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In the 1970s, long before perestroika, the Soviet dissident writer Vasily Aksyonov wrote the most famous of his novels, “The Crimean Island”. It is a historical fiction, where Crimea was transformed from a peninsula to an island. In the Russian civil war of the early 20th century, the White Army troops, fleeing the advance of the Bolsheviks, according to the author’s fantasy, retain their control over Crimea, which becomes a capitalist island off the coast of the Soviet Union, recreating today’s situation between Taiwan and China. The Russians and Ukrainians were still citizens of the same country, they discussed that book a lot and never in the worst of their nightmares could they have imagined that only a few decades from now their children and grandchildren would be engaged in a bloody armed conflict with all the characteristics of a civil war.
When the world talked most about Crimea, it was in March 2014, because afterwards the coup d’état in Ukraine, dubbed the “revolution of dignity” by the Western press, Russian troops seized it without a shot being fired and a quick referendum was organised, so that the peninsula, Ukrainian until then, would become part of the Russian Federation, unleashing a thousand accusations, condemnations and non-recognitions in Ukraine and the rest of the world. But the history of this place is much longer…
From the earliest times Crimea, located in a strategic and privileged place on the Black Sea, was the favourite place for the permanent presence of the ancient Greeks, then the Romans and afterwards the Turks. In ancient Greece, the impenetrable tropical forests of Crimea were home to lions and the now extinct largest and fiercest bulls of all: the turs (bos taurus primigenius). After these bulls the place was originally called Tauria or Tauride, which is mentioned in the Odyssey as one of the places of the voyage of the Argonauts in search of the Golden Fleece.
The next famous literary mention of the Crimea is in the “Tales of Sevastopol”, written in 1855 by Leo Tolstoy himself, when he was an artilleryman during the war with the alliance between Turkey, Britain and France, thus becoming the first Russian war correspondent. He was also the first pacifist war correspondent.
In the times of the tsars, due to its mild climate and the special beauty of its landscapes, Crimea was a favourite summer resort of the aristocracy, and an inspirational retreat for the most important writers and artists. Later, in the Soviet period, the peninsula became a favourite summer resort for the population of the entire European part of the country. The warm sea, mountainous views and subtropical climate of its southern coast became an opportunity for many to get to know “warm countries” without having to go abroad. Moreover, thanks to its exotic landscapes, Crimea was the location for a large number of Soviet films about Africa and Latin America.
After the Red Army liberated Crimea from Nazi occupation during World War II, almost the entire Tatar population was deported from the peninsula to the Central Asian republics on Stalin’s orders, accused of being “collaborators with the fascists”. The Crimean Tatars were the third largest ethnic group on the peninsula, after the Russians and Ukrainians, and virtually indistinguishable from each other.
In 1954, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev, a Ukrainian by origin, decided to hand over the Crimean Peninsula from the jurisdiction of the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic to the administration of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, which was geographically much closer, and being part of the same state, had a rather symbolic significance and preoccupied no one at the time. In the years that followed, Crimea, being part of socialist Ukraine, continued to develop within the logic of the Soviet state, where the borders between its 15 republics were no more than drawings on its political maps and the multiple ethnicities that historically coexisted in Crimea continued to feel like the same people. Only some outsiders always envied the Crimeans for living in this natural paradise.
Unlike in central and especially western Ukraine, Ukrainian was never spoken in Crimea; for the Russians and Ukrainians on the peninsula, their native language and culture were traditionally Russian. When Crimea was proclaimed an autonomous republic within Ukraine and its three official languages – Russian, Ukrainian and Tatar – were defined, in the practice of everyday life everything was still in Russian, and the Crimeans were united with Ukraine only in administrative matters and state papers. But The Nobodies saw no problem with that. The peninsula lived on tourism and the generosity of its nature. The problems started afterwards.
When in February 2014 in Kiev, a Western-led rebellion overthrew the corrupt and unpopular but legitimate government of Viktor Yanukovych, radically anti-Russian nationalist forces came to power in Ukraine, seeing Russia as the cause of all their country’s ills. The new government, from the first days of its existence, declared its intention to join NATO as soon as possible and invited American advisors to lead its armed forces and security system. Communist ideas and organisations were banned and the defunct Soviet Union was officially declared an “evil empire”.
