Staunton, March 19 – In the five years since the Crimean Anschluss, Moscow has made the holding of the referendum on the Ukrainian peninsula the centerpiece of its narrative about how the region passed from Ukraine to the Russian Federation, a tactic intended to make the seizure of Crimea by Russian security forces appear entirely legitimate.
But that storyline, Olga Zevelyeva, a Russian studying at Cambridge University, says in an article posted online today does not square with the memories of ethnic Russians on the peninsula who date the transition earlier, on February 27-28, 2014, and ascribe to themselves a key role in making it happen (republic.ru/posts/93306).
Indeed, they view themselves as having carried out a revolution on the peninsula which opened the way for Russian forces to intervene, but Zevelyeva says, “neither Ukraine, nor Russia nor the West” finds that such stories about “a nationalist Crimean revolution” fit with what each of these three has come to believe.
The sociology graduate student interviewed more than 80 Crimean residents in 2016-2017, and in the course of them, she says, “many respondents spoke about ‘the revolution’ of 2014, about the victory in it of Russians who blocked the development of events according to the Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar scenario.”
“Even the most pro-Kremlin residents of the peninsula, Zevelyeva continues, “did not repeat the customary narrative which the rest of the population of Russia sees on TV screens,” a narrative which makes “’the peaceful referendum’ of March 16” the central event in the changes on the peninsula.
For her respondents, she says, “the decisive turning point” occurred more than two weeks earlier, on February 26 and 27.” On February 26, two groups of demonstrators faced off against each other outside the Crimean Parliament. One, consisting of Crimean Tatars, supported the new government in Kyiv; the other, consisting of Russians, opposed doing so.
The two groups clashed, resulting in dozens of injuries and two deaths. By that evening, however, “armed people had seized the Crimean Parliament and raised the Russian flag over it.” According to Zevelyeva’s sources, “already at that time, local residents actively supported the Russian special services.”
As a result, “already at the end of February,” the pro-Russian portion of the population became certain that the peninsula would pass from Ukraine to Russia. Very soon thereafter, “repressions of the Crimean Tatars followed, and Russian nationalists for the first time felt their own strength.”
There were other signs of this shift: Until March, the Russian-language Krymskaya Pravda described itself as “an independent social-political Russian newspaper of Ukraine.” Afterwards, both the word “Ukraine” and the word “Russian” were removed as no longer necessary.
“Despite the sense of triumph among nationalistically inclined pro-Russian Crimeans, some of them said that they could not openly talk about their contribution to the events of 2014.” To do so would not only call into question Moscow’s narrative but also create problems in the current geopolitical situation.
According to Zevelyeva, “local Crimean media and local officials were more wiling to talk about the revolutionary drive of 2014 than the federal media have been.” On March 16, for example, Crimean head Sergey Aksyonov said that history had been made there by the people and not shadowy forces.
Among the Russian nationalist revolutionaries, she says, were many who looked to Russia as a social state that would better take care of their needs than had Ukraine. “The people who made the revolution,” one of her sources said, “were not members of the intelligentsia. They were drivers, workers, salespeople. They were active” and unlike the intelligentsia ready to act.
As Zevelyeva points out, these “revolutionaries of Crimea represent a danger to the ontological integrity of the narratives of all the geopolitical players.” The West and Ukraine want to stress only the role of Russian forces from outside the region in the annexation, while Moscow doesn’t want to talk about Russian nationalists as revolutionaries.
That is because, she argues, they “are dangerous in that they were ready to fight not only with external enemies but internal ones as well.” For Moscow, there must be only unity in Crimea. Those who showed that was not the case or who acted on their own initiative are thus a threat.
“Having fulfilled their function as supporters of the special operation in 2014,” Zevelyeva concludes, “the pro-Russian revolutionaries became an inconvenience for the Kremlin.” But they remain and talk about February 2014: For them, “the peninsula will never fit in the sterile history of the Crimean referendum.”