Why the question of Russia’s occupation of the Ukrainian peninsula remains, and will remain, open
In the context of legal and ideological disputes around the cessation of the Russian war on Ukraine supposedly using diplomacy, there appear to be constant, stubborn efforts to remove Crimea from the framework of the discussion. Moreover, this is being done, not just in the West, but even among Ukraine’s top politicians, some of whom say, “First Donbas and the Minsk accords, and then, at some point later, Crimea...”
At his meeting with US President Trump in Helsinki, Russian President Putin decided to “shut up” the US by announcing that the issue of Crimea was closed once and for all. History has seen many such pronouncements. In soviet times, it was considered an unquestionable truth that the USSR would survive until worldwide communism was established, but in fact it lasted less than 70 years. The Third Reich was called “millennial,” but its millennium lasted all of 13 years. Take Viktor Mironenko, a one-time Komsomol leader in the Ukrainian SSR and the USSR, now an assistant to Mikhail Gorbachev: in an interview with a Kyiv paper, he declared that Russia would never fall apart, that no one should count on it, because its collapse was impossible. Given actual outcomes in history, such pronouncements need to be taken with a grain of salt, especially where they use words like “forever,” “never,” “everyone,” “no one,” “nothing,” and so on. And there is no rush to consider an issue “closed once and for all.”
Unfortunately, there are those among Ukraine’s media, politicians, political analysts, pollsters, and journalists who are trying very hard to “close the Crimea question.” All too often, crocodile tears are shed about awful Russian propaganda—and it truly is awful—has completely brainwashed Crimeans and because of that just about everyone in Crimea violently hates Ukraine and worships Russia. As proof of this, they refer to polls taken on the peninsula that are more than a little suspect. For starters, how objective can any numbers be in a poll that’s taken under a harsh occupying regime? Why don’t these same pollsters try surveying people in North Korea? When I was a student in the philosophy department of Kyiv University, what could I have responded back in 1977 if someone had walked up to me on Khreshchatyk and asked me what I thought of the policies of the Communist Party? Perhaps these sociologists would have been interested in hearing from the prisoners in Buchenwald what they thought of the actions of the commandant of their camp and would afterwards have patted themselves on the back about the “objective” information they had gathered.
Some pollsters and journalists are unembarrassed to talk about the opinion of residents of Yalta, Sevastopol, Simferopol, Yevpatoria... Of course for those who are within the system of official Russian positions, there is complete freedom of speech, as it was at one time for soviet citizens who took exercised it to “strengthen socialist democracy and the soviet system.” But to speak out on Ukraine’s behalf means to end up being interrogated by the FSB, so only very rare individuals are brave enough to even whisper: “It was a lot better under Ukraine.” And what does it say about those who run polls in annexed Crimea and in occupied Donbas, effectively acting as agents provocateurs by placing their respondents at risk of the regime’s sharp ax.
Prior to 2014, some western Ukrainian writers did their fair share in alienating the country’s eastern and southern regions by constantly harping on the idea that “Ukraine did not need Crimea and Donbas” because supposedly the people there were “not Ukrainians.” Like-minded individuals echoed these sentiments in Kyiv.
However, when their dreams about cutting off the “non-Ukrainian” territories were carried out by Russia’s high command, these same writers suddenly grew silent. Still, their ideological fellow-travelers occasionally make themselves heard in the capital. One of them has even proposed setting up a number of model Ukrainian regions and building a “real” Ukrainian state without any foreign elements. With the rest, things will work themselves out, one way or another. It’s just a shame that all this sounds very much like a reservation or an ethnographic preserve. Dystopian writer Yuriy Shcherbak is very critical of this kind of idea as a huge affliction for Ukraine and calls it the “zone of ethnic consolidation” or ZEK—“zek” being a slang term for convict. Such a place would have only little kozaks with costumed girls, picturesque cottages with straw roofs, aqua vita made of the best sorts of domestic beets, only the Ukrainian language, and everything totally ideal, pretty and colorful—more-or-less similar to the lovely image that early Ukrainian emigrants kept alive far across the sea and handed down to their heirs.
