It’s like a scene from an old Soviet movie playing out before our eyes in 2014.
Dozens of young Crimeans, with innocent faces and crisp blue uniforms, stand at attention and declare oaths of loyalty to Russia.
They are the first class of Crimean recruits training to be officers in Russia’s Interior Ministry. Many will likely serve in the domestic security service, the modern-day KGB. Soviet music blares as the young trainees march beneath the looming statue of Lenin in the city square.
Nearby, the Russian flag flaps above a government building.
We watched this ceremony in the city of Simferopol during a 10-day trip to Crimea. We wanted to see firsthand a place in transition. This peninsula on the Black Sea — seized by Moscow from Ukraine six months ago — is at the fault line of a new East-West divide.
The idea of a European country seizing territory and altering borders may seem odd and antiquated in 2014. But Russia clashed over borders in 2008 in the former Soviet republic of Georgia. Russia is also involved in the fighting to reshape eastern Ukraine.
On its face, this is a story about geopolitics, Russia’s ambitions and the response of Ukraine and the West.
But these young faces in the square with proud parents looking on tell a story about people. When borders are altered, so are lives. And now, the people of Crimea are facing questions about their identity and their loyalties.
The West doesn’t accept Russia’s annexation of Crimea. But Russia points to the results of a referendum held in March, when 97 percent of Crimeans who cast ballots voted in favor of joining Russia.
What drives many is a fear of instability. They’ve watched upheaval and revolution in Kiev, Ukraine’s capital, and now see eastern Ukraine convulsed in violence. In a dangerous world, many Crimeans believe that the safest place to be is in Moscow’s embrace.
President Vladimir Putin is the ultimate symbol of this Russian power, pulling the strings from Moscow, exerting influence throughout Crimea. Putin propaganda mugs and T-shirts are easy to find — even on the grounds of Crimea’s Livadia Palace in Yalta, where Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill met Josef Stalin in 1944 to plan the post-World War II peace.
What Russia also has going for it in Crimea is deep loyalty. Many people speak Russian, love Russian culture and never felt a true kinship with Ukraine.
But not everyone feels that way. Local journalist Nadjie Femi takes in the scene in Lenin Square with us, and the Soviet-style pageantry alarms her.
“Sometimes it seems to me I am dreaming,” she says. “It’s like a symbol of power of Russia, it’s like, ‘Look at us, we are here.‘ ”
Nadjie is Crimean Tatar, part of a Muslim minority long persecuted by Russia. Crimean Tatars, like Nadjie, now fear that a nightmare is coming true. Since Russia’s takeover this year, some Tatar leaders have been deported, and young Tatar men have gone missing.
One of them is Edem Asanov, a 25-year-old Tatar who didn’t show up to work on Sept. 29 and was last seen at a bus stop. His relatives say he was a good guy, that he wasn’t involved in politics. They can’t imagine why anyone would want him gone.
People are still looking for Edem as we arrive in Crimea, a few days after his disappearance.
There’s no proof of who’s responsible for the disappearance of the young Tatar men, as well as a few pro-Ukrainians, but all around there are signs of authority and intimidation.
The disappearances have cast a sense of fear and dread in the community.
A few days later, we receive a text message from a local journalist: “Today is the funeral of one of the kidnapped boys.”
It’s referring to Edem Asanov. His body was found, hanged, in an abandoned building.
We drive to the small village of Saki, on the west coast of Crimea, and arrive at the funeral gathering at Edem’s home. Wails emanate from inside the house, where the family sits with an imam.
Standing in the muddy courtyard is Edem’s father.
“My son was a good boy, well-behaved,” he says. “I don’t know why it had to happen this way.”
A Bitter History
During World War II, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin suspected the Tatars of being sympathetic to the Nazis and responded by wiping them off the Crimean Peninsula. He shipped them in boxcars to Central Asia; nearly half the population died along the way from terrible conditions. Those families who survived fought for decades to be allowed to return to their homeland.
The Tatars began returning in large numbers in the 1980s, in the final years of the Soviet Union. But many are wondering what will happen now that Russia is back in charge.
Just north of Simferopol, the town of Bakhchysarai is the heart of Crimean Tatar culture. Tatars of all ages are marking the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha. Men stir bubbling vats of “plof,” an Uzbek rice dish the Tatars perfected during their exile in Central Asia. Young boys and girls, dressed in traditional Tatar and Uzbek outfits, dance to music in the courtyard of a mosque.
In the midst of the holiday activities, a newly appointed Russian official, Konstantin Voyko, shows up in this Tatar community.
“Welcome to Russia, Crimea,” he says to us, smiling. “I’m from the administration of Russian president.”
He brought with him a gift for the Tatars — a live sheep with the hooves tied up. His aides dump the sheep on the ground, and several Tatars take it under a tree, pray and sacrifice the animal, slitting its neck. In Tatar tradition, the meat is cooked and served to the community.
The official’s appearance here, and the gift, seems like a peace offering. Putin says Russia will respect the rights of Tatars.
Yet the Tatars remain wary and see many worrying signs. Tatar political offices and libraries have been closed. Tatar leaders have been deported.
We ask the Russian official why Tatars are facing these pressures.
“There are a lot of Tatars in Crimea, and we are glad they are peaceful and following the same politics as the Russian country,” he says. “Of course there are people who are not for the Russian Federation and are acting like extremists. … But it’s a holiday now, and I don’t want to talk about politics. I just want to talk about better things on this very good day.”
