Crimea Uncensored: A Look from Inside the Peninsula

Photo courtesy: Igor Mazurov, Flickr

In 2014, on a sunny August day, my spouse and I were on our way to Crimea. We were driving along the shorelines of the Black Sea, curving green hills of the Caucasian Mountains.

I have been following the Crimean crisis from home in Ottawa, watching and reading Western and Russian media. Needless to say, the news coverage was so different—as if it came from two different places. The trip was an exciting opportunity to find out what Crimeans have to say about their “secession” or “annexation.”

After waiving away concerns of our parents—at that time, nobody really knew whether it is safe to travel there—we started on our adventure. Our route would start in Sochi and go through Anapa, Kerch, Simferopol and end in Alupka. Our mode of transportation: rented cars, public transit, a ferry and taxis. Locals would be our travel guides.

[wzslider info=”true”]

Route to Crimea

It’s a long drive from Sochi to Port Kavkaz, but scenic views of cliffs covered with an abundance of flora and open valleys delight the eyes. Small cafes, popping up now and then, spark curiosity. At the port, we waited for three hours to board a ferry to cross to the Crimean Peninsula. While standing in a line, idle travelers spoke about everything except politics. On their minds were touristic thoughts: What to see? Where to eat? What souvenirs to buy?

When we stepped down on the Crimean soil, the sun was setting over the Kerch Strait, which separates the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. As darkness was slowly falling, we met Sergey—the only taxi driver who agreed to drive us through treacherous and unlit roads from Kerch to Alupka.

It was midnight when we have decided to pull over for a late dinner. Loud Russian pop-music was busting from an outdoor restaurant named “U Armena” (Chez Armen), which offered grilled meat. Right at the entrance of the restaurant, the chef Armen was busy preparing kebabs.

“Is the meat good?” we asked him. Armen gave us a serious look and said: “Are you offending me? The meet will be so good: If you don’t like it—you don’t have to pay.”

Later, he served us tender mutton that came with grilled onions and a big bowl of fresh uncut greens and herbs. It would be a crime not to pay for the best kebabs on the Black Sea coast.

On the way to Alupka, Sergey said that now the most important thing for Crimea is to catch up with Russian infrastructure. Over the years of being a part of Ukraine, the peninsula’s economy has barely seen any investments from the Ukrainian government. Despite broken roads, leftover from Soviet-era, we reached Alupka safe and sound.

The next day, another taxi driver, Sasha, drove us to Yalta. The young man said Crimeans build their lives around tourists. When the season ends, the peninsula’s inhabitants switch to their winter mode of life. Sasha works in his garage, where he makes different crafts out of metal for trade and for pleasure. As the weather gets hotter, however, Sasha puts a taxi sign on his mini-van to welcome new tourists, who bring with them new stories and new adventures.

No sense of war

Crimea greeted us with beautiful nature, warm weather and people who were genuinely happy to welcome visitors and tourists. There was no sense of war, or any discontent. There were no “annexed” victims. I met no “occupants,” or even a single armed military man. Secession from Ukraine perceived as a normal process that was long overdue.

People I met spoke of life—not war. On the bus, a babushka (Russian word for a grand-mother) was curious where we came from. She said she hasn’t done much travelling in her life, except for visiting her relatives in Ukraine. The babushka said she is happy to see visitors and tourists.

Crimean Tatars, who, according to Western media, are prosecuted by the Russian government, are living and working—like many other residents— in a thriving tourism industry. I met them on the Ai-Petri Peak of the Crimean Mountains, where Tatars run majority of businesses. They were glad to see and to serve their “guests.”

Crimeans are very proud people. They hold their families, deeds and even their words in high honour. They are ready to die for it. There were no panhandlers. No smiles for tips. Hospitality came from heart.

Crimea, one year later

March 2015 marked one year since Crimea has seceded from Ukraine. On March 6, 2014, 83 per cent of Crimeans cast a ballot in the referendum to secede from Ukraine. Almost 97 per cent expressed their will to join Russia. Western media, nonetheless, is continuing to portray Crimea’s separation as an annexation by Russia. However, the West is now slowly starting to accept the reality.

In February 2015, German Gfk and American Gullup polling firms showed 82 per cent of Crimeans believed the referendum vote was fair and legitimate; 73.9 per cent believed joining Russia would make their life better.

Forbe’s Kenneth Rapoza writes: “At some point, the West will have to recognize Crimea’s right to self-rule. Unless we are all to believe that the locals polled by Gallup and GfK were done so with FSB bogey men standing by with guns in their hands.”

On March 5, 2014, The Washington Post published Henry Kissinger’s opinion piece on the Ukrainian crisis. Kissinger writes that the West should accept that, “to Russia, Ukraine can never be a foreign country.”

Both countries share history and religion, writes Kissinger. The Black Sea Fleet is based in Sevastopol, Crimea. Crimea became a part of Ukraine in 1954, when Nikita Khrushchev, a Ukrainian by birth, gave it as a gift to Ukraine to commemorate the 300-year celebration of Ukraine being a part of the Tsardom of Russia

Kissinger writes: “Far too often the Ukrainian issue is posed as a showdown: whether Ukraine joins the East or the West. But if Ukraine is to survive and thrive, it must not be either side’s outpost against the other — it should function as a bridge between them.”

Crimeans have been saying this from the beginning. Somehow, however, their voices were lost or distorted in the Western media. Only a few journalists traveled to the conflict zone to report, while many others sat in their offices, aggregating the same news of corporate press agencies.

After visiting the Crimea and speaking to the residents that are comprised of Russians, Ukrainians and other diverse nations living in peace, calling one another “brothers,” it makes me wonder: How many more conflicts and wars were blown out of proportion, played out as an entertainment on the screens of people who safely live far away?