Return to Russia: Crimeans Tell the Real Story of the 2014 Referendum and Their Lives Since

*Crimeans gather with Russian national and Crimea flags in Sevastopol, Crimea, March 14, 2018. Alexander Zemlianichenko | AP 

Eva Bartlett traveled to Crimea to see firsthand out how Crimeans have fared since 2014 when their country reunited with Russia, and what the referendum was really like.

October 9, 2019, Mint Press News


SIMFEROPOL, CRIMEA —  In early August I traveled to Russia for the first time, partly out of  interest in seeing some of the vast country with a tourist’s eyes,  partly to do some journalism in the region. It also transpired that  while in Moscow I was able to interview Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman of the Foreign Ministry.

High on my travel list, however, was  to visit Crimea and Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) — the former a part  of Russia, the latter an autonomous republic in the east of Ukraine,  neither accurately depicted in Western reporting. Or at least that was  my sense looking at independent journalists’ reports and those in  Russian media.

Both regions are native  Russian-speaking areas; both opted out of Ukraine in 2014. In the case  of Crimea, joining Russia (or actually rejoining, as  most I spoke to in Crimea phrased it) was something people  overwhelmingly supported. In the case of the Donbass region, the turmoil  of Ukraine’s Maidan coup in 2014 set things in motion for the people in  the region to declare independence and form the Donetsk and Lugansk  People’s Republics.

In March 2014, Crimeans held a referendum during which 96 percent of voters chose to join Russia.  This has been heavily disputed in Western media, with claims that  Crimeans were forced to hold the referendum and claims of Russian troops  on the streets “occupying” the peninsula.

Because Western media insisted the  referendum was a sham held under duress, and because they bandy about  the term “pro-Russian separatists” for the people of the DPR, I decided  to go and speak to people in these areas to hear what they actually want  and feel.

From the Russian mainland to the Crimean Peninsula

From St. Petersburg, where I spent a  few touristy days, I booked a flight to Simferopol, the capital of  Crimea, and on August 22 I landed at the attractive new airport. A  Russian-American friend, Vlad, flies in from Moscow and together we rent  a car and drive to Alushta, a tourist-packed seaside area to the south.

As we drive from the airport, Vlad  can’t get over the changes in the airport, which had been dank and  barely functional when he last visited:

When I came here at the  end of 2014, Simferopol Airport was very dated: small and stuffy, low  ceilings, small windows; the bathrooms didn’t work, there was a constant  stench in the air, and many facilities weren’t working — even the  baggage carousels didn’t work properly. There were no restaurants or  cafes, and no places to rent taxis. Now, it’s a world-class  international airport.”

We drive south along smooth roads,  passing endless vineyards on either side, flanked by low mountains. As  Vlad drives, he comments on the condition of the roads, which five years  prior were so rough “you had to swerve to dodge the potholes.”

Descending to the coast, along  cypress tree-lined streets, we arrive in the hub of Alushta, park, and  stroll along the seaside. The beach scenes could be anywhere: people  sunbathing and swimming, jet-skiing, drinking beer and eating. In the  touristy hub before the beach, a carnival sort of feel and smell, a man  playing the accordion, children’s rides, upscale restaurants, and  fast-food stalls.

*Revelers enjoy the pristine Black Sea waters of Alushta. Photo | Eva Bartlett  

As it happens, we arrive on Russia’s  National Flag Day and while walking we come across a small event  celebrating this with singers on stage and a crowd that, when we pass by  again some hours later, has grown in size and enthusiasm. 

*Singers entertain a crowd in Alushta on Russia’s National Flag Day. Photo | Eva Bartlett 

I remark on how kind and gentle people are here, just as in Russia. Vlad replies:

"It shouldn’t be  surprising — people are people anywhere. But Western media conditions us  with stereotypes of Russians as cold and hard, vilifying an entire  nation.”

