Ukrainians in Crimea Ask: To Stay or Go?

Mar 13, 2014 at 3:41 PM ET

SIMFEROPOL, CRIMEA—Everything went fine until the two women showed up.

I was at a cafe interviewing a pro-Ukrainian journalist about the situation in Crimea when two middle-aged Russian women, standing by the counter and no doubt overhearing our conversation, suddenly cut in. “Crimea is for Russia! It has always been Russia!” one of them yelled, raising her fist. “Russia! Russia!”

The journalist I was chatting with, a young woman called Svetlana, began arguing with them, and things only got worse. The two women told her she was a fool and a bitch. We eventually left, only to hear more abuse directed at her, especially after she unfurled, rather provocatively, a big Ukrainian flag.

As Russia tightens its hold over the Crimean peninsula and moves inexorably closer to annexation, all of the ethnic Ukrainians I spoke to here seem shocked and terrified by what is happening. They describe the Russian movements as aggression. Many of them say that they not dare speak Ukrainian on the street now. Everybody knows somebody who has recently moved to the mainland or plans to.

Svetlana doesn’t seem troubled by the aggression. “I’m a citizen of Ukraine and a patriot. Whatever happens, I’m staying, even if I have to die here,” she says. “It’s the 21st century. You can’t just take us and give us to another country. It’s absurd.” Though she initially thought ethnic Ukrainians should avoid provoking the pro-Russian militias prowling the streets in Crimea, she now feels that they must go out and protest the annexation.

At the only Ukrainian church in Simferopol, an elderly woman called Maria Sophia Kovalova was in tears. “I can’t even express how awful it feels. All these foreign flags and armed men around,” she says. “Now we are in Russia. I’m here alone, my husband has passed away and my daughter lives in Poland. I would go too but how can I leave my homeland?”

In the local ethnographic museum, two elderly women were working on a seven-meter long embroidery commemorating the 200th birthday of Taras Sevchenko, Ukraine’s national poet. “We lived in the Soviet Union and we never considered Russians as our enemies,” says the 88-year-old Valentine. “But now they act like occupiers.”

The embroidery is a lovely, if simple, piece. It has a single verse from a Sevchenko poem, translated into 91 different languages, repeated again and again. “I don’t know whom they’re asking protection against—no one has ever damaged their rights,” Valentina says, referring to the Russians. “We are many different people living here together and have never fought each other.” The other woman, an ethnic Russian, didn’t contradict her.

There have been a couple of pro-Ukraine demonstrations in the last few days, one near a military base outside Simferopol and another in town, at Sevchenko’s statue. Perhaps 500 people, of all classes and ages, came to the town demonstration, waving the Ukrainian flag and carrying balloons in the national colors of yellow and blue. They chanted slogans like “We don’t want the Soviets,” “Putin is not Russia,” and “We will not be slaves!”

“The local Russians have bought into Putin’s propaganda,” opines Pavel Kolonichenko, a middle-aged businessman who says he comes here every year for Sevchenko’s birthday. “I don’t agree with the Russian annexation. Crimea is part of Ukraine and Ukraine is a sovereign state. I’ve lived here for 30 years and it’s a much better place than Putin’s Russia. I hope one day we’ll be able to join the European Union and not the Soviet Union again.”

Irina, an elderly woman, says the best thing about Crimea is the ability of its different ethnic groups to live together. “You can live like that in Ukraine. Everybody respects everybody else’s right and we’re all friends. That will never work in Putin’s Russia,” she says. “I never thought that our own brothers the Russians would attack us.”

Iryna Brunova-Kalisetska, a professor of conflict studies at the local university, says Russians and Ukrainians have long coexisted peacefully on the peninsula. The two groups not only get along, often marrying each other, but it’s often difficult to tell them apart, as many Ukrainians speak Russian as their first language, she explains.

Russia sees a creeping Ukrainian influence here, she adds. Twenty years ago, everything one read or watched was in Russian; now there are some TV channels, newspapers and textbooks in Ukrainian. “So they perceive that as a threat. But Ukrainians are also afraid to lose their identity. There is a fear that Russia doesn’t really recognize them as a people, as a nation.”

Ukrainian intellectuals I spoke with dread the prospect of living under Putin’s oppressive system. “I wouldn’t be able to do my work in Putin’s Russia,” says Brunova-Kalisetska. “I work with NGOs and foreign organizations, so I would be marked as a foreign agent.”

But others are torn. Andrey Glevatsky, a 38-year-old web programmer, is considering sending his family to the mainland. “It’s not easy to leave. We have land here, a house,” he says. “I might send my wife and daughter away if things get worse. But I’m staying.”