Justin Vela

A Vital Borderland…Ukraine Article

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“The future of Ukraine will develop in two direction; in terms of its relations with Russia, and in terms of its relations with Europe and the rest of the world. If these relationships unfold propitiously, Ukraine’s chances are excellent. For it is a country of fertile soil and precious natural resources, blessed with a warm, hospitable climate. And it is a large nation of more than fifty million-strong, resilient, and ambitious.”

-Ryszard Kapuscinski, Imperium

A Russian flag flies in the Ukrainian port city of Sevastopol

A Russian flag flies in the Ukrainian port city of Sevastopol

This is an unedited version of an article that appears this month in The Caravan magazine


A Vital Borderland

In Sevastopol I sip sugary tea and listen to babushka Tamara.

The old woman rents me the empty room off her kitchen for six dollars a night and says, “No problems. There are no problems.” She pushes over a plate of cheese and crackers and points to the drooling old dog that rarely moves from a cushion in the corner, but manages a belated yap whenever someone comes to the door. “The dog is information and control,” she says. “I am security.”

As much as I love the breakfasts that she presents every morning when I enter the kitchen, babushka Tamara is paranoid. On TV she has seen the collapse of one American and European bank after the other. “There is a crisis,” she says. The TV has also convinced her that the Chinese are going to buy up the world’s markets as part of a new imperial plan. That, she says, will be even worse than the banks collapsing. She pulls at the edges of her eyes and says, “Meow, meow…”

Despite the global economic crisis, Tamara tells me that Russia is still strong. This makes her proud. “Russia is stable,” she says. Every month she receives pension money from the Russian government. It is the only money that she has. “Medvedev and Putin are good for that,” she says.

As we talk it becomes clear that Tamara is intensely proud of everything that is Russian. Yet we are not in Russia. We are in Ukraine. In the Crimean port city of Sevastopol. Tamara however is one of Sevastopol’s majority Russian population and considers Crimea, officially the Autonomous Republic of Crimea,  to be part of Russia. “I am Russian,” she says. “Crimea is Russian.” She warns me of Sevastopol’s heavy anti-Americanism. Even her grandson and the workmen repairing her fence want Tamara to throw me out. But she repeats her mantra. “No problem,” she says. “Nyet problem. You are not in the military. Were you ever in the army? Only blacks are in the US army. They have to go for the money.”

She makes a motion like she is advancing with a bayonet. Then she tells me to learn Russian.

“A very big group of people in the world speak Russian,” she says.

Tamara is so right. I have come to Sevastopol to learn about the Russians living abroad and Moscow’s efforts to keep them close. After Russia’s August 2008 annexation of South Ossetia and Abkazia there were fears that Crimea might be next. Especially in Sevastopol, the population is nearly entirely Russian and when people refer to “their country” they are not referring to Ukraine, but rather to Russia.

Crimea had actually been part of Russia until 1954 when the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev presented the land as a gift to Ukraine on the 300th anniversary of the Treaty of Pereyaslav, with which Tsarist Russia had agreed to protect Ukraine from a Cossack rebellion. The territory transfer however was a largely symbolic gesture as both Ukraine and Russia were then part of the Soviet Union.

Sevastopol also hosted Russia’s infamous Black Sea Fleet. Indeed, Sevastopol had been founded by Russia’s Catherine the Great in 1783 as the fleet’s base. From Sevastopol, a navy was a force all over the Black Sea, an important body of water that offered landlocked regions access to the Atlantic Ocean.

It was the presence of the Back Sea Fleet that caught the world’s attention. Walking down past the bus and train stations and up into downtown every morning I look out over the harbor and considered these boats, which sat anchored in the gently moving water.

I do not mean to be derisive, but the first thought that came to mind were the words, “fishing boats.”

The Black Sea Fleet is simply not threatening. Of course I am only seeing a few of the fleet’s frigates, landing ships, and a single submarine. The Moskva, a guided missile cruiser, had been sent to assist in the war against Georgia and had not yet returned.

