Admit it, you’re sick to death of Crimea. Writing a series set in one war has made me rather single-minded, and looking back over my time at the History Girls I seem to have written about little else. But as this will be my final post here I hope you’ll let me take just one last look at it, and tell the story no-one else in the West seems to want to tell.
They really don't. When the official narrative is that ‘Russia has stolen Crimea’, no-one wants to hear about Crimeans except as Ukraine’s ‘property’ and a pawn in the Great Game. What they forget is that Crimeans are also people, and sometimes ordinary people can change the world. In the last week of February 2014 some of them did just that, and just this once I'd like it to be recognized.
All right, February is hardly history, but I think the story fits here because of what it reveals about the historical process itself. To me it was a unique one, because I know the place, I know the people, and I was aware of what was happening before it was history. Usually I start with the official narrative and work backwards to the primary sources, but this time I’ve watched events unfolding through the eyes of the people actually living them – and been astounded to see the entirely different narrative now hailed as ‘official history’. It’s made me start to wonder how much official history we can believe in at all.
We certainly can’t rely on contemporary media. It was almost fun at first, being ‘in the know’, watching with smug superiority as a Western reporter scrambled round mispronouncing everything and screaming ‘BREAKING NEWS! A Russian frigate is approaching Sevastopol Harbour!’ The poor man obviously didn’t know there’s always a Russian frigate patrolling the harbour entrance to protect the base of the Black Sea Fleet – and sometimes a great deal more. This is a photo from my last visit there, and I hate to think what he’d have said if he’d seen this:
But it didn’t stay funny for long. The tensions were real, of course, and the forces of the Black Sea Fleet did indeed intervene to ensure the referendum went ahead, but the tone of the reportage gave everything an increasingly unfair and sinister twist. The presence of the naval base has always meant a constant stream of military traffic between Russia and Crimea, but suddenly every truck with Russian number plates was ‘proof of invasion’. Conscription in Ukraine had only ended four months ago, Crimea was obviously full of people with military experience, but still reporters wrote excitedly that the ‘little green men’ were obviously professionally trained and the Russian Army itself was invading.
|'Russian' soldiers in Crimea|
I knew then what the narrative was going to be, and am not ashamed to say I felt sick. I knew this was a genuine popular uprising, my friends had been talking about it for weeks, but I also knew no-one would ever believe it.
I switched off the news and went back to work. I’m a historian, I steer clear of ‘current affairs’ for fear of being ‘political’, and it seemed best to keep my head well down. But even history wasn’t safe. As I already mentioned here, Facebook, Twitter, political and even historical forums were seething with ‘revised’ history which whitewashed Russians out of Crimea’s past, and if I attempted to point out the fallacies I was invariably rewarded with a response like ‘What’s the weather like in Moscow?’ or more simply ‘F*ck off, Putin-bot.’ Even historical knowledge had become suddenly dangerous if it clashed with the official narrative on Crimea.
But history is crucial to all this, and without it we can’t begin to understand why the Russians of Crimea did what they did. I don’t want to be political, and can’t even say I agree with all of it, but here (just for once) is the story as it looks from their point of view.
It starts as a military one. I’ve already written about the Russian ancestors in Crimea before the Khanate, but when Catherine the Great conquered the peninsula in 1783 it quickly became the heartland of Russian military power. The vital warm water port of Sevastopol became home to the Black Sea Fleet, and the town itself was built to service it.
This was the place the British, French and Turkish came to conquer in 1854 – and the incredible resistance they encountered forms the centrepiece of the Crimean War. My novels deal mainly with soldiers and battles, but the British were even more awed by the women and children who worked with their own hands to build up by night what the Allied guns destroyed by day. Tolstoy’s beautiful ‘Sevastopol Sketches’ gives a unique picture of the courage of ordinary Russians going about their daily business while the guns fired relentlessly overhead. For me his most unforgettable image is of the pavements shattered by British artillery – and two little girls playing hopscotch over the cracks.
