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“What happened to Crimea is a lesson for the entire country”

An untypical interview with journalist Pavlo Kazarin about Simferopol and Crimea
13 September, 11:54

Pavlo Kazarin (born December 3, 1983, in Simferopol, Crimean Oblast, Soviet Ukraine) is a Ukrainian political journalist, philologist, and literary critic. A 2005 graduate of Volodymyr Vernadsky Taurida National University, he has been in the media since 2004. Kazarin is an ICTV channel host, the author and presenter of the “Facets of Truth” project at the 24 TV channel, and an observer at the Ukrainian bureau of Radio Liberty.

I planned to speak with Kazarin about Simferopol, but the conversation’s context turned out to be much broader.


What are your first reminiscences of Simferopol?

“The locality where I grew up is an area of sycamores. I can remember a long sycamore-lined alley that ran along Kievskaya Street at a distance of three trolleybus stops. To get to school and to other important places, I used electric transport which was Crimea’s hallmark. We used to say proudly that we had the world’s second longest trolleybus line after one somewhere in Latin America. But for me, mountains have been the No. 1 thing in Crimea since I was a boy. For some, it is the sea, and for me it is the mountains.”


“Because, among other things, my father, an avid motorist, adored traveling across Crimea by car. Irregularity of the terrain is what makes me feel at home whenever I come to some place. You cast a glance across the skyline, and if something catches your eye, this means you are at a place that reminds you of home.”

What do you like Simferopol for?

“I remember my friends asking me three years ago, after I had moved to Kyiv, which city I liked and I answered it was still Simferopol. Yes, I know it is an awkward and small provincial city with eclectic architecture, but it has the main thing – a monopoly on my childhood impressions. You will never forget the first reminiscences of your courtyard and school, the first puppy loves and mental traumas. They are all stored in my personal Simferopol safe.”

But are there any places that are particularly dear to you on this territory?

“I liked south-western Crimea – Bakhchysarai raion – very much, for it is a place where we used to go backpacking in our school and university days. Hiking, tents, and sleeping bags played an important part in my life from the age of 12 onwards. At 14, I began going on archeological expeditions. I visited archeologists’ camping sites, lived and worked with them, even though I chose philology, not archeology. For this reason, Crimea also means for me the campfire, customary guitars, wine, and everything associated with the forest, the mountains, and all of this touristic, far-from-leisurely romanticism.”

So, we are speaking not about the city but about its overall geographical context, aren’t we?

“What is the difference between Simferopol residents and the rest of Crimeans? Kerch dwellers will say they are from Kerch, and Yalta dwellers – that they come from Yalta. As for Simferopol residents, they bear an all-Crimean identity, rather than that of a city. If you ask a Simferopol resident where he comes from, he will say: from Crimea. If I speak of my home, I mean the whole region, while the people who just vacationed in Crimea have Simferopol erased from their memory because it remained a transit place for them. I always had a sensation that I stay about 40 km from the Black Sea and about 70 km from the Sea of Azov. People in Crimea have an island mentality caused by geographical circumstances. We did not travel much outside our region just because we could find all of interesting things inside it. Here you pass through two climatic and three landscape zones in an hour of traveling. You cross the steppe and the foothills, go up the mountains and step down to the sea in just 100 km. After I had moved, I found it very difficult to forget the Crimean scale. In other words, in Kyiv you have to get used to the idea that you are at least 600 km away from the Carpathians and won’t be able to have a trip to the mountains during a weekend. From this angle, Crimea is really a yardstick by which you measure how far other places and regions are from you.

“Crimea is not only a territory or a landscape. As you grow up, you understand that any city is people. It comes up on your map thanks to this. Uzhhorod, Dnipro, Odesa are my friends – I miss and want to visit them, although I don’t travel as often as I should. Also etched on my memory are my friends with whom I was growing up and discovering the world and who have remained like-minded people even in spite of the events in 2014. This is why I won’t reveal their names.”


A few more words about Simferopol. What is its geometry?

“Simferopol was once divided into squares. Moscow Square, Kuybyshev Square, the Central Market, and the railway station form an uneven square. What is between them can be called downtown. We used to roam there, crossing the perimeter from time to time. Simferopol is a city which, on the one hand, saw no major battles of World War Two, and, on the other, is rather Soviet in terms of architecture. The only particularity is that no tall buildings can be built downtown because of soft soils. As a result, 2-5-storey buildings came up in the center and highrises on the dormitory outskirts. Those ‘anthills’ rose on the rock-based hills. I lived in a nine-storey tenement built in 1982. The downtown never pressed upon you. Like the whole city, it was commensurate with you. Of course, as a detached onlooker, I understand that Simferopol is liked in spite of, not thanks to.”

But what singled it out among the other cities of Crimea?

