By Adam Harrison‘Budet voina’ – ‘There will be war’ – my friend Olga turned and said to me just a few months into my stay in Crimea in the autumn of 2003. It was a pre-Orange Revolution world in Ukraine; she was not anticipating the stirrings of Kievan revolt against the elections that would shortly be rigged that December in favour of now-ousted president Viktor Yanukovych, and nor was she foreseeing revolution in 2014.
Instead, in a move outlandish, oversized, and sprung seemingly from nowhere, such that it can only happen in Russia, a surprise bridge was suddenly being constructed out of the sea between Russia’s Taman peninsula and a tiny spit of an island named Tuzla off the east coast of Crimea. Ukrainian forces crowded onto Tuzla in fear of an annexation by Russian counterparts, while – ironically, now – then prime minister Yanukovych warned that Tuzla was ‘an inalienable part of Ukrainian territory’.
I was living in the Crimean capital Simferopol at the time learning Russian on a year abroad, and the incident fascinated me so much that on my return to Cambridge the following year I made it the subject of my undergraduate dissertation.
The forces withdrew, agreement was reached, and life in Crimea settled back to its usual languorous ways. I criss-crossed the peninsula: stepping through ancient Greek city ruins on the sea a stone’s throw from the birthplace of Christianity in Kievan Rus, ancestor of modern-day Russia and Ukraine; touring Sevastopol bay peering up at the lumbering Russian warships; holidaying in Yalta; touring the Tatar palace of Bakhchisarai; picturing Catherine the Great sweeping through to the sea.
Crimeans’ sense of pride in their home was palpable and almost overrode any other pull of nationality. It was the jewel of the Black Sea and it was theirs. Moscow and the Soviet Union loomed large in personal histories, even for those who barely lived under the USSR. Most had family in Russia; but one friend of mine dodged the draft to Chechnya and few were seeking to move there. For me, I was learning Russian on the beach and life was good, but I was touristing my way through the remnants of the Soviet empire, so I did want to make my way to Moscow, which seemed a mesmerising, looming Mordor of a place in the east that seemed still to hold sway.
In the Russian capital Muscovites would tell me about a study that showed theirs was the most expensive city in the world. It did not seem like that to me with my fistfuls of dollars, though the beer that cost 50p in Crimea was no longer quite so cheap off Red Square. But compared to what they were earning the – yes – cost of living was slipping beyond the reach of most Moscow Russians. Old ladies, the formidable babushkas that withstood so much of the badness the 20th century brought, would stand on the street outside Metro stations selling whatever they could – biros, lighters, toys procured from somewhere. My landlady spent her days and evenings furiously sewing cloth to sell at market, renting her tiny flat’s bedroom out to me while she slept in the lounge, making a bed up new for herself each night, and all the while forcefeeding me tea and Lithuanian cheese. My own bedroom looked out onto the Soviet space monument, an incongruous piece of history that sat ill with the struggling traders and the alcoholic men everybody stepped over to exit the underpass.
I never went back to Ukraine but the weirdness of building a big bridge to make a point about a tiny bit of rock stayed with me and I wrote the story up the following summer while the country was making its first, in the end, failed attempt to be a bit freer of Moscow. Following the news this year I did not anticipate that the Russians would go all the way this time – no need for any bridge, just sent in some men and guns in dead of night. Less weird, more brutal. The roads I drove along then are punctuated with checkpoints now, and the streets I trod shared with soldiers. Perhaps there are students who followed in my footsteps in going to Crimea, but who have had to flee. Perhaps new friends they had made turned to them and said ‘Budet voina’. Like me they might not have believed it. Unlike me, will they really feel the pull of Moscow now?
Adam Harrison is Labour ward councillor for Bloomsbury, London borough of Camden. He writes in a personal capacity @AdamDKHarrison