The coastal city of Yalta lies  further west along the peninsula. The drive there the following day is  more beautiful still, the road flanked by mountains to one side, hills  cascading down to the Black Sea on the other, endless wineries and,  before Yalta itself, the stunning cliff-top castle known as “Swallow’s  Nest.”


In the evening, we stay in the home of Vlad’s friend Tata, a Russian woman who moved to Crimea in 2012.

Since there was so much hype in  Western media about a Russian takeover of the peninsula, I ask the  burning questions: Were Crimeans forced to take part in the referendum?  What was the mood like around that time? Tata replies:

"I never saw so many  people in my life go out to vote, of their own free will. There was a  period before the referendum, maybe about two months, during which there  were two holidays: International Women’s Day, March 8, and Defender of  the Fatherland Day, February 23. 
Normally, people would go away on  vacation during these holidays. But that year, Crimeans didn’t go  anywhere; they wanted to be sure they were here during the referendum.  We felt the sense of a miracle about to happen. People were anxiously  awaiting the referendum.
There were military tents in the  city, but they were not erected by the military, but by local men. They  would stand there every day, and people could come and sign a document  calling for a referendum.
I went one day and asked if I could  add my name but I couldn’t, because I have a Russian passport. Only  Crimean citizens could sign it. This was the fair way to do it.
At that time, my husband was in  America. One day, he was watching CNN and got scared and called me  because he saw reports of soldiers in the streets, an ‘invasion’ by  Russia.
The local navy came from Sevastopol  to Yalta and anchored their ships off the coast, made a blockade to  ensure no larger Ukrainian or other ships could come and attack.
But I never saw tanks, I never saw Russian soldiers. I never saw any of that in the city.”


I ask Tata about how life had changed after the referendum:

"When I came here in  December 2012, everything was dilapidated and run down. The nice roads  you were driving on, they didn’t exist when we were a part of Ukraine. I  didn’t understand why Crimea was still a part of Ukraine. It was  Russian land ever since the Tsars, the imperial time of Russia. This is  where the Russian soul is, and the soul of the Russian navy.
After the Soviet Union collapsed, it  wasn’t the will of the Crimean people to join Ukraine. People were  always Russian here; they always identified as Russian. Ukraine  understood this well, and put nothing into Crimea, as punishment.  Ukraine didn’t build any hospitals, kindergartens or roads.
In the past four years, the Crimean  government has built 200 new kindergartens. This is the most obvious  example of how things have improved. They also built the new Simferopol  airport.
I worked in aviation. It took three  years to build an airport of this standard in Yekaterinburg, Russia. It  took half a year in Simferopol.”

International Jazz Festival

On my third day in Crimea, we drive  eastward anew, driving for hours through the gorgeous countryside, along  winding and rolling roads flanked by jagged mountains, past an  exceptionally beautiful church (Nicholas Church Lighthouse) overlooking  the coast, and down along the sea through more touristy seaside towns  and past lines of day tents along the beach. The local FM radio plays a  variety of both Russian and Western songs.

*Nicholas Church Lighthouse 

Finally, after night falls, we drive into the city of Koktebel, where an annual Jazz Festival is starting. 

During all these hours of driving, the roads are smooth and well-trafficked, and I don’t see a single Russian military vehicle.

The next day, I walk through  Koktebel, taking in the local markets brimming with produce, cheeses,  and other goods, and every so often come across a streetside stand laden  with fresh fruits. In the late afternoon, I walk along the sea, past  packed beaches, and meet with a Crimean woman, Yaroslava, who lives in  Austria but every summer returns to her beloved Crimea. She is ardently  supportive of the decision to have joined Russia and spends much of her  time back in Austria trying to educate people on why Crimeans wanted to  be a part of Russia.

These are reasons I hear throughout my travels in Crimea: We  wanted to be able to speak our native language [Russian] and be  educated in that language; we wanted to be able to practice our cultural  traditions; we have always been a part of Russia and we wanted to  return.