A Spiritual Leader Is Deported
Just down the road from the mosque, we visit a woman who’s going through a difficult time. Safinar Dzhemilev is the wife of the spiritual leader of the Crimean Tatars. Mustafa Dzhemilev is a man who fought for his community through Soviet times and spent time in Siberian labor camps because of it.
Earlier this year, Mustafa Dzhemilev was labeled an extremist and sent out of Crimea. He’s now in Kiev. His wife has stayed behind, as a living symbol of continuity for their people in the middle of all this upheaval.
People from the Tatar community will call her, just to see if she’s still there. They feel better just knowing.
As we approach her three-story stucco house, she appears at the window. “Salaam alaikum,” she says, a Muslim greeting in this Christian country.
She comes downstairs to open the gate for us, an older woman with closely cropped auburn hair.
“The most terrible thing that is happening now is people are disappearing, getting kidnapped,” she tells us. “And there is no structure or organization that can help us find them.”
She points to a man across the street leaning down next to his car. Maybe he’s changing a tire. No, she says, he’s keeping an eye on things in the neighborhood and reporting back to the Russian government.
“We put in cameras, and security guys come every evening so that I’m not alone in the house,” she says.
She says her husband received assurances from Western leaders that they would not let Crimea fall to Russia. We ask her if that promise was broken. “Why?” she says, pausing. “It’s not over.”
Hard Choices Facing Young Men
These deaths and disappearances hang over the Crimean Tatar community — especially the young men.
It’s something that Ernes Ayserezli thinks about every time he posts something on Facebook. Ernes is 26 and runs a goat farm with his father. He speaks perfect English and is active on social media, where he often posts articles about kidnappings.
“Nowadays, every time I post something or even ‘like’ something on social media, I remember my father’s words: ‘Son, please be careful. Do not get into any trouble,’ ” he says.
But he can’t help but continue to post on social media. And, like many Crimeans, he feels conflicted about his identity.
The Russian takeover happened quickly. It’s a bit like waking up one morning to find that your house, your neighborhood, your community are all suddenly in a whole new country.
But imagine that the new country you wake up in is in fact the old country whose persecution your people fled generations ago — the one that drove them into exile, scattered them across the map. That’s the reality facing Tatars today.
But if Ernes and other Tatars want to stay here in this new Crimea, they’ll really need to become Russian citizens. Otherwise, it’s much harder — maybe impossible — to get health care or a driver’s license or own a business.
Ernes recently went to a local migration office to become a Russian citizen and apply for the domestic passport required of all Russian citizens.
“I had all the documents set,” he says. “I was almost at the desk, and I just couldn’t do it. I turn and leave.” He says he realizes he’ll have to become a Russian citizen at some point — but says he kind of hates himself for it.
As Ernes speaks to us, his infant son, Ali, sits, cooing in his lap. The baby’s birth this summer was kind of a race against time. Ernes and his wife were determined to get Ali a Ukrainian birth certificate. They made it just under the wire, before hospitals began printing Russian ones.
He says it’s important because he still has hope that someday Crimea will be a part of Ukraine again.
“That’s the symbol for our hope,” he says.
Learning To Adapt
But many Crimeans are caught in between. It’s not a matter of loving or hating Russia, or this takeover. It’s about adjusting. And it’s more nuanced than simply changing one’s passport.
Manita and Yuri Mishin changed their citizenship. The couple owns the Funny Dolphin Hostel in Sevastopol. It’s on a cobblestone alley up a hill from the harbor; they say it’s the only structure in the city that was left standing after the Nazi shelling in World War II.
Yuri has a bushy handlebar mustache that he shows off in Crimean War re-enactments — he retired from the Soviet navy as an officer on nuclear submarines. Manita speaks impeccable English and is proud whenever Americans or other Westerners visit.
“Sevastopol was opened to foreigners in 1994,” she says, remembering the day the first cruise ship arrived carrying Americans. “We were trembling and afraid to work with them. We hadn’t seen an American before. You didn’t know how to talk to them, what to wear, how to behave. It was all so new.”
Manita fears, especially with the West’s anger over Russia’s taking of Crimea and the new visa restrictions on coming here, that the flow of Western tourists will dry up. It already has — this year, only Russians came to visit.
“I don’t like that we’re now isolated from the Western world,” she says. “This reminds me a little bit of Soviet times, when there was an Iron Curtain.”
And yet, Manita and Yuri, whose family roots are in Russia, never loved the Ukrainian government. They saw the government as corrupt and unfriendly to Russian speakers. They also feel that Moscow’s stranglehold now protects Crimea from descending into the kind of violence gripping eastern Ukraine.
On balance, Manita says she’s in favor of this change and hopes to make the best of it.
“When my mother was dying 16 years ago, her last words were, ‘I wish you would be in Russia very soon,’ ” she says. “My family? Seven generations from Crimea, all of them Russian.”
Our interpreter, Zhenya Novytska, feels differently about this year — but she has landed at the same conclusion. She’s going to make the best of it.
The single mom was working for a U.S. government-funded program based in Simferopol that worked to improve Crimea’s tourism infrastructure. Within days of the referendum, the Russian government shut down the program and took over offices where it was housed.
Today, Zhenya is making money as an interpreter for Western news organizations. Zhenya has friends who left Crimea for Kiev after Russia took control. She’s still adjusting to this new reality.
During our detainment on the border between Crimea and eastern Ukraine and Russia, the guards chide her for not having a Russian passport yet. She plans to get one — soon, she says.
“I don’t like what’s going on here,” she says. But, “I will not leave Crimea. I will stay here. I’ll do my best to continue my life here with my son, trying to make him happy. I was 10 years old when Crimea became Ukrainian. Those were difficult times there. Now it’s part of Russia. I will adapt.”