In the Shadow of the Fleet
By Europe Editor, Tony Connelly
Alexei Alexeivich puts on his Soviet naval cap and strikes a pose in front of his bedroom mirror.
With a sheepish grin, which breaks into an infectious laugh, he pulls in his 59-year-old paunch. The rest of the uniform, he concedes, no longer fits him, but the memories of 27 years serving the USSR by sea are as fresh as ever.
“I was healthy, young and popular with women,” he recalls with just the faintest trace of regret. “It was the best of times. Sure we had some problems and conflicts among colleagues but you just forgot about it.”
We’re in Alexei’s small apartment in a Soviet-era housing block, one of the many which ring the Crimean naval port of Sevastopol, where Russia maintains its Black Sea Fleet.
He’s not a native of the city. Rather he’s part of the huge legacy of Sevastopol’s strategic role as the Soviet Union’s naval hub.
Hundreds of thousands of Russians like Alexei were drawn to Crimea during the Cold War to man the Soviet fleet as it patrolled the Black Sea and Mediterranean. They now make up a formidable voting block and they are solidly in favour of Crimea joining the Russian Federation.
Alexei himself was born in modern day Belarus, his mother coming from near the capital Minsk, his father from Leningrad, now St Petersburg.
He entered the naval academy in Leningrad as a young cadet aged just 14 and was posted to the Black Sea Fleet aged 21.
Today he’s retired, but although technically far from his birthplace he feels at home in Sevastopol.
The lifetime spent on the high seas with hundreds of Russian comrades has given way to a collegiate golden age in the Tsarist boulevards of the port, surrounded as he is by his former shipmates who have also retired in the city.
Together they provide a ready supply of the street protestors who have waged a noisy, pro-Russian campaign against the new government in Kiev.
Indeed, with the layers of Soviet and Russian patriotism encrusted on minds of Sevastopol’s citizenry, the attitude is one which must be understood if one is to fathom Moscow’s breathtaking capture of Crimea and its willingness to confront the West.
Of the city’s 400,000 inhabitants, fully one third are thought to be retired Soviet sailors and their families.
As such, the lingering nostalgia for Soviet – in reality, Russian – power, and the sense of humiliation at the collapse of communism, are felt just as sharply here as they are, according to the broadly accepted psycho-analysis, in Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin.
“I was proud of my country,” recalls Alexei over tea and hunks of chocolate and walnut cake. “Maybe we didn’t have much in terms of domestic appliances, TV, other gadgets. We lacked all the material stuff compared to the US or Europe, but we were raised in a patriotic way, and with love for the motherland.
“These aren’t just words. It was in everyone’s heart, from the sailor to the officer. But intense hatred towards the US or Nato? We didn’t have that.”
“We knew that we were here just to defend our country, because maybe everyone has, at a basic level, a fear of war,” he says.
Alexei rose to ship’s captain, serving on both the Leningrad, a helicopter-carrier commissioned in 1968 (scrapped the same year the Soviet Union collapsed), and the Dzerjinski, a battle-cruiser named after the head of the Cheka, the feared Bolshevik secret police.
Most of his career was spent in the Mediterranean where the Soviet fleet probed and monitored the US navy, and helped maintain Moscow’s influence in the Middle East.
There were few serious stand-offs and Alexei even recalls drinking with US servicemen in Tunis in the mid 1970s.
For Alexei, as indeed for Vladimir Putin, the collapse of the Soviet Union was a painful moment. But he’s reflective about the reality of its demise.
“The collapse of the Soviet Union was very hard for us,” he says. “We realised that in its former state the Soviet system could no longer exist.
“We wanted to renew our country (Ukraine), but still as a member of the Soviet Union. My friends and I realised that the division of the Soviet Union into nations could lead us to conflict. Thank God we didn’t have such a scenario as occurred Yugoslavia, when people of different nationalities who lived happily together before start to kill each other.”
In the current crisis, as Crimea prepares for Sunday’s referendum, there is no shortage of Soviet nostalgia.
The statues of Lenin, communism’s founding father, that still tower over municipal squares across the former Soviet space, have become focal points in Ukraine’s tragedy, with pro-Russian supporters manning vigils around them, and Ukrainian nationalists determined to uproot them.
