Who Owns the Land?
by Olga Morkova
In March of 2014, a few days after Russia’s illegal annexation of the Crimean peninsula, my mother called to warn me against returning home. A new border between Crimea and Ukraine had been established overnight, and tanks were rolling down the street outside of my parent’s house. As a human rights lawyer and pro-Ukrainian activist, she knew that I would be labeled an enemy of the Russian government. I am now a foreigner in my own home. Ukrainian phone lines stopped working in Crimea soon after, and I could no longer call my parents. A few weeks after that, they were forced to receive new passports and accept Russian citizenship if they wanted to continue to have access to the basic amenities of society.
Over fifty-thousand people refused to accept the new regime and fled Crimea, and subsequently more than one million people have fled Eastern Ukraine after the civil unrest that erupted there soon after. Most of them have struggled to gain access to basic rights such as education, healthcare, or voting rights, the latter of which meant a lot in a post-revolutionary climate where the nation was eagerly awaiting new elections.
So much has happened since the Revolution of Dignity. It was a moment when Ukrainians came together, in spite of the odds. There are countless memories which come to mind every time I think about it.
I turn on Hromadske TV for the latest. Our peaceful protest has transformed into a brutal fight. Anti-protest laws have been introduced by the government, and now we all risk being put in jail.
I see on the live coverage that protesters have started to move towards the parliament building, which is surrounded by police forces. There are also pro-government protesters, their aggression growing by the day. I see no good outcomes to this situation.
My roommate and her friend get in the car and drive around the city, picking up rubber tires. They park the car at the sight of the conflict and place the tires in-between protesters and police. The idea is to light them on fire and create a smokescreen, preventing the police from finding their targets.
A few hours later, I am ready to join the fight. At this point, many protesters are injured and suffering from smoke inhalation. We bring milk and kefir to help them in any way we can before the ambulances arrive...
Delivering packages to fellow protestors was the most intense experience of my life. We ran to medical groups in the middle of the fight: molotov cocktails, bullets, fire, smoke and the sounds of war surrounded us. The street was full of gas, so much so that we could hardly breathe. I covered my mouth with a scarf, hoping not to get poisoned myself. The square was full of the injured. Moments after I delivered supplies to the medical checkpoint, the police began shooting at protesters and we ran, hoping to survive. I did, but six others lost their lives that day.
I go to the Maidan. One of the political leaders tells us from the stage “If you receive a bullet in your forehead, then you receive a bullet in your forehead. Go for it!”* My mind is in a haze. I cannot actively participate in the revolution anymore. One after the other, I learn about my friends’ arrests, thinking I could be next. I know in my heart that I have to leave Kyiv as soon as possible. The safest place is always home. I go to Crimea.
When I arrived it was very peaceful, far removed from the the dramatic events unfolding in Kyiv. I spent the next few weeks with my childhood friends. We hiked in the mountains that we know so well, and carried on late-night conversations over black tea and sweets at the round dining table in my parent’s house. Those were long nights spent talking about politics, poetry and life. Finally, I felt at home—safe and surrounded by the people who love me and who know me best.
One day we went hiking at Balaklava. It brought back memories of camping there a few years prior. I slept on a rock washed by the sea. I hiked uphill every day, for one hour, to get water from a natural spring to use for cooking food. With no clock, the sunrise and sunset marked the passage of time. Being in the wild, subject to the whims of mother nature, I encountered storms, boat crashes, hail showers, rockfall and peaceful days. I spent my time there mostly in meditation under the sun, and by the sea.
Balaklava taught me valuable life lessons. This time of close contact with nature allowed me to realize that no one owns the land, except the land itself. We are given the gift of life, and all around us is the beauty of creation—the sun, trees, seas and oceans, wind, rain and snow. We are guests here, and should be grateful for every moment of it. We can hear sounds inside the silence, and we can see light in the darkness. There is nothing else that matters.
