Life and Loss in Crimea

Letter from Simferopol

People walk past a mural showing a map of Crimea in the Russian national colors, March 25, 2014. Artur Bainozarov / Courtesy Reuters

Early last spring, pro-Russian crowds in Ukrainian Crimea gathered and demanded that the authorities hold a popular referendum on whether the peninsula should join the Russian Federation. The irony is that, back in Russia, neither such gatherings nor a referendum would be allowed. When the vote actually did take place on March 16, the headline that best captured the moment was from the Onion: “Crimean Voters Excited To Exercise Democracy For Last Time.”

The farcical referendum was held at gunpoint. Armed men clad in familiar but unmarked uniforms presided. There was no bloodshed, but free it was not. As the results were announced, many of Crimea’s 2.5 million citizens were in tears: some of joy, as they draped themselves in Russian flags and joined in a rendition of the once-Soviet-now-Russian anthem, others of humiliation at being handed over like serfs to a new master -- Russian President Vladimir Putin.  

Before the vote, Crimean social media had been a battleground between those defending and decrying Russia. But once annexation was a fait accompli, the adversaries retreated to their respective barracks in a huge wave of Facebook “unfriendings” (the verb in Russian is odfriendlit). Then, those Crimeans who were most opposed to the occupation -- Ukrainians, Tatars, and even some Russians -- left. They went to Kiev or abroad. Others, especially the intelligentsia, chose “internal emigration.” That is, they abandoned their formerly comfortable state-sponsored positions to take odd jobs just to survive.

These Crimeans are joining a Russian nation that, by all accounts, was happy about the annexation; according to one public opinion poll, only eight percent of those questioned in Russia were against the annexation of Crimea. But, as is usual in Russia, the polls don’t reveal the whole truth. In Snob, a respected Russian online magazine, war reporter Arkadiy Babchenko published a satirical piece that is very openly critical of the state of human rights in Russia entitled “Welcome, Crimea.” Babchenko listed for the new citizens all the things that are forbidden in

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