What It Looks Like When Putin Steals Your Country

Stories from Roads & Kingdoms
March 14 2014 3:15 PM

The Russians Are Coming

A first-person tour of the Crimean peninsula—as it’s being stolen.

Russian forces have taken several Ukrainian military installations in Crimea without firing any shots.
Russian forces have taken several Ukrainian military installations in Crimea without firing any shots.

Courtesy of Noah Sneider

Each Friday Roads & Kingdoms and Slate publish a new dispatch from around the globe. For more foreign correspondence mixed with food, war, travel, and photography, visit their online magazine or follow @roadskingdoms on Twitter.

SIMFEROPOL, Crimea—

1. The Night Train

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On the platform in Moscow, two burly men smoke cigarettes beside the idling train. When they aren’t taking pulls, the frost from their breath leaves its own haze. The carriage is painted deep blue with a thin yellow stripe running horizontally along the side—the colors of the Ukrainian flag. The men, both Russians, face away.

“I hear they’ve raised the Russian flag in Donetsk?” one says.

“I hear Crimea, too.”

“We should just take that damn place back. It is ours, after all.”

It’s late February—Ukraine's fugitive President Viktor Yanukovych is on the run and I’m heading to Ukraine to see the aftermath of the “Euromaidan.” Months of protests on Independence Square in Kiev—known colloquially as the “Maidan”—led to the overthrow of Ukraine’s government. The protests began in response to Yanukovych’s decision not to sign an association agreement with the EU. Now, as Russia has pushed back, moving to annex Crimea, the crisis has escalated into the most ominous clash between Russia and the West since the end of the Cold War.

My sleeper cabin, or kupe, is empty, like most of the countryside we’ll soon roll through. Train travel in this part of the world demands an appreciation of the desolate.

The border between Russia and Ukraine passes imperceptibly, a slow blur of bare birches and knotted telephone wires. We stop once in Dolbino, on the Russian side, where a police officer in black checks passports; we stop again in Kozacha Lopan on the other side, before arriving in Kharkiv, onetime capital of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.

The next day, I meet a colleague, and we set off for Crimea on the night train. We pay the conductor a 10 hryvnia—about $1—bribe to let us smoke as we ride.

The passengers, the conductor—everyone, it seems—say the Russians are coming.

2. Simferopol, Ukraine

Deep potholes dot the streets of Simferopol, forcing drivers to swerve between lanes, like a traffic double helix. The city center is lined with crumbling pre-revolutionary facades, only two or three stories tall. It feels almost too calm.

I wander down Karl Marx Street, one of Simferopol’s main drags, seeking the Crimean parliament building, which gun-wielding masked men took over the night before. The parliament, gray and imposing, occupies an entire block. Across the street to one side stand a gold-domed Orthodox church and a retired tank, a memorial to Soviet World War II veterans. On the other side is a plastic playground—monkey bars and slides—but there are no children playing.

Instead, men like Vitaly Zakharov, 72, wave Russian and Soviet-era flags, and pine for the past.

“Do you see the Russian flags?” he says from behind dark glasses. “Well the situation in Ukraine has changed, and it’s changed cardinally for the best.”

The Moscow anthem, Moya Moskva, blares from the speakers. The refrain goes something like this:

I became used to being proud of Moscow
And everywhere I repeated these words:
My dear capital,
My golden Moscow!

People here seem to believe that untangling their DNA from Ukraine will straighten out the traffic on their streets—that making Crimea Russian again will make their roads flatter, their pensions higher, their lives better.

3. Kerch

The road to Kerch, on Crimea’s easternmost tip, cuts through rolling hills. If you look past the half-built houses, it reminds you a bit of Napa Valley, with rows of bare grape vines, trellised and waiting for spring. You can see flashes of the coast through the gaps between the hillsides.

We drive past old bus stops decorated with socialist realist mosaics. At the entrance to a region called “Leninsky,” an obelisk towers over empty fields. “Glory to Labor!” it reads. Yet no one, it seems, is working here—there is, quite simply, nothing to work on. Other than a pair of military trucks—forest green with no license plates—we have yet to see any signs of war on the eastern half of the peninsula.

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