All the same, the Black Sea Fleet, could hardly be considered a serious military threat to a major power. The fleet served as a Russian anchor in Ukraine however. A way to exert influence. And that influence is more than welcomed.

“This is a beautiful land to fight over,” Olya says.

We are walking around the harbor and talking about Sevastopol. Ukrainian and Russian sailors walk about. Ukraine also keeps ships here, but the military presence is predominantly Russia. Their sailors strut down the sidewalk in large groups wearing white uniforms and hats, looking for off base fun during their free days. No one takes objection to their rowdiness. Russian soldiers have been in Crimea for two hundred years. Hulking drunken sailors are a normal sight.

A nineteen year old international relations student, Olya tells me, “The first thing that has to be understood about this city is that it is a Russian city. Everything else about it must be described within that context. Sevastopol is the most Russian place outside of Russia.”

Of course, I reply. But despite its infamy the Black Sea Fleet certainly does not look very threatening. This bothers her. She takes me to look at the boats and points to the biggest frigate. “They are not fishing boats,” she says. “They are dangerous.”

I do not argue with Olya. She is a Russian and I have just suggested that a component of her country’s navy (she identifies her country as Russia, not Ukraine) is not as powerful as it is made out to be. Such transgressions do not get one far with Russians. Olya tells me that there are many people across the world that want to achieve the wealth and stability that have become prevalent in Russia. She says that she looks to Russia as something that Crimea could someday be like.

Hundreds of tourists came to the large cities in Crimea every year. The cities were expensive places, but the the countryside was impoverished. This made Crimea more similar to Russia than perhaps Olya knew. Russian media was widely watched in Crimea and broadcast images of the wealth that existed in Moscow and St. Petersburg, but Russia was also embroiled in the financial crisis and had suffered a stock market crash after its invasion of Georgia. A well employed Russian friend I had met in Belgrade, Taisia, had made plans to meet me in Sevastopol, but as the financial instability in Moscow increased she kept postponing buying tickets until I received this SMS, “No idea when I will come. No $ for you, food, and gas. The crisis.”

Despite not being the total reality, a financially sound and militarily strong image is crucial for Moscow to project in Ukraine. Last year, in the aftermath of the Georgia conflict, the US pushed hard for Ukraine to join NATO over loud Russian opposition. Such a move would have seriously damaged the already strained relationship between the West and Russia and at the last minute the West at least temporarily postponed their bid for Ukraine to join. While there is a thinking that the prospect of NATO membership serves to stabilize and reform candidate countries (in a Western direction), polls showed that fifty-eight percent of Ukrainians were against joining the alliance, something that frustrates the West.

After all Ukraine is a country of great strategic importance. Straddling the West and Russia, it acts as a transit point for the Russian energy to Europe. This energy, gas and oil, is necessary for Europe to function. It is also something that Russia needs to sell in order to survive. Along with this, Ukraine also serves as the dividing line between the two geographic and cultural entities of Europe and Russia. While the west of Ukraine is culturally and historically close to Poland and Germany, the east has a large Russian population and was the industrial heartland of the Soviet Union, an importance eastern Ukrainians remember.

The Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski writes in Imperium, “…one can say that there are two Ukraine’s: the western and the eastern. The western…is more “Ukrainian” than the eastern. Its inhabitants speak Ukrainian, feel themselves to be one hundred percent Ukrainian, and are proud of this…Things look different in the eastern Ukraine, which covers a territory larger than the western. Thirteen million native Russians live here and at least as many half Russians; here Russification [during the Soviet Union] was more intense and brutal…”

With such a mix of historic experience, Ukraine is a nation still trying to define what it is. It is critical to understand what a deep impact Russia had on Ukraine however. The first Russian state, Kievan Rus, initially originated in the area of Russia that is present day Novgorod, but Kyiv served as the first capital. Kievan Rus was largely a commercial state that did business in furs, swords, and slaves and traded as far as Baghdad. In the 1100’s however growth began shifting north away from Kyiv and, coupled with an invasion of Mongols in 1240, the entity that was Kievan Rus was destroyed.