Given the real Ukraine, the ideal version will continue to shrink under pressure from unruly facts. Meanwhile, large numbers of bearers of “true Ukrainianness" flee abroad to work in Poland, Slovakia, Czechia, Romania and even Russia—anything to avoid risking their lives at the front. It turned out that it’s a lot easier to speak Ukrainian, wear embroidered shirts, wave the blue and yellow flag and the red and black banner, and shout “Slava Ukraini!” than it is to stand at the country’s borders, a weapon in hand. As one well-known intellectual with roots in Halychyna wrote: “In 2009, I was surprised how russified and oriented towards our neighbor this city was. But today, people should look at where the most men respond to the draft. In Lviv, they have to round draftees up, whereas in Zaporizhzia the situation is very different.”
The war has shown that no region has a monopoly on real Ukrainian patriotism—not the theatrical, rhetorical kind! At the front, Ukrainians pay the highest price for their convictions, their blood and their lives, they give their homeland their arms, their legs, their eyes, their health, sacrificing everything. That’s why separating any parts of Ukraine, discrediting them, calling them “alien,” is a myopic position at best. What’s more, ethno-cultural purists are unable to offer any criteria for the Ukrainianness of a territory, relying on purely subjective “feelings.” At one time, ex-Politburo member Aleksandr Yakovlev used this kind of argument to reject the idea of Ukraine’s sovereignty and independence: “When I come to Ukraine, I don’t feel like I’ve crossed a border.” In other words, there’s no such country, no such state, and no such nation because they “don’t feel like...” A certain place doesn’t give the Ukrainian writer the impression that it’s Ukrainian? It’s clearly not Ukraine, so who cares if we give that land to our historical enemy.
What’s particularly striking is nonsense about some nigh-prehistoric “anti-Ukrainianness” in Crimea, a position that miraculously brings certain of our writers in line with Russia’s neo-imperial discourse. However, history says something different. At the beginning of the 20thcentury, when the words Ukraine, Ukrainians and Ukrainian were still fairly exotic-sounding to the general public, the campaign of the Crimean Army Group of the Ukrainian National Republic led by Petro Bolbochan left reports about the way that Crimeans met the Ukrainian soldiers. One member of the expedition, Borys Monkevych, later wrote:
“Nowhere in all of Ukraine were Ukrainian armed forces greeted with such enthusiasm, with such ovations, with such excitement as the people of Simferopol. All the streets were decorated with flowers and filled with people who welcomed Bolbochan with joy. Along the entire road behind the car ran a crowd of thousands that escorted the captain and their liberator with a fire and enthusiasm that had no equal, something that will never be forgotten.”
OK, so Monkevych was a Ukrainian officer, a not-unbiased witness. So let’s take a well-known historian, Crimean Serhiy Hromenko, who mention the memoirs of a Russian officer by the name of Nikolai Krishevskiy about how a detachment was set up to maintain order after the communists fled from Kerch, which led to a very humorous but also typical and demonstrative incident:
“The detachment looked like something no one in Kerch had ever seen: the people were beautifully dressed, they were sitting on well-appointed, handsome horses, and they were excellently armed… The minute the brigade entered the main street, a huge crowd gathered and received them as Ukrainians. People were shouting ‘Hurrah!’, kissing the soldiers, and generally expressing incredible delight…”
The Russian officer and writer Nestor Monastyriov described events in Feodosia thus:
“The only thing we noticed was that relative order had unexpectedly been established in the town. The bands of red marauders had suddenly disappeared somewhere. There was a rumor that Ukrainian armed forces had entered Crimea. No one said anything about the Germans and everyone was waiting from day to day for the Ukrainian units to show up, preparing to meet them with flowers like liberators from the bloody bolshevik nightmare. No one hid their happiness.” And the minute a military column appeared on the horizon, Feodosia was overjoyed: “All the residents came out into the streets. People were laughing and crying, embracing and crossing themselves. ‘The Ukrainians are coming! Thank the Lord!’”
That could be how the Ukrainian army is welcomed in Crimea one day. Provided that it shows up there…