A quirk of history had swept Crimea away from Russia, leaving Moscow with its own share of toska. As a former Russian deputy foreign minister told Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine: "In my head, I know Ukraine is an independent nation. In my heart, it is quite another thing." An inventory of Russian forfeiture in Crimea: the vineyards of Massandra and Inkerman; champagne the color of rubies; Yevpatoriya and Feodosiya, the briny health resorts of the west and east coasts; sun-bleached Yalta and Foros on the south coast; orchards heavy with peaches, cherries, and apricots; fields tawny with wheat.
Finally, harbors that never freeze. Unlike Russia, Crimea has the blessing of warmth. Sixty-five percent of Russia is covered in permafrost. None of Crimea is. A fifth of Russia is above the Arctic Circle. None of Crimea is. In February, when it is 14°F in Moscow, it can be 43 in Yalta. "Russia needs its paradise," Prince Grigory Potemkin, Catherine the Great's general and lover, wrote in urging annexation. Nearly every European power had carved slices of Asia, Africa, and the Americas for their imperial platters; Russia was no different in its appetite to expand. In 1783 Catherine declared Crimea to be forever Russian, adding 18,000 square miles to the empire, extending its border to the Black Sea, paving the way for its rise as a naval power. Russia had claimed its paradise.
And kept it for 208 years, until the collapse of the Soviet Union. With the emergence of newly independent states, assets of the former empire—including its military bases—became the property of those states. But Catherine's prize was not readily relinquished. Russia had few cards to play, but one strong hand.
"We were seriously dependent on Russian gas and oil," explained a Ukrainian official. "Our debt to Russia was about a billion U.S. dollars. The pressure was terrible." The two nations brokered a deal in 1997. The fleet could stay until 2017. Ukraine was credited tens of millions of dollars against its debt. Last year the pro-Russian government led by newly elected President Viktor Yanukovych extended the lease for 25 years. Again, gas and oil were the lubricants. In exchange, Russia gave Ukraine, still drowning in debt, a 30 percent discount on natural gas.
Reaction was split, as usual, between the Russian-speaking east and south of Ukraine and the western regions, where Ukrainian nationalism runs strong.
Galina was pleased. The Russian Navy is in her genes. "My grandson is in the St. Petersburg military academy. My husband was a naval officer. My grandmother sewed sailor uniforms. I grew up in a house of heroes in a city of heroes."
A city of heroes, a shrine to war. There are 2,300 memorials in Sevastopol; the city itself is practically bronzed. In 1945 it was awarded the Order of Lenin by the Soviet Union and named a Hero City for enduring a 247-day siege by Germany in World War II. Nearly a century earlier it suffered a 349-day siege by French, British, and Turkish troops in the Crimean War.
A cautionary note: Crimean history would suggest that it is folly to think that possession of any place, especially paradise, is anything other than a tenancy. Crimea has passed from hand to hand, from Scythians to Greeks to Romans, Goths, Huns, Mongols, and Tatars. The latter, Turkic Muslims who migrated from the Eurasian steppes in the 13th century, were brutally targeted by Joseph Stalin and suffered mass deportation.
For three days in May 1944, Soviet militia pounded on Tatar doors, rounded up families, ordered them to pack, and expelled them to Central Asia—some 200,000 in all. Nearly half died from illness or starvation. "I was a young boy the night they came," said Aydin Shemizade, a 76-year-old retired professor from Moscow. "I remember reaching for my book bag hanging on the wall. A soldier ripped it out of my hands." His voice cracked. It was 20 years before he saw his homeland again.
In 1989 Mikhail Gorbachev allowed Tatars to return to Crimea. About 260,000 have done so, and they now represent 13 percent of Crimea's population. Many live in squatters' shacks on the outskirts of Simferopol and Bakhchysaray, hoping to reclaim their ancestral lands, haunted by dispossession and neglect. Even so, Tatars are largely pro-Ukrainian. They fear Russia reflexively—because of its nationalism and because it is the successor to the Soviet state—but Ukraine has no such baggage.
