By Roger Annis, July 10, 2014
Simferopol, Crimea—Yesterday, I spent the afternoon walking through central Simferopol, the administrative capital city of Crimea. You may know Crimea as the former region of Ukraine that recently voted to join the Russian Federation. It was a warm and sunny day with a strong breeze blowing.
I get the impression that I’m the only tourist in town. I kept my ears acutely tuned all day to the sound of a foreign-language conversation. Alas, ничего (nothing). I visited the busy train station out of interest and also out of hope of spotting a visitor to whom I could talk. No luck there, either. You see, I don’t speak Russian and I am keen to learn more about Crimea. What’s the living situation here for ordinary people? How do they feel about the tumultuous events of recent months, including the secession from Ukraine? What is that building here, that monument over there? And so on.
Ah well. I do have a get-together today with a socialist who is living here in political exile from Ukraine. I’m really looking forward to that.
Central Simferopol is very pleasant. Lots of tree lined streets with shops and cafes. Many of the downtown streets are closed to traffic and given over to street-level cafes (with overhead protection from the rain and sun). There are lots of squares. It’s not a wealthy, west European look. Just modest and nice. There is a river running through the center of the city with nice parkland along each bank.
There are several important war monuments here. Crimea suffered deeply, profoundly, from the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. Before the end of that year, German troops had reached the peninsula. The Siege of Sevastopol lasted 250 days from 30 October 1941 until 4 July 1942. Crimea was the scene of bitter partisan warfare during the German occupation. It was not liberated until 1944.
I recall the citation of a German general by historian David Stahel in his monumental, 2009 book Operation Barbarossa and Germany’s defeat in the East: “The Russian soldier fights not out of fear, rather for an idea. He does not want to return to the Tsarist time.” (See a brief summary of Stahel’s book and related material, including Stahel’s 2012 book Kiev 1941, here.)
I believe I was viewing the main administrative building of Crimea. There were a half dozen or so unarmed soldiers at its large entrance. I wanted to stroll up and ask them how they think matters are going, but it was unlikely they would know English. When I get home, I think I may study Russian language just in case I should find myself back in this part of the world. It’s a shame to come all this distance and not be able to communicate easily with most people.
There is a lot of bus service in the city. I would have expected to see some kind of light rail tram through the downtown as well, but no. As in Moscow, there are lots of cars, most very modern. Once one leaves the city center, things break down a little. It’s noticeable that the sidewalks are not kept up. Also, there is zero recycling of anything. There must be a large mountain of a landfill somewhere near.
Darned if the people living here do not look startlingly attractive and radiant. Smartly dressed. Lots of socializing going on day and evening. The one thing that one does not see in the center of the city is the Tatar population. They make up some ten per cent of Crimea. No doubt there are Tatar neighbourhoods in the city. I know there is a mosque near to my hotel because there is a recorded call to prayer that broadcasts several times per evening.
The cost of traveling around here is quite reasonable. Food and drink in the stores cost half that of Canada. Today, for example, I bought the following supper for $3 at a nearby supermarket: a baguette, a hunk of cheese, a large serving of coleslaw (very popular here), and three tomatoes. I bought a beer for half a Canadian price. I expect that restaurant meals are similarly half the comparable price in Canada. And no GST! (I know, taxes will be built into prices someway.)
Hotels are rather cheap comparatively. I’m paying $110 for a very nice, central hotel, including a very big breakfast that is enough to see me through until supper. (I got lucky for next week in Moscow, finding a highrise hotel with good breakfast for $90 per night, five metro stops from Red Square.)
I met one North American here in Simferopol. My eye caught the ‘Air Canada’ tag on his luggage and I introduced myself. He has been living here for 20 years. Judging by his accent, I think he was American by origin. He voiced his frustration about the political situation. Overnight in March, he said, the country in which he was living changed over to another. The day before our conversation, he attempted to make his first visit to Ukraine by train since the changeover. He discovered at the train station that the new, Russian authorities require an exit visa for visitors going to Ukraine. I don’t know why he didn’t think of checking beforehand what, if any, travel regulations had changed. It seems not unreasonable that Russia would have an interest in knowing who is traveling to and from a country that is now a very brazen, hostile neighbour. While he complained bitterly to me, I found his explanation that he was able to obtain his exit visa within 24 hours to be less than convincing evidence that the new authorities in Crimea are unreasonable and intolerant.
One of the things that strikes me here are the visible gaps in applied Russian technology. The country has a space program and a presumably modern military. But all the electronics and appliances that I am seeing are imported, including cell phones. The televisions, refrigerators and air conditioners in the hotels are all Chinese or Korean. All the bicycles (!) I’ve seen (not very many on the streets) are imported.
The country is awash in automobiles; it is now the second largest market in Europe of auto sales (2.6 million in 2013, compared to 2.9 million in Germany). Per capita ownership is app. half that of Canada and jus tabov one third that of the U.S. There is lots of auto assembly and related parts industries in Russia, due to the government insisting that companies wanting to sell cars in Russia also locate assembly work here. But to compare, whereas Russia manufactures only half the number of automobiles sold, Canada manufactures one third more automobiles than are sold (though that proportion is in steady decline as auto manufacturers move to the low wage countries or to the low wage states in the southern U.S.). Some European countries with a fraction of Russia’s population have ownership of auto firms or robust design and manufacturing. (For a description of Russia’s auto industry, see here.)
All this strikes me that Russia resembles more a country that is a hewer of well-priced natural resources than an ‘imperialist’ powerhouse as is claimed by mainstream media, Stephen Harper and by some on the political left. (See my article last month on the subject of Russia as an ‘imperialist’ country or not.)
The Ukraine army and its allied rightist and fascist militias are moving in to assert control of the city and region of Slavyansk in Donetsk region following the strategic withdrawal of self defense fighters earlier this week. We will get similar scenes again of angry residents demanding to know what the army and militias are doing there. They want nothing to do with Kiev’s right wing, austerity agenda or the army it is sending in to enforce that. But this time the army and militias are not leaving anytime soon.
When scenes such as in this video below happened several months ago (May 5), the militias responded by assaulting and killing protesting citizens. People were threatened, arrested, or worse. Many, many videos were made showing terrible scenes. The most odious of all was the massacre by fascists of more than 40 antifascist protesters in Odessa on May 2. This was the whole origin of the armed uprising in Donetsk and Luhansk, which led to the plebiscites and declarations of autonomy (or independence in the minds of many) in May. Let us hope that international solidarity action in the weeks ahead can forestall a worsening of this ruthless war against southeast Ukraine by the governing regime in Kyiv.
Most people in Crimea are watching the events in Ukraine and breathing a sigh of relief. ‘Thank goodness that is not happening here; we made our distance from Ukraine in the nick of time.’