Red banners with the hammer and sickle are regular features of pro-Russian demonstrations.
But the more ominous retro-feature of the stand-off is the Second World War, and Ukraine’s place in it.
According to a blunt narrative that runs all the way from the Kremlin to the Black Sea Coast, the protestors who overthrew the pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych, are a rabble of neo-Nazis, anti-Semites and nationalists.
This is not a fringe view, and it is the starting point of any discussion I’ve had with any of the pro-Russian protestors in Sevastopol or Simferopol, Crimea’s administrative capital.
The problem is that Ukraine, with the possible exception of Belarus, was the probably most blood-soaked arena of the war, as Stalin and Hitler’s murderous forces ebbed and flowed across its territory.
The name most often peppering the vitriolic accusations hurled towards the new government in Kiev, and the protestors in Maidan Square in Kiev, is “Bandera”.
To pro-Russian activists, Stepan Bandera, the leader of a western Ukrainian nationalist party which tried to take advantage of the Red Army’s retreat at the hands of the Nazis in 1941 and which declared an independent Ukraine in June of that year, is the personification of evil, a man whose “fascist” legacy has inspired the new dispensation in Kiev.
Although Bandera’s nationalist organisation did co-operate with the General Government, the administration running Nazi-occupied Poland, and did enjoy the intermittent protection of the Gestapo, over time it fell afoul of the Reich’s authorities.
Bandera himself was imprisoned for four years by the Nazis after they invaded Lviv in western Ukraine. It’s estimated that some 80% of his party’s leadership was either killed or sent to German concentration camps.
In 1959 Bandera was assassinated by the KGB in Munich.
Today, however, he is alive and well and either lionised or vilified, depending on whether you live in western Ukraine or Kiev, or in the pro-Russian strongholds of Donetsk, Kharkiv or Crimea.
He was declared a Hero of Ukraine by Viktor Yanukovych’s predecessor Viktor Yuschenko and his face appeared on postage stamps on the 100th anniversary of his birth in 2009. In 2011 President Yanukovych succeeded in having Bandera’s hero award annulled.
That his name is so ubiquitous is testament to the unresolved force the Second World War still has on this crisis.
“The Great Patriotic War touched every family,” says Alexei Alexeivich, using the Russian title. “Almost all members of my father’s family died during the siege of Leningrad. On my mother’s side, a lot of her relatives were shot in Minsk because they were helping partisans.”
He is thoughtful about the protestors in Kiev, but only up to a point.
“I can’t say exactly what’s going on there,” he says. “I can’t say it’s just the West that encouraged them. The Ukrainian people were fed up with corruption, bribery, theft. But in terms of the protest movement, they were later led astray by the fascists who took advantage.
“This was direct inheritance…all the dirty work [in the war] was done by Bandera…, they killed Jewish people, and the followers of these fascists have some power in Ukraine.
According to some historians Stepan Bandera’s organisation was not actively anti-Semitic, although the Simon Weisenthal Center condemned the Hero of Ukraine award. Jewish groups in Ukraine have strongly denied that the new government in Kiev is in any way anti-Semitic, and a leading Jewish figure in New York has accused Russia of sponsoring provocateurs of staging anti-Semitic attacks in order to justify the Kremlin’s rhetoric against Kiev.
In reality, the nuances of history are lost in the cacophony of Crimea’s street politics as the region hurtles towards the referendum on its future.
Prominent in the streets of Sevastopol are billboards showing two maps of Crimea, one in red ribbed by barbed-wire with a Swastika stamped in the centre, the other with the colours of the Russian flag.
Voters, the billboard suggests, have a simple choice.
I ask Alexei what he thinks President Vladimir Putin wants to achieve in Ukraine.
“Why do you think it’s what Putin wants?” he asks, eyes wide. “It’s what the people of Sevastopol and Crimea want. We had the same feelings in 1991, but he former leaders then paid us no attention, they were pre-occupied with their own problems.
“Now that we have this situation we’re thankful to Putin – he has paid attention to our wishes, and the referendum will show it.
“Sure I’ll vote, and I’ll vote for Crimea being a part of Russia,” he concludes.
“For sure it won’t be heaven’s blessing here, we won’t live like people live in the US or Europe at the beginning, but historically we are returning to our motherland.”