The following post is a first-hand account of her journey to Crimea written by guest author Anastasia Nevyakina. Here, Anastasia explores political realities and journalistic challenges that face the Crimean Peninsula.
As I stand by the empty baggage belt in Crimea’s Simferopol International Airport, I sigh with exasperation and a hint of relief. I made it! And, just like the last time when I visited four years ago, my baggage is probably still in limbo, circulating around Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport. Somehow this gives me some sense of comfort. Maybe political realities have changed, but these slight shortfalls remain consistent. After all, when coming home one has certain expectations. I could have never imagined that Crimea would be annexed by Russia when I left to the States with my mother at the age of 14. As I stand in line to complain about the missing baggage, I am suddenly thankful that I was in America, working on my Bachelors when the annexation took place. I am even more grateful that the rest of my family, who remained in Crimea, were not directly affected by the change in power. A nudge from a woman behind me returns me to reality; I file a report, and the attendant promises my baggage will be delivered straight to my door—a positive improvement—within the next few days. That is, if they find it, of course.
Driving home from the airport, I notice the first of many changes. Although Simferopol looks like it has been frozen in time, the roads have retrogressed. While roads have never been optimal in Crimea, what I witnessed on my way from Simferopol to Sevastopol was a drastic deterioration. Potholes now permeate the highway, one after another, without any warning signs to caution drivers. My father assures me the local authorities will eventually patch the potholes, although the most of them are already well-established and clearly no longer recent. I hold tighter to the car’s handle as we maneuver through traffic, sometimes plunging down and swerving to the opposite side of the road. His explanation is emblematic: “What can you do?” This is a transitionary period, you know.”
My father was only the first to utter this sentiment, one continuously repeated by friends and family. But they had questions for me, too. The first question: “Is it true that Americans dislike Russians,” was often followed by snide remarks about Americans’ cognitive abilities. In Crimea, these questions are often not questions at all. Nonplussed, I stumbled to answer people to whom I feel so close, because I could not believe the antagonism hinged upon their anti-American convictions. Family members, friends and neighbors would hurriedly try to put me at ease when this bitterness bled through political conversation: everyone wanted to join Russia, they reassure me, and everyone is better off. In fact, they continue, nothing has really changed. I pause; has much actually changed since my last visit? Can life go on as if a globally-reported annexation never happened? Yes, everyone now has a Russian passport and uses Russian rubles instead of Ukrainian hryvnia. The stores are still fully stocked with products—Russian, instead of Ukrainian, but no one really cares—and the city put up some Russian flags, but the landscape has not really changed, and everyone goes on with their lives as if nothing has happened. There are some trivial changes. I saw fewer people on the streets when I wandered around the city, for instance, but that is mostly because European and American tourists were discouraged by their governments and the media from visiting Crimea. It almost feels like the designated term “annexation” is a contrived creation of the Western media.
Yet, somehow, I was not convinced of the idyllic stasis propagated by my friends and family. Suddenly the potholes on the roads all over Crimea became symbolic of my visit back home and symptomatic of a dysfunctional government; I started noticing that there were a lot of things that did not add up and I wanted to fill the missing pieces with information. Before my trip, I had called my family and friends to voice my concerns over annexation and their safety; in haste, they changed the topic or tried to hush me. Yet, when I arrived, my family suddenly claimed that they had greater freedom of speech under Putin than they had had when Crimea belonged to Ukraine. When I asked for an explanation from my childhood friend—a very well-educated and bright medical student—she responded: “Under the new Ukrainian government, people in Crimea would have lost the ability to freely voice their opinion and would be forced to speak Ukrainian.” I pressed her to clarify her opinion and asked whether she felt like her freedom of speech was threatened under Viktor Yanukovych, or any other Ukrainian president, she referred to nationalistic protests in Kiev in 2014, which in her opinion, were very antagonistic towards Russian sympathizers. Interestingly, despite her initial response, she was unable to furnish any specific examples that would indicate a threat to her freedom to speak freely while Crimea was still a part of Ukraine. While initially baffling, I later realized her lack of examples was further evidence that in the current environment the only criticisms acceptable were the ones targeting Ukraine and the West. In the past, I was engulfed in a stream of complaints about prices, the government, and other issues, both in person and online over Skype videochats and Facebook messages. But the situation has changed, and instead of strong opinionated voices, I now hear weak excuses for the shortcomings of the new government. The only insistent assertions reminiscent of past times are cliché expressions of nationalism.