“The administrative status of Crimea’s capital. It lacked the esthetic middle-class air of Yalta, the military bearing of Sevastopol, and the provincial home coziness of Hurzuf. What gave the city the main advantage was the classical Soviet and post-Soviet story of centripetalism. Throughout the former USSR the greatest potential and adequate money was concentrated in capitals. The same holds good on the regional level. That’s why we were really proud of Simferopol because we knew that residents of other Crimean cities – beautiful and brilliant – would have no option but to seek employment in our city.”

What prompted you to leave?

“Crimea and Sevastopol are regions of negative selection. If you wanted to develop professionally, you faced sooner or later the necessity of leaving that place. Only vectors differed – some went to Kyiv, some to Moscow. Besides, the attitudes to Simferopol of the people who were leaving it differed very much.”

On what basis?

“Depending on what you did before the departure. If one achieved success in Kyiv, he or she had a never-ending feeling that Simferopol did not appreciate them, that this city was a big fat zero. Those who were OK in Simferopol and left it just in search of further development liked coming back.

“When I was leaving Crimea in November 2012, I was OK. The city just seemed to be too small, for it had given me all that it could. I knew it would be worse in the new place, I would earn less and have to adapt for quite a long time. I remember putting off the departure until the last moment: I anticipated bad weather, an ugly autumn with biting winds so that Simferopol left precisely this imprint on my memory, but I never saw this. I flew off on a crystal clear November morning with a fully blue sky and +15C? to a city that met me with snow and somberness. The cunning Simferopol didn’t allow me to leave, bearing a grudge against it.”


Crimea is, at least historically, a later development of different cultures. To what extent is this felt there?

“In 2014, after moving to Kyiv, I visited my archeologist friends in the Chernihiv region. If you dig a meter into the ground there, you’ll find Slavs, two meters – Slavs again, and so on. But if you dig in Crimea, you’ll find anybody but Slavs. That’s why the talk about an ancestral Russian land evokes a special smile. I was lucky. Crimean Tatars began to come back in the late 1980s, and I belong to the generation which has always seen them in Crimea. We went to school and university together. In this sense we differed from the older generation which had grown up on Soviet myths about ‘bad Tatars.’ We just lived together in the same space and did not pay much attention to different phenotypes or names. When I came to Kyiv, I was surprised at how homogeneous it was. Crimea accustomed me to seeing diverse faces on the street and hearing diverse names. One friend is Petro, the second is Nariman, the third is Bilial, and the fourth is Aleksey, which is normal. In my view, restaurant culture is one of the signals of reciprocal integration – you open the menu and see borsch, solianka [a spicy soup of vegetables and meat or fish – Ed.], shurpa [a soup consisting of mutton, vegetables, rice, and spices – Ed.], and laghman [a dish of pulled noodles, meat, and vegetables – Ed.]. ‘Apartheid’ has disappeared even on the level of gastronomic culture and begun to disappear in other spheres. This pleased me very much because it shattered the stereotypes our parents used to live with.”


What are the myths about Crimea and to what extend are they true to life?

“The main myth is that Crimea is a pro-Russian region. It’s wrong. It has never known Russia. It is pro-Soviet. Why were Crimea and the Donbas so vulnerable to Russia aggression? Because their golden age was in the USSR. Crimea was the most popular resort, and coalminers could earn more than Soviet professors. All of these people were struck with nostalgia, for they were accustomed to being exceptional in the Soviet era. Crimea used to say proudly that it was a ‘medal on the planet’s chest,’ an ‘area of gardens and vineyards,’ an ‘unsinkable aircraft carrier,’ and it went very painfully through the 1990s, when it turned out that there were similar mountains in Montenegro, you could swim and suntan in Egypt all year round, and Turkey was much better in terms of service.”

Maybe Ukraine also did too little to “digest” the peninsula.

“Crimea is said to have taken little interest in what was occurring on the Ukrainian mainland. But it is a reciprocal lack of interest. For the average Ukrainian, Crimea meant two weeks of vacationing on the beach. Unpretentious Soviet service, far from the best hospitality, Crimean Tatar gastronomic exotics, the sea, and the mountains… Nobody was trying to overcome these stereotypes and take more care about the peninsula. Of course, the peninsula reacted accordingly. It is even the question of not so much stereotypes as of the absence of a full-fledged idea of what Crimea is.”

Speaking of myths, we can’t help recalling Vassily Aksyonov’s The Island of Crimea.

“Some Crimeans loved to cite this novel because they liked the format of Crimea’s existence described by Aksyonov – sort of a Singapore next to a huge China, a republic of freedom next to an empire of slavery. The point is we like something because it is unattainable. The world in this book had nothing to do with reality. Aksyonov’s Crimea is progressive, wealthy, effective, and multicultural. But the real Crimea was isolationistic and never became a trend-setter. The ideas born there were utterly secondary. The real Crimea was perhaps willing to see itself in this mirror but was doomed to failure.”