The news of the change of power in Ukraine was taken very badly by a large part of the population in the east and south of the country, where everyone spoke Russian, identified with Russian culture and did not dream of being part of the “Western world”. Moreover, the new authorities began to impose a policy of total “Ukrainianisation”, eliminating Russian as the second language of the state. In the face of protests and expressions of preoccupation in Crimea, armed nationalist groups in Kiev threatened to send “friendship trains” with their armed militants to the peninsula to suppress any signs of discontent. In those days, several administrative buildings in the cities of the Donbass region were seized by people who did not recognise the new authorities in Kiev. Kiev was already preparing a military operation to retake the rebel territories in the pro-Russian east.
In the case of Crimea, the situation was even more delicate: near the peninsula’s largest city, Sevastopol, was Russia’s main naval base on the Black Sea, which concentrated its main maritime force for the entire Mediterranean region, which after the wars unleashed by NATO in Yugoslavia, Libya and Syria, had a fundamental geopolitical importance for Russia. In those circumstances, Russia was on the verge of losing this base, with the surrounding territories, historically and culturally absolutely Russian.
At the end of February 2014, to everyone’s surprise, “friendly people”, also known as “little green men”, appeared in various Crimean cities, who were Russian special forces leaving the base in Sevastopol. Without firing a shot, they took control of key points on the island and blockaded the Ukrainian military garrisons, where the authorities refused to obey the Crimean self-government. A few weeks afterwards, independence was declared and a general referendum was organised for reunification with Russia. On 17 March, 96.57% of Crimeans, without distinguishing between Russians, Ukrainians, Tatars and others, voted to become part of Russia again. I don’t know how real that figure is, how high it really is, but anyone who knows Crimea at all will say that without a doubt, a huge majority of its inhabitants really did celebrate “the return to the home port”.
Obviously, these events generated an explosion of anger from Ukrainian nationalists, an international indictment of Russia for occupation and expansionism, an immediate economic boycott of Crimea by the US, the EU and its allies, and strong sanctions of all kinds against Russia.
Since 2014 for foreign artists, scientists and journalists who for some reason visit Crimea are banned from entering Ukraine.
In Russia many of my acquaintances insisted that I should get to know the peninsula now, because “now it is something else”. In the Ukrainian press I read a lot about “the deteriorated territory with the impoverished and frightened population under Russian occupation”. I know Crimea well, the last time I went there was in 2013, half a year before the coup. That time I had no big surprises, a typical summer full of seaside resorts and holidaymakers, crowds of tourists, everything overpriced, the services left a lot to be desired, but the sea, the scenery and the fruit made up for it. As in all post-Soviet seaside resorts, one could see closed, exclusive, luxurious areas, and next to them, the old public infrastructure from the times of the USSR, sometimes semi-abandoned, sometimes repainted or retouched by humble municipal efforts. In conversations people said that they felt totally abandoned by the central government… just like anywhere else in the Ukrainian province… here at least with the sun, the sea, the mountains and the fresh fruit hills… 9 years passed. I knew I had to return to this corner of the world, and when the first opportunity presented itself, a little over a week ago, with a group of well-known journalists, we set off from Moscow to the south. It was a long journey, as the capital of Russia and the Crimean capital of Simferopol are 1728 kms apart, and as the skies in Russia’s southern Europe are still closed due to military operations, there are no flights and we had to travel overland.
The south of Russia, near the Donbass and the Sea of Azov, is the same steppes as those of Ukraine. Endless fields of sunflowers and cornfields, the well-kept white houses that look like toys, a mix of Russian and Ukrainian accents at the fairs, along the road, several military trucks with the letter Z and mountains of watermelons and melons for sale.
We entered Crimea via the famous 19km long bridge, built by Russia over a little more than 2 years and opened in May 2018; many will remember the famous images of Putin driving the first truck over the Crimean bridge. With a total deterioration of relations with Ukraine, prior to the bridge, Russia was connected to the peninsula only by air and water, seriously impeding the territory’s economic development and undermining its security. The bridge is a modern, impressive construction, including a multi-lane road and a railway line. It is also the longest in Russia and, according to some, in Europe. Moreover, it is known that the most popular symbol of the bridge among the local people is a cat, named Mostik (“Little Bridge”), who was present at the construction from the very first day, and had the honour of crossing the bridge first, even before Putin. Then Mostik obviously also removed it for a photo with the Russian president.
