Nearly two million Crimeans will be called to the polls on Sunday, March 16, for a referendum on the future of the peninsula. However, those who want to see Crimea remain in Ukraine will not have much choice: Voters will be asked to choose between joining Russia outright, versus endorsing a broad autonomous status for Crimea that will enable it to break away from Ukraine in the future.
The referendum — announced on February 27 by the Crimean parliament from a building controlled by the Russian armed forces — was hastily prepared and is widely expected to be rigged. There will be no independent observers at the voting centers.
Crimean Jews, a tiny minority in a multiethnic region, are finding themselves between a rock and a hard place ahead of Sunday’s ballot. The Times of Israel contacted residents of Crimea’s major cities of Simferopol, Kerch and Yalta, but a number of Jewish community professionals refused to speak on the record, even on condition of anonymity.
Overwhelmingly Russian-speaking, many Jews are cautious not to express strong sentiments about the current situation or to speculate about the future of the peninsula and their community come March 17.
Since Russian military forces entered Crimea on February 27, the propaganda war has been gushing full-stream. On March 9, all Ukrainian TV channels were disconnected in Crimea. Currently, while some Ukrainian TV is still available through small cable providers, most Crimeans can only watch Russian television, which is consistently driving home a strong anti-Ukrainian message.
Masha Pavlyuk, a small business owner in Yalta, says: “If not for the Internet, we would find ourselves in an information vacuum. After spending barely an hour watching [Russian] television these days, one would vehemently hate Ukraine.”
Pavlyuk’s hometown of Yalta is a pretty seaside resort best known for the Yalta Conference of 1945, where Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin discussed the post-WWII future of Europe. According to Pavlyuk, Yalta has changed dramatically since the Russian incursion.
‘Cossacks from Russia are patrolling the streets of the city, bragging that they came to beat up Jews’
“Cossacks from Russia are patrolling the streets of the city, bragging that they came to beat up Ukrainians, Jews and Tatars. They say that when the Yids leave, they will take over their apartments,” she said.
“It is dangerous to speak Ukrainian on the street. The promenade is swamped with criminal lowlife, young men who were all moved into Yalta over the last two weeks. They speak with a Russian accent and must have come either from Russia proper or from [heavily Russian] eastern Ukraine. They look like skinheads, with shaven heads, heavy boots and camouflage. They promote the referendum during the day and drink heavily at night,” continued Pavlyuk.
Pavlyuk says her business — the sale of spa equipment — is on the brink of collapse, because all transportation of goods between mainland Ukraine and Crimea has been discontinued as of this week and because her bank has established stringent limits on transfers.
Crimea’s largest bank, Privatbank, limited cash withdrawals to 300 Ukrainian hryvnia ($30) in Yalta and 1,500 hryvnia ($150) in other cities. Non-cash bank transfers for businesses are limited to 5,000 hryvnia ($500). All Crimean cities are seeing long lines at the tellers and the ATMs, with people waiting for hours to withdraw at least part of their savings.
Viktoria Plotkina, who runs a Simferopol Hesed — a JDC-supported welfare relief center for the Jewish elderly — is also battling major logistical problems caused by the conflict.
“Pharmacy chains in Crimea are not receiving supplies from mainland Ukraine that have already been paid for. Express delivery services TNT Express and FedEx do not operate in Crimea anymore. My clients are experiencing increased health difficulties related to stress,” said Plotkina. Hesed now operates a psychological support hotline for its clients.
It seems as if everyone is on the move. Research centers are packing up the equipment and moving to Kiev. Two supermarket chains are being evacuated as well. Branches of multiple Russian banks are being opened as the Ukrainian banks are at a standstill.
But leaving Crimea is easier said than done. One of the two major Crimean airports is only open to Russian military aircraft and the other no longer serves Kiev-bound flights. The one highway connecting the peninsula to mainland Ukraine is increasingly dangerous, with armed Russian-affiliated men manning the impromptu checkpoint at the entrance to the mainland.
Train tickets to major cities in Ukraine are scarce or unavailable. But for westbound passengers, the railway remains a preferred mode of transportation, despite intense blanket searches performed by armed militia upon boarding.
However, despite all of this, prominent community figures and lay people alike are making an effort to maintain, or at least make believe, that all is business as usual.
Alexander Rosenfeld, head of the 600-strong Kerch Jewish community, said that as long as one does not watch television and looks away from military vehicles passing by, one could easily believe that everyday life has not changed.
Sofia Rubina, a pensioner in Simferopol who has three grown children living in Israel, said that “while it was very scary to see men with automatic rifles on the streets on February 26-28, now they are gone.”
Rubina’s children have all asked their parents to leave Crimea and come live with them, but she took pains to stress the relatively calm atmosphere currently in Simferopol.
“We live right next to the parliament building, so we see everything that is happening. The parliament windows are lit late at night, it is a good sign. It means that our new government is working hard for the people, not merely 9 to 5,” claimed Rubina.
“There are some Cossacks standing guard in the square in front of the parliament, but I have not recently seen any armed people beyond that. I walk the dog every night, and enjoyed a concert in the square last weekend. Everything is calm, the authorities are entertaining the people,” Rubina continued.
