24 hours, and have seen the protests, I’d like to let you know my perspective.
If I hadn’t had messages from people, social media, internet news, and chats with the people I worked with, I would have had no idea they were happening. There are people in one square in the centre, but my friend, who lives in another of the squares there, said he hasn’t seen any sign of the protests either. So while the photos may seem very dramatic, in most of Sevastopol daily life is continuing.
People are, however, worried about the new government not being any better than the old one, and about the potentially fascist/anti-semitic (mostly in the form of the extreme right-wing Svoboda party) elements of the opposition, who now have the chance for power.
The change in the law affecting the use of Russian seems like the worst move of the government so far. It may seem like a minor thing from outside the country, but from inside, I feel like it was a very stupid alteration. I have no idea what prompted it, unless the powers that be were trying to find a sure-fire to rile up the substantial Russian-speaking population in the country. Linguistic politics are never a good idea – it is definitely an area where I think governments should just let people continue speaking their language of choice, since they will anyway.
There is an air of nervousness here, as noone knows what will happen next. Rest assured that if I think I will be in danger, I will get out, but my friends here do not have that liberty. I really enjoy living in Sevastopol, and would like to be able to live here for a long time to come. I really hope the political situation doesn’t force me to change that plan, and even more, that it doesn’t cause more violence and upset to a place where most people just want to get on with their lives. Sevastopol is a beautiful place, which has seen more conflict in its 230 years than any city deserves. I hope that this is not the start of more.

(I originally wrote this as a facebook status update, but it’s so long, it’s probably better as a blogpost. Disclaimer: I have no political background, and everything I know about Ukrainian politics, I’ve learnt since I moved to Sevaeetopol in September, and most of that in the last week. It’s hard to believe it’s only been 7 days since this whole thing started. I hope that this time next week I’ll be saying it’s hard to believe that there was this much uncertainty 7 days ago…)

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