I try not to be too quick to judge. I understand that having a meal on the table is a priority when personal safety is at stake. I am told multiple times by people from different backgrounds that they are better off, now that they don’t have to live paycheck-to-paycheck. But while some can articulate the price of this marginal comfort, many have surrendered to the new “realities” defined by the government-controlled TV channels. There is a substantial shortage of neutral reporting when it comes to Ukraine and the U.S., and everyone on the TV seems to have a rehearsed opinion. News channels, like Channel 1, appeal to anti-Ukrainian and anti-American stances. Even those who seek refuge from this one-sided and extremely biased point of view can find nostalgia for the old days (particularly the past glories of WWII) by turning on the movie channels. This sentimental longing for the victories of World War II is prevalent among the young and middle-aged people, especially those working in the police and in the military, it seems that they are extremely proud of winning a war in which they took no part.
I was curious to speak with independent journalists in Crimea and hear their thoughts on the annexation, but it was no easy task. Many of the contacts I had fled Crimea after they experienced considerable threats to their safety. Some had their equipment broken, others were confronted in person. Some left because they were fired or bullied, others knew what was coming and left before it was too late. Those who stayed feared phone conversations, assuming their phones were tapped. I finally got in contact with Sergei Mokrushin, who worked for the Center for Investigative Journalism in Crimea. At a young age of 27 he already had an extensive journalistic experience and was happy to answer my questions.
It was never easy to access information in Crimea, Sergei informed me. However, under the Ukrainian government, it was possible to legally fight for the publication of needed information. Under the new Russian government, little to no information is readily released. This, Sergei mentioned, is partially why he was forced to start working freelance: there was no more investigative work for him to safely undertake. Since the annexation, he told me, there have been over 100 registered attacks on journalists in Crimea. The attacks continued long after the annexation, but also Ukrainian channels were taken off the cable television and Ukrainian newspapers were removed from the stands. “There was a competition for radio station spots,” he adds with a hint of sarcasm, “but it was basically just weeding out the old radio stations, because by the new rules, old stations were no longer qualified to compete or did not have sufficient time to register. ” Only a selected group of radio stations was able to qualify for this competition, because the time frame for receiving needed documents for the application was longer than the application process itself. On April 1, 2015, Ukrainian licenses expired, and the stations had to cease broadcasting. The eradication of various independent and non-Russian aligned news sources carried on, albeit in new forms.
Sergei continued his story: in March 2014, journalists lost the access to the information about government officials. Soon after, a black list of journalists was created, many of whom were former employees of the Center for Investigative Journalism. People who participated in Maidan were also under suspicion. Those on the list had their apartments searched and their phones tapped. While Sergei was not on the blacklist, he had helped a number of journalists flee Crimea, and the new administration began to collect information on him. Sergei has since relocated to Kiev, and is now working safely there. I asked him if there was anything in particular he thought was important for me to understand. He said that there is a lot of propaganda being fed to people in Crimea, and then paused to add “This is a very tense moment in time right now. You need to understand that the splinter between Russia and the rest of the world is the situation in Crimea.” Sergei thinks that the return of Crimea is the only viable choice. After some thinking he adds “Crimeans will always be on the side of the ones with the power. It’s a Soviet mentality.” After speaking with Sergei, I was saddened to learn about the amount of administrative cleanup that has been done since the annexation.
During my trip to Crimea I was bothered by the lack of knowledge and awareness people exhibited. Their view of the world is skewed, polarized in black and white with very little gray area. Democracy means little for strongly nationalistic people, who feel isolated and antagonized by the rest of the world. This is why the media has been so successful in winning over the masses. During the Soviet regime, many citizens distrusted the government media, however, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the morale among the masses was low. Putin was able to unite the people under the idea of Russia’s superiority. Not only did Russia win the WWII and saved the rest of Europe, Russian morals were better and the new Russian president, a common man, was working to improve the lives of his people. Crimean residents were not only spoon fed all of that propaganda over the years, but were also alienated from the rest of the world through sanctions, which discouraged Europeans and Americans from traveling to Crimea and continuing business there. Suddenly, Crimean “liberation” was viewed as unlawful and condemned by the rest of the world. Many lost their remaining trust in Ukraine and the West.
At a moment, Crimean residents seem to be satisfied with the information that meets with their patriotic sentiment, but for how long? In 2015, out of 180 countries on the World Press Freedom Index list, Russia ranked 152nd. It went down 4 points in comparison to 2014 due to new laws on website blocking and the added pressure on independent news outlets. How much longer can the government oppress its media and deprive its citizens of plurality of opinions and sources?
I remain hopeful. I found that people were open to learning about my opinion on the current political situation in the world, though it varied drastically from what is told on TV. Many conceded that they did not know some facts and arguments I have brought up during our discussions as they were not available through the general news sources. This kind of open mindedness gives hope that when the people governed by the Russian government get tired of being progressively limited in their ability to find and extract information, they will then stand up for their right to access diverse news sources and will be open to learning about various opinions all over the world. The freedom to seek information and the freedom to voice an opinion are crucial to a healthy democracy, without these freedoms the citizens are oftentimes unknowingly and passively supporting their own oppression.