So who is the typical Crimean?

“It is a person who does not like tourists, for he thinks they hinder him from traveling to the seaside. Except for those directly engaged in health resort business, the rest somewhat disdained the region’s touristic status – they wanted something else. The typical Crimean is an analogous person. He does not travel abroad, does not use banking cards, and prefers cash. He has a number of favorite little restaurants which tourists do not patronize, he drinks alcohol, and winter begins for him when he switches from dry to fortified wines. More often than not, he goes to the seaside in September, when tourists have gone. It is a relatively low-mobile individual, and even 200 km is too long a distance for him, not to mention 300 km.”


Where were you during the annexation?

“I worked in Moscow from November 2012 until the spring of 2014. Kyiv was then a total domain of Yanukovych. When my acquaintances suggested that I work in Russia, I agreed because mass-scale protests had just begun on Bolotnaya Square and I wanted to see this from inside. Thanks to this, I witnessed Russia’s transformation from Bolotnaya rallies to ‘Crimea is ours.’ When it all began in Crimea, I quit and went there to write about what was going on. When I understood that all main actions had already been determined, nothing would be changed, and the epicenter of all events would be on the Ukrainian mainland, I just packed up, and put the baggage into the car trunk. I’ve been here since November 2014. I can clearly remember being mostly worried about logistics – how I will cross the border and whether I will manage to reach Kyiv on the same day. I had no feeling that I was leaving for good.



“I will say again that it was very strange. Simferopol and Crimea is a faraway province. Crimean political scientists have always looked like ‘pique waistcoats’ in a novel by Ilf and Petrov. As those people reduced all the complicated items on the world’s agenda to whether Chernomorsk will be proclaimed a free city, the Crimeans in turn reduced everything to the status of Crimea. We, the younger generation, always mocked at this Crimea-centricity – look, folks, we are a backwater, let’s not overestimate ourselves. But in March 2014 you wake up, switch on television and see a BBC correspondent reporting from your native city’s neighboring street. Unbelievably, your provincial home has suddenly become an object of worldwide politics. But this did not last long.”

Did you feel any danger?

“No. I knew the stories of my colleagues thrown into dungeons. But 2014 was the time of a wild thrill. I was aware that the seemingly motionless gears of history suddenly began to spin with a screech, shedding away the rust. It is a very rare occasion when you find yourself inside real history. I was in a boyish rapture of sorts. I visited my parents in Crimea to see in the New Year, and only in the summer of 2015, after a journalist friend of mine was arrested, I understood that the window of opportunities to visit my home was closed.”

What is Crimea’s hope?

“Major changes. I flew from Moscow to Crimea in late February 2014, well after the appearance of ‘green little men.’ The plane was chock-full of Russian officials and journalists. Seated ahead of me were some Frenchmen and a Sevastopol seaman who was in Curacao, when the news came. He disembarked from the ship, and it took him two weeks to come back home. He patted my shoulder all the time, saying: ‘I’ll come back, we’ll sort things out, and everything will be OK.’ A Serb on my left said: ‘I have a complete cognitive dissonance because we in Serbia favor a great Russia, but, on the other hand, we have Kosovo, and I don’t know what to write. For if Crimea is Russia, Kosovo is not Serbia. Or we must say that Kosovo is Serbia and then Crimea is Ukraine.’ We changed the subject. He said: ‘This year marks the centenary of the beginning of World War One, a lot of conferences are being prepared in Serbia, while European countries are saying that the war was caused not by contradictions between the superpowers but by Serbian nationalists and Gavrilo Princip. So we are holding campaigns to remind people that the situation in the world was very complicated at that moment and that Princip and the archduke were the pretext, not the cause.’ I looked at him and said: ‘And are you aware of flying to the region which will be trying to prove the same 100 years later?’”


Who or what could you compare Crimea with?

“There is a figure associated with Crimea before and after 2014. By 2014, it had resembled the White Army emigration: people with a military bearing in well-worn uniforms regularly gather in Bizerte and solemnly raise the imperial tricolor on the last tsarist battleship ‘Admiral Alekseyev.’ It is 1925, and a year later this ship will be scrapped and officers will go to work as movie pianists and restaurant doormen, but so far they still don the imperial apparel. The same happened to Soviet symbols in Crimea. These strange people continued to sincerely pray to them until 2014.

“And the post-2014 figure is a story of Crimea as Tolkien’s One Ring. You can’t give it up voluntarily, but the longer you wear it, the more it transforms you into Gollum. The same is about Crimea – Russia does not want to return it, but the more it carries it, the more it turns into a country without future.”

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