The bridge that awaited us looked like the work of a futuristic film, clean, spotless, illuminated, with its guards on both sides and various strange artefacts, resembling buoys below and around, and a little further in the background, in the Kerch Strait, the military patrol boats with their cannons pointing skywards. For months now, the Ukrainian government has been threatening to attack the bridge with its new weapons generously provided by NATO. It was explained to us that these pseudo buoys are also part of the security of the bridge, in case of a Ukrainian attack, which seems to be only a matter of time.
After the bridge we continued along a first-class run, incomparable to anything I remembered from the Crimean roads before. In general, in a large part of the country there is a noticeable change in the quality of the roads, which have been radically improved over the last decade. Near Moscow the roads are at the level of the richest countries in Europe and a large part of them are toll-free. Nikolai Gogol, a Russian writer who lived and wrote in the previous century in Ukraine, is credited with the phrase: “Russia’s two problems are fools and roads”. He seems to have only one left. The main roads in Crimea seemed to me to be of the quality of those around Moscow.
But the biggest surprise of our first hour on the peninsula was undoubtedly a gas station where we stopped. I understand the Russian authorities’ interest in showing the traveller new to Crimea the quality of life they are trying to project for the peninsula. I have never in my life been thrilled by something as banal as a gas station. But this one looked almost like a work of art. Very clean, fully automated and with a wide range of all kinds of products for the more than modest prices, something that is very noticeable afterwards in the capital. Nowhere else had I seen such a petrol station.
The important thing about Crimea for the rest of Russia, apart from the resorts and other well-known attractions, is its experience of resisting Western condemnations. If the economic, technology, media and political blockade against Russia started 6 months ago, with the beginning of the war in Ukraine, and is becoming more and more radical and aggressive, the economic boycott of all Crimean companies and institutions started more than 8 years ago, from the moment of its accession to Russia. That is why for the rest of the country, which is only just learning to be self-sufficient, these years of Crimean experience are so relevant.
The most important focus of our visit was the Saki Power Plant, an energy project financed entirely by the Russian private sector, which provides electricity to approximately 40% of the peninsula’s inhabitants in its eastern part. Built in 1955 by the Soviet Union, instead of the planned 36 months, in a record time of only 20 months, it was completely refurbished and since 2020 it has been operating at its full capacity of 150 megawatts and 138 gigawatts per hour. It works on natural gas, a resource that is abundant in Russia, and the reason for the special pride of the energy people is that all the equipment, including the turbines and batteries, are completely Russian, some of them developed especially for this project. The Saki power plant is the most modern in Crimea and one of the best in Russia. Its current equipment is entirely due to Western sanctions, which became a stimulus and impetus for the development of domestic technologies. Experts see it as a pilot model for energy development not only for the rest of Crimea but for the whole country, and are already thinking of exporting its new technologies and equipment to nations that have good relations with Russia. It is also interesting that the project is privately financed, as it was an excellent investment for Russian companies: the cost of 1 kWh here is 0.025 USD and the value of the sale of 1 kWh is 0.074 USD. All in all, electricity is extremely cheap in Russia and does not usually represent a major drain on the household budget. The general director of the company is from Kiev, Taras Tselyi – there is no more Ukrainian name than Taras – and he tells us that the company’s workers earn salaries averaging around USD 1000 a month, which is quite good for Crimea, but they suffer from a certain shortage of local specialists, as most of them come from the mainland. Apart from good salaries, workers at the power plant have a number of benefits and subsidies for their families in terms of housing, holidays and health insurance, as well as living in a city next to the best seaside resorts in the country.
Continuing with our technological agenda, another point of our visit was to the SVYATECO company that designs and manufactures electric cars for Crimea and other regions, from cars for touring tourists in the hills to off-road jeeps with Russian motors, batteries and all spare parts; and then we went to the SELMA company, famous for its high welding technologies for the most complex terrestrial and space projects. Both companies are also products of the economic blockade. Their directors and executives, full of ideas and crazy dreams, do not conceal their pride in having achieved absolutely concrete and tangible results. While in so many Russian offices and companies there is still so much blah blah blah and so many void reports, to the liking of the bosses about “import replacement” and technological sovereignty, they do their work out of their own enthusiasm and with a desire to contribute to the development of their homeland.