The parliament square in Simferopol was the site of a massive violent demonstration on February 26. Three people died as a result of injuries received that night.
Simferopol, Crimea’s largest city and the peninsula’s capital, is home to a Jewish community that has a Reform and Chabad synagogues, an array of welfare programs run by the JDC, a Jewish Agency ulpan and youth club, and, till recently, a day school that was operated by Chabad.
Leah Lypszyc, an American Chabad emissary who has lived in Simferopol with her husband since 1992, spoke to The Times of Israel via Skype from New York about the couple’s sudden departure from their home of 22 years.
“My husband was coming back from a fundraising trip to the US. His flight was through Moscow but he never made it to Simferopol, because he was supposed to fly there exactly as the troops without insignia were taking over the airport.”
The troops were later identified as Russian deploys and, on March 1, the Russian parliament formally approved use of Russian troops in Ukraine.
“I left Crimea on February 27. Only the trains were still running, and I got onto the train in Donetsk, which was the only train still leaving that night. I felt fear on my face and I saw people looking scared again, just the way they did when we first came to Ukraine in the mid-90s.”
Lypszyc was continuously in touch with her children abroad, who begged her not to go to sleep until she notified them of her safe passage into mainland Ukraine.
“A friend in Crimea told me recently that most people don’t have minds of their own. They can no longer watch Ukrainian TV, so they only see one side of the picture, and they are very heavily influenced by what they see on [Russian] television,” said Lypszyc.
Many in Lypszyc’s community would like to leave, some to go to Israel, some to the US, others merely to mainland Ukraine, she said, telling of a family who bought a car to make the trip overland, only to realize the roads are too dangerous.
She said she knows a handful of community members who are pro-unification with Russia, but the overwhelming majority of Jews in Simferopol want the status quo — with Crimea remaining part of Ukraine.
A peninsula with a mild climate all year round and many seaside resorts, Crimea is the Florida of Ukraine, traditionally attracting retirees from all over the Soviet Union. Many who receive welfare payments or pensions, which all come from the state in Ukraine, are lured by the many promises made by Russian media to raise these payments to the level of Russian pensions.
Rubina from Simferopol says: “Young people who are in business are in real trouble now. It will take them time to reorient their businesses from Ukrainian to Russia suppliers, from Ukrainian to Russian banks. We, however, the pensioners, are only worried about whether the pension will come on time — and so far, it has.”
Simferopol Hesed director Plotkina says her grandfather’s cousin, together with his pregnant wife, were brutally killed by Ukrainian nationalists already after the Holocaust, and memories like that run deep with many Crimeans
When asked whether she saw advantages in having Crimea join Russia, she responded that “the level of salaries in Russia is much higher than here. At the same time, no one can tell me, today, how much I’ll be able to buy with my higher [Russian] pension.”
Rubina declined to comment on her vote in Sunday’s referendum and said that this is not a question to ask anyone in Crimea right now.
Kerch community leader Rosenfeld was adamant about his Sunday vote. Although he will be away on a business trip, were he at home, he would boycott the referendum. He believes the results are predefined and will favor joining Russia, and suggests Crimeans should have been given a right to pick citizenship and allegiance to whichever country they please, based on personal preference and common sense.
Rosenfeld was raised to be bilingual in Ukrainian and Russian. He believes Crimea’s unity with Ukraine could have been maintained had the police, the courts and other institutions been less corrupt than they are today.
He is convinced that joining with Russia will not make things better in the short run, while the new authorities deal with a tremendous amount of bureaucratic and procedural problems. The relatively poor peninsula will also need to be heavily subsidized.
Rosenfeld thinks that while there is a chance that Crimea will be disconnected from Ukraine’s power grid if the referendum supports a union with Russia, the peninsula will definitely lose its share of the sweet water it receives from the mainland, which will heavily damage the agriculture.
As for the Jews, there has been only one recent anti-Semitic incident in Crimea, when a swastika was painted on the Ner Tamid synagogue, a Reform shul in Simferopol on the night of the Russian troops’ arrival. The Jewish community’s consensus is that this was a provocation carried out by pro-Russian forces in Crimea.
Simferopol Hesed director Plotkina said Crimeans are afraid of “fascists” who seem to have come to power in Kiev. She says her grandfather’s cousin, together with his pregnant wife, were brutally killed by Ukrainian nationalists already after the Holocaust, and memories like that run deep with many Crimeans.
“I feel that Russia will bring us order,” said Plotkina.
While day-to-day anti-Semitism has always been present in Ukraine, said Rosenfeld, no one sees the full picture today. Those who watch Russian television see one reality, while those who watch Ukrainian television see a world that is dramatically different, said the father of two grown daughters, one in Israel and one in Kiev.
“Both the pro-Moscow and pro-Kiev forces are trying to use the Jews as bait, but so far they have not succeeded. Please God, there should be no blood after Sunday’s referendum. If there is violence, no one can predict what will happen,” said Rosenfeld.