Ukrainian Crimea Was Always a Ludicrous Idea. It's Russian to the Core
Peter Hitchens figured it out in 2010. A superb snapshot of popular sentiment in Crimea under Ukraine, and a bit on Donbass in the east
This article originally appeared in Daily Mail
Imagine some future Brussels edict has finally broken up Britain and handed Devon and Cornwall over to rule by Wales.
Imagine the Royal Navy, much shrunk and renamed the English Navy, being told it has to share Plymouth with a new Welsh fleet; that is, if it is allowed to stay there at all.
Picture the scene as cinemas in Plymouth and Exeter are forced to dub all their films into Welsh, while schools teach anti-English history and children are pressed to learn Welsh.
Meanwhile, Devon and Cornwall are cut off by a frontier from the rest of England, closing down industries with English links, and people are issued with new identity documents with Welsh names.
Utterly mad and unthinkable, you might say. And you would be right. But something very similar has happened in what used to be the Soviet Union, and we are supposed to think it is a good thing – because Russia is officially a bad country, and its former subject nations are therefore automatically good.
Remember how the world’s media reported on Kiev’s ‘Orange Revolution’, which lasted from November 2004 until the following January, with gushing approval?
Remember how you were supposed to think the Orange-clad crowds were a benevolent expression of popular opinion?
Remember talk of a ‘New Cold War’, in which wicked Russia was the enemy and ‘we’, the European Union, were going to extend ‘our’ rule deep into the former Soviet lands?
Well, if there was such a war, we are busy losing it because ‘our’ side is misguided and wrong, and because it was always absurd to try to dislodge Russia and the Russians from the great plains of Ukraine and the shores of the Black Sea.
In this part of the world, Russia just is. You might as well try to shift the Himalayas with a bulldozer.
If you thought that political madness in Europe ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall, then you should visit present-day Sevastopol, perhaps the most absurd city in the world.
Sevastopol belongs to Ukraine, but hardly anyone here is Ukrainian. Two rival fleets ride at anchor in its majestic harbour. Two rival flags fly from its public buildings.
This was the end of the flirtation between Ukraine and the West. It was greeted by opposition MPs with showers of smoke bombs and eggs (the parliamentary speaker sheltered under an umbrella, presumably a Russian one).
I am not sorry about this. I always thought that destroying the old Communist Evil Empire was quite enough. Why did we then need to rub Russia’s nose in the mud?
They are an old, proud people and most of them didn’t want to be communists. As for the defeat, anyone could see it coming. It always happens. Britain’s war in the Crimea in 1854 (launched by a drunken, half-asleep Cabinet in what seems to have been a fit of pique) was officially a victory, but all its gains were reversed less than 20 years later.
So the Charge Of The Light Brigade was not just a blunder. It was a pointless one. Imperial Germany seized Ukraine in 1917, and lost it again the following year. Hitler’s Germany repeated the action in 1941, and we all know how that ended.
So why did anyone think it was a good idea to challenge Moscow, on the same repeatedly lost ground? Why are our airwaves and newspapers still full of scare stories about Russia, when the real danger to our independence comes from the EU, and the real threat to our peace and prosperity comes from rather further east?
Why do commentators still peddle tales of a Russian menace, when Russia is a military weakling, its ill-disciplined forces largely equipped with scrap metal?
I think our treatment of Russia since the fall of communism has been almost unbelievably stupid and crude. We complain now about the autocratic rule of Vladimir Putin. But it was our greed and our bullying of the wounded bear that created Putin and his shady, corrupt state.
We insisted on humiliating the Kremlin, when Mikhail Gorbachev had kindly dismantled the communist machine. We sponsored annoying mini-states next door to Russia.
And still it is fashionable to posture in the think-tanks of London and Washington with babble about the need to ‘contain’ Russia, and to side with self-proclaimed people-power ‘revolutions’ in the capitals of Russia’s next-door neighbours.
