I have come to Crimea every summer of my life, without exception. That might sound somewhat grand, but it’s a family tradition, adhered to by my mother, aunt, grandfather, and great-grandparents before them. I was born here, as was my cousin; my mother met my father here; and my great-grandmother is buried here. Despite its holiday-land reputation, our annual visit can hardly be characterised as a typical vacation – pilgrimage is a more appropriate word.
Our annual visit is more a pilgrimage than a vacation.
It’s our family's spiritual home. My great-grandmother bought her little plot of land in Koktebel in the 1950s to be close to the artists' community founded by free-thinking poet and artist Maximilian Voloshin. With great difficulty (she had no legs), every year she made the journey from Moscow, sculpting from local clay and stones, in her studio, surrounded by like-minded bohemian dissident friends. It’s hard to turn your back on a tradition like that.
At the end of last summer, I finally came to admit the fundamental importance of Crimea for me, and decided to dedicate my time to it – making it the focus of my activities rather than a backdrop to them. I saw that a lot of the treasured local Crimean culture and nature were being trampled by careless tourists, and wanted to concentrate my efforts on doing whatever I could to encourage a more sensitive, alternative traveller. So this year I set aside six months to devote to this new life project, whatever it might become. Little did I know that this very year, events would turn Crimean life in an utterly new direction.
When I first heard that reverberations from the Maidan were being felt in Crimea, I was 100% sure annexation was out of the question. As it drew closer, with the referendum, I observed from afar, speechless, completely dumbfounded. I had never experienced politics so directly affecting me: how could this place where I grew up, which I knew as a part of Ukraine, suddenly change country! I was sure the referendum would somehow be reversed, it was a temporary glitch, but as time wore on this possibility disappeared gradually over the Crimean horizon.
Voting in the Crimea referendum earlier this year. (c) RIA Novosti/Taras Litvinkenko
I never thought a new chapter of Crimean history would be written on my watch.
Perhaps to an earlier generation, even my mother, who had witnessed unpredictable geopolitical change like the collapse of the USSR, this was less shocking. But to my childish imagination it was like having the carpet pulled from beneath my feet. I embarked on a feverish reading of a book on Crimean history. The first few pages revealed how naïve my expectations of permanence were because impermanence had almost always dogged Crimea, which was constantly tugged at from all sides by various neighbouring powers. I knew all that before, of course: Greeks, Bulgarians, Tatars, Armenians, Ukrainians, and Russians had all left their mark on this land, somehow co-existing for better or worse, which is what made Crimea's rich inter-layering of cultures so appealing. But somehow that was history, and I never thought a new chapter would be written on my watch. Even now, after spending two and a half months there witnessing the gradual metamorphosis, it hasn't sunk in and I can’t stop thinking of Crimea as Ukraine.
Upon arrival in Crimea this year, I found that two things stood out immediately: the general euphoria at the annexation, and the new travel circumstances. This was aptly embodied by my own journey with my family. We happened to travel on the very first flight of a new huge 700-seater Boeing, operated by Transaero, so TV crews saw us off from Moscow and greeted us in Simferopol upon arrival. The plane was ceremoniously welcomed by a celebratory 'water arch,' pumping water over the plane on the runway from two fire engines, a bizarre yet typical display of Russian (Soviet) bravado. Previously, the majority of holidaymakers would travel by train through Ukraine, but this had now become a risky affair, and the previously neglected Simferopol airport was bursting at the seams, unable to cope with the sudden volumes of traffic.
Understandably, travel became the first topic for any conversation with newcomers. Aeroflot audaciously launched its new budget airline 'Dobrolet' ('good flight') which after 55 days had to cancel its flights because of the sanctions. There was also the 'single ticket' route option from Russian Railways: a combined ticket to the coastal cities of the Black Sea (Anapa or Krasnodar); buses to the port; a journey by ferry to Crimea; and further buses to local destinations – quite a journey and by no means simple or 'single.'
