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.

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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.

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