Two and a half centuries later, the Mongols were forced out and Moscow was established as the capital of Russia, with modern day Ukraine considered part of its southern territory. It remained quietly as such, until the early 1880’s when Ukrainian nationalists began clamoring for autonomy.

Few made any claim that Ukrainians are a unique people. They are a mix of Tatar, Russian, Polish, and Cossak. The idea of a Ukrainian nation however was formed when intellectuals began identifying the differences in their language and culture from Russian and Polish peoples and gained support from the peasants by talking about the need for land redistribution.

In 1862 Ukrainian nationalists upped their drive for an independent nation by founding the first hromada or Ukrainian intellectual organization which served to promote the idea of a Ukrainian nation. Though the Russian authorities initially viewed the Ukrainian nationalist movement as harmless, they eventually came to believe that the hromadas were linked to a Polish backed uprising and had them shut down. The Ukrainian language was banned except in literature and Ukrainian activists were exiled.

Just twenty years later, in the 1870s, the hromadas were allowed to resume their activities They succeeded in taking over a Russian newspaper and began publishing pro-Ukrainian articles. An Ukrainian dictionary was published, but the resurgence did not last long. This time, Tsar Alexander II was convinced that the Ukrainian nation was a plot designed by the Hapsburg Empire against Russia. Ukrainian activists were again exiled. The relaxing of laws and subsequent crack downs continued until 1917, when the chaos produced by the Russian Revolution allowed the Ukrainian state to come into existence.

An independent Ukraine did not last long however. Russia took Kyiv again in February 1919 and Ukraine was incorporated into the Soviet Union. Ukrainians had come to be seen as a nationality separate from Russians, but it was not until the end of the Cold War that Ukraine would truly become independent.

This makes Ukraine one of the world’s youngest countries. Its experience with full democracy is not yet twenty years old however and it is being pulled in two directions. In one way towards Europe. In the other towards Russia.

There is loud music pumping from a newly installed fountain. An old woman in a yellow headscarf does a hip waving dance and then goes up to a ruddy couple on a bench and demands money from them. Drunks stumble around or are helped to stand upright. A man careens over a table and breaks glasses. Here, it acceptable to drink beer even at seven in the morning while waiting for the bus. Tourists and local wedding parties walk along the water taking pictures in the soft, clear light and take ferries across to the other side of the harbor. Boats sound their horns as they start up their engines.

Off setting these scenes taking place amid the old, square, and freshly painted white buildings of downtown Sevastopol is a group of Russian soldiers angrily pacing around the monument to Catherine the Great of Russia. One of the soldiers grasps a leather wrapped cudgel. There are extra pieces of leather attached to the cudgel’s ball head and he snaps them in the air as he paces.

During the night someone has hit the monument with blue and yellow paint, the colors of the Ukrainian flag. As local TV crews arrive and city workers hurry to set up ladders and scrub the monument clean, someone yells, “If they want a fight they’ll get it.”

Ukrainian nationalists are quickly blamed for the attack on the monument, which was a gift from Moscow to Sevastopol to mark the city’s 225th anniversary. As the only outsider in the crowd, members of the Russian Unity Organization surround me and claim that the vandalism was part of a plot to provoke Ukraine against Russia. They say that if Ukraine ever joins NATO, Sevastopol would declare itself independent of Ukraine.

“When Ukraine goes into NATO, Crimea goes out of Ukraine,” a man named Semyon says. “Fifteen years ago Sevastopol held a referendum on being part of Ukraine. Ninety-five percent of people voted against it. The people that live here consider Sevastopol totally to be part of Russia.”

The 1993 referendum the members of the Russian Unity Organization were talking about had attempted to rejoin Sevastopol with Russia. Mediation by the UN annulled the vote, but Sevastopol remained a ninety-five percent Russian city unhappy with its legal capital being Kyiv.

Before arriving I had read countless news reports asserting that Sevastopol could be the next “flash point” as Russia expanded its power and attempted to counter the influence of the West. As the members of the Russian Unity Organization make vindictive statements about the US and say Ukrainians shouldn’t be considered a true nationality, but rather “a movement that began to seek independence from Russia in 1917,” this sounds only too possible.

