In the 15 months since Crimea was annexed by Russia, Ukraine’s former resort-cum-military base has undergone severe changes. Extremism investigations, kidnapping, intimidation and harassment are all features of working in politically sensitive professions in Crimea. The central bureaucracy and government has been mired in scandal over indecision and incompetence.
Meanwhile, the peninsula is experiencing a crisis of infrastructure, with healthcare under pressure and food prices rising due to changes in supply chains. Electricity is available for limited periods due to the blockade and disruption on the border with Ukraine. Thousands of people have left, whether for political and economic reasons.
Still, life does go on as normal. With thanks to ‘Russia without us’ journal, we present the following account of life in post-annexation Crimea. Writing in November 2015, the author tells of what it’s like to live in anticipation of change.
At Simferopol Airport, I thread my way through the taxis to the bus stands.
- Are you going to Sevastopol?’
- Uh huh. Leaving in five minutes.
- Where do I get a ticket?
- You get it off me. That’ll be 150 roubles.
The driver in his shabby leather jacket chews on a cigarette and squints as he counts my handful of crumpled rouble notes. The bus, which has seen better days, runs from the airport to the city centre via the station and the old town of Bakhchisarai, once the capital of the Crimean Khanate. We pile in as the engine turns over in welcome. I sigh in relief as I lean back in my seat.
Twenty minutes later, we stop at the bus station. The passengers start fidgeting in their seats and glancing around. More people get on the bus, clutching their tickets.
“Is this seat 28? That’s my seat. I need a kip after work, mate.” Perplexed, I give up my seat to the guy in uniform and go up to the driver.
“I told the guys at the station to leave four seat reservations free, but well, these things happen. You’ve got 50 roubles; go and buy yourself some cigarettes. You’re young, after all.”
“But how am I supposed to get to town?”
“You can sit on this – seat 38. We’ll not be stopping in Bakhchisarai; we’ll go straight to Sevastopol. It’s Sunday, all the students are going back; everything’s full up.”
The driver unearths a broken seat from somewhere and hands it to me. I’m supposed to lay it on the floor at the back of the bus – that’s seat 38. I spend the next two hours there, grabbing at the piles of luggage to try to keep my balance as we lurch round corners. An old fellow sitting opposite shrugs his shoulders: “There’ll be more like that to come.”
I got to my friends’ flat in a minibus just like when I was a child. It swayed along the dark streets, smelling of old leather seats and cigarette smoke. I liked being in it. As we passed a stall selling cakes and pastries, I suddenly felt hungry, and — looking at a map — I calculated it was 15 minutes walk to the nearest shop.
I’d flown into Simferopol on a low cost flight, after shoving stuff into my rucksack in a hurry in the morning, so I hadn’t eaten all day. But in the shop my joy abated somewhat. The prices were up there with Moscow ones, and some dairy products and even fruit were still more expensive. I bought some standard student fodder — eggs, bread and mineral water — and headed for the door. Once home, I put my laptop on the kitchen table and set it to play Sergey Solovyov’s 1987 cult film ASSA, which was shot in the Crimean resort of Yalta. I could hear the sound of the sea through the speakers. I looked out of the window — a pity Sevastopol had had no snow yet this year. The next day I was going to meet an old friend from Sevastopol and go to Yalta, to follow in the footsteps of the film’s main character, a young rock musician called Bananan. Kirov street, Yalta. This apartment block features in Solovyev's film, ASSA.We wanted to see if we had changed in the intervening 30 years. We agreed to meet at the bus station for an early bus. We could theoretically buy our tickets there a few minutes before it left, though sometimes it didn’t come and you’d have to change them for the next one and hang around for half an hour waiting for it.
“Could I sit here beside you, lads, and have a bite to eat?” an elderly woman holding a sign reading, “Room to let: all mod cons” nods to us.
“Sure, have a seat. How much for the room?”
“800 roubles a day, with all mod cons. It’s in Sevastopol.”
She opens a small container full of buckwheat kasha and sits down on a lump of wood. Two local dogs immediately run up; they are bus station residents and chase off any other canines that accidentally invade their territory.
“What are you looking at me for?” the old woman asks them, packing her empty bowl away in her plastic bag.
“I’m from Sevastopol, but at the time of the referendum my wife and I were away on holiday, travelling in Asia. We flew out of Ukraine, and flew back through Kyiv. So we had to cross two borders to come home to a different country.
I was born in the USSR and lived through its collapse. So I found myself in a new country, in the same city. I grew up in a difficult period when there was no water, no electricity and no work. And now the same thing has happened again, only in reverse. I’ve lived in three countries without moving anywhere.
I grew up in a difficult period when there was no water, no electricity and no work. And now the same thing has happened again, only in reverse. I’ve lived in three countries without moving anywhere
During perestroika, life was hard if you didn’t pilfer, and this year has felt much the same. When we came back from holiday I discovered I’d lost my job. I had no income, and spent my time just looking for job ads. I used to be an electronics man at a theatre, did the lighting design on several productions — but now my whole life seems like a stage set. I was a cycle courier for a while, just to earn a bit of cash, but for the last year I’ve been working in an office equipment service centre. Darsan cable car, Yalta. The changes here have been rapid. There’s a different currency. And it was all very heavy-handed: they seized the Ukrainian mobile phone network providers, closed them down and sold them to Russia’s largest operator MTS, although they had promised that both systems would continue functioning.
The railways and stations are deserted; they’ve fired most of the staff and all that’s left is a few suburban lines. Factories and businesses have also closed down; those that didn’t move elsewhere were sold. We have been more or less cut off from Ukraine, but not yet attached to Russia. Deliveries are a big problem: the post and transport companies are very unpredictable, and many Russian firms just refuse to transport goods into Crimea.
