I just came home to the Occupied Territory of Crimea, after completing an arduous process of meeting all Russia’s requirements for me to enter. The Russian consulate in Kiev was very nice and we shared some good laughs, but interestingly, Russia had to break its own laws to grant me a visa. For example, Russia had to ignore the requirement of my providing a notarized letter of invitation. Furthermore, Russia’s military bypassed the law that required me to be escorted into Crimea by a Russian. And, thankfully, the Russian military seemed too preoccupied to check for Ukrainian food products.
Coming back to the capital city of Simferopol is eerie; it is largely inhabited by the same people, but there is completely different vibe. Last year at this time, throngs of vacationers were at the train station, gleefully getting on buses to the coast. McDonald’s was beyond max capacity, with many queues reaching to the entrance. The cafes and streets were filled with people shopping, drinking, and having fun. Simferopol was alive as everyone loves summer in Crimea.
Now the train station is quiet, and McDonald’s is out of business. Credit cards to do not work, as well as most of the cash machines. The shops look empty with posters promoting sales up to 60% off, and numerous other businesses have closed. This hub city of over 300,000 now feels like a sleepy town, where most activity is centered on simply meeting the daily needs of life. Except for the remnants of propaganda championing Russia’s conquest, the sense of celebration is gone.
Of course, I am sure the picture is different in the coastal resort cities of Yalta and Sevastapol, where Russians are buying up property faster “than a bell clapper in a goose’s ass,” to use a colloquialism from the American south. As Crimeans increasingly become second class citizens in their own province, I am sure Putin is grateful for Russian vacationers reaffirming the trope of Crimeans being blessedly lucky to now be part of Russia. Ironically, well-heeled Russian tourists are likely to be a more effective instrument of Putin’s aims than the military. At least these bronzed beach goers are effectively mystifying the masses while aiding the finances of Russia’s government at the same time.
I am happy to have found a way to come back to my apartment and my friends, but it is sorrowful to be here. For all intents and purposes, Crimea is evolving into a kind of prison, and Crimeans can only see as far as these prison walls allow. Prison is not a place to generate life and spirit; it is only a place to be kept alive. The Crimeans I know and love do not deserve this prison.