Yet for all the talk of NATO and Georgia and spheres of influence the subtleties of the story were being grossly underreported. This is something that frustrates me on nearly every journey I make. Media reports and official statements generally push a situation into two extreme camps, leaving the non-participants and bystanders, the so-called “normal” people, an unheard voice because of their lack of action. What always existed however and, what is cliche in journalism to talk about with colleagues, but not actually report on, is that when questioned those people brought an added dimension to the story that if inserted into the public dialogue would make the lives of the politicians and activists, as well as the journalists, far more difficult.

There is for instance, Misha.

Misha is there as the members of the Russian Unity Organization crowd around me. After they talk about succession and lash out at Ukraine however, they say that they are glad a foreigner came to find out what is “really happening” in Sevastopol and that they hope “Russia and Europe will someday form some kind of collective with a single government.”

This is the last thing I expect them to say. The Russian Unity Organization receives money from Moscow to promote Russian culture in Sevastopol. Every weekend I see them downtown with posters condemning Ukraine, Europe, and the US. As I speak with them a Sevastopol resident comes up and asks what he has to do in order to become a Russian citizen. Yet they do not find an idea of a “collective” between Europe and Russia unappealing.

As we walk away from the Catherine the Great monument, Misha says, “These are the people that have a good view for Sevastopol.”

Often it is the middle aged and elderly remembering the Soviet Union and days of stable employment, larger pensions, and a life devoid of the inflation that plagues many developing nations in Europe that look to Russia as an alternative to the West. While the current global financial crisis, which Western policies are blamed for, only encourages Russia’s current resurgence, the situation is not that simple.

It was easy for western reporters to get inflammatory statements from the older residents of Sevastopol. These elderly Russians grew up during the time of the Soviet Union and blame the West for it’s demise. The Guardian of London and New York Times both published articles quoting retired admirals and other elderly people saying that they want Russia to take control of Sevastopol, alluding to the use of military force. As I walk along the harbor I cannot convince myself that the people in their seventies and eighties are the ones to talk to in Sevastopol however. They support Moscow’s actions, but they are not the definers of what Sevastopol, Crimea, and the rest of Ukraine are becoming.

“Sevastopol right now is a beautiful place to go on vacation,” Misha says. He is a twenty-one year old language student in Sevastopol. “We have water and mountains. It would be very good to change it though so that it is not just a place for tourists and to make it a place for some kind of production and manufacturing. More like Kyiv or other cities in the West. I do not every want Sevastopol to be the same as one of those cities. Sevastopol is a Russian city. We can be a Russian city and produce like one of those places though.”

Misha acknowledges that the Cold War and perception that the fall of the Soviet Union was orchestrated by the West made many Russians see anything from Europe as a threat. In Crimea the threat was felt more intensely because many in western Ukraine desired to join with the European Union and NATO, something that the Russians in the east deplored. Misha is confident that this will change as time passes however.

“My grandfather would never stand next to a European,” he says. “My mother would. For my generation, the people in their early twenties, it is no problem.”

Though he admits that many of his peers want to move from Sevastopol to Moscow, Misha says he wants to continue living here. “I want to stay,” he says. “I like it. It is the homeland.” Active in student life and various youth organizations, Misha is among the future of Sevastopol’s leaders. So proud of Russia that his email address begins with Crimbear, Misha none the less sees what there is to be learned from the West and wants to bring it to Sevastopol, even if that means Ukraine becoming closer to Europe, an entity his elders are suspicious of.

His view is echoed by the dozens of other young people I meet in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. They are first and foremost Russian, but see no contradiction in learning from the development of the West. Without the same kind of resentments as their parents and grandparents, the opportunity for cooperation and lessening of Ukraine’s internal tension will increase with the next generation.

This of course does not mean Ukraine will come fully into the fold of the West. Just the opposite. Ukraine will still culturally and ethnically contain two major demographic groups. Simply put, the people that look culturally and historically to Europe and the people that look culturally and historically to Russia. In a Sevastopol club, one of Misha’s friends, Igor, talks about Europe.