And if Russia objects we throw up our hands and gabble that a ‘New Cold War’ is in the making.
No, I am not an apologist for Comrade Putin. I like Russia, and wish it had a better government. I think it would have done if we had been more thoughtful after 1991.
But I am against stupidity in foreign policy, and this has been a particularly foolish, short-sighted episode. Let me show you just how foolish it has been by taking you first to the beautiful Crimean seaport of Sevastopol, once the pride of Russia, now absurdly part of a supposedly independent Ukraine.
I went there long ago, under tight escort and carrying a special permit, because this handsome city of white-pillared buildings, shady parks and mighty warships was then a secret, closed city, the most important base of the Soviet Union’s global navy.
Not any more. Things are better, and things are worse. In two decades, Sevastopol has gone from being a sort of Stalinist Sparta, austere and warlike, to a seaside Babylon of pizzerias and nightclubs.
Nearby Balaclava, once one of the world’s most heavily fortified submarine bases – where the boats hid from nuclear attack in a hollowed-out mountain – is now a rather tawdry seaside resort.
Most of Admiral Sergei Gorshkov’s ocean-going navy has long ago been scrapped and turned into washing machines and razor blades. Now, two navies compete for space in its harbour (designed long ago by a British admiral).
One is Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, a shrivelled remnant that can just about sink a Georgian patrol boat (Georgia has a population of 4.7 million) but which has quietly conceded mastery of the Black Sea to Turkey. And this is supposed to be a threat to the mighty and prosperous West?
Don’t take my word for it. Listen to a man I shall call Yuri, an English-speaking officer of the Black Sea Fleet, who mourned: ‘Yes, I remember when we had one of the world’s great navies – but these days we can’t even challenge the Turks for control of the Black Sea, for the first time in 200 years.’
What’s left of the Black Sea Fleet can be seen tied up in Sevastopol’s harbour. The seductive, sleek lines of the beautifully designed ships can’t conceal the fact that these vessels date from the age of the Ford Cortina and the Boeing 707.
Several of the best-surviving ships now form part of the new, pro-Western Ukrainian navy, which shares the port with Russia – thanks to the wholly unexpected creation of an independent state of Ukraine.
This sublimely silly development meant that Russia’s main naval base was suddenly in a foreign country, and its inhabitants became aliens in their own land. It gets more ridiculous. On one side of the harbour, a fortress bears the slogan ‘Glory to the Russian navy!’ A strongpoint a mile away is adorned with a banner proclaiming ‘Glory to the Ukrainian navy!’
Sevastopol’s deputy mayor, Pyotr Kudryashov, knows all about this rivalry. By an accident of history, his son Sergei, 30, and his daughter Anna, 35, are both serving at sea as naval officers – but Anna is in a Russian ship, and Sergei is in a Ukrainian one.
Both wanted to join a navy, and each joined the one that was recruiting when they graduated. In theory, if the New Cold War ever turns hot, they could be firing missiles at each other. Mr Kudryashov, who thinks such a conflict most unlikely, jokes: ‘They get on very well – just like brother and sister.’
If you stroll down the city’s pleasant, sunny Lenin Street, past the elegant 19th Century naval museum, you will meet officers and men of both fleets strolling by in their crisp uniforms.
The Russians, with their shoulder boards and hats the size of large pizzas, still look very Russian. The Ukrainians, in their crisp khakis, look almost exactly like US navy men on shore leave in San Diego. Both, of course, speak Russian to each other.
But, thanks to the New Cold War, the Ukrainian sailors are supposed to speak Ukrainian. For Sevastopol, officially a Ukrainian city, is not very keen on its new status.
Street signs are still in Russian. When I asked the waitress in a cafe to explain an advertising slogan on the wall to me, she shrugged in an entirely Russian way before replying: ‘How should I know? I don’t speak Ukrainian.’