They fought to the end. Only when the French took the ‘Malakoff bastion’ did the civilians finally retreat over a pontoon bridge to the safety of the ‘Severnaya’, but even that was an astonishingly brave operation, performed at night in such disciplined silence that not even the British at their gates knew it was going on. After eleven long months, the Siege of Sevastopol of 1854-5 has to be one of the most gallant defences history has ever known, and no-one demurred when the peace settlement of a few months later returned the town to the people who’d fought for it for so long.
|Detail from 'Last Look' by Franz Roubaud - The Evacuation of Sevastopol|
That’s surely enough military glory for anyone – but in WWII Crimea had to do it all over again. I must stress that not all Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars collaborated with the Nazis, but the fact remains that the only significant resistance to Germany’s invasion of 1941-4 was made by the Russian people of Crimea. The role of Kerch is often ignored, but the resistance held out for months in the obscurity of the catacombs until they were betrayed by locals and murdered underground by poison gas.
|Russian soldiers and civilians in the Kerch catacombs|
But predictably the brunt was borne by Sevastopol, as they endured their second great Siege. For more than nine long months they held out, suffering sickness and starvation as well as bombardment, and in tying up Germany’s 11th Army for so long they played their part on saving Stalingrad too. Civilian casualties were appalling, and historian Sergey Kiselev claims that no fewer than one in ten of the Red Army’s losses in WWII fell in Crimea.
|Memorial of the Eternal Flame in Sevastopol|
This matters, even today. Britain hasn’t been invaded for centuries and it’s hard for us to understand, but when a people fight this hard to protect their home, then their sacrifice gives the place a kind of sanctity nothing can erase.
And the people of Sevastopol have a right greater even than that. When Stalin ordered it rebuilt in 1948 he made it a condition that those who’d fled the siege could only return if they gave their own labour for free. So they did. Lawyers, bankers, and accountants took off their ties, rolled up their sleeves, and turned to brick-laying, women cooked, cleaned, carried, and did administrative work, while some even worked cheerfully alongside the men. The beautiful city of Sevastopol that we know today was mostly built by its own people – and what possible right of ownership can be greater than that?
The sense of this is almost palpable even today. On my first visit my guide eagerly dragged me across the Catherina Square to inspect the wall of an administrative building which her grandfather had built himself. But she was proud of the whole city, and it was impossible not to notice how immaculately clean it was kept, how free of litter and graffiti. Child of the Cold War that I am, I assumed this was the same kind slavish obedience to totalitarian states that enabled Mussolini to make ‘the trains run on time’, but my guide (and now good friend) saw it differently. ‘It’s our city,’ she said, puzzled by my lack of understanding. ‘Would you write rude words on the walls of your home?’
Except, of course, that it wasn’t ‘their’ city any more, and the closer I grew to these people the more I began to understand their frustrated yearning for recognition. No-one asked their opinion when in 1954 Khruschev gifted the whole of Crimea to Ukraine, and the old man I asked about it had tears in his eyes as he described what it felt like. ‘Like a sack of wheat,’ he said, blowing his nose noisily. ‘They gave us away like a sack of wheat.’
Maybe it didn’t matter much back in the days of the USSR when the distinctions were more administrative than actual, but when the Soviet Union collapsed and Crimea was suddenly in danger of finding itself in a completely separate country then it mattered very much indeed. Russia finally recognized that, and in 1991 it gave Crimea the chance to vote themselves the status of an autonomous republic which would be independent of Ukraine. Crimeans voted in favour by an overwhelming 94%, and Russia was confident it had given the peninsula all the protection it needed.
So it had – if Ukraine had only respected it. Crimea obviously had its own doubts, and in 1992 sought to clarify its position by announcing full self-government with its own constitution, but Ukraine denounced the movement as part of an ‘imperial disease’ and responded by creating a ‘Ukrainian presidential representative in Crimea’ – a back-door way of asserting sovereignty. Tension mounted on both sides, but only when Russia had safely signed the Budapest Memorandum in 1994 did Ukraine take the radical (and illegal) step of abolishing Crimea’s own presidency and tearing up its constitution. From this point on, Crimea was ipso facto part of the new Ukraine, whether it liked it or not.