A 'direct' train avoiding Ukraine started operating in August. It took 46 hours from Moscow (as opposed to the usual 26) and also involved passengers having to disembark and re-embark for the ferry crossing. There was also talk of a direct bus route following a similar route. Independent travellers could go by car, but hugely overcrowded ferries caused queues of up to two days at the ports.
The usual train route still exists, though few people are aware of it, and those who are avoid it. There were rumours that almost anyone could be taken off the train at the border if they were suspected of being a Russian forces volunteer trying to gain access to the country as a tourist; special travel permits were essential. I chose this option for my return journey: the train is now mainly used by short-distance travellers, and I ended up having to pay Ukrainian customs small bribes amounting to approximately £60 for travelling without a permit.
This huge variety and unpredictable nature of routes, making it ironically more difficult and more expensive for Russians to reach Crimea now than when it was part of Ukraine, was a natural subject of hype and rumour. But also a popular subject, not least because it was a generally neutral introductory topic, a good ground for gauging your companion’s political stance without directly approaching it, which caution had suddenly become very necessary.
Historically, Koktebel had attracted visitors from Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and beyond who came to enjoy a carefree bohemian summer in the sun away from everyday life; and at one in their ignorance of geopolitical origins. Now the spectre of politics had risen up like a silent menace.
Old friends might be on the other side of the ideological barricades.
Many were surprised to find old friends on the other side of the ideological barricades; and the water had to be tested before old friendships could be re-ignited. As a result, people spoke 'in code.' I witnessed conversations where it was almost impossible to identify what people were talking about. 'It’s terrible what’s happening, they’re all zombifying us' one friend would say to another, referring to the media and politicians; the other would agree, but who were the 'they' – Ukrainian or Russian media? I suspected they were talking at cross purposes, but they parted without rancour, agreeing that politics are best ignored because they 'give you a worse hangover;' and that the summer should be enjoyed no matter what.
On one occasion at a friend’s house, for drinks with my family, one guest began loudly declaring his support for 'Crimea is ours,' the motto of annexation enthusiasts. My aunt let him know that she wasn’t a 'Crimea is ours' supporter, which provoked an avalanche of abuse, including the view that she should stay away from Crimea if she was against the annexation. We had to beat a hasty retreat to avoid further escalation.
Another acquaintance had the misfortune to voice his disapproval of the annexation outside his home, within earshot of his pro-annexation neighbour, resulting in a physical attack leading to hospitalisation and subsequent legal action.
When I met a neighbour on my allotment patch, a middle-aged local factory worker of Ukrainian descent, she also tested the water with me, asking whether I planned to return to England or stay in Russia? When I said that I was weary of the instability here, and she realised I was an annexation sceptic, she rejoiced at the obviously rare chance of speaking to someone like-minded. With pleas for me to keep her opinions secret from the other neighbours, and in a hushed voice, she told me how there had been no work at her factory for five months (foreign orders were cancelled and Russian ones have not yet come in), and how, when she mentioned this to a friend on the bus, a stranger threatened to report her to the police for criticising the annexation.
A friend who lives in Simferopol said she found some leaflets in the foyer of her apartment block encouraging residents to report anyone they heard criticising the annexation. Out of interest she called the number provided: it was the local branch of the FSB.
‘Crimea is ours!’
I heard many stories of friends, neighbours, and families falling out over political differences. Many opponents of the annexation have indeed chosen to avoid Crimea, but rumour has it that many Russian nationalists and supporters have chosen to make it their holiday destination this year in order to show their support. A Tatar restaurant and hostel owner in the central Crimean mountains said she was surprised to see an influx of tourists from much more diverse Russian locations, such as the Urals and Siberia, rather than the usual Moscow crowds. Many were wearing T-shirts with Putin on them, or anti-Western slogans; stalls selling annexation souvenirs popped up all along their coast, even Crimean sweets with the 'Crimea is ours' slogan.
'Yes, the season is low this year,' said an elderly neighbour who rents out rooms, but 'Crimea is ours.'
But, whether because of the apparent instability, or the travel difficulties, many fewer tourists reached the Crimean coast this year. A blessing for the remaining holidaymakers – accommodation prices were low, beaches clean and empty, for many a nostalgic return to the long-forgotten Koktebel of their youth in the 70s and 80s. But for the locals, this was an undoubted blow to their livelihood. This, however, did not deter many from their enthusiasm and expectation of a bright future. 'Yes, the season is low this year,' commented an elderly neighbour who rents little rooms in her home to holidaymakers as her main source of income, 'but 'Crimea is ours,' she rejoiced. This exclamation became the almost obligatory conclusion to the growing list of gripes as the summer went on. 'There’s no petrol, the ATMs aren’t working, no phone service, problems with the water, food prices rising… but 'Crimea is ours,' another neighbour concluded with a weary sense of self-irony at the prospect of an uncertain winter ahead.
Telephones and other services
Telephone services and other essentials (such as money transfers) have been linked up to the closest Russian region, the Krasnodar Krai. Getting cash out of an ATM proved a matter of rare luck; petrol was intermittent; and the transition from a Ukrainian to Russian phone system was rather problematic. Rumours abounded, and it was impossible to predict which would come true (I noticed an influx of gypsy fortune-tellers…). On the day a major Ukrainian phone provider was blocked, many were taken by surprise. Huge queues of disgruntled customers formed at SIM card retailers, waiting for the mythical Russian SIM cards, with no idea of when they would arrive: the impotent shop assistant sarcastically announced, 'they’re going to arrive two hours ago,' but in reality it took a few days.
Travelling by train from Moscow to Crimea used to take 26 hours, it now takes 46. Photo CC: Lukasz Kryger
‘The Russian SIM cards are going to arrive two hours ago,’ joked the mobile phone retailer.
Unsurprisingly, almost every area of Crimean life was affected. Restoration works on 14th century frescoes in an ancient church were abandoned because the Ukrainian restorers had to leave. Russian restorers would have to be found to carry on with the work, but without a handover they’d have a hard job of it.
The changeover from Ukrainian to Russian produce was noticeable, with the transitional period causing huge discrepancies. Sometimes the same wine would cost double the price in one shop than its neighbour. I saw half a litre of ordinary cream priced more than a litre of premium vodka. Ukrainian and Russian cigarettes would co-exist on shop counters with the warning 'smoking kills' written in either Russian or Ukrainian, and the shopkeepers would joke: 'which ones do you want? Would you like to be killed in Russian or Ukrainian?' My mother's favourite Russian saying, 'it would all be quite funny if it wasn’t so sad,' became increasingly true as the summer progressed.
But the ghost of eastern Ukraine continued to loom. Many annexation enthusiasts and even agnostics would comment, 'thank goodness we were annexed – if we hadn't been, we'd be in the same situation as them.' Though in a strange way, the war seemed more distant in Crimea than when I had been glued to the computer screen in Moscow or London. The Crimean summer felt like a guilty 'feast in the time of plague;' uneasy at lying in the sun by the sea, with the knowledge that somewhere rivers of blood were flowing.
In a strange way the war seemed more distant in Crimea than in Moscow or London.
It was from refugees rather than the media that we received news from eastern Ukraine. Many had fled the affected areas, and Crimea was a top destination. Refugee camps were set up, and benefits made available. Donation points for clothes, goods, and money were set up in cities. A woman approached me on the nudist beach (a popular Crimean establishment) asking to borrow a hairbrush, but then immediately turned to more serious matters – did I know of any refugee camps in the area? She came from Luhansk.
Summer ended, our family has left Crimea for Moscow, but a refugee from Kramatorsk will be spending the winter in our summer home. She also used to spend her summers in Koktebel like the rest of us, but, unlike us, she has no home to go back to.