All Empires Collapse
by Andriy Tuzhykov
Translated from the Ukrainian by Dmytro Kyyan.
The Ukrainian People's House in Chernivtsi, where Anna works, is surrounded by three streets: Ukrainian street, Armenian street, and Yakob von Petrovich street, named after the Armenian mayor of Chernivtsi. Sometimes, they simply say Jakob Petrovich street without the prefix “von”, for it makes the democrats get too annoyed, so both versions are used in the various guides, web pages and street conversations. In front of the People's House there is an Armenian church which also serves as a concert hall. It was constructed exactly as the People's House: on the community's donations. There is the cult bar "Kontraband" slightly below the Armenian street, because Chernivtsi is the eternal margin of some state formation that captured the city. It is sixty kilometers to the border of Moldova, and fifty to Romania. It is two minutes from the People's House to Olga Kobilyanska Street, formerly Herrenstraße, that was home to intellectuals, homeowners, moneylenders and traders in the times of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In seven minutes – City Hall, in ten – the square of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a former Jewish ghetto during WWII, and the Turkish bridge, an inheritance of the short Ottoman rule. This is what Anna's workplace landscape looks like.
There is a small living room before the entrance to the office that is heated with a wood stove, equipped with a squeaky sofa and an assortment of entertaining things: a TV, a microwave oven and a coffee machine. Anya has been working here for four years, since her emigration from Crimea. While the coffee beans are being ground, I turn on the voice recorder.
"I was born in the small city of Bakhchysarai, the former capital of the Crimean Khanate," Anna begins the way it’s done - from the very beginning. “It is way smaller than Chernivtsi, only thirty thousand people, a small village located in the inner reaches of the Crimean mountains in the valley of the Churuk-Su River. Before emigration, I left Crimea only twice: first, when I was nine and then, when I was twenty-seven years-old. I live in Sadgori (a remote part of Chernivtsi) now, and there are also hills there. I look out the window in the morning, and the panorama reminds me of Bakhchisarai a little, only the Crimean mountains are blue while these hills are green. I have two higher education degrees. The first is in History. I worked in a school after graduation and realized that I needed to continue my studies. So, I became an economist-programmer, and I work with 1С (integrated development environment for accounting).
I remember when the Crimean Tatars started returning from exile. Stalin sent them to Siberia in 1944. At first, there were conflicts with the locals. This is understandable, because the town was quite small. There were fights, even a few murders. There were conflicts over land, work, housing - but it was all quickly resolved. The Ukrainian authorities settled the issue, and the Crimean Tatars began to assimilate. They did so quickly because they knew the Russian language well; at present, they normally use the Tartar language only when they communicate with each other. These conflicts have disappeared now, and in general, it is necessary to understand that there are Crimean Tatars as well as Crimean Tatars in politics lobbying some of their own interests.
I didn’t expect a scenario like that [the annexation of Crimea] could be possible. There were some cases, but one just had to put them together. For example, a social survey on Russian-language discrimination was held in the streets in 2010. I tried explaining to people that no such discrimination could be possible because the Ukrainian language was used only in language and literature classes in schools. It was already back then when the slow and cautious imposition of “Crimea – Russia” began. All inhabitants of Crimea, except Sevastopol, can speak Ukrainian to some extent, so when TV channels started showing movies in Ukrainian, that brought about contrived conversations, indignation: people who used to go to the movies once every six months suddenly became indignant that the movies on TV were presented in the language of the country they live in. And all that despite the fact that documents, signs, everything about daily life was in Russian. It brings me back to the question of identity. There is still no Ukrainian identity in Crimea but there is no Russian one, either. However, there is the Crimean identity - at least, there was. For example, the youth wouldn’t go to war for either Ukraine or Russia. It was evident before 2014, but I won’t say this considering Russia now.
Here are some interesting facts about Banderavites. For the majority of Crimeans this is not an ideology, but rather the name of people from Western Ukraine. The negative association that was applied to it went into circulation much later, especially in 2014 when before the referendum, everyone waited for the three trains with Banderavites and their guns to move into Crimea. That was an absurd tale, but people believed in it anyway, and they also believed that it was only Putin who could save them. He himself would stand on the tracks to stop the trains. This sympathy for authoritarianism is altogether strange. The older generation sympathized with Russia, and precisely because of that, longed for the USSR. They would say you have democracy and it's a mess, whereas Stalin had established order everywhere. They have a slightly different perception of power. For us, Ukrainians, the president is a position, and there, it is a personality. So, many would complain about Ukraine, and I would always tell them, "If you don’t like the country in which you live, then pack your suitcases." But when Russia came, those people to whom I had said that looked at me ironically. And I indeed began to pack my suitcases. I'm not used to being stopped by six armed men in the middle of the street just to look at my passport. I realized that a totalitarian state was coming into being there. The first instances of “ratting-out” neighbors, colleagues and friends began to occur.
