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With Shift From Ukraine To Russia, Crimea's Business And Pleasure Uprooted


All this week, our colleague David Greene has been bringing us stories from Crimea. Russia took the Black Sea peninsula from Ukraine back in the spring. Ukraine, of course, and most of the rest of the world say Moscow did this illegally. David has explored a region struggling now with its identity, a crisis that began at its new border.

DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: Russia built it on the northern edge of Crimea after forcibly taking that peninsula from Ukraine. That border, a freshly drawn line symbolically separating Russia from the West. As my colleague Lauran Migaki and I traveled around Crimea, we learned how changing borders changes lives, and we learned how for many in Crimea, lines can be blurred. Put another way, in this transition to Russian rule, it's not always clear to someone if they've won or lost.


GREENE: Try being a soccer fan in Crimea's capital, Simferopol. Because of the Russian takeover, the team has a new name, new players - mostly Russian. And instead of playing in Ukraine's Premier League, they have been put in a third-tier Russian division. Many fans have lost interest for now.

Simferopol's playing a team from Russia. This is a - old stadium. I mