Photograph by Gerd Ludwig. Source: National Geographic
It is in Ukraine. It is, in geographical terms, not so far, but also not so distant, from Russia. It is ruled by an autonomous government supervised by Kiev’s authorities. But when it comes to bulk of its people, there is hardly any feeling about being Ukrainian though. They mostly talk in Russian, that’s fine; most of the populace in Ukraine is bilingual, back then, thanks to its centuries-long historical ties with the former, in particular during Soviet’s rule, lasting seven decades. Nevertheless, deep down their hearts, many of these residents feel more proud to be Russians, display Russian culture with more ostentatiously than with Ukrainian one, and almost everything they do in daily lives is much or less similar to their Russian counterparts.
This is Crimea, Ukraine’s uneasy peninsula.
2014 has been an entirely challenging year for Ukraine, notwithstanding its current, interim government in Kiev. A months-long political protest in Kiev that saw nearly a hundred civilians killed. Internal split between those who support Brussels and the others who favor Moscow much better (part of that reason may be attributed to Putin’s high willingness to provide financial rescue package worth 15 billion US$ to Kiev). A shaky, provisional regime now being tested with the interference of a few thousand Russian troops in Crimean peninsula, excluding numberless scores of pro-Russian militiamen now occupying most government offices in the territory. Exacerbate that matter with today’s Crimean parliamentary referendum, most of which favors ‘unification with Russia‘.
With another referendum for majority of the 2-million-strong population in Crimea scheduled in no more than 10 days, the future of this peninsula remains in deep limbo. Will it continue to be part of Ukraine? Or will it embrace back the hugs of Moscow?
This article, released in National Geographic Magazine‘s April 2011 edition, attempted to explore deeper what exactly happens in Crimea, the crown that, implicitly stated, dubiously ‘belongs’ to both Ukraine (in nationality) and Russia (in identity). Click the link to find out more.
The Crimean Peninsula is a diamond suspended from the south coast of Ukraine by the thin chain of the Perekop Isthmus, embraced by the Black Sea, on the same latitude as the south of France. Warm, lovely, lush, with a voluptuously curved coast of sparkling cliffs, it was a jewel of the Russian Empire, the retreat of Romanov tsars, and the playground of Politburo fat cats. Officially known as the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, it has its own parliament and capital, Simferopol, but takes its orders from Kiev.
Physically, politically, Crimea is Ukraine; mentally and emotionally, it identifies with Russia and provides, a journalist wrote, “a unique opportunity for Ukrainians to feel like strangers on their own territory.” Crimea speaks to the persistence of memory—how the past lingers and subverts.
In 1954 Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev, First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, signed Crimea over to Ukraine as a gesture of goodwill. Galina was 14 at the time.
“Illegal,” she said, when asked about the handover. “There was no referendum. No announcement. It just happened.”
What was Khrushchev thinking?
“He wasn’t,” she snapped. “Khrushchev had roaches in his head.”
Crimea was a lovely present, but the box was empty. Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union anyway. “My parents discussed the transfer, but we weren’t concerned,” Galina said. Moscow was still in charge. No one could have ever imagined the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, when Crimea would be pulled out of the orbit of Russian rule along with an independent Ukraine.