On the trip to Crimea we saw not only the machines. Our hosts wanted to invite us to the largest oyster plant, but a storm that came from the sea two days before the visit wreaked havoc incompatible with our plans and luckily for us, another alternative immediately appeared: a small oyster farm in Katziveli, a small village in the extreme south of the peninsula. Its owner Serguei Kulik came from Moscow for it to make here the first oyster farm in the modern history of the peninsula. In between a lot of jokes saltier than his oysters, he told us that before the Russian Revolution, Crimea was one of the main suppliers of hundreds of tons of oysters to Europe, then the tradition was lost and he tried to revive it. Right there in his small restaurant “The Drunken Oyster”, in the light of the last rays of the sun sinking into the sea, in the direction of the Bulgarian coast, accompanied by an excellent local sparkling wine, (actually it is a champagne, but because of the appellation of origin, let’s put here “sparkling wine”), Let’s put “sparkling” here) awaited us with their oysters, “endemic, from the Black Sea, less salty than those from other places”, and then the mussels, tomato, garlic, steamed half a dozen other local ways, afterwards, more wines and more oysters, to conclude with the most exotic part of the banquet: fried katan, the only small shark in the Black Sea, which to be honest was not that tasty, but totally novel.
Crimea is proud of its wines, so a visit to a local vineyard was out of the question. We went to the Alma Valley winery, located near the village of Vilino. My first impression was of being back in Chile, and if it wasn’t for the signs in Russian and the absence of the Andes Mountains in the background, the land, vegetation, roads and houses were pretty much the same. The vineyard and winery also looked very much like those in Chile and Argentina. Unaccustomed to the excellent wines of the Southern Cone, I tried not to say much about the Crimean wines, although I found the Pinot Blanc very good (I did not know this grape variety before) and the sparkling wines of the area, which are obviously all “champagnes”. Unlike the vineyards I know in other countries, in Crimea nobody cares about exporting their wines. The Russian market is so big that it seems that there are no vineyards in the whole world capable of filling it. It is interesting that despite the official sanctions applied by the Spanish government against Crimea and Russia, former partners and now simply Spanish friends, with no commercial interest whatsoever, informally continue to advise the Russians on improving the quality of their wines.
In the same area as the vineyards there are endless plantations of fruit trees. We moved on to one of the agro-industrial complexes in the same part of the peninsula “Yarosvit Agro”, which is part of the Skvortsovo food and agricultural holding company, producing apples, cherries, plums and peaches on its 180 hectares. We saw the most modern technologies, not only Russian, but also Italian and Israeli. We all agreed that their peaches are the tastiest we have ever tasted in our lives. We saw a complex system of irrigation through several ponds on the high points of the territory.
The issue of water in Crimea is a very important one. In the Soviet period, a canal was built across a large part of the peninsula, which was filled with water from the lower part of the Dnieper River on the Ukrainian mainland and irrigated the drier area of the northern Crimean steppes. With the separation of Crimea from Ukraine, the Ukrainian authorities in 2014 cut off the water supply to the canal by building a dam, which caused serious problems for agriculture and people’s daily life. At the beginning of the Russian military operation in southern Ukraine, the Russian army dynamited the dam and the water returned to the Crimean canal, which was extremely important for the return of normality on the peninsula.
Apart from the big industries, in those few days we visited several small, sometimes practically handmade cheese and other products plants, went to the fairs where colourful Russian, Tatar, Ukrainian, Korean and dozens of other local ethnic costumes and designs are mixed. Unfortunately there was no time to try all the dishes of the local cuisine that exists only in Crimea, a place of the fertile mix of flavours, landscapes and traditions.