Those who criticized the authorities too loudly paid for it, and some even disappeared. As a historian, I understood what this was leading up to. Pro-Ukrainians began to lose their positions, jobs. I got sad – they began to make a military base out of my land, once known as the resort peninsula. Now, children starting at the age of seven are signed up for the "Yunarmia" (Young Army). Think about it - a seven year-old child walks around with a plastic or wooden assault-rifle. Russia is doing very well when it comes to propaganda, even too well. And probably, it makes propaganda better than anyone else. For the slogan "We are in Crimea – therefore, we are in Russia" was very skillfully implanted.
While we are talking, Anna’s boss distracts her and asks to check financial documents. Anna leaves me alone for a moment. The coffee has already cooled down, and there is only some cold, bitter fluid left at the bottom of a cup from some Soviet-era coffee set. Eventually, she returns and we continue.
Crimea has changed. Many key positions were given to the Russians who came after the annexation. Crimean businesses were illegally seized, living conditions worsened. Major Russian businesses like Sberbank, for example, won't come due to sanctions. This complicates the economy. However, people are afraid to admit the error, and this is human nature. The Russian form of freedom of speech feeds this fear. When I was preparing to leave, most of my friends no longer talked to me, and some said that I was a traitor to the Motherland. I mentioned the same cliché from the Stalinist 30s [the active phase of Stalinist repressions]. I chose to move to Chernivtsi because my sister worked there. She dealt with European and American foundations, which is difficult to do in Crimea since the annexation. I helped her with moving and also decided to move here. I still stay in touch with some of my friends by Skype. It is hard, though. For example, there was a family among my friends that waved a tricolor during the referendum and stood in line for the Russian passports. There was another family that we knew in which nobody cared what was the flag we lived with: whether it was Russia or Ukraine, even Honduras. This apolitical family is also brainwashed now. We talked by Skype the other day, and they said to me, “How’s your Hohlandia doing there, we've seen your Poroh (“gunpowder”) was doing crazy things.” They see a lot of stuff about Ukraine on television - as if they don’t have their own problems. Although you know, I noticed that rhetoric has changed a bit recently. Now Ukraine is a fraternal country with which they quarreled, and have common roots, common traditions. And here it comes again – the traditions and roots are Russian. Ukraine is no longer the enemy but something that was lost. And she must be returned to the Russian culture - the caring older brother.
After the failure of the “Novorossia” project, this is not a bad strategy. It didn’t work out by force, whereas it may work out by cunning. That’s why they didn’t start building a bridge right away, for they hoped a land route would be cut through.
I am not an engineer, but I know that a bridge in the storm area is not the best idea.
When my friends were seeing me off to the station and helping to take my things away, my friend's husband turned on patriotic Russian songs in the car. They asked, "Why are you leaving? There is no escape from Russia. We’ll soon be in Chernivtsi [more than 1000 km from the Russian border]." As a historian, I know that all empires collapse, and I sincerely wish that for the Russian Empire.
After that, Anna and I watch the movie "Crimea" that was released not long ago. The Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation financed the production of the movie. In an interview, the director said that Shoigu [the Minister of Defense] asked him not to make a propaganda film, but rather a story about people. Anna was laughing out loud while watching it, which meant the director had failed.
P.S. For security reasons, some fragments of the text with personal data, real people and events had to be cut out in the process of editing.
- The term ‘Banderavites’ (ukr. ‘Banderivtsi’) derives its name from the surname of a Ukrainian political activist and a leader of the nationalist and independence movement of Ukraine, Stepan Andryiovych Bandera (1909-1959) who was assassinated by the KGB agent Bohdan Stashynsky on 15 October 1959 in Munich.
‘Hohlandia’ is a highly offensive and derogatory name for Ukraine. The root part ‘hohl’ is based on a word ‘hohol’ or ‘khokhol’ in Russian – ‘oseledets’ in Ukrainian, the stereotypical Ukrainian Cossacks haircut-style (the 14th – 18th centuries).
‘Poroh’ (ukr. ‘poroh’ – ‘gunpowder’) is a nickname of Petro Poroshenko, the President of Ukraine.
‘Elder brother’ (‘starshyi brat’ in Russian) or sometimes, ‘elder sister’ (‘starshaya sestra’ in Russian) is a euphemism for Russia VS. a condescending euphemism ‘younger brother’ (mladshyi brat’) or sometimes, ‘mladshaya sestra’ (‘younger sister’) for Ukraine.
In its Issue 19 (February 25 of 2015), the Russian newspaper ‘Novaya Gazeta’ published a document that, between February 4th and 12th of 2014, was allegedly prepared and discussed in the Administration of the President of the Russian Federation. According to that document, after the annexation of Crimea, Russia had plans to further destabilize and annex several other regions of Ukraine such as Kharkiv region, Luhansk region, Donetsk region, Dnepropetrovsk region, Zaporizhzhya region, Mykolaiv region and Odesa region.