It was like the saleswoman did not want to sell me the magnet I wanted to buy. I already explained to her that my stepmother collected magnets of places which her stepchildren visited. But whenever I again asked to buy the magnet of the railway station of Simferopol, and again she tried to sell me a different magnet. On the magnet was a picture of a soldier, holding a Kalashnikov and completely masked. It was not cheaper, nor more expensive than that of the railway station, but she kept insisting. It was clear to me; these soldiers had been important for her. A look into the 2014 events from the perspective from the Crimeans themselves.
The Soviet Union is still here
‘We did not start celebrating New Year at 11 o clock, we started earlier, on Moscow time. We did this even before Crimea became part of Russia’ a cap driver told us. ‘We watched the president speech, heard the bells of Spasskaya Tower and congratulate each other with the new year.’ It shows how deeply the people in Crimea felt themselves related to Ukraine. In the words of the capdriver: ‘My mother is Ukrainian, my father is Ukrainian, but I, I am Russian, it is how you feel which determines what you are.’
A similar sentiment can be seen in Russia, where people feel like the boundaries of today are not there in family relations. Whether talking to someone from Saint Petersburg, Moscow or Nizhni, often you will hear that got ‘an uncle in Ukraine, a grandfather in Kazakhstan a nephew in Georgia’ or that they all have mixed backgrounds ‘part jew, part Russian, part Polish, part Ukrainian.’ Showing how strong the ties are with the friends and family living in different parts of the former Soviet Union. It were these relations that would deeply effect the attitude of attitude of many living in Crimea and other Ethnic Russian parts of Ukraine.
Enter the Maindan
Initially, the sentiments of almost all people in Ukraine were positive about the protests erupting against the government of Yanukovich. Many considered him to be a corrupt politician and would love to see him go. But as the protests continued the composition of the protesters on the Maidan worried many. About a third of the protestors found themselves on the far right side of the political spectrum. Parties like Svaboda and Pravij Sector held pro-Nazi and strong anti-Russian views. It were these views, dominating the protests, that worried many living in the eastern part of Ukraine and Crimea. They had strong family ties with Russia and like one protestor said in Donetsk. ‘I do not know anyone in the west, my family lives in Russia, it is there where my roots lie.’
As a result of the discontent with the orientation of the Maidan protests, counter demonstrations were being organised in different part of Ukraine. Some people even went so far as to travel to Kiev to take part in anti-maidan protests by bus. It was one of these bus convoys, traveling from Crimea to Kiev, which was intercepted by pro-Maidan supporters. Protestor were being taken out of the busses and molested by pro-maidan supporters, several were even being killed while their busses were set on fire. This event, well known in Russia and Crimea, shocked many. It made many people worry even more about the future orientation of Ukraine and in Crimea.
Cherkassy region, Ukraine. Euro-maidan activists stopped the buses of Crimean pro-government supporters on their way back to Simferopol.
In Crimea people started to get scared that similar events might be organised against them at home. A waiter in a restaurant told us that her own uncle and nephew, having heard that a train filled with far right activists might soon arrive in Simferopol hurried over to meet the train. Armed with self-made shield they, and with them many others, awaited the train. A general sense that something bad might happen had come over the peninsula.
Little Green Men and Polite People
The western world was in shock when all over Crimea, soldiers started appearing. The soldiers were heavily armed, did not wear insignias and were silent, the would eventually be known in the west as ‘Little Green Men.’ They would be the signal to western countries that Russia had taken over Crimea. However, these soldiers would be known under a different name in Crimea. In Crimea they are referred as Вежливые Люди, or ‘Polite People.’ And there is good reason for that.
I would eventually attain the magnet I wanted of the Simferopol train station, but not before the shop owner had did her very best to convince me to buy the magnet with the soldier on it. ‘They were so polite’, she told. ‘Did you see them?’, I asked. ‘Yes! They were, they were standing here. they kept us safe. They were so polite, they helped older people and stood correctly in line when going to a shop.’
Even more apparent were the souvenirs being sold of these soldiers. In every mayor touristic place one could see stalls upon stalls of T-shirts with ‘Polite People’ on them. Next to them other T-shirts depicting the ‘Most polite of all people’, as the T-shirts named him, president Putin himself. And often one would see larger wallpaintings depicting Putin.
A wallpainting in Sevastopol, the text says “Congratulations with the return to the mother’s harbor.”
Still, after everything I have heard from the people living in Crimea. It was still hard to believe the results of the referendum. Of the more than 80% of the people showing up to vote, a staggering +95% would vote in favour of joining Russia, only around 1% would vote in favour of remaining in the Ukraine. If such a staggering result came to be, it should be hard, for someone to know anyone that voted against joining up with Russia. Among the people I asked was a cap driver. I asked whether he knew anyone, friend, family, colleagues, of which he knew that he or she voted against joining Russia in the referendum. The cap driver, responded that everyone he knew voted in favour. Only while talking he remember that the wife of his brother, who was originally from one of the Baltic states, voted against. And judging by the fanatical responses of other people I have been talking to, he was not the only one knowing so little people voting against the joining of Russia.
A picture inside a touring bus. Next to the Saint George Ribbon there is a sticker: “I voted FOR [joining Russia]”, written on a Crimean flag.
For many in the west when soldiers started appearing out of nowhere on Crimea, it was the sign that Russia took over Crimea by force. Asking anyone in Russia about their opinion about ‘Russia’s annexation of Crimea’ might result in a stark reaction. For Crimea, according to them, has not been annexed Crimea, Crimea decided to join Russia, Russia just kept it safe while the referendum took place.
All in all, all people I talked to seemed to have been very glad that Crimea has united itself with Russia. Even the person most critical about the process, seemed hardly negative at all. Referring to the evens in Donetsk and Lugansk he told us about Crimea: “Some things are worse now, somethings are better now, but all in all, at least there is no war here.”