Perched solidly on the cliff overlooking the expansive natural harbour of Sevastopol, Crimea, there is a magnificent stone building hosting one of the world’s oldest marine research stations, the A.O. Kovalevsky Institute of Biology of the Southern Seas (IBSS) of the Ukrainian Academy of Science. With 125 scientists and 220 support staff, this is one of the most important institutes in the Black Sea. But now, as several times in the past, it is a centre stage witness of one of the most difficult political stand-offs in modern Europe.
My first visit to IBSS was late in 1991 in the middle of the formal break-up of the Soviet Union. I flew from Moscow to Simferopol airport serving the capital of Crimea (and currently occupied by armed militia). Sitting next to me was a young student from Mali who was studying agricultural economics in Simferopol University. “Did the end of the communist system affect your studies?” I asked her in my deficient French. “The lecturer suddenly told us that everything we had learned the previous year was irrelevant, so they added another year to the course,” she told me. At the airport, I was met by my ‘minder’ from the international relations department of the institute. “How about a drink?” he said. That done, he suggested dinner and during our polite but protracted conversation was looking nervously at his watch. “Is there anything you should be telling me?” I asked, wondering why our journey hadn’t begun. “Err, OK, I’ll tell you. As you know, Sevastopol is a closed city and we need permission from the KGB for you to enter. Ahem, we put the wrong date on the form so we have to wait until midnight.”
For those of us nurtured on James Bond films, there was something exciting about entering a closed Soviet city steeped in military history at one in the morning (the fact that there was a visiting Italian naval ship in the harbour was a twist of irony). I stayed with the Director, Sergei Konovalov, a bear of a man, warm and hospitable. After a tour of the institute, two elderly senior researchers invited me for a walk and engaged in good humoured banter. “There is the headquarters of the Communist party; see, it’s been boarded up by order of Gorbachev.” “And you used to be a member,” said one of my hosts to the other. He smiled and responded “You gave up smoking and I gave up my membership; we all have to give up something.” Later we stopped at a little kiosk selling paper flags of the former Soviet republics and another good-humoured argument ensued on which one was the Ukrainian flag.
I sailed from Sevastopol and Yalta to Bulgaria on the research ship Prof Vodyanitskiy. Beyond our talk of research, conversations bubbled about the politics of the break-up and what this could mean for Crimea. “Look”, said Konovalov, “This is the first time we are allowed to sail past Foros.” Necks craned and binoculars were focussed on the coast towards the place where Gorbachev had been held hostage in his summer residence a few months earlier. “Now everyone is encouraged to sail past.”
Over the next 14 years, I returned many times to Crimea as a UN official, a researcher and leading a programme of public awareness. I was at the headquarters of the Black Sea fleet in Sevastopol when tense negotiations were going on about splitting the fleet between Russia and Ukraine and there was talk of armed conflict. The scene was surreal. At a reception hosted by the fleet commander, there was a stacked bank of heavy TV screens one end of the room with a mosaic image of pop videos. Outside, a crowd was chanting in Russian: ‘Russian Fleet, Russian Fleet’ and the sound wafted into the room during lulls in conversation and blaring music. Exactly at five pm, the chanting stopped and the crowd vanished, just in time for the commander to wish us well. ‘Command-control’ extends well beyond the wardroom in Crimea, just as it still does in modern Russia.
As a country, Ukraine has had a difficult birth with its divided ethnicity and struggling economy. The ethnic and political centrifugal forces that pulled Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia apart are acting in Ukraine where there are sharp divisions between the Ukrainian speaking West and Russian East. And just as Serbia declared that it would intervene anywhere there was a minority population of Serbs, so does Russia when it perceives the interests of its own nationals are in jeopardy. Beyond that however, in many places there is still a huge nostalgia for the Soviet past. To what degree does this yearning influence the politics today?
Thirteen years after my first visit, I returned to Sevastopol as Chief Scientist on the Bulgarian research ship Akademik. No longer a closed city, the place was bustling with activity and the waterfront now had a wide range of restaurants and clubs, one right under the Marine Hydrophysical Institute, Sevastopol’s other marine research centre. But we had arrived on the 9th of May, Victory Day, the event that commemorates the capitulation of Germany in the Second World War. This event is particularly poignant for Sevastopol which suffered a 220 day bombardment. The well-rehearsed massive parade of several thousand troops, sailors, elderly veterans laden with medals and garlands of flowers, schoolchildren and workers, stirred a genuine emotional vortex that could not fail to bring tears to the eyes. And the spectacular fireworks and festivities that followed made, and still make, this a big family festivity. I walked up the hill to the statue of Lenin pointing at the decrepit Russian naval fleet from the vantage point of his column below which a few wreaths had been laid. The past, romanticised as it was, remained very much alive in the present.
And it was not just a matter of romantic illusions. The crumbling concrete seafront of Yalta or the popular resort of Alushta bear witness to the time when Crimea was the holiday destination of choice for Soviet citizens. Many of the more favoured young people spent idyllic times in the Artek pioneer camp which helped mould their own values in later life. Many of that generation still find it difficult to comprehend the abrupt change as the bubble burst and the Soviet Union collapsed; they conflate Russia’s apparent return to prosperity and their own ethnicity with resentment against the Yeltsin-era chaos and the formation of a new Ukrainian state. And these sentiments are easily exploited.
Now the West watches haplessly as the choreography plays out. It missed its chance to invest in the 1990s and offer a new prospect for future prosperity (though this was easier said than done). Not everyone in Crimea wants to return to Russian rule; there are those who genuinely believe in a federated Ukraine and now fear repression. And there are the ethnic Tatars, carried to these lands from the time of Genghis Khan and partly extradited from it by Stalin’s social engineering. I ran an environmental awareness workshop for teachers from Black Sea countries in Alushta in 2002 and we experienced some of the warm Tatar hospitality. Our Turkish participants were whisked off to the mosque on Friday (“but I never go to the mosque”, one of them protested); the Tatars have been prospering and enjoying freedoms they did not experience in the Soviet past and they too will be watching the situation with trepidation. But they too are a minority.
I fear for Ukraine and for my friends on both sides of the emerging ethnic divide. It is easy to rip the emerging country apart in the new Great Game between East and West. I stood with Ukrainian colleagues in the cemetery in Kharkiv where lines of headstones record the Polish officers killed by Stalin’s KGB in the Second World War. One of the group, a former Soviet paratrooper with a robust and cheerful demeanour stood silently, his face stricken with sadness. “You see that grave” he said, “he had the same surname as me.”