In recent days, amid the horror of the news from Ukraine, I have found myself thinking about an old friend in Crimea. I will call him Dima, although that is not his real name. Readers who passed through Crimea in the years before Russia’s occupation and annexation may recognize my depiction, since Dima seemed to know just about every foreign scholar who came to Simferopol for research. Dima was my taksist. He got me to and from the airport—and just about anywhere I needed to go—in a Soviet-era Lada that had been retrofitted with hand controls to accommodate his disability, which I guessed to be cerebral palsy. Dima needed leg braces to stand, and could walk only with the help of crutches. When I marveled at the ingenuity of his car, Dima told me that the technological accommodations were necessary because his legs did not “listen” to his brain. Dima was also my landlord: he owned a one-room apartment in central Simferopol, which looked out on a summer beer garden and park. It was of a style then called Evro-remont, meaning it had been updated with an air conditioner, modern kitchen and bathroom fixtures, and furniture that vaguely resembled what’s found in an IKEA catalog. I remember being especially grateful during that hot summer for the air conditioner.
Dima has been in my thoughts in recent days because he embodies the contradictions and misfortunes of Ukraine since the Orange Revolution in 2004-2005. Dima was, in most ways, a Western-leaning liberal in his politics. A few years before our first encounter, Dima had traveled to Stanford University to attend a conference for young leaders from the former Soviet Union with disabilities. It was clear that California made a big impression upon him—its food, weather, scenery, and overall vibrancy were often topics of conversation between us. During our very first conversation, a few months after Barack Obama’s inauguration in January 2009, Dima asked what I thought about the new president. I told him that I felt genuine pride in my fellow citizens for electing a Black man as president, despite America’s long history of racism. Dima paused for a moment before saying that Ukraine was still waiting for its own Obama. When he wasn’t moonlighting as my taksist or landlord, Dima worked at a German cultural center in Simferopol, which existed because of a sister-city arrangement between Simferopol and Heidelberg. The cultural center operated as a sort of pro-democracy NGO in Simferopol, hosting workshops led by European activists on good governance, political mobilization, minority rights, feminism, and environmentalism. Dima was proud of his work at the cultural center, and was keen for me to attend the talks it hosted.
Yet here Dima’s politics took an unexpected turn. Like many Crimeans, Dima considered himself to be a Russian who, by mistake of history, was denied citizenship and residency in the country he identified with. That mistake, in Dima’s view, was Nikita Khrushchev’s decision in 1954 to transfer the peninsula from Russian to Ukrainian sovereignty, in honor of the 300th anniversary of the Treaty of Pereiaslav, which brought the Cossack Hetmanate in Zaporizhzhia under Russian protection. Dima had nothing positive to say about Viktor Yushchenko, the Orange Revolution (which was the work of Banderite fascists, in his view), or life in Kyiv, even though he admitted that it had been many years since he visited the capital. Dima was angry about laws that required public signage to be in Ukrainian. (I recall expressing some sympathy with the latter view, after struggling to make sense of the Ukrainian-language directions to activate the SIM card in my mobile phone.) Dima was surprised to hear that I had been able to get by with Russian just about everywhere I went in Kyiv.
Before I returned to California later that summer, I learned that there were topics of conversation best avoided with Dima: Putin, the state of Russian politics in general, and of course anything having to do with the government in Kyiv. When I innocently observed that the type of pro-democracy work Dima was engaged in at the German cultural center had become very difficult, if not illegal in Russia, Dima looked at me with confusion, but did not challenge me. Once I was back in California, Dima and I exchanged emails every few weeks. When I made plans to return to Ukraine the following January to do archival research in Odesa, Dima helped me locate an apartment, even though he admitted that his Odesa contacts were limited and he knew almost nothing about the city. Yet our friendship soon foundered on a New York Times article about the return of Crimean Tatars to Simferopol and the construction of a mosque, which I had imprudently forwarded to him. When I first arrived in Simferopol in May 2009, Dima insisted that I visit the Khan’s Palace at Bakchysarai, a beautiful vestige of Crimea’s pre-tsarist history about which he was rightly proud. Now Dima saw the New York Times reporting on the Crimean Tatars as anti-Russian prejudice, and was angry at me for sharing it. I immediately apologized for the offense, which was unintended, but the damage was done. Dima did not respond to subsequent emails. When I passed back through Crimea for a few days in the summer of 2012, I did not think to look him up.