“I am angry at Europe because it is not letting Russians be ourselves. They don’t understand us,” he says. “The difference between Europe and us is that in Europe people are trying to live. In Russia we are trying to survive. We go through school, but that is not enough. We also have to learn to be clever. We are always fighting.”

Even if they want to learn from the West, Igor says there is also a resentment among young people towards what is seen as a condescending stance taken by the West towards Russians.

“The West does not seem to be able to accept that we have our own history and mentality,” Igor says. “They are so sure they are the best and expect us to be like them, but we are not.”

One night Igor and Misha take me to see Sevastopol’s massive statue of Lenin. They tell me to look at the statue from the left side. There is a black shadow cast by the faint street lights across Lenin’s upper chest, as if there is a black hole inside of him.

“He is like death,” Misha says. “But he is also a great man. He began an entire empire. There are two sides to him. We cannot remember him completely badly.”

“We are Russians,” Igor says. “We are ourselves.”

The enclaving of countries is a trend the 21st century will only see more of. It is a by product of the globalization has led so many of the world’s economies to be intertwined. As mass entities, Europe and Russia may be irrevocably tied to each other through, perhaps at the very least, the desire to buy and sell energy. Future scuffles for resources in Central Asia and alternative energy trading partners in Asia and Africa may eventually lower their dependence on each other, but for now there will not be a serious upsetting of relations between the two areas.

But at the same time there is the increasing homogenization or “enclaving” of communities based along cultural, ethnic, and religious lines within individual countries. Despite the large desire for cooperation in Ukraine that its future leaders will undoubtedly encourage, at more local levels there are large numbers of people who will want to remain with whatever they feel their true roots are and will join communities that espouse their particular set of beliefs.

Ukraine will need a strong leader to bridge these gaps between communities and also keep the western and eastern sides of the country from scuffling too much until a day of greater integration. That integration will only happen when Europe and Russia are further integrated and that, to be optimistic, will take some time.

Who that initial leader is will be decided in Ukraine’s 2010 presidential elections. Those elections will almost surely be centered around a squabble for power between Western and Russian backed candidates with the victor defining in which direction Ukraine will tip its carefully maintained balance.

Weeks later, when I arrive in Kyiv exhausted after traveling platzcar or third class across Ukraine from Sevastopol, Maryana looks around and says, “What are we going to do now? Have some kind of round table discussion?”

The twenty-five year old Ukrainian business journalist has been describing how Ukraine has come to be one of the countries hardest hit by the global financial crisis and the $16.5 billon IMF loan that hopes to keep the country afloat. I cannot take it any more however. Ukraine’s internal struggle encompasses some of the most pressing issues of the 21st first century, but it will require far more study and reflection than I currently have time for.

The country has convinced me of one thing: Instead of reporting the most sensational and loudest voices, journalists reporting on this rapidly developing and shifting world will need to concentrate much more on the grays and subtleties facing countries such as Ukraine in order to explain them correctly. Crimea will not be the next “flashpoint” in any struggle for influence between the West and Russia. Crimea is already Russian. Reclaiming it militarily would only harm Russia’s growing relationship with Europe. And culture and ethnicity jump borders and is perhaps even redefining 21st century maps.

Though only twenty-five Maryana has already lived in China, worked as a translator, and written extensively about Ukrainian financial affairs. When I say spasiba or thank you in Russian to a waiter she reprimands me.

“Say dyakuy. This is Ukraine.”

“In eastern Ukraine they say spasiba.”

“Of course,” she says. “They are Russian.”

Whatever the outcome of the January election, it will be important not tip Ukraine too far in either direction. It is a nation sitting on land that is important to both the West and to Russia and there are too many different desires within it to commit either way.

So, for now, Ukraine must remain as it is, a vital borderland.

Click this link for more photos of Sevastopol

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Written by Justin Vela

August 9, 2009 at 6:33 am

Posted in Europe

Tagged with , , , , , ,

2 Responses

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  1. […] my recent article here and past work here and […]

  2. […] work on the Russian presence in the “flashpoint” city of Sevastopol in Crimea here, here & […]


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