Yet a few months ago the cinemas in the city were obliged by law to dub all their films, even those in Russian, into Ukrainian – which is slightly more unlike Russian than Spanish is unlike Italian. This only stopped because the cinemas were empty. The schools, though most reluctantly teach their classes in Russian, teach Ukrainian history, often with an anti-Russian tinge.
As Yuri says: ‘It is infuriating for us, to have our children taught about how wicked Russia was.’
One particular annoyance is the hero-worship of the Forties Ukrainian partisan Stepan Bandera. Soviet history dismissed him as a ruthless brigand and Nazi collaborator.
Most modern Russians agree. But the last President of Ukraine, Viktor Yushchenko, had Bandera proclaimed a national hero, as popular among Russians here as an IRA parade would be in Protestant Antrim.
For this and other reasons, many Russians, especially navy families, send their children instead to a special Russian school – the best in town – built and paid for by Moscow in what looks to me like a direct challenge to Ukrainian sovereignty.
There is even a branch of Moscow University here. Moscow maintains a sort of embassy in the heart of Sevastopol, cheekily sited not far from a rather provocative statue of the Russian empress Catherine the Great, also paid for with Moscow roubles.
If all this is not ridiculous enough for you yet, meet retired Rear Admiral Vladimir Solovyov, former intelligence chief of the Soviet Black Sea Fleet, now in charge of a welfare organisation for retired sailors.
The admiral, a stocky sea-dog type, says with a chuckle that he knows the East Coast of England well, as seen through a powerful telescope.
He was a real Cold Warrior, but now says: ‘I don’t think modern Russia is strong enough to wield power the way the USSR did in the Cold War.’
These days his enemy is different. When this proud Russian recently tried to obtain a residence permit to retire in Sevastopol, he was told that he had been compulsorily awarded Ukrainian citizenship (and was now ‘Volodomir’ instead of Vladimir).
Having gone through hoops to become Russian again, he now has to leave the country every three months – or face being fined for overstaying his permit.
He gets a Russian pension and lives in a Russian-owned flat. In all important respects, he is in Russia – but technically, he is a foreigner. Like many Russians stuck in a newly foreign land, he warns against attempts to turn him into something else.
‘They made a big mistake. We love many things about Ukraine, the food, the music, the culture, the literature – but when it comes to being told to watch films in Ukrainian, they went too far. And we have a right to see our children grow up thinking, speaking and writing the way Russians do.’
It is true that there are plenty of parts of Ukraine where people do feel and speak Ukrainian – mainly in the west around the city now called Lviv (though in the past 150 years it has also been the Austrian city of Lemberg, the Polish city of Lwow and the Soviet city of Lvov – in this part of the world you can move from country to country just by staying in the same place).
But travel east, as I did, to the old coal-mining region of the Don Basin, and you will find out why so many Ukrainian citizens did not support the 2004 Orange Revolution. I went to the decayed town of Gorlovka. Independence has done little for this place.
Cut off from its Russian hinterland and its markets, it is expiring. All around are dead slag heaps and ruined mines and factories, and tragic landscapes of collapse under a ferocious sun.
Gorlovka’s coal mines and chemical works fed the USSR’s industries. Now they are mostly dead and the town – twinned with Barnsley in the Eighties – is nearly as bereft of its traditional industries as its Yorkshire opposite number.
Sad, empty playgrounds are melancholy evidence of a city condemned to die. There is still a statue of Lenin in the main square but on its flanks are scrawled graffiti – a thing I have never seen before in the former USSR. The image of Lenin was once revered, and later hated, but never trivialised by drawings of Bart Simpson.
The mayor, Ivan Sakharchuk, is proud of his treaty with Barnsley and also insists that there are no difficulties with being Ukrainian. I am not so sure. Nobody uses the town’s Ukrainian name of Horlivka.
Many of the street signs are still in Russian. The names of shops are in Russian. The newspapers on sale are in Russian. In the rather smart Cafe Barnsley, the only beer on sale is Russian and the radio is tuned to a Russian station. I suspect the people are hoping for – and expecting – a Russian future.
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