Postcard from Sevastopol: Where it's not safe to be pro-Ukraine


Pro-Russian servicemen search people at Chongar checkpoint blocking the entrance to Crimea on March 10, 2014.



SEVASTOPOL, Ukraine — Volodymyr Protsenko has given himself until March 16 to speak his mind.

But after next Sunday, when residents of Crimea are set to head to the polls in a vote that’s expected to back a decision by the new Moscow-installed authorities to join Russia, the 60-year-old writer and Ukrainian nationalist says he’ll clam up.

Writing about Ukraine’s rocky history under Soviet rule had been risky enough in this historically Russian city of about 340,000, where nostalgia for the USSR runs high and tolerance for pro-Ukraine sentiments remains low.

Now, Protsenko says, it may be outright dangerous.

“After the referendum, I won’t say a word,” he says. “They’ll pressure me into promising I won’t speak out.”

Nationally conscious Ukrainians like Protsenko — a career police officer-turned-poet — have never felt completely at ease in Sevastopol, where they constitute a small minority of the population. But many fear bigger troubles are only beginning.

They’ve watched with apprehension as Russian troops seized control of this Black Sea peninsula and the local pro-Moscow government has spoken of Russia’s annexation of Crimea as a forgone conclusion.

Anti-referendum activists have disappeared, including one who was reportedly abducted from Sevastopol on Monday, and the authorities continue to wage an all-out information campaign against the new “bandit” government in Kyiv that took power after Ukraine’s pro-Moscow Prime Minister Victor Yanukovych was ousted last month.

For people like Protsenko — who heads a local literary society and a branch of the Congress of Ukrainian Nationalists — the future looks grim.

“Many Ukrainians will flee after the referendum,” he says. “The authorities will make it impossible for them to live here.”

While legally Ukrainian, Sevastopol has always been essentially Russian.

Founded in the late 18th century by Catherine the Great, it has long held a special place in Russians’ imagination as the home of their navy’s Black Sea Fleet and a symbol of Russian military might.

Two prominent sieges — one during the Crimean War in the mid-19th century and another at the hands of Nazi Germany in 1942 — color its history as one of sacrifice and defiance.

The tree-lined, picturesque streets here are named after imperial-era admirals, members of the Black Sea Fleet are greeted as hometown heroes and the Russian tricolor flag flies from nearly every other building in town.

It’s no surprise that any demonstrations in support of Kyiv — whose post-revolutionary authorities are considered “fascists” and illegitimate rulers by most here like in Russia — are unwelcome.

Last Sunday, pro-Russian protesters, including whip-wielding Cossacks, attacked demonstrators at a rally to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Taras Shevchenko, Ukraine’s national poet.

Fears intensified after reports surfaced on Monday of pro-Kyiv activists disappearing across Crimea.

Ihor Kiryushchenko, head of the Ukrainian Republican Party’s local branch in Crimea, was reportedly abducted here in Sevastopol a day after he took part in the Shevchenko rally.

He finally turned up in Kyiv on Tuesday evening, but said he’d been threatened with death by pro-Russian thugs into leaving Crimea.

Other groups said they’d experienced similar troubles.

A source in the Svoboda Party — which has earned particular scorn from detractors for its nationalist views — told GlobalPost that one of its activists in Sevastopol had been harassed by officers claiming to represent the “Crimean authorities.”

“The fact that we haven’t had any of our party activists beaten or kidnapped is only because most of them have already left Sevastopol,” said the source, who asked not to be named for fear about his safety.

In Simferopol, the regional capital, several more activists — including two Ukrainian journalists — were reported missing. Two had organized an anti-secession protest there on Sunday.

Critics have also cried foul over an apparent information blockade.

In Sevastopol, the city authorities forced a major cable company to drop a number of leading Ukrainian channels, part of what they call a disinformation campaign aimed at destabilizing the peninsula.

That followed reports on Sunday of Ukrainian channels disappearing from analog networks across Crimea.

Meanwhile, local Crimean stations have displayed onscreen banners reminding viewers about the upcoming referendum together with an image of the peninsula covered by a Russian flag.

Such moves worry Yana Derkach, a Ukrainian-speaking music student in Sevastopol.

She agrees that Sevastopol’s longstanding anti-Ukrainian sentiments have become more aggressive since the crisis began.

“I’m afraid to speak Ukrainian now because I don’t know how people will take it,” says Derkach, a member of Prosvita, the literary society Protsenko chairs.

She plans to leave Sevastopol if the referendum swings in Russia’s favor.

Meanwhile, there’s little indication that Crimea’s new authorities are willing to extend a hand to Ukrainian-speakers here.

Sergei Aksyonov, the prime minister, has said the region will probably institute two official languages: Russian and Crimean Tatar, spoken by the indigenous Turkic group that makes up 12 percent of the population.

While the government may consider granting Ukrainian official status “if the question arises,” he said, it’s not yet ready to discuss the issue.

“Almost no one here speaks it — a maximum of 1 percent of the Crimean population uses Ukrainian at home,” he told the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti on Monday.

While Ukrainian-speakers form a small minority in Crimea, the number is almost certainly higher. In Sevastopol alone, around 7 percent of the population considers itself native Ukrainian-speaking, according to a 2001 census, the latest available data.

The language issue is notoriously divisive here, fueled largely by what locals say has been forced “Ukrainization” since independence of predominantly Russian-speaking regions, particularly Crimea, which is around 60 percent ethnic Russian.

Federal law requires that all official documentation be written only in Ukrainian, a regulation that’s angered pro-Russian officials who claim it deprives Russian-speakers of their rights.

Even though a 2012 law granted predominantly Russian-speaking regions the right to make Russian an official regional language, the Kyiv authorities' attempt to repeal it last month infuriated critics.

They say it reflects a broader nation-building project by Kyiv aimed at sidelining ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers.

More from GlobalPost: Postcard from Kyiv: In Ukraine's capital, sadness, pride and determination

“If you walk around the city, you’ll notice how proud people are that Sevastopol has the status of ‘hero city,’ says Vadim Kolesnichenko, a pro-Russian parliament deputy from Sevastopol. “But that title doesn’t come up once in Ukrainian history textbooks.”

It’s why few here will be sympathetic to the plight of Ukrainian-speakers and other pro-Kyiv residents if and when Russia absorbs Crimea.

For Protsenko, that reality is fast approaching. While he says his small Congress of Ukrainian Nationalists has remained untouched so far, it’s only a matter of time.
“If you don’t have any enemies left,” he says of the new authorities, “you’ll have to start searching for them.”