In the years following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, I have thought often about Dima’s fate. The German cultural center in Simferopol still exists as a “house of friendship,” although what exactly it does now is unclear. The type of work it once carried out is illegal and potentially treasonous in Putin’s Russia. Dima’s old email address returns messages to sender. It is only natural to wonder if Crimea’s “reunification” with the mainland led to an epiphany about the reality of life in Putin’s Russia, a development that Vasily Aksyonov seemed to anticipate in his satirical masterpiece, The Island of Crimea. Written just before he went into emigration in the United States in 1980, Aksyonov reimagined Crimea as an island that was successfully defended by the retreating White armies in 1920. Crimea then developed into a Russian version of Taiwan: an affluent, capitalist, and decadent Biarritz on the Black Sea, whose inhabitants were tragically trustful about the intentions of their powerful neighbor across the straits of Perekop. Naïveté, in Aksyonov’s telling, is an affliction of the comfortable.
Of course, scholarly history defies the neat political categories that Aksyonov constructed for the sake of satire. I have no way of knowing how Dima voted in the referendum on Crimean independence in 2014, or whether the professional dislocation and narrowed political sphere that followed annexation produced regret. I know from my own research on the wine industry in Crimea that annexation was, at best, a deeply ambivalent development, even among those who stood to benefit most from Russian sovereignty. Annexation brought Russian wealth to the peninsula, not to mention the subsidies of a government keen to capitalize on the peninsula’s mostly unrealized vinicultural potential. From the time of Peter the Great on, viniculture and winemaking were understood as important fringe benefits of Russian imperialism in the Black Sea region. This remained true even in 2014. But annexation also accelerated a shift in production away from the old estate vineyards on the southern shore, where land had become too valuable to remain planted with vineyards. In recent years, one of Crimea’s most famous wine producers, the former crown estate at Massandra, has been forced to import grapes from distant Bulgaria to compensate for declining local production.
Although I am a historian who works principally in written sources—in archives and libraries—Dima is a reminder that my understanding of the past is shaped in powerful ways by countless personal encounters with non-historians. There was a landlord in Odesa, of mixed Greek and Jewish parentage, who told me in 2009 that it was possible to view Stepan Bandera as a fascist, speak Russian, and be a patriotic Ukrainian all at once. There were vintners in Kakheti, in eastern Georgia, who in 2013 hospitably offered a tour of their decaying winery, where fermentation tanks were made from concrete and the Soviet-era refrigeration system consisted of a garden hose that sprayed cold water. In the fall of 1992 there was a taxi driver in Moscow who darkly predicted a civil war between Boris Yeltsin and his antagonists in the Russian Duma. He was right, as it turned out, just a few months premature. In 1995 my landlady in Moscow, Antonina Pavlovna, told me that Bill Clinton and NATO wanted to “tear apart” Russia. It was an innocuous observation made while ladling up for me a very good bowl of chicken noodle soup, but broadly representative of many future conversations I would have in Russia. Cynicism about American intentions and hospitality for a visiting American were by no means contradictory.
In the coming months, we will tally the destruction in Ukraine in terms of lives and infrastructure. The toll already appears to be immense, due to the type of war that Vladimir Putin has ordered his generals to wage against a spirited and heroic Ukrainian resistance. Last week, Putin warned that Ukrainians were jeopardizing their future statehood by continuing to resist. In time, my colleagues in the fields of Russian, Soviet, and Ukrainian history will begin to ponder what is possible in the new context. Already, social media and personal correspondence suggest that some researchers are recasting their projects to accommodate sources in Central Asia, Moldova, the Baltic Republics, and the Caucasus, which for now, at least, remain havens of normality and peace. Summer research previously planned for St. Petersburg, Moscow, or Kyiv will instead be summer research in Helsinki, Palo Alto, or Urbana-Champagne. From our comfortable university perches in Europe and North America, we confront the horrors of war through the sanitized and safe lenses of Twitter and Telegram. We see a field of scholarly possibilities being transformed before our eyes, where the types of interpersonal interactions that we have taken for granted for more than thirty years and that have colored our understandings in myriad ways, are set to become less common, at least in the short term and perhaps the long term as well.
Stephen V. Bittner is Professor of History at Sonoma State University. His most recent book is Whites and Reds: A History of Wine in the Lands of Tsar and Commissar.