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Field Notes

Letter from Crimea: Kiev's Antipode

4 MINS READFeb 14, 2014 | 20:49 GMT

To get to Crimea, I took an overnight train from Kiev to Sevastopol, located on the southwestern tip of the Crimean peninsula. Sevastopol was once a closed city. It is the headquarters of Russia's Black Sea Fleet, at heart a military city. All kinds of military guys can be seen walking the streets — from naval officers in black to standard cadets in green.

Sevastopol is also very Soviet. It feels like the Soviet Union never ended: Soviet-era apartment blocks (the city was almost completely destroyed during WWII) and Soviet monuments are everywhere. The flat I am staying in is near Lenin Park, which has a huge statue of Lenin. War monuments abound — to WWII, to the Soviet war in Afghanistan, etc.

Attitudes are very Soviet/Russian as well. Only Russian is heard, no Ukrainian. When I asked the landlady about what is going on in Kiev, she was completely against the protests. She believed they were organized by the United States and the EU.

In addition to being a Russian naval base, Sevastopol serves as a commercial port. Countless cranes line the port, and commercial and passenger ships can be seen docked and heading back and forth at Sevastopol's Artillery Bay. Many have Russian flags. One had "Slava VMF Rossii!" on it, or "Glory to Russia's Navy!" — a stark contrast to the "Slava Ukrainii!" chants heard in Kiev.

Yesterday I took a bus to Simferopol, Crimea's regional capital, about 80 kilometers away. The drive began on a winding road that revealed a landscape more hilly and mountainous than the flat plains of Kiev and central Ukraine. The bus passed through a few small and poor villages of bleak-looking Soviet apartment blocks, rusting factories and barren fields. The predominant colors were brown and gray.

A billboard had an image of a guy throwing a Molotov cocktail with a cross through it, saying, "Stop Maidan — Crimea is for stability, and No! Foreign Interference!" Several other anti-Maidan signs showed the three main opposition figures with sinister expressions, reading, "Why are people setting fire to Kiev?" and showing photos of some of the protesters in Kiev's Maidan square.

Simferopol was just as Soviet as Sevastopol. The main square also had a large bust of Lenin, even bigger than Sevastopol's. I walked down Karl Marx Boulevard. I was told that the "revolution" in Kiev was illegitimate, didn't represent the will of the people, and that Crimea is currently waiting to see how the situation unfolds and is considering its options, which include separatism in the extreme.

The city has a stagnant, run-down feel to it, seemingly worse off than in Kiev. I noticed several closed shops in the underground, and the exchange rate was higher than in Kiev. There was a lot of bustling activity on the main streets, but the side streets off the main boulevards were very reminiscent of the quiet and dilapidated streets of Chisinau.

I made a quick stop at the Ethnographic Museum of Crimea, which explored the various ethnic groups that once inhabited Crimea. Due to its location, Crimea used to be very diverse, with Crimean Tatars, Russians, Ukrainians, Bulgarians, Jews, Italians, Estonians, etc. inhabiting the peninsula. The ethnic upheavals in the 20th century (Stalin deported all Crimean Tatars after WWII) changed that drastically. Now, Crimean Tatars make up only 5 to 10 percent of the population, Ukrainians less than 20 percent and Russians the majority.

Still, Simferopol does show some diversity, at least more than in Sevastopol. While Russians were dominant, I also saw several Tatars as well as Indians, Chinese and Africans. Crimea's main medical university is in Simferopol, and I rode the train with three Nigerian students who told me there are hundreds of students from Nigeria there. They said that people in Simferopol weren't very nice to them and that their parents were worried.

Overall, my impression of Crimea is that it differs starkly from Kiev in its appearance and feel, let alone from western Ukraine. There is almost no sign of western influence, and the attitude toward what is happening in Kiev is altogether negative. If the political crisis in Ukraine drags on or intensifies, this will be the first place to look to for counter actions.

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