Separated families, refugees and a deeper sense of national loss for Ukrainians who saw an entire region of their country taken over by Russia last March.
KIEV — Every Sunday, in central Kiev's Saint Sophia Cathedral, Crimea is remembered. In March, for example, there was discussion about the town of Bakhchysarai. Beautiful photographs were displayed, legends retold, and a round of historical trivia. Then everyone was taught a traditional Crimean Tatar dance.
In February, they talked about Alushta and Armyansk. They plan to continue through all of the Crimean cities and places where Crimean Tatars live. The sessions are led by professional historians and migrants from those cities, who have left Crimea in recent months.
Watching these discussions is an emotional experience, the pain palpable amidst the loss of these people's homeland and the loved ones who stayed on the other side of the new border.
Tamara, a young Ukrainian journalist who works for a fashion magazine, visits her parents once a month in their small Crimean village. Last time, she walked five kilometers in a frigid wind between the two checkpoints on the new border, because the trip is significantly longer by car, in which those sad five kilometers can take as long as 10 hours to cross.
There are no planes that fly between Ukraine and Crimea, she explains. The train, which is packed even on weekdays, is the most reliable transportation, but it only goes to the border, stopping 20 kilometers from the end of Ukrainian territory. There isn't even a bus from the train station, just a crowd of taxis to transport the many passengers.
They travel silently, afraid to let something slip that would run afoul of the Ukrainian or Russian military. Tamara and her sister moved to Kiev several years ago, and now they worry about their parents. Their mother has gotten sick from all the stress.
"I finally understood the feeling that I get from Crimea today," Tamara recalls. "It's a feeling of total isolation from the world, which is almost like a feeling of being protected. It's like being under a dome that both suffocates and protects at the same time."
Though she says she's grateful to live in Kiev, the usual feelings of upheaval and fear return on her way back to the city. "The taxi driver talks about how he has to stoop to driving people between the border," she says. "Then you spend several hours waiting for the train in this tiny town, where they don't even have a normal toilet. You see all this poverty, and for a minute you want to go back under the dome. Then you remember how hard it is to breathe there. And that deceptive feeling of safety turns into total despair."
Separated families. That's the most immediate tragedy. Tens of thousands of separated families. Active, upwardly mobile youth looking to improve their careers moved to Kiev. Now the kids are in Ukraine and the parents are in Crimea, and between them there's an increasingly hard-to-scale wall. Even if the children and parents look at the events through a purely political lens, they all suffer personally from the destruction of the previously common territory.
Sevgil Musaeva, editor-in-chief of Ukrainian Pravda, can't visit her parents in Crimea. She was active in the volunteer organization "Crimea SOS" and protested the annexation. Now she's on the enemies list created by the Crimean special services. "I remember Crimea every day," she says. "I dream of our home. I haven't been home in eight months."
Her mother won't take Russian citizenship on principle, and she has to travel to Kiev soon for medical treatment because the local hospital refused her for lack of Russian documents. Musaeva wants her parents to move to Kiev, but they don't want to leave the home that they built after returning to Crimea from Uzbekistan in the 1990s.
According to official statistics, 20,000 people have fled Crimea, 10,000 of them Crimean Tatars. In reality, experts say, the number of refugees is many times higher, because most people don't apply for refugee status. It's a lot of trouble and the benefits amount to almost nothing. Most assistance comes from volunteer organizations that help refugees move from Crimea and establish themselves elsewhere. According to Crimea SOS, 110,000 former residents of Crimea have sought help from the organization.
Rustem Skibin was the first official refugee from Crimea. He was given that status on March 1, 2014. A well-known artist and Crimean Tatar, he has collected ancient and modern Crimean ceramics. "I'm an artist, and I study Crimean history and the history of Crimean Tatars," he says. "After armed individuals seized the High Council building and the police did nothing, I understood that there was no reason to wait, and I decided to bring my collection to the mainland."
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Ukraine President Poroshenko last week. Photo: Aleksandr Osipov
Skibin opened a new studio and a new gallery in Kiev. He volunteers to help refugees establish themselves, and travels around Ukraine teaching people about the culture and traditions of the Crimean Tatars. Skibin is an optimist, and he thinks he'll be able to return home in a couple of years. Most Crimean refugees think they will be able to go home in a couple of decades.
The Kiev Institute of Sociology and the University of Maryland recently published the results of a major sociological survey titled "Ukraine in a Crisis Situation," and one of the questions was related to the Crimean problem. A third of Ukrainian citizens think Crimea is part of Ukraine and that its return should be a priority.
For 51% of the country, the territorial loss isn't something they're willing to accept. But neither is it a top national priority. On the other hand, 18% of the population has come to terms with the loss. There's a strong regional element, though. In the west and north, only 5% of the population accepts the loss of Crimea whereas in the east, 41% of Ukrainians do.
Politicians talk frequently about retaking Crimea, but that problem is less urgent than the war in the eastern part of the country and the economic crisis. "Unfortunately, our government doesn't have a strategy in the fight for Crimea," Musaeva admits.
Crimea will come back to Ukraine, President Petro Poroshenko said recently, but it will require several steps. "The first step is human rights," he said. "That is the first priority I have given to government services. Secondly, legal protection for property in Crimea, both government and corporate property. Third, we should collect all weapons that are in Crimea."
He said the most important thing was to show that people live better on "this side" of the border. He is convinced that Crimeans have had their eyes opened. "The sanctions work," he said. "People aren't going there on vacation, and the increase in pensions has been swallowed by the ruble's devaluation."
There is no indication that Poroshenko's theory is correct. And the idea of "opening their eyes" is a dangerous one. What might they see? For example, Crimeans might note that a year after the annexation, the Ukrainian government has yet to take a single official step towards protecting its interests in Crimea, despite the fact that many Ukrainian businesspeople, including the president himself, lost property there.
"In a year, not a single lawsuit about lost property has been filed in an international court," Musaeva says. "In the Justice Ministry they always have some sort of excuse for our questions. Maybe they don't feel like doing it or they don't have the specialists, it's not clear. Ukraine's prime minister is always promising to return Crimean businesses to Ukraine, but he doesn't do anything."
People say that a group of refugees plans to file a suit for lost property in the European Human Rights Court in an effort to fight Russia's annexation of Crimea and to demand compensation from Moscow for lost property. But whether the Ukrainian government will take any action remains to be seen.