Letters from Crimea: Embracing family with a side of Putin

Originally published on March 5, 2014.

“Natasha, it breaks my heart that you don’t seem to understand us. That you think we’ve been brainwashed, that we can’t see beyond our immediate future. I feel so powerless trying to convince you to see things our way. We’re a family and yet, we’ve stopped understanding each other. I can’t stop crying.”
“Lena, please don’t take this so hard. We may not think the way you do, but we are far away, safely living in another country. We know your reality is different. I speak for all of us when I say that family comes before politics. Politics is a dirty game. There is no truth to be found on either side. We know you’re just trying to survive. Our thoughts are with you and we stand by you.”
This email exchange took place this morning between my mother, who lives in San Diego, and my aunt, who lives in Crimea — one of many since Russian armed forces entered Crimea under the pretense of protecting ethnic Russians from the political unrest sweeping across Ukraine.

Before the emails, there were phone calls. My aunt reassured my concerned mother that “the situation in Crimea is quite calm,” that “there is nothing to worry about” because they’ve “barricaded themselves in here in Crimea,” and that they’re “not going to let these “zapadentsi [Western Ukrainians] start one of their bloody riots, as they have on the Maidan.” “But have you actually seen any “banderovtsi”* on the streets of Crimea?” carefully inquired my mother. “No, but we watch the news, we see the lawlessness and the chaos on the streets of Kiev and Kharkov and we don’t want that here. And by the way, did you see them toppling the Lenin monument in Ivano-Frankovsk? Thank God the Russians are here. We need all the help we can get.”

My aunt is a warm, loving, peaceful person. But her rhetoric is a testament to the alienation a lot of Russian speakers feel both as citizens of Ukraine and residents of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea. I know because I was one of them.

I was born and raised in Evpatoria, in western Crimea. Growing up in Crimea in the early ’90s, just after Ukraine’s newfound independence, I felt no connection to the rest of the country. I spoke Russian at home and at school and I remember feeling annoyed at having to learn Ukrainian when it was introduced in Grade 6. Ukrainian language and culture were entirely foreign to me, as was the country itself. De facto, my homeland was limited to a tiny peninsula, and there was a part of me that was strangely and defiantly proud to be an outsider in my own country.

We immigrated to Canada in 1995. While I struggled to establish myself in my new home, I also struggled to explain where I came from. “So where are you from?” was the question that would inevitably send me into an existential crisis. “Well, technically, I’m from Ukraine, but actually, I don’t consider it my home, because I speak Russian and come from Crimea. You see, Crimea became a part of Ukraine in 1954…” and on it went. Needless to say, I didn’t make a lot of friends in those early years, as not too many 13-year olds had the patience to hear me explain the short history of identity politics in the Former Soviet Union over lunch break.

My confusion over my identity — was I a Crimean? a Ukrainian? — was finally put to rest when I moved to the US and started working on implementing HIV prevention programs in Eastern Europe. Ten years after I left Ukraine, I began to get to know it as a true outsider. I got to know it through the best people it had — through fierce activists, journalists, dedicated doctors and courageous patients fighting for access to HIV and TB treatment. They were people my age and older who are proudly Ukrainian, who loved their language and culture, and most importantly, who had a sense of ownership of their country. Being a pessimist in the Former Soviet Union is usually a safe bet. Yet, these people actually believed they could change the system. They took on corruption in the government, they fought to change public opinion of people living with HIV and, yes, many times they failed. But sometimes they succeeded, too. By engaging in the kind of work they were doing, they had made a choice for themselves — to not be bystanders in their own country.

It was this same reasoning that brought many of them out on the Maidan last November and then again, in February. They weren’t paid by the US or the EU. They brought money, clothes and food; they donated blood. Some have turned their offices into makeshift hospitals tending to the wounded. Yes, the Maidan had its fair share of military factions and ultra-nationalists but it also had thousands of ordinary citizens tired of being lied to and robbed by the current regime. My friends and colleagues were among them.

This is what I tried and failed to convey to my relatives in Crimea. They’ve learned to speak Ukrainian, but they prefer to read and watch the news in Russian. Like many other Russian-speaking Crimeans, they have cable and prefer to watch the news broadcast from Russia. Over the years, I’ve learned not to debate politics with them as we inevitably end up in a dead-end. They think that I’ve been brainwashed by the US and I think they’ve been brainwashed by Russia. We have yet to master the art of agreeing to disagree.

