‘It feels like we are sitting in the beast’s paw, and it is hungry’

Crimea’s Tatars and Ukrainians fear a Russian future

Fr Mykola at Simferopol’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Saints Volodymyr and Olha: “This is Ukraine’

Fr Mykola at Simferopol’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Saints Volodymyr and Olha: “This is Ukraine’


“The church was packed for Mass this morning, everyone was scared, but what could Fr Volodymyr tell us? To be patient and to pray – it’s all we can do,” says Tatyana, standing in the porch of a Ukrainian Orthodox church in Simferopol, Crimea’s capital.

“Russia is holding us in its fist,” she explains, clenching her small hand, “but we will not leave Crimea. We Ukrainians will stay here, for the sake of our ancestors in the ground and for the generations to come. This is our land – but it would be terrible to live again under Moscow’s rule.”

About a quarter of Crimea’s two million residents are ethnic Ukrainians, many of whom denounce the peninsula’s new pro-Moscow leaders, the referendum they held yesterday on whether to break from Kiev and join Russia, and the influx of Moscow’s troops to the Black Sea region.

“We lived fine with our Russian neighbours here until now, when their politicians and television started scaring them with talk of war and lies about what is happening in Kiev,” says Tatyana’s friend, a woman in her 60s who refused to give her name for fear of reprisals.

“Now everyone is worried, and suspicious of each other,” she says. “In Ireland you know what this is like, with your history of trouble with England. With Russia it is much worse, they are much harsher than the English. Russia has always tried to control us – they won’t let us go towards Europe.”

The church door opens and Fr Volodymyr approaches.

“This is an occupation, an annexation, by Russia,” he says quietly. “It is very hard on people. We must pray more and hope for the best.”

‘Let them go to Russia’
Fr Mykola, an older man with fierce green eyes and a long white beard, is less emollient. “Let them go to Russia if they don’t want to live here. This is Ukraine,” he thunders.

“They say Russians are threatened here – rubbish! You hardly hear a word of Ukrainian spoken in Simferopol.”

Moscow’s claim that its troops are protecting Russian-speakers in Crimea from Ukrainian nationalists is galling to Fr Mykola, who recounts how Russia has for centuries dominated its smaller neighbour, denied its claims to statehood, and repressed its language and culture.

Their struggle extends to religion, and a split that appeared in the Orthodox church in the 1990s, when believers in newly independent Ukraine demanded more autonomy from Moscow. The Russian patriarchate refused, triggering a poisonous feud between rival Ukrainian churches that give allegiance to Kiev and to Moscow.

“We need help from Europe,” says Tatyana’s friend. “If we stick together Russia won’t break us. But if we let it, Russia will take one bit of Ukraine and then another until nothing is left.”

Across Simferopol, in the council building of the Crimean Tatars, the porch is also full of people who fear a future under Russia. “Our history with Russia is full of tragedy,” says Ali Hamzin, the council’s head of international relations, recounting Josef Stalin’s deportation of the entire Crimean Tatar nation to Siberia and Central Asia in 1944, for alleged collaboration with the Nazis.

Chain of destruction’
“In 1994, Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in return for a guarantee from Russia, Britain and the United States to protect its sovereignty and territorial integrity. If this agreement is ripped up, why should anyone ever trust the West again?” Hamzin asks.

“If Russia gets away with this, Crimea will be a tiny link in a chain of destruction of the entire post-war security system,” he warns.

“Russia will promise many things, but over time it will try to assimilate us and crush Crimean Tatar culture. We will not flee the land we were exiled from for so long. But now, it feels like we are sitting in the beast’s paw, and it is hungry.”