Issue 2, 2014. April-May

   

I AM GOING HOME

Journalist Helene Bedwell writes about the Crimea - and what happens when the Soviet Union's untidy past sweeps into the present. Bedwell was in Crimea to cover the March 16 referendum for Bloomberg.

Yalta, the Intourist hotel area, showing the Soviet era cable cart ride.

"I am going home!, I want the Soviet Union!!"- a pleasant looking woman clutching a bottle of beer was shouting as spectacular fireworks display illuminated the main government building on the night of joining Russia after the referendum in Simferopol, Crimea.

She could be right.

It doesn't matter about the legality. Crimea is now a part of Russia, while the old Soviet glory city of Sevastopol follows the trend as an independent subject within the Russian Federation. While almost 97 percent of voters in this hastily arranged referendum backed leaving Ukraine and becoming part of Russia, the vote was widely condemned by the government in Kiev, the European Union and the U.S. But it's unlikely that Russia will end its actions there, the land which it said historically belongs to it thanks to the 1794 Empress Catherine II's victory over the Ottoman Turks, Russia's plans go deeper than childhood memories of Crimea and how it was given away by Nikita Khrushchev to Ukraine.

Crimea was taken by Russia without a gunshot. As a kid, I remember my father trying his best to avoid sending us to Crimea pioneer camps, such as Artek and pupil summer schools, let alone the holidays in the luxurious and Soviet comfort hotels in Yalta, Alushta and Sudak. My grandmothers, like most elderly Soviet citizens, were often offered the health sanatorium passes to Crimea, which is also known for the longest trolleybus line in the World, between Yalta and Simferopol. Let's also not forget about Yalta, the location where Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill met during World War II.

It's something very warm, personal and empowering to think of the holidays in Crimea, if you are a Russian who remembers the Soviet Union system and especially from now more Russian tourists will flood the place. Before as many as 60 percent of the tourists were Ukrainians.

A lawyer who works for one of the oldest hotels in Yalta, theOreanda, told me exactly that, saying that Yalta won't feel the pinch by declining numbers of Ukrainian tourists. Or foreigners for that matter, because now they would need Russian visas to arrive to these resorts.

"Hey we are not Safari you know, it's Yalta, people come here for the back of the memories and old glory," Valdymir Bondarenko, who was increasingly afraid of the Kiev revolutionaries, told me in an interview this month.

Once again, he could be right.

I remember very well the euphoria of overthrowing the statues of Lenin and others like him in Georgia and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union countries. When the Russian tanks rolled in the streets of Tbilisi, many people, especially the young, died for freedom, and the total collapse of the system came soon after. But here in Crimea time stands still.

For the people who live on the street of Proletarskaya, or go to study or work on the street of Oktabrskaya, passing the huge statues of Lenin every day, maybe have a good drink or two on the Ulitsa Karl Marx, it's practically unimaginable to support the Kiev Meidan, to feel even an ounce of compassion for the western democracy values, like releasing the former premier accused of corruption Yulia Timoshenko. These people blame the world for the collapse of the Soviet Union and will support any crazy idea of Vladimir Putin, who is trying to return the glory of the old empire.

Large posters across Crimea campaigning for joining Russia option in referendum on March 16. Poster says Together with Russia. Tatars, who represent 12 percent of Crimea's population, largely boycotted the vote.

Svante Cornell, research director at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Program in Stockholm, said that the small part of the story could really be whether Russia reclaims its lost land but the big part lies inside the plans to restore former Soviet control. This was the opportunity provided by the revolution in Kiev, and of course it was the capacity of the Russian military, which basically saw that they could take Crimea without a shot and nothing would happen because Kiev was not going to do anything since at the time it was disorganized.

When I visited the Belbek military base, Lubimkovo, it was still under Ukrainian control, I passed the heavily armed and monitored checkpoint with masked Russian soldiers with unidentified badges, Cossacks, who came for help and the local police who had shifted sides. And suddenly from this alarming checkpoint, which looked like something from war movies, I found myself inside the military base, where unarmed Ukrainian soldiers are under psychologically pressure by the blockade. They never fired that shot Svante Cornell was talking about earlier; now it's Russia who owns Crimea. Soldiers like Nikolay tell me that they need a corridor to get away, that they will never serve Russia.

Going back to that night of the victory rally, where the Russian flags and even the Soviet Union flags were waived by the populous who were drunk with happiness and vodka, I walked through them and also shouted "Russia, Russia" simply to blend in. They do hate Georgians with British citizenship who work for the Western media.

Helene Bedwell reports for Bloomberg. She is based out of Tbilisi, Georgia.