Yaroslava is busy helping out with  the Jazz Festival and wants to use the rest of our short time talking to  help me arrange future meetings with people in Crimea. We decided to do  a proper interview via Skype in the future when time allows.

I drift on to the Jazz Festival,  where a talented pianist and band play beach-side to an enthusiastic  crowd. Some songs later, I drift back along the beach, passing numerous  musicians busking, and a pulsing nightlife that isn’t going to bed any  time soon.


Construction everywhere

On the fifth day, we drive back to  Simferopol; Vlad is heading back to Moscow. As we drive, we see road  work repeatedly, just as we had when driving from Simferopol south to  Alushta: roads being widened, repaved; bridges being repaired or newly  built. This is something I observed throughout my travels around Crimea.  I remember Tata’s words about “everything being dilapidated” and have a  hard time imagining that now with what I see.

Vlad departs for Moscow, and I’m on  my own now, traveling from the airport via public bus and minibus. At  one point I ask a young couple, using Yandex translate, for directions.  They get me on the right minibus and, following my route via Yandex  maps, I get myself to Simferopol’s rail station and walk the half-hour  to my nondescript hotel. I again need to ask locals for directions, as  the unmarked hotel is in some parking lot behind a supermarket.

I retrace my steps to the train station  the next day and repeat the routine to buy a ticket for Sevastopol. The  ticket is 119 rubles (just under $2). Over the next two hours on a slow  train with wooden seats, I watch as more beautiful scenery and  construction slide by. 


Arriving in Sevastopol, I leave the  train station and hope to find some cafe where I can charge my phone, as  I need it to navigate to the guesthouse where I’ve theoretically  reserved a room online.

As I stand to orient the map route  and zoom in to look for any signs of cafes, a woman walks by me and says  with a smile something with the word “shto,” which I think means  “what.” When I reply in English, she laughs and flags down another  woman, Yana, who speaks English well and insists she and her husband  drive me.

As we drive, we chat. I ask her about  the referendum, mentioning that many in the West have the notion that  it was done under duress, with a heavy military presence to influence  the vote. She laughs, saying: “There were no troops, no military, around  us during the referendum.” She speaks of the joy of Crimeans to vote,  says that maybe 98 percent of Sevastopol voters had voted in favor [it  was apparently 96 percent, but close enough], and adds, “We are now under the wing of Russia.”

I ask about developments since then.  She mentions the improvements in roads, also the modern trolley-buses  and regular buses, the opening of kindergartens and schools, and free  courses (like music) for children.

We arrive at the remote guesthouse,  where we realize that no one is home to give me a room. Yana mentions  her parents have a guesthouse just outside the city and overlooking the  bay. We drive to it, I meet the owners, charming people who set me up in  a little apartment surrounded by fig and pear trees and with a small  swimming pool to cool off in.

They invite me for dinner, but I have  to politely decline in order to get back to work, though I do take a  few minutes to enjoy their pool, the stars, the silence, and the  incredible fragrance of some night blossoms.

The next few days, when not working  on my laptop, I go for walks in the area, take in Sevastopol Bay, and  one day take a minibus into the city and walk for hours around it,  seeing some of the key sights.

When I finally need to leave  Sevastopol for Simferopol again, the couple refuses to take my money,  insists I am their guest, and drives me to the bus station, stopping en route  at a market where they search for ten minutes until they find the  traditional Armenian treats they want to give me: walnuts covered in the  syrup of various fruits (pomegranate, peach, currant, grape), and a box  of walnut-stuffed dried figs.

Ukrainians in Crimea

In Simferopol anew, I meet Anastasiya  Gridchina, the Chair of the Ukrainian Community of Crimea, an  organization formed in 2015 whose main goals, she tells me, “are to have  friendly relations between two great peoples: Ukrainians and Russians —  not the politicians but the people. The second goal is to preserve  inter-ethnic peace in the Republic between different nationalities.”

