On one of those balmy summer days Slavs must dream about in winter, I sat in a restaurant in Balaklava with Konstantin Zatulin, a Russian Duma deputy. Zatulin, persona non grata in Ukraine during Viktor Yushchenko's tenure as president, was enjoying a warm welcome back under the new, pro-Russian regime. Our table overlooked the harbor where Russian submarines had once glided into port. Across the bay, beyond sleek white yachts at their moorings, you could see the dark mouth of a cavelike entrance to a four-acre submarine complex carved into the side of a mountain.
The Cold War relic, a top secret military installation under Soviet rule, was now a museum. Tourists could file past the 150-ton nuclear-blast-proof titanium doors, walk through tunnels, and peer into chambers where nuclear warheads had been stored. The deadly game of flinch between the two superpowers seemed far removed from the Crimean champagne a waiter was pouring.
"Deputy Zatulin," I asked, "do you know what Catherine the Great wrote Potemkin after claiming Crimea? 'Seizing objects is never disagreeable to us; it's losing them we don't like.'"
"Catherine wrote something else," he replied, looking at me steadily. "Potemkin suffered several defeats; he wanted to withdraw. Catherine wouldn't hear of it. 'To have Crimea and give it up is like riding a horse, then dismounting and walking behind the tail,' she told him.
"Well, we've given it away." He scowled. "The question is under what conditions it will continue to exist."
The same question was being asked in Kiev by the opposition. "Russia doesn't need its fleet in Sevastopol," a former minister of defense had said with barely suppressed anger. "It's just there to create instability."
Zatulin practically curled his lip when I quoted the former minister.
"The government that terminates the lease will have to answer the question of where to buy cheaper gas," he said.
Will the Russian fleet ever leave? I pressed. And when?
Zatulin, a man with a broad, florid face and thick build, picked up a red mullet from a platter of grilled fish and snapped its head off.
"My personal opinion? Never."
Write the truth, Galina kept urging—the Russian word is pravda—but truth wasn't easy to sound out, not with the colliding dreams of Ukrainians, Russians, and Tatars. Conventional wisdom held that violent conflict between Russia and Ukraine over Crimea was unimaginable because of close cultural and historical ties, especially now that Yanukovych had made Russia Ukraine's new best friend by extending the lease. It was tempting, but simplistic, to assume Yanukovych was Vladimir Putin's man in Kiev. The election had been fair, under the Yanukovych administration parliament had voted to take part in NATO military exercises, and Ukraine still hoped to join the European Union. Nonetheless, uneasiness lingered.
"I was in Red Square in Moscow on Victory Day," Leonid Kravchuk told me. Kravchuk, Ukraine's first president, had deftly made the transition from Communist Party boss to leader of an independent democracy. Now, resolutely Ukrainian, he was wary of the Kremlin. "I tell you, I have seen many parades in my day. I have never seen one like this." He meant the turned-up volume on the demonstration of power.
Worries that Crimea could be the next flash point between Russia and its former satellites had faded with the resetting of Kiev's foreign policy, but Kravchuk thought a replay of the 2008 conflict when Russia sent tanks into Georgia (to protect its citizens, said the Russian government, though some suggest it was a reach for power in former territories) was not out of the question. "Such a thing is still possible," he said. "Russia knows what it wants from Ukraine. Ukraine doesn't know what it wants from Russia."
The best immunity against Russian intrusiveness seems to rest on Ukraine's ability to solidify its sense of self, but the road will be rocky, given the struggling economy and weak political traditions. True, Yanukovych had extinguished the sparks between Ukraine and Russia, but did Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov really have to say, "Everything depends on the goodwill of Russians—we're like serfs." With public comments like the prime minister's it is small wonder that a national survey reported Ukrainians trust astrologers more than politicians.
On my last day in Crimea, I sat on a veranda overlooking Sevastopol Bay with Sergey Kulik, the Russian submarine officer turned Ukrainian think tank director. Across water the color of malachite, you could see the arc of temple-like government buildings rebuilt by Stalin after the war. "Sometimes when I get a visa to travel," said Kulik, "the consul looks at me as if to say, Are you coming back? Don't think for a minute I won't. I am Ukrainian. I will come back."
Kulik knew who he was. And the rest of Crimea, not to mention Ukraine itself? Identity is problematic, said Oleg Voloshyn, press secretary to the foreign minister, because Ukraine was not a classical nation like England. Though most eastern European countries were patchwork entities, Ukraine was more fragmented than most, split as it had been in successive centuries between Russia and Poland, Russia and Austria, then between Russia, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Romania, before finally becoming an independent state in 1991.
Crimea, it turns out, is as much a conundrum for Ukraine as it was for Russia. "Potemkin called Crimea the wart on Russia's nose," I reminded former Ukraine President Leonid Kravchuk at the close of our interview. Potemkin meant that Crimea was unruly; he worried Russia would never subdue the Tatars and gain control. "Instead of being the wart on Russia's nose, wouldn't you say Crimea is now the wart on Ukraine's nose?" I suggested.
Kravchuk thought a bit. "Not a wart. A festering carbuncle."
Perhaps it will take another generation—several, even many—before Crimea defines itself as Ukrainian and not Ukrainian by default. Resisting change are those like Galina. On my last visit she told me she'd spent 100 hryvnia to have a new Soviet flag made, despite her heating-bill debt of 1,500 hryvnia.
"My flags will always stay with me," she said. "They inspire me and keep my spirits high." She carefully unfolded the banner with the hammer and sickle paid for with her pension money. It was nearly as long as her couch.
She seemed suddenly frail, sitting in her dark apartment in a pair of mismatched slippers, surrounded by the past—her flags (six Soviet Navy flags, the tsar's flag known as the St. Andrew's, the newly acquired hammer and sickle banner), her grandfather's sword mounted on the wall, military medals, the sepia photograph of her husband in uniform, her father's sailor's tunic wrapped in tissue and mothballs.
"My great-grandfather, my grandfather, my father, my husband and son served in the fleet," she said. "And now, what do I have? A two-room flat and no money to pay for hot water."
The sword on the wall had tarnished. The sepia photographs were fading. The past, a political fairy tale of 78-kopek-a-kilo sugar and state-supported vacations, had vanished. The Iron Curtain had been torn down, and a nation was stumbling its way into the future.
"The sea is still with me, though," she said. "They did not take the Black Sea away. I can still go to the sea in the morning and swim."