It’s hard to imagine how that felt. It was at least good news for Crimean Tatars, and those who had been unfairly deported by Stalin after WWII were finally allowed to return, but the Russian people of Crimea were cut off from their history, their heritage and nationality, and suddenly became a minority in a land that basically hated them. The hatred would be understandable if it were directed against Stalin or the old USSR, but it was aimed at living people whose only crime was to be born of at least one Russian parent.
There were economic hardships too. As a Westerner fully aware of the oppressions of the old USSR I’d always imagined independence would be a wonderful thing – but it was only when I went to Crimea that I realized the price that had to be paid for it. Ukraine had kept the worst aspects of the old system (the corruption that saw the rise of the oligarchs) but had quietly shuffled off the good bit – the complete social security that kept a loyal citizen safe for life. Pensions were halved. The free healthcare for which Russians had paid taxes all their lives was suddenly only available to those willing and able to pay bribes. I felt shockingly uncomfortable talking to people whose relatives had died or were dying for the lack of medicine or simple operations we in Britain take for granted.
All Ukraine was suffering, of course, but the predominantly Russian areas of south and east did seem to be hit the hardest. Even a soldier from Ukraine’s own ATO had to confess in a recent interview that he’d never seen poverty on the level he saw in the Donbass, and I can testify myself to what it was like in Crimea. I remember the flavoured water that passed for soup in some of the ‘restaurants’, and how I waited ten minutes for my guide to haggle for her husband’s supper – which turned out to be a single cabbage. It was never anything like as bad as Africa, but seemed all the worse for existing in a magnificent European city with university-educated people just like those I’d meet at home.
But as history has shown us in Nazi Germany, economic hardships can lead to a rise in nationalism and the need for easy scapegoats. In came Svoboda and the Right Sector, and by 2010 Ukrainian MP Irina Farion was already telling 5-year old schoolchildren that if they wanted to use their Russian names they would need to pack their bags and move to Russia. I heard all about this and the Nazi taunts of ‘Moskals!’ ‘Vatniks!’ on my first visit to Crimea, and it was already clear that something was going to have to break.
But worse even than this was Ukraine’s creeping desire to smear Russia’s past military heroism, to elevate Stepan Bandera to hero status, and thus make traitors of the gallant men and women of Crimea who gave their lives fighting Nazism. This would be appalling anywhere – but in Crimea it’s unbearable. Crimea, where Russian guide Irina Niverova recently explained to the National Post that “Every stone and every tree… is covered with the blood of brave Russians, and that is what is in our hearts.”
|'In Our Hearts' Sevastopol May 9th - children march with pictures of their ancestors|
In their hearts and everywhere on their land. Crimean war graves are beautifully kept, their memorials immaculate and flower-strewn, and May 9th celebrates a history of military heroism which is second to none. How could a people like this allow their past sacrifices to be whitewashed away? How could they see the memory of their dead brothers, fathers, grandfathers spat on by the very people they died to protect? And make no mistake about this – that’s what’s happening. I already posted this video from Lviv in 2011 where Russian veterans have the St George ribbons ripped from their chests as they go to lay flowers on their comrade’s graves.
Then came Maidan.
For Crimea, Maidan was an outrage. Yanukovich may well have been as corrupt as his predecessors, but he was the first to improve Ukraine’s economic state, he at least acknowledged the voices of the regions, and he was the legitimately elected President for whom Crimea had overwhelmingly voted. How would we feel in Britain if the losing side of a General Election set London on fire and overthrew our chosen government by force? How would we feel if we saw American politicians encouraging this, and heard leaked telephone calls in which foreign powers decided what our own government should be?
Crimea felt all this, and more. I have no idea when the first activists made contact with Russia, and none of my friends were ever involved at this level, but everyone knew they had to do something. The West wouldn’t help. It talked a lot about human rights, but every Russian in Crimea knew what The Telegraph has only just admitted – that some Maidan protestors were being funded not only by the US, but also the EU. Russia mightn’t help either, and she’d never officially taken Transnistria under her protection. In January this year Russian Crimeans knew that somehow they'd have to help themselves.
