Crimea: The referendum day, a festive day
It was not easy to get to Crimea from the Ukrainian side last weekend. A team of young Polish rescuers were turned away in Kherson. An increased number of ‘stop and searches’ on trains and the platform in Simferopol are aimed at deterring journalists, human rights defenders and observers from entering the peninsula. On Sunday morning, Vitalij Peretiatko, an award-winning poet and prose writer, creating in Ukrainian, managed to get there and, on his return to Kiev, shared what he had seen during the self-organised referendum.
As he himself declares, despite coming from the nearby Mikolaiv, he has never been to Crimea before. He went there to support the defenders of unity with Ukraine shown on TV. – The key to success on Euromaidan lay in the fact that the protest was joined by masses. Had it been only the members of the political movements, pro-government forces would have dispersed them straight away. It did not happen thanks to the support of ordinary people – he explains. Vitalij, led by a civic impulse, went to Sevastopol, the capital of Crimea, on Sunday morning. In vain: he did not meet anyone who he could support there. Tatars are slowly leaving Crimea or staying at home obedient to Mufti, who ordered them to wait for further developments and not be provoked by Russians.
The train freely crossed the boundary of the autonomy but was stopped in Dzhankoy, a north-Crimean city, for an inspection. The official checked the passports and identity cards for nationality and addresses. He was unarmed but, on the platform, there were soldiers with machine guns at the ready. He looked: “registered un Mikolaiv” – that is, ours, as he is from a Russian-speaking region. He let him pass.
In the afternoon, on Lenin square, the main municipal square in Simferopol, a crowd gathered. At one of the stalls they were selling small flags – Crimean flags for 10 hryvnias, Russian a bit cheaper – for five, although they were identical in fabric and shape. The Russian ones were going like hot cakes, soon there were none left. The crowd was puzzled. After five minutes, a new supply was provided – this time, due to demand, the price rose to 10 hryvnias. Meantime, one could hear from the speakers an old favourite by a Russian rocker, Alexandr Ivanov, “Siegodnia ja k tiebie wiernus’, moja niełaskowaja Rus’” (I will come back to you, my ill-disposed Russia). Two men with a professional film camera and a microphone were hanging about on the square. They asked one passer-by after another to sing on camera a couple of verses of the Russian anthem and they willingly did. – They will merge the scenes into a montage thus creating powerful propagandist material – Vitalij commented.
Uniformed men were maintaining order, but there were no soldiers in sight. The Russians hid in an attempt to avoid affecting public opinion – Vitalij explained. Writing in his diary, Vitalij looked suspicious and he was soon approached by one of the activists. – I have come to see what it really looks like. I don’t trust what I see on TV in the least – he confessed openly, this time in Russian, though, to be on the safe side and avoid being removed from the square. – And where are the people who are in favour of Ukraine? – he asked. – They aren’t here – the activist replied. Indeed, there was nobody on the square; no marshrutkas or trolley buses. Innocent questions asked in Ukrainian evoked aggression in the local people. Strangers greeted each other festively in the street, almost as if after the liberation from the hands of the Nazis: “It’s a historical day. We are coming back home. We are coming back to Russia. We’ve had enough of this Ukraine”. A solitary faded Ukrainian flag flew only on the top of the Tatar parliament, Medjlisi. Tatars, however, were busy going about their business – nobody was manifesting support for Ukraine. There were no signs of Ukrainian national symbols either in windows or on balconies. – There are definitely proponents of the unity with Ukraine in Crimea, I know such people in person, but they are at home. They are afraid to go out and appear in public. There’s no point in wasting time and energy helping them – this is how Vitalij concluded his day-long tramp around Simferopol. Listening to him, I can see the difference between Kiev, the Ukrainian reality and Crimea. Vitalij may not fully understand that people are now truly afraid of being killed. Abandoned by Kiev, suspended and uncertain, they are not demonstrating as they are being threatened with clear consequences, death included.
In the evening, after 7 p.m., when he was about to set out on his return journey, the crowd on Lenin square was getting bigger. There could have been as many as 3000 people. Everybody was convinced their decision in the referendum was right. A concert featuring Russian stars was about to begin. Crimean occupiers, some of them intoxicated, were delivering speeches.
It was peaceful on the train heading back to Kiev. The Ukrainian language did not provoke anybody. From Sevastopol, a sectioned-off city in Crimea, a camera crew of one of the Kiev TV stations was coming back, blind drunk. One of the more sober journalists recounted how they had managed to briefly broadcast live coverage before the local services became interested in them. They drove them somewhere outside the city, pointed a gun at their heads and started checking the purity of their Russian tongue. – Even I, a Russian-speaking Ukrainian from Luhansk, paid close attention to every word I said so as not to get killed – he added. Eventually, they let us go, put us onto a train to Ukraine. – The directors of our station don’t care in the least about us. They all shit on us – admitted the embittered journalist.
I spent about an hour with Vitalij over coffee. On our parting, he took out his ticket for the Sunday evening train from Simferopol to Kiev and stated: - It’s obvious that any story which is not backed up with documentation can be treated as a lie or misinformation. That’s why I keep all the receipts.