"Conversation about Crimea was constant in my family," said Rustem Skibin, a 33-year-old Tatar artist with the hooded eyes and intensity of a falcon. We sat in his studio in back of his house in Acropolis, a village northeast of Simferopol, where the green of coastal Crimea gives way to the long horizon of the hot, dry steppes. "I heard the stories," he said, "but I didn't feel them." The family had been forcibly resettled in Uzbekistan. "In 1991 we came back. Crimea was home. I went to Alushta to see the narrow streets with their small Tatar houses. I felt a sense of belonging and understood what it meant to be Tatar in my homeland."
It is our motherland, I kept hearing, but whose motherland? For Galina Onischenko, the motherland was Russia. For Rustem Skibin, Crimea was the Tatar homeland and had been for at least seven centuries. For Sergey Kulik, 54, formerly an officer on a Russian submarine and now director of Nomos, a Sevastopol think tank, the motherland was Ukraine.
"I was sorry when the Soviet Union collapsed," Kulik admitted over dinner one night. "Suddenly I was nowhere. I had to adjust."
As a naval officer, Kulik had lived comfortably under Soviet rule, but the collapse inspired an epiphany. One could live a cushioned life and still be surrounded by repression, brutality, and falsehood. "I too have nostalgia, but it is not blind," he explained.
When Ukraine became independent and took over Sevastopol (a closed city under the Soviets; entry required a permit), both governments faced the task of dividing up the Black Sea Fleet. Kulik and his fellow sailors—there were about 100,000—had a year to decide between the Russian and Ukrainian Navies.
"I didn't think twice," Kulik said. "I am Ukrainian. My parents are here. I speak Ukrainian. So I chose the Ukrainian Navy." But what does it mean to be Ukrainian? I asked.
Kulik thought a while. "Being Ukrainian is like breathing," he answered.
It seemed important to keep asking.
"In the 21st century it's all about political boundaries. If you consider yourself to be Ukrainian, you are," said Olexiy Haran, a political science professor.
"To be Ukrainian is the cherry trees in blossom, the ripening wheat, our stubborn people who work so hard, and the language I love," insisted Anatoliy Zhernovoy, a lawyer and member of the Ukrainian Cossack movement. The Ukrainian Cossacks, whose forebears patrolled the steppes from the 13th to the 18th centuries, represent a muscular revival of national identity.
"The era of nationalism is past. To be Ukrainian is to be a citizen of Ukraine. That's it," said Vladimir Pavlovich Kazarin, the president's representative to Crimea in Simferopol.
But Sergey Yurchenko of the Crimean Union of Cossacks disagrees. His paramilitary group of about 7,000 men consider themselves defenders of Russian nationalist ideology. I met Yurchenko at a Cossack compound an hour's drive from Sevastopol, where in a month 200 boys 12 to 15 years old would attend summer camp and receive military-style training, which he'd supervise. Yurchenko wore a beret and battle fatigues and had the face of a pugilist who'd taken too many punches. He showed me the field where the boys would live in tents. "We teach them patriotism," he said. They'd also be taught martial arts and how to shoot machine guns.
The camp was in the shadow of a 16-foot-high wood cross Cossacks had hauled up to the top of Ay-Petri Plateau. Government officials had demanded, unsuccessfully, that it be removed because it offended the local Tatar population. "You may have noticed, there are many Tatar squatters in the area. We keep an eye on them," Yurchenko said. "The Ukrainian government turns a blind eye. It's up to us to keep things in line." Keeping things in line included several fights in 2006 between Tatars and Cossacks at the Bakhchysaray market. "We don't wait for court orders to act," Yurchenko said of the violence that sent dozens to the hospital.
"He's a provocateur," Refat Chubarov, deputy of the Mejlis, the Tatar parliament, said at the mention of Yurchenko's name. "We're worried about any paramilitary movement, but the fact that kids are taught to play with guns is not nearly as important as the ideas they are taught to play with."