Gridchina explains that in Crimea there are more than 175 nationalities, just 20 less than in all of Russia, but in a very small territory. Hence the importance of preserving inter-ethnic peace. After Russians, Ukrainians comprise the second largest population in Crimea.

I ask Anastasiya whether she supported, much less participated in the referendum.

"I worked very hard in order that we could have a referendum. I live in Perevalne, the last settlement in the mountains above Alushta. There was a Ukrainian military detachment which did surrender. 
In February 2014, I was among a line of people standing between the Ukrainian and Russian military detachments, to prevent any bloodshed. The fear that prevailed at that time was that nationalists from Ukraine would come here and we would have massacres.
In February, there was a confrontation outside the Parliament here in Simferopol. It was organized by leaders of the Mejlis — the Crimeans Tatars. On the other side, there were some pro-Russia organizations who were protecting the Parliament. They were far less [numerous] than the Mejlis. The Mejlis were armed with sticks and knives. There were clashes and two people were killed, but thankfully it didn’t escalate beyond that.
When the news came that there would be a referendum, people relaxed. They had a chance to express their point of view and 96 percent of the population of Crimea voted for Crimea to return to Russia.”

Since she is Ukrainian, I ask Anastasiya why she wanted Crimea to join Russia:

"I’ve lived in Crimea all my life, and my language is Russian. And I know the history of Crimea, which has always been Russian territory, which has a history beginning with the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union. So, it is Russian-speaking territory, first of all. That’s why I believe it should be in the Russian Federation, not in Ukraine.”

I ask about the claims that Russian soldiers invaded Crimea:

"Whatever they might have said about Russian soldiers forcing people to participate in the referendum, it was all lies, pure lies. We did not see any soldiers on the streets, especially on the day of the referendum.
I gave an interview to foreign journalists before the referendum. But when they published it, they changed my words. I said we were very thankful to the Russian troops that were here, that protected us from the attacks of Ukrainian nationalists prior to the referendum. But they translated it that I said ‘Please, we want Ukrainian soldiers to defend us from those Russian soldiers.’
The Russian troops that were here were not on the streets on the day of the referendum but, at the time in general, they were there to protect civilians from an attack by Ukrainians.
On the day of the referendum, there were no soldiers, no military. The only security were there to prevent any illegal actions. No military people were there, no arms, no armored personnel carriers, no military equipment, nothing. Only members of the election commission and the people voting.”

I ask whether many Ukrainian Crimeans left following the referendum:

"There were those who immediately after the referendum left Crimea for Ukraine because it was their personal wish. Nobody prevented them from going. Even the soldiers had an option: to stay and continue military service here, or to leave.
There were also some people who didn’t like that Crimea joined Russia, but didn’t leave for pragmatic reasons. Because the quality of life in Russia is much higher than in Ukraine. So they continue living in Crimea.”

Finally, Anastasiya gives me a message for the people outside of Crimea:

"I’d like to tell people around the world, welcome to Crimea, come here yourselves and see and hear with your own eyes and ears, to understand that all the lies you hear about Crimea, that we are oppressed or under pressure from the military…this is all lies, this is all not true.
Also, that we are not allowed to speak Ukrainian is a lie. One of the state languages is Ukrainian. Russian and Tatar are also state languages.”

As she leaves to go to the Ukrainian festival she has helped organize, she notes that the government allotted part of its budget towards financing the festival. She invites me to join. “You can see us singing Ukrainian songs, see our culture and traditions preserved.”

*Yuri Gempel gestures to the location of clashes that broke out in 2014 between pro and anti-Russian protesters. Photo | Eva Bartlett  

Next, I speak to Yuri Gempel, a member of Parliament, and the chairman of the Standard Commission on Inter-Ethnic Relations of the Parliament of Crimea. 

