Kiev — A black-and-white photocopy of Vladimir Putin’s face hangs on a dartboard in the meeting room of an old Soviet sanatorium a few miles west of Kiev. The building now serves as a temporary home for several Crimean refugee families, and a couple of young men residing there hand me darts and encourage me to aim well at Putin’s face, which is already speckled with holes.
Since Russia annexed Crimea, thousands of refugees have fled. Officials in Lviv region alone say they’re preparing for the influx of around 2,000 refugees. Meanwhile, in late March, Ukraine’s social-policy minister said that more than 3,600 Crimeans had already asked for help resettling elsewhere within the country’s borders.
Mihail Petrovych, an older man with gold teeth, a white mustache, and a fiery personality, is one of these refugees. He says he witnessed the Russian invasion of Sevastopol personally: “I saw with my own eyes how they captured the bases and the ships. They’d put the women and children in front of them, and they’d be behind.”
Petrovych left, he says, because of his political convictions, packing only what he and his wife could carry, catching a train to Kiev, and leaving behind the village where he had lived for 43 years:
My kids, my grandchildren, grew up there. I founded the village. I gave the village its name. . . . [But] a lot of people [in Crimea] just don’t see themselves a part of Russia. It’s not a democracy. It’s not a place where you can express your opinion. I’m old, so I’m not afraid of anything; if they would let me keep my Ukrainian passport, I would stay [in Crimea]. . . . [But] I see myself as a Ukrainian citizen. I’m confident [of that], and I have no doubt.
The people who were on the train to Kiev “for the most part didn’t really know specifically where they were going,” Petrovych says. “Some were going to friends or relatives, but others just didn’t know.” When he and his wife arrived at the Kiev station, he followed instructions for refugees announced over loudspeakers and eventually found shelter at the sanatorium.
“The scariest thing is that there’s no certainty about what’s going to happen,” Petrovych says, adding that he doesn’t think Ukraine has accepted the annexation of Crimea. “I don’t think [the interim government in Kiev] betrayed us. It’s just that right now, there are a lot of immediate concerns, and they can’t deal with it all. They’re talking about Ukraine as united, and I believe that [they mean it].”
I ask Petrovych what he’d say to Putin if the Russian dictator were standing in front of him. Without missing a beat, he responds: “Get the hell out.”
Not all the refugees are so blunt. The next man I speak with, who identifies himself only as Sultan, is a Crimean Tatar, a Turkic ethnic minority that’s largely Sunni Muslim. Sultan, who looks to be in his mid 20s, chooses his words carefully, and my translator tells me that the young man is repeatedly implying that he’s concerned for his family members who remain in Crimea.
The Crimean Tatars have historic reason to be wary of Russia: Stalin oversaw the forced deportation of thousands of Crimean Tatars to Uzbekistan in 1944. It was only after the collapse of the Soviet Union that many were allowed to return home, Sultan notes. “The people who still remember these events are very afraid that the same thing will happen,” he says. “They don’t trust the Russians.”
Sultan doesn’t believe the Russian-media accounts that claim that more than 90 percent of Crimeans favored becoming part of Russia. There are nearly 400,000 Crimean Tatars — making up nearly 15 percent of the region’s population. Almost all of them, Sultan maintains, wanted to remain a part of Ukraine.
“After 20 years of building our lives [in Ukraine], it is very painful to begin our lives again in Russia,” he says. “In the Russian Federation, for us, life was very uncomfortable. . . . We enjoyed full freedom of religion in Ukraine. We don’t know how it will go [under Russia].”
Even for Crimean natives who had moved elsewhere in Ukraine before Russia invaded, the annexation is causing a headache. Later that afternoon, I sit in a trendy café with Yegor Burkov, a 19-year-old from Sevastopol who is studying history at the National University of Kyiv–Mohyla Academy. His family still lives in Crimea, and “it’s a very sticky situation,” he says.
Burkov’s father was part of the Ukrainian military, and their family home in Sevastopol, where they’ve lived for 17 years, is owned by the Ukrainian navy. But now, he’s worried they’ll be forced out: “Russians can come into the house and say: ‘There are no Ukrainian military men in Russia. Get out. This is our house.’”
Burkov is also anxious about the bureaucratic snaggles plaguing the newly annexed region. Crimea’s telephone service is in the process of switching over to Russian carriers, so using a Ukrainian mobile may be “like roaming, but forever,” he says. “I’ll call home, but like to another country, for a much bigger amount of money.” Train service is also switching, and he may soon have to take a much longer route. He says he also worries about whether he’ll have to get a Russian visa to travel home to see his family.
Some of Burkov’s Crimean classmates in Kiev have had it even worse. Ukrainian banks in Crimea were closed, and debit cards with Crimean region codes were locked down. Families had to wire money in and out of Crimea or send large sums of cash in person across the border. Meanwhile, everything from scholarships to pensions is being converted to rubles, which is — as he puts it — a nightmare.
The main concern, though, is one of citizenship. Russia has claimed that Crimeans who want to remain a part of Ukraine can obtain residency permits to keep their Ukrainian citizenship and remain at home, but the reality is quite different, according to Burkov.
“Very huge amounts of people tried to get [Russian] immigration services to get [them] their permit, and it was impossible,” he reports. “But for those who want to become Russian, it was very easy. Most people [in Crimea] I know said: ‘Never mind. I don’t want to have a Russian passport, I don’t want a resident permit: I want to stay in my city.’” The permitting window was only a month. “The situation seems like after April 18, [my family and I] have different citizenship,” he says. “I don’t know exactly how it is [going to work out]. I don’t know.”
— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for National Review as a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center. She is also a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.