Would Most Crimeans Rather Be Russian?

Mar 10, 2014 at 6:02 PM ET

“I’m horrified by what is happening,” the woman says.

Her name is Lyudmila Naumenko, and she works at an ethnographic museum here in the Crimean capital of Simferopol. We met last Friday, and I was surprised to learn that what horrifies her isn’t the Russian invasion or the Cossacks and other pro-Russian militias patrolling the streets, some armed with whips. It’s just the opposite.

“I don’t think you can describe what has happened as an invasion,” she says. “The Russian troops are here to protect our rights.”

Ever since the Russian military rolled into this peninsula on the Black Sea, Crimea’s new pro-Kremlin rulers—and their masters in Moscow—have argued that seceding from Ukraine is simply the will of the people here, where 60 percent of the population are ethnic Russians.

Next week’s referendum is, in some ways, a vote at gunpoint, as Russian troops and their “civil defense group” allies are clearly intimidating Ukrainians and Tatars. But most of the Russians I spoke with in Simferopol seem to agree with Naumenko. They support the presence of Russian troops, feel threatened by the new federal government in Ukraine and believe that joining Russia offers them a better economic future.

According to a poll conducted in January by the Kiev-based Razumkov Center, about half of Crimeans say they best identify with Russia.

“We were always different from Ukraine,” says Tatyana Shamaneyova, a journalist with the Crimean public television. “After the Soviet Union was dissolved, we suddenly woke up in another country. And the mainlanders humiliate us by calling us occupiers.”

Until the Soviet Union fell apart, Crimea had been a part of Russia—or its empire—for 200 years. A statue of Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin still stands confidently on the city’s main square, facing a massive government building, built in the grim style of the Soviet era.

Today one of the most charged issues for ethnic Russians revolves around language. After the revolution, the new Ukrainian government tried to abolish Russian as an official language. The effort failed due to a presidential veto, but Russian television channels have been fanning the flames of the controversy.

“We have gotten used to being a part of Ukraine,” says Naumenko. “But they have been trying to impose Ukrainization on us.”

Margaryta Aradzhyoni, a Simferopol-based historian of Crimea’s ethnic communities, says Russian complaints about language go back to the breakup of the Soviet Union. “When Crimea stayed with Ukraine, many Russians were very unhappy,” she says. “At the same time, there was a great outpouring of national sentiment on the part of the Ukrainians and there was a feeling that everybody should now speak Ukrainian. So a lot of television shows were dubbed into Ukrainian, and that made some Russians even more resentful.”

Naumenko and other Crimean Russians have called the Ukrainian protesters in Kiev fascists. But at a pro-Russian rally on Saturday, few seemed bothered by the authoritarian nature of Moscow’s government. “It doesn’t trouble me at all,” says Roman Netsayev, a student who is studying to be a civil servant. “In Russia everybody respects [President Vladimir] Putin. We don’t care if it’s democratic or not. He can keep the world’s biggest country in order. The main thing is that our rights as Russians will be respected.”

Of course, there are some dissenting voices among ethnic Russians. Liubov Kalmakova, a lawyer, says the complaints about language rights are ludicrous. “All higher education is in Russian, as are almost all the television programs and newspapers,” she says. “If anybody has a right to complain, it’s the Ukrainians.”

Russian is the dominant language here. All street signs and billboards are in Russian. Even many of the indigenous  Crimean Tatars speak it as their main language, as do some of the ethnic Ukrainians.

“People have been duped, brainwashed,” Kalmakova says. “They think they will have more money if we become part of Russia. But nobody will recognize the annexation and we will be a pariah state, shut out of Europe and run by a bandit government.”

As she spoke, Kalmakova periodically cried. Like Naumenko, she’s horrified about what’s happening in Crimea, only for different reasons. “I will have to move,” she says. “Leave my friends and my home. I cannot live here like this.”