“Crimea, under Ukraine, was robbed,” Gempel says. He continues:

Everything was taken by  the government and representatives of the ruling elite of Ukraine. For  the 23 years Crimea was a part of Ukraine, they robbed Crimea. Not a  single kindergarten was built in Crimea during those years.  Kindergartens built during Soviet times stopped functioning.
But the main issue is that during  that time, the people still felt themselves to be in Russian territory,  not Ukrainian, in language, culture and in spirit. Under Ukrainian rule,  Crimeans were made to speak Ukrainian, although Crimeans’ native  language is Russian. People were deprived of the right to be in state  service if they did not speak Ukrainian.”

I ask Yuri how things changed after the referendum:

After Crimea returned to  Russia, an electric line exploded in Ukrainian territory and Crimeans  were without electricity. Russia very quickly repaired and improved the  electricity situation. We were also cut from water and food supplies  immediately after Crimea returned to Russia.
As a result of the water shortage, we  had to reform our agricultural production. We don’t produce rice now,  because we don’t have enough water. But we grow wheat and other grains.  And we introduced modern agricultural technologies, like drip  irrigation. Now the economic situation has improved, and in some  respects is much better than it was before.”

I then inquire about the 2014 clashes outside the Parliament, which Anastasiya Gridchina had mentioned:

I know the Chairman of  the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People, Refat Chubarov, personally. I  was there at the confrontation between the Mejlis people and pro-Russian  groups at the entrance of the Parliament. I’m absolutely sure that  Chubarov and his colleagues provoked the confrontations in which seventy  were wounded and two were killed. It is their fault that anyone was  wounded and killed. The main goal of the confrontation was to prevent  the session in Parliament from happening; the points of the agenda of  that session were about the referendum.”

I ask Yuri about another issue  Western media refers to in its Crimea coverage: the alleged  discrimination against the ethnic Tatars. Gempel imparts to me a history  lesson:

In 1944, 190,000 Crimean  Tatars were deported from Crimea; this was the largest ethnic group  deported. Also Armenians, Germans, Greeks, Bulgarians.
In the over 23 years Crimea was in  Ukraine, the various ethnic groups demanded the government issue a  decree to rehabilitate those deported people.
In April 2014, after Crimea joined  Russia, President Putin immediately issued a decree regarding the  deported people. After the decree was issued, a federal program was  adopted, with a budget of 10 billion rubles, which included building  multi-storey buildings and improving the infrastructure in the areas  returned deportees live in. The amount of money is much more than what  was given by Ukraine in the 23 years that Crimea was part of Ukraine.”

Tatars make up around 11 percent of  the population, Gempel tells me, but “have representatives in all  branches of power in Crimea, including legislative and in the  Parliament.” As Anastasiya Gridchina mentioned, Tatar is one of the  three state languages, after a resolution on this was adopted by  Parliament.

Standing outside the Parliament,  where the 2014 clashes occurred, Gempel explains where he was at the  time, and says there were no Russian soldiers or tanks. Then laughing,  he points toward a tank monument in a park nearby: “There was only that  tank. It’s been here since 1944.”

Although I want to stay for the  Ukrainian festival, I’m heading to the Donetsk People’s Republic in the  coming days, so instead I take yet another bus ride, this one a  four-hour-long ride eastward to Kerch, the city from which the next day I  am to cross the Crimean bridge back to the mainland.

I decide to use a ride-share program  and arrange to join a car going early the next morning from Kerch and on  to Rostov-on-Don, from where I will go westward to Donetsk.

We cross the impressive 17 km-long  bridge. It is early morning and is also the day before children return  to school, so the bridge isn’t busy. However, by early October, 6.6 million tourists have already visited Crimea, said to be a 10 percent increase from last year, and I can see why. 

*The nearly 11-mile long Crimean Bridge was completed in 2018. Photo | Eva Bartlett 

Having spent over a week traveling by  car and local transport in this utterly beautiful setting, I know I  will be returning to Crimea when the opportunity affords itself.

As for the claims that Russia invaded  Crimea and of Russian forces intimidating voters, I believe the many  people I met who denounced those claims and articulated very clearly why  they wanted to join Russia, or as they say, “return to Russia.”

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