A few weeks later, I returned to Kyiv to pick up the last of my belongings from a friend’s apartment. The Revolution continued. Afraid and devastated, I wanted to return home to Crimea as quickly as possible. How surprised I was when the embattled President Yanukovich left the country. The Revolution triumphed! Our nation, our people, standing together... Yanukovich was gone! So much happiness and tears flowed from our collective eyes. We cheered for our heroes, the Heavenly Hundred, who sacrificed their lives for our freedom and dignity. It could have been the perfect ending to our story.
One day after Yanukovich left the country, Russian president Vladimir Putin unveiled his special operation to occupy Crimea. On February 23rd, my city was filled with Russian tanks and flags, and the calm, peaceful people who spent their days watching seagulls at the seafront became excited, furious activists for their own truth. They wrapped themselves in Russian flags and adorned their cheeks with triple stripes of white, blue and red.
As most of the population of Crimea is ethnically Russian, they were happy to “reunite”, as they said, with their motherland. Only a minority of people speak Ukrainian or consider themselves to be Ukrainian in Crimea. Not many people speak the Crimean Tatar language, either. The reason for this is that during Soviet times, the government put a lot of effort into the Russification of the population, as well as eliminating the Crimean Tatar presence in Crimea. In 1944, Crimean Tatars were evicted from their homes and deported to various parts of Central Asia literally overnight. All of them were forced to board railway carriages designed not for humans, but for livestock. According to Human Rights Watch, 191,044 Crimean Tatars were deported by the Soviet Government. 7,889 (5%) of them died while in transit.
Deported Crimean Tatars were scattered all over Central Asia, where many of them had to perform forced labour. As many Crimean Tatar elders told me, they had no chance to preserve their identity, language and traditions in full, as they were literally fighting for their survival. Many Crimean Tatars returned to Crimea in the 90s, after the Soviet Union collapsed. Only then did they realize that their Crimea no longer existed. Even after their return, the Crimean Tatars were a minority deprived of many basic rights.
The Russian Federation, and earlier both the USSR and the Russian Empire, exercised strong nationalist ambitions and implemented the politics of Russification, that is, the popularization of the Russian language and culture throughout its territories. I won’t hide it from you—I, like many others, am a product of it. I was born in the USSR in 1988, which three years later became Ukraine. I believe Ukraine had the chances to spread its language and culture throughout the Crimean peninsula. It didn’t happen, though. I grew up as a Russian native-speaker, and until I was sixteen years-old, when I moved to the Ukrainian mainland, I could not understand Ukrainian television shows.
Vladimir Putin took advantage of these longstanding Russification campaigns. As such, the Russian government had an almost absolute monopoly on the media broadcast to Crimean households, due to the fact that many people who reside there simply do not understand the Ukrainian language and, hence, could not understand by watching their TV screens what was happening in Kyiv. Crimean residents, scared of so-called “dangerous Ukrainian nationalists”, waved Russian flags and welcomed Putin’s tanks coming to conquer their minds and occupy their land.
Here, the curtain is coming down.
Who made the land?
God made the land.
Who owns the land?
Mr. Johnson owns the land.
Who did Mr. Johnson buy the land from?
He bought the land from God.
So how did Mr. Johnson pay for the land?
'Cause I know God don’t take cash, check, Visa or MasterCard.
Mr. Johnson is God.
I know because Mr. Johnson told me so.
Referenced above are lyrics from William Parker’s “Land Song”. Although it was written about the history of slavery in the United States, it applies to Crimea, as well as many other conflicts in the world today. The truth is that no one owns the land. In an ideal world, we would be able to share the land and its fruit. In this world, where people are greedy and divide things into categories such as “mine” and “yours”, we create conflicts. Now Mr. Putin owns the land, but it won’t be forever. Crimea’s beauty is endless, no matter the ugliness of those who unfairly claim its ownership. I will keep the truth about it close to my heart, and I will pass it on to future generations, until we can finally return to this land that we call Home.
Photo courtesy of Kristína Kliská
*Editor's Note: The phrase "якщо куля в лоб - то куля в лоб" was said by Arseniy Yatsenyuk.