The capital of Crimea, Simferopol, I had known before as a very provincial place, the last station of trains arriving from Kiev or Moscow, and where near the clock tower one would take “the world’s longest trolley route”, to start a trolleybus ride first into the mountains and then along the sea coast. It is an 86-kilometre journey up or down at any seaside resort or small town it passes through, a project created in 1959 to make life easier for holidaymakers and locals. The trolleys, although now more modern, continue their route, but the city of Simferopol has changed a lot. Its historic centre has been completely restored, the Orthodox churches take turns with the mosques of the Tatars, who returned to Crimea en masse at the end of the 1980s. In Crimea the 3 official languages of the autonomous republic are respected: at the entrance of all state buildings there are signs in Russian, Ukrainian and Tatar, although Russians make up 68%, Ukrainians 16% and Tatars 11%. The street names are sometimes doubled, so as not to hurt anyone’s sensibilities, it was decided to restore the historical names, those from before the Revolution, and to keep the Soviet ones as well. That is why the same street can be called e.g., Karl Marx and Catherine II, both names on the same board. All the names of Ukrainian streets, hotels and monuments are preserved, understanding perfectly well that Russia’s current conflict is not with Ukrainian culture. It can be said that there are no ethnic or religious conflicts on the peninsula. There are also new monuments. For example, to the “kind people”, on the central square near the parliament there is a figure of an armed Russian soldier talking to a little girl accompanied by a cat, a reminder of the moments of maximum tension of the days and nights of March 2014. Apart from that there are several new ideas. In the same city of Simferopol in the times of the Tsar the main Russian military anthem was born: “The Farewell of the Slav”. The idea of a monument to this music is now being considered. Also, the restoration of the forgotten grave of another Russian classic, Leonid Sabaneev. Since a large part of the Russians, and before that the Soviets, are the most fanatic sport fishermen in the world, they all remember from their early childhood the very fat book of the zoologist Sabaneev: “Life and fishing of freshwater fish”, written in 1911, where to this day every self-respecting fisherman always finds everything, he needs.
Crimea has everything to develop world-class tourism projects. Apart from the sea and beaches, parks and palaces, lakes and waterfalls, there are more than 1100 caves on the peninsula that have already been explored and many more to be discovered. But talking to different local people, there is a kind of consensus among all of them, they say that before developing tourism, which does generate enough seasonal work and attracts investments, it is first necessary to create a solid productive, industrial, energy base, so that the whole life in Crimea does not depend and does not revolve exclusively around tourism, as it happened in some countries, making their economies very vulnerable and dependent on the flow of visitors. And for obvious reasons of Russia’s international blockade, all tourism on the peninsula is now domestic, a fact they are also trying to turn into a new opportunity: before, tourists with more purchasing power travelled abroad, leaving Crimea for another segment, which did little to stimulate the quality of services. Now, with its ups and downs, they are trying to improve the quality of infrastructure and services so that those who have a lot to spend do not need to leave the country, leaving this money inside. Also, and perhaps much more important than the economic aspect, it is a stimulus for Russians to learn more about their own country, which with its diversity and territory is enough for several lifetimes of travel.
What else has changed on the peninsula afterwards its reunification with Russia? Crimea is now a very safe place, crime has practically disappeared from the streets. Despite the best efforts of the West and the government in Kiev, no internal conflict could be triggered here; dozens of nationalities live together in absolute peace and see their future only in and with Russia. The issue of the Crimean Tatars, so often repeated and manipulated by the Ukrainian government, can be summarised as follows: This is a minority Tatar population, the bulk of the disgruntled now are those who were not deported by Stalin, who stayed in Crimea with land and afterwards perestroika, became a kind of landowners and together with the Ukrainian oligarchs became part of the economic elites. Tatars returning from Asian exile were seen by them as inferior beings, a source of cheap labour and competition in the struggle for land rights. That is why the Tatar elites allied themselves with their Ukrainian partners and those at the bottom, according to the logic of class struggle, supported Russia.
But there are real problems that are not solved. Some Crimeans told me that the euphoria of the early years of reunification with Russia no longer exists on the peninsula. In many regions of Crimea, many of the local authorities remain the same as in Ukrainian times, maintaining all their mechanisms of corruption and influence peddling. But to be fair,” they explain, “we prefer Russian corruption a thousand times more. Now when you pay a bribe for something, you can be sure you will get it. Before, in the Ukrainian days, you paid and nothing happened. Then they explained to you that circumstances changed and they demanded more money…”. I was also told about the new administration of the city of Sevastopol, which has made the mechanisms of municipal power quite democratic, with real citizen participation and which has managed to greatly reduce the levels of corruption. Taxi drivers also told me that although the situation has improved substantially in the cities, the police on the roads are still corrupt and the system remains intact. Now, in the war situation this can be a huge security risk, because there are trucks driving in the area close to the front line, smuggling goods from Ukraine, which are not really checked, and these can be used by enemy commandos to carry out acts of sabotage, something that is already happening in the territories under Russian control.
We were leaving Crimea looking forward to returning soon. It is a wonderful place, one of the many places worth seeing in this life. In the evening, crossing the famous bridge, we saw its perfect geometry lit up over the sea and I thought of so many other bridges we have yet to build.
The photos are by Oleg Yasinsky.
Periodista independiente de orígen ucraniano, residente en Moscú.
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This post is also available in: Spanish