Steeped in Its Bloody History, Again Embracing Resistance
BALKANS & EASTERN EUROPE, 10 Mar 2014
Drawing on his experiences as a young artillery officer in imperial Russia’s military during the Crimean War in 1853-56, Leo Tolstoy described in “Sevastopol Sketches” how a Russian soldier whose leg had been amputated above the knee coped with agonizing pain.
“The chief thing, your honor, is not to think,” Tolstoy’s amputee remarked. “If you don’t think, it is nothing much. It mostly all comes from thinking.”
It is advice, however, that virtually nobody in Crimea, particularly here in Sevastopol, shows any sign of heeding. With nearly every other main street named after a Russian military hero or a gruesome battle, its lovely seafront promenade dominated by a “monument to sunken ships” and its central square named after the imperial admiral who commanded Russian forces against French, British and Turkish troops in the 19th century, Sevastopol constantly feeds thoughts of war and its agonies.
Bombarded with reminders of the Crimean War, which involved a near yearlong siege of the city in 1854-55, and World War II, when the city doggedly resisted Nazi forces until finally falling in July 1942, Sevastopol has never stopped thinking about wartime losses — and has never been able to cope with the amputation carried out in 1954 by the Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev.
Wielding a pen instead of a knife, Khrushchev ordered Sevastopol and the rest of Crimea transferred to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. At the time, the operation caused little pain, as both Russia and Ukraine belonged to the Soviet Union, which chloroformed ethnic, linguistic and cultural divisions with repression.
When Ukraine became a separate independent nation near the end of 1991, however, Sevastopol — the home of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet since the 18th century — began howling, culminating in the Crimean Parliament’s decision on Thursday to hold a referendum on March 16 on whether to break away from Ukraine and formally become part of Russia again. Jubilant residents gathered in Sevastopol.
“We’re returning home,” said one of them, Victoria Krupko. “We’ve waited a long time for this.”
Explaining the city’s agonies this week to a group of visitors, mostly Russians, at Sevastopol’s Crimean War museum, Irina Neverova, a guide, recounted how Britain, France, Turkey, Germany and other nations had all tried, and ultimately failed, to loosen Russia’s grip over the centuries.
“Every stone and every tree in Sevastopol is drenched in blood, with the bravery and courage of Russian soldiers,” said Ms. Neverova, who complained that school history textbooks written under instructions from Ukrainian officials made scant mention of Sevastopol’s heroics and focused instead on the deeds of Ukrainian nationalist fighters in the west of Ukraine, whom many Russians view as traitors, not heroes.
“This is obviously Russia, not Ukraine,” Ms. Neverova said later in an interview.
For many years after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, the loudest voices calling for Crimea’s return to Russia were a motley collection of Afghanistan war veterans and fringe political groups. Wrapping themselves in the Russian and Soviet flags, they regularly called for a referendum on Crimea’s status but got nowhere, widely dismissed as dangerous crackpots nostalgic for the Soviet Union.
But that all changed last month when protesters in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, drove President Viktor F. Yanukovych from power and Russian television, which is widely watched in Crimea, and local news media controlled by pro-Russia businessmen began portraying Mr. Yanukovych’s ouster as a fascist coup.
This turned what had been a marginal and seemingly doomed cause into a replay of heroic struggles, allowing Sevastopol’s enemies of Ukrainian statehood to cast themselves as heirs to their city’s wartime resistance to Hitler’s invading armies.
Thousands of Sevastopol residents gathered outside the office of the Kiev-appointed mayor, located in the shadow of a gargantuan World War II monument on the edge of Nakhimov Square, named after Crimean War hero Pavel Nakhimov, and forced him to resign in favor of Aleksei Chaly, a Russian nationalist and businessman known for his sponsorship of war memorials.
Across the city rose a rallying cry resurrected from past sieges by foreign powers: “Stand Firm, Sevastopol.” The slogan now decorates a stage set up in the central square for pro-Russia rallies and concerts featuring the Black Sea Fleet choir and Cossack dancers.
Not everyone here has been swept up by the tide of Russian patriotic fervor, but those who have not are keeping their heads down. Viktor Negarov, a lonely voice of dissent who organized a series of thinly attended rallies in support of protesters in Kiev, was badly beaten last month by pro-Russia activists. He has gone into hiding for fear of being attacked. His picture, address, mobile telephone number and even car license plate details have all been posted on the Internet by pro-Russia groups that label him a traitor in league with fascists.
Mr. Negarov, a 28-year-old computer programmer, caused particular fury by giving an interview to Ukrainian television in which he challenged Sevastopol’s self-image as a city of ever-victorious heroes, noting that it fought fiercely but ultimately lost to foreign enemies in both the Crimean War and World War II.
“In reality, Sevastopol is a city of losers,” he said in a telephone interview from his hiding place. “People here don’t like to hear this, but that is the reality of our history.”
With Ukrainian military facilities in Crimea now besieged by heavily armed gunmen whose uniforms bear no markings but whose vehicles have Russian license plates, Mr. Negarov sees little hope that Ukraine will be able to quickly recover its own now-amputated territory. “It is a really bad situation,” he said despondently. “Many support the pro-Russian forces here. I don’t know how to fix this. Nearly everyone has been brainwashed.”
While President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia insisted this week that the unidentified gunmen who now control Crimea have nothing to do with the Kremlin and are local self-defense volunteers who bought their uniforms off the shelf, pro-Russia residents in Sevastopol celebrated their arrival as evidence that Moscow had mobilized to force Crimea’s separation from Ukraine. “Let’s continue what we started. We have Russia behind us,” reads a banner hoisted outside the mayor’s office.
Balaklava, near Sevastopol, was the site of one of the Crimean War’s most famous battles. It was a rare Russian victory during the conflict and delivered a devastating blow to the morale of British forces, which launched the ill-fated Charge of the Light Brigade across what the English poet Tennyson called the “valley of death.”
The appearance over the weekend of a long convoy of Russian military vehicles stirred rapture among many residents of Balaklava, nearly all of them Russian speakers raised on stories of Russian military valor against foreign invaders.
Russia’s takeover of Crimea is already so complete that commercial flights to Kiev from the region’s main airport, located outside Simferopol, the regional capital 50 miles from Sevastopol, now leave from the international terminal instead of the domestic one as they did until last week. The shift suggests that Kiev and the rest of Ukraine are now classified as foreign territory.
Russian soldiers patrol the airport parking lot and, although still without markings on their uniforms, have dropped all pretense that they are not Russian. Asked where he was from, a masked soldier at the airport said he was with the Russian infantry and had been sent to Crimea a week ago on a mission to protect the region “against the enemy, Ukraine.”
Patrick Reevell contributed reporting.
A version of this article appears in print on March 7, 2014, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Steeped in Its Bloody History, Again Embracing Resistance.
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