We have been more or less cut off from Ukraine, but not yet attached to Russia
The roads are also gradually deteriorating: there are no road workers left. I’ve never seen the like of it before: last autumn and winter there was no street lighting, even in the city centre. After six in the evening the whole place was in pitch darkness; it was really scary. And the hall and stair lights in residential buildings were also switched off.
On special occasions there are police everywhere now; they cordon areas off and search bags at all the entrances. There are more cops than revellers.
At first they raised salaries to 30,000-40,000 roubles a month [300-400GBP], but then dropped them again to 8,000-15,000 [80-150GBP] [figures for May 2015 show average Russian monthly salary at 31,200 roubles, or 312GBP –ed.]. Many people are losing their jobs at a time when the rouble is falling and the currency changing. People have no time to get off their knees before they are hit on the head even harder again.
I take very few photos on film; it has become incredibly expensive to buy, develop and scan. Sometimes I use old supplies. I used to get through between two and five films a week when I did a lot of cycling around Crimea. Now I’ll use one film every two or three months, maximum. Scanning and developing is more expensive here than in St Petersburg, for example. Everybody has their own price comparison indicator, but that’s an obvious one for me. Vegetables and groceries also cost more than in the northern capital. Lenin embankment, Yalta.The reason why I compare everything with St Petersburg is that my sister’s husband has gone there to work — his firm here had to close because of the sanctions. He left his wife and one year old baby here.
The IT sector has totally collapsed in Crimea: everyone who could leave has done so. They’ve gone to all kinds of places: Lviv, Kyiv, Poland (a lot), Asia — and a few to Moscow and Piter. And proper foreign companies have been banned from operating in Crimea.
The IT sector has totally collapsed in Crimea: everyone who could leave has done so. They’ve gone to all kinds of places
Medicines are officially free here, but you have to stand in one queue after another and take out an insurance policy. My father has diabetes and needs insulin, which you can only get from a hospital. But the last time he went for his regular supply, they just said, ‘we don’t have any insulin’. And that was that. But he needs two or three injections a day, and won’t survive without them.
He started to eke out what he had left, to reduce his dose. He went back to the hospital several times, but got the same answer and nearly died. He became ill, was taken to hospital by ambulance and lay there for five days without any treatment. It’s hard to even talk about it: he weighed only 40kg, perhaps even less. They didn’t give him insulin, all they did was put him on a saline drip, which we bought ourselves — they didn’t have any of those either.
We nearly didn’t get permission to take him out of the building: the lift operator refused to take him and in the end I more or less carried him as he couldn’t climb any stairs. His pulse rate was around 200 and he could hardly speak, but the doctors did nothing. We started swearing and called A&E, but they wouldn’t take him because they had no medication either.
Then we asked them to write a formal refusal to treat him, and after that they took him and returned him to consciousness within a day, and then they transferred him to a diabetes clinic where the atmosphere and organisation was very different. They cared for their patients, everything was clean and comfortable and they started treating him with insulin.
That’s the sort of madhouse we have here. A nurse earns 8,000 roubles a month [80GBP]. How can you live on that? And these are the people who save others’ lives and are responsible for the health of the next generation. “Crimea is Russia!”. Sevastopol. Our banking system in Crimea is also unusual, unlike any in either Russia or elsewhere. You can’t pay with a card anywhere or take money out anywhere on the ‘mainland’. When we went to Vietnam last year, a dollar cost eight hryvnia; when we returned, it had jumped to 24 hryvnia. The collapse of Crimea’s banking system meant that we lost about half of our savings using our cards in Asia.
People saved money for years, and then the exchange rate suddenly became totally unstable. Everybody tried to put their savings somewhere, anywhere, so as not to lose them completely. A cheap car market opened up and people started to buy up cars, mainly from Krasnodar, just across the Kerch Strait from Crimea. Cars are cheaper in Russia than in Ukraine anyway.
So now our traffic is a nightmare: everywhere is like a megapolis and for little Sevastopol it’s crazy. For a year now there have been constant tailbacks morning and evening, and it takes me over an hour to get to work, instead of 20 minutes as before. Petrol, on the other hand, has become a little cheaper, but there are long queues to buy it because of the electricity shortages.
All managerial posts in the public sector are occupied by stooges from the mainland, not by Crimeans
But we have no time to relax, before the lights go out. They give us two hours of electricity every six hours. In those two hours we charge up everything we can; we wash and use the internet, if it’s working. We also need to do the shopping while there’s light. The whole population is trying to buy generators, which are the hottest products around. They buy them up in Krasnodar, and resell them at home. A few shops that have constant electricity allow people to recharge their mobile phones for free. And this is just what’s happening in the city: there has been no electricity in the villages for days, and before Friday the city of Kerch had no lights for 72 hours.
Street and exterior lighting is off completely. The city is pitch black after six in the evening. They tell us it will be take more than a month to restore it. The trolleybus and tram systems are also closed down. What’s happened to the drivers – were they made redundant or been given an extra holiday? People spend hours in enormous queues for petrol, and schools and nurseries are shut. We have to think about where to buy food, as the supermarkets aren’t working either: we can only manage to find something or other in small shops working by lamp — or candlelight or with their own generators. “Sevastopol. Russia. Forever.”All managerial posts in the public sector are occupied by stooges from the mainland, not by Crimeans. A lot of outsiders have also bought up property. And there is an enormous amount of pilfering going on, just like in the 90s. And now, as then, some people are thriving, while others have nothing to eat. It’s all just terrible.
But these are just temporary ordeals; I still believe in a bright future. I try to enjoy life and special moments in it. I love my homeland and will go on cycling around it and taking pictures, whoever happens to be in power.
All photographs courtesy of Mark Ivlin.
This article was first published in Russian at ‘Russia without us’ journal.
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