13 Mar 2014

Ghosts of history haunt Crimea ahead of referendum

Hundreds of Crimeans queued at banks today, fearing that after Sunday’s referendum on rejoining Russia they won’t have access to their savings. Their money is in Ukrainian banks, and the authorities in Simferopol plan to nationalise the branches. They’ve restricted withdrawals and many cashpoints have no cash.

“We don’t know what will happen tomorrow,” said a middle-aged woman as she waited, “we’re so worried.”

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It’s surprising then, that the authorities, instead of trying to reassure Crimeans about the future, are selling this referendum on the past. A giant billboard on the road into Sevastopol shows two maps of Crimea, one filled with the red, white and blue stripes of the Russan flag, the other sporting a swastika. That’s your choice, Crimeans are being told: forward with Russia or back to the Nazis.

It remains a potent message, especially in Sevastopol, where memories of the 250 day siege in the winter of 1941 and 42 have been kept alive. Ninety-two year old Matsegor Ivan Grigoriyevich met me in his uniform, decorated with dozens of medals. As an 18-year-old cadet in the Soviet Black Sea Fleet he took part in the defence of Sevastopol before surrender to the Germans in July 1942. When I asked him to tell me his clearest memory he struggled.

“We defended the motherland,” he kept saying. “We showed the entire Red Army how to fight.” It was as if the narrative provided by the Soviet authorities and repeated for seventy years had wiped out any personal recollections. For him Sunday’s referendum is confusing. He regards Kruschev’s decision to give Crimea to Ukraine in 1954 as a mistake (which it may well have been).

“The most important thing is to be patriotic,” he said. So which country is he patriotic towards now? He hesitated, understanding that the automatic answers about glory and heroism he had been giving me earlier were inadequate.

xxaadffa“I’m a citizen of Ukraine. I have a Ukranian passport. Legally I’m Ukrainian,” he said slowly. “But I don’t forget that I was a citizen of the Soviet Union, and Russia is equally close to my heart. I also love Belarus, Kazakhstan and other former republics because my blood brothers, my fellow soldiers of my generation with whom I fought against the German fascist invaders, came from there.”

The pro-Russia supporters I’ve met on the streets here, waving Russian flags and sporting orange and black veterans’ ribbons, admit to no such complexity. They are keeping alive the myth of the Great Patriotic War, not trying to understand the contradictions of history. To them, Russia has inherited the Soviet mantle of anti-fascism and if Ukraine looks west towards Europe, that will be a move towards Nazism.

Their point of view is not without reason. Far-right groups, including members of the neo-fascist Svoboda party, have positions in the new government in Kiev, but branding the new authorities as fascist from top to toe is a distortion.

“They do this because our grandparents fought fascism,” said Anatoliy Zasoba, a youth leader in Sevatopol. “But I don’t see it like that. It’s not the same facism as in those days nor the same war, nor the same threat against our land.”

Fifty miles south east of Sevastopol, along the beautiful Black Sea coast, lies the resort of Yalta. It was here in the Livadia Palace that Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt met in February 1945 to divvy up Europe after World War Two. Stalin insisted that part of Poland be incorporated into Ukraine so it would come into the Soviet not western sphere.

13_crimeawaxworks_xThis week I looked at the waxworks of the three great men, sitting as they must have done 70 years ago, now an exhibit for tourists.

All nations have their myths, the stories politicians tell citizens and people tell themselves to make sense of the suffering that war and conquest bring. After a while, history fades and only the myth resides in the collective imagination.

So it is that President Putin can persuade so many in Crimea that Sunday’s referendum is not a modern landgrab, a way of warning the European Union to keep its hands off Ukraine, but a new front in a never-to-be-forgotten conflict in which the motherland – Russia, the Soviet Union – can relive its former glory.

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