Whose Crimea?

Simferopol, capital of Crimea, is a sprawling, dusty town on the shores of the Black Sea. On the square in front of the Supreme Soviet, overgrown with weeds, are scattered small open tents, rickety shacks, and tables piled with books, brochures, leaflets, and petitions that are handed out by middle-aged and elderly men and women. There are slogans everywhere, on placards, ragged banners, and pieces of paper tacked to trees, or plastered on the low wall surrounding the parliament. CRIMEA IS NOT A COLONY! one reads. CRIMEANS ARE NOT ‘KHOLOPY’ (a derogatory term for Ukrainians) reads another. HANDS OFF CRIMEA!

The men and women gathered in small clusters around the square are the activists of the RDK, the Republican Movement of Crimea, which was organized following the Ukrainian Supreme Soviet’s declaration of independence on August 24, 1991. It has been agitating for Crimean independence “in union with other states.” By early summer a petition for a referendum on this question was signed by over 250,000 people out of Crimea’s population of some two million, 70,000 more than are required.

The Crimean peninsula had never been truly independent. For several centuries it was under the rule of Tatar Khans; it was then taken over by the Ottoman Empire, and conquered and annexed by Russia in 1783. In early 1921, it became an “autonomous republic” within the Russian Federated Republic. In 1945, after Stalin deported the entire Tatar population (about 200,000) to Central Asia on the spurious grounds of collaboration with the Nazis, during which it is estimated that over 40 percent of the Crimean Tatars lost their lives, the republic became a mere territory, and in 1954 was ceded to Ukraine, presumably to commemorate the Pereiaslav Treaty of 1654, officially described at that time as the “voluntary union of the Russian and Ukrainian peoples.” In 1990 Ukraine’s parliament voted to restore Crimea’s status as an autonomous republic once more.

The people in the square loudly scoff at all Ukrainian claims to the Crimea, whether cultural or political. “Ukrainian language?” one woman said. “An old Slavic dialect, with a Crimean accent—that’s Ukrainian.” Another woman said: “They keep sending us Ukrainian textbooks that no one wants.” An elderly man complained, “And they blame it all on us—on the Moskali” (pejorative for Muscovites).

No one knows how many people are sympathetic to the RDK, but it seems to speak for many of the Russians who make up the majority of Crimea’s population, and for some Ukrainians who speak little or no Ukrainian. A young Ukrainian journalist tells me that the RDK is financed by Russian commercial enterprises; others said it had support from people close to the Russian government.

I met the RDK’s leader, Yuri Meshkov, a man in his mid-forties, at his party’s headquarters, a café where a few men and women were silently having tea and almond cake. He said he favored a referendum to decide Crimea’s status …

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