I was in Crimea in August 2008 when Russian troops entered Georgia. As I picked at aspic and Russian potato salad I listened to my relatives admonish Georgia and the West while praising Putin for his strong hand and the ability to instill order. I quickly lost my appetite but before retreating to my room I gently reminded my family about international law and territorial integrity. Granted, I might’ve also called Putin a dick. I was promptly told that under Putin, Russia has finally gotten off its knees and became a superpower that can hold US aggression in check. And that they regret living in poverty-ridden Ukraine under weak and impotent leadership that is only too happy to submit itself to the US, NATO and the EU.

It is now 2014, and the Georgia scenario is unfolding in Crimea. Across the peninsula there are ongoing attempts by the Russian forces to intimidate the Ukrainian military into handing over their weapons and pledging allegiance to the newly formed pro-Russian Crimean government. Russian troops have taken over the military airbase in Sevastopol, several borders posts and the ferry terminal in Kerch. My relatives who’ve always felt culturally closer to Russia are highly enthusiastic about these developments. They are not alone.

In Evpatoria, my home city, Russian troops temporarily stationed themselves outside a military base. The locals greeted them with cheers. Women brought tea, sandwiches and warm clothes. “We support our boys,” my friend’s mother ecstatically yelled into the phone. “They will protect us from the banderovtsi!” “But have you actually seen any banderovtsi in Evpatoria?” my friend asked in the same puzzled voice as my mother. “No, not yet, but on the news they said that the NATO has sent in its fleet and the US troops are already on the ground and moving towards Crimea. And apparently, someone was seen walking around Simferopol today waving a fascist flag.” “Mom, but what do you think the Russians are going to do? You think they’re going to take back Crimea? They won’t. Crimea’s only source of income is tourism but now the Russian tourists are going to avoid it because they’re afraid of the ‘banderovtsi,’ and Western Ukraine is going to avoid Crimea because they think you all are traitors and that you hate their guts. No one wins, mom.” That conversation ended abruptly, after my friend’s mother, having run out of convincing things to say, began to chant “Rossiya! Rossiya!” into the phone.

What pains me the most about these conversations is the extent of the damage inflicted by Russia’s information war in Crimea. It was a carefully crafted campaign feeding on fear and isolation that many Crimeans felt as the Maidan became the center stage of the Ukrainian revolution — and it worked. For months, Russian TV was deliberately distorting the facts, planting panic and confusion on the ground. For instance, they showed a line of cars on the Russian border with Ukraine, supposedly these were refugees fleeing the bloodshed in Crimea. In reality, it was business as usual on the border between Ukraine and Poland, as cars waited to pass through Polish customs. It reported violent clashes in Simferopol, the capital of Crimea, using footage from one of the bloodiest days on the Maidan in Kiev, filmed on February 18th. It showed a man climbing on top of the City Hall in Kharkov, replacing a Ukrainian flag with a Russian one, thus demonstrating the will of the people. It turned out later that the man was actually a prankster from Russia. Sadly, the straw that broke the camel’s back in Crimea and many other parts of Eastern Ukraine wasn’t Russian media propaganda but the move by the Ukrainian parliament to repeal the 2012 law on minority languages a day after ousting Yanukovich. Though this decision was later reversed, it was spectacularly bad timing on the part of the Ukrainian parliament. The Russian-speakers’ worst fears, which Russian media had stoked with lies for days on end, were confirmed and the few people who initially supported the Maidan Revolution in Crimea had no counter-arguments left.

Watching live streaming from the Maidan over the last few months, I’ve often wondered — why isn’t anyone speaking from the stage to Crimea? Have they forgotten about Crimea’s pro-Russian sentiments? Don’t they understand that every missed opportunity to appeal for national consolidation from Kiev is an opportunity seized by Moscow to seed more confusion and fear on the peninsula? In the last few days we’ve seen an outpouring of support for Crimea across Ukraine. The mayor of Lviv made a video address in Russian, seeking to allay the fears of the Russian-speaking population in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine of the impending invasion by the “zapadentsi” and expressing Lviv’s commitment to the peaceful development of the country. Facebook is brimming with invitations from people in Western parts of Ukraine to house Crimean families during the conflict. But all of this comes too late. The Russians got there first, ready to comfort with a steely embrace, all while confronting an enemy that nobody has actually seen.

As for me…I continue to watch the invasion of my conflicted, confused, beloved Crimea from afar. Helpless. Frustrated. Anxiously refreshing my Facebook feed. With my multiple identities — Crimean, Russian, Ukrainian, Jewish, Canadian, American — holding hands and dancing a clumsy polka in my head.

*A catch-all term for followers of wartime anti-Soviet nationalist guerilla leader Stepan Bandera