The timeline of how they did it is a matter of public record, but it begins on February 23rd, and no single western outlet has explained what it was that lit the fuse.
It was this. The ‘Khersun Pogrom’. On 20th February Russian Crimeans made their own protest at Maidan, and ‘The Kherson Pogrom’ is the phrase used to describe the events of their homecoming. The western media blackout on it has been absolute, but for the first time there’s a video available with English subtitles to tell us what happened on the night of February 20th 2014. Please ignore the political slogans framed round the narrative, but the primary source material both eyewitness interviews and original gloating footage shot by the perpetrators themselves.
The Right Sector. They attacked the homecoming convoy, burnt the buses, then beat, stripped, and humiliated the people. They almost certainly did worse than that, but all we can say with certainty is that seven of the Crimeans on those buses have never been seen again. When the survivors were finally released the Right Sector thugs taunted them with the threat that they would soon be coming to Crimea itself – and then they would ‘do worse’.
Nor were these empty threats. By 23rd February Yanukovich had been driven out and the new (unelected) government was already making their intentions clear. The raft of new bills included laws to make Holocaust denial legal, to ban Communist Party activity, to make a member of Svoboda the new Prosecutor General, and to deny the rights of minorities (including Russians) to use their own native languages.
Crimea acted. They rallied in their tens of thousands in Simferopol and swore to form their own independent administration, but still no-one quite dared to take it further. Protests were all right, no worse than Maidan had done, but nothing was yet irrevocable.
Until 27th February when Channel 5 broadcast a leaked conversation between the leaders of Ukraine’s two Neo-Nazi organizations – People’s Deputy Oleh Tyahnybok of Svoboda, and Dmytro Yarosh of the Right Sector.
With apologies for the poor Google translation, here’s a sample of their conversation:
It’s not just idle talk. These are men with significant power in the new regime, and they are talking of Crimea as an immediate target for a punitive operation.
What could Crimeans do? What would you do? History has shown us all too tragically what happened to the Jews of Nazi Germany who sat obediently at home waiting for the axe to fall, and Crimeans weren’t about to make the same mistake. They turned off their televisions, dug out old uniforms from their conscription days, and went out to take the airport while they called on Russia for help.
I don’t want to be naïve, and certainly don’t believe Putin had been sitting idle all this time, but the fact remains that it was Crimeans who made the first move, and Russia’s ‘intervention’ would have had small chance of success without them. No-one can say exactly when Russian troops left their base in Sevastopol, but of the men who initially guarded the borders from Kyiv intervention, some were veterans, some existing members of Ukraine’s own army, some were Berkut – and a great many were ordinary civilians. I even know two of them. I can’t give their names for obvious reasons, but one was a historical re-enactor who went out in his Red Army uniform with a replica gun, and the other was his wife.
The western media wasn’t having it, and every day we heard more screams of ‘Russian troops in Crimea!’ One of my friends sent me a tiny video of Sevastopol women bringing food and cigarettes to their men on the ‘front line’, but it didn’t look very convincing so I’m afraid I didn’t publicize it.
I wish I had now, because there’s actually something endearingly amateur about it that sets the tone for the whole affair. This was not the slick Kremlin operation the mainstream media would like us to think, but a case of ordinary people showing extraordinary courage in order to save their land.
And they did it. Yes, Russia intervened, Russia allowed the Black Sea Fleet to secure the borders, and Russia finally accepted Crimea into the Federation, but none of that should blind us to the people who really made it happen. History isn’t only about kings and queens and governments, but sometimes it’s made by ordinary people too.
That's all I wanted to show here. In my own novels the Russians of Sevastopol have to be the 'villains', but perhaps that's why I felt I had to do this one last post before I leave. The media ignores them, history will almost certainly ignore them, but even if it's only here in this one blog, I did just want the voices of the Russians of Crimea to be heard.
A.L. Berridge's dreadfully neglected website is still here, and one day she'll get round to updating it.
Meanwhile a huge thank you to everyone here at the History Girls for letting me bore all for so long. I've loved being part of it, and hope you'll let me sneak back in for comments.
And just think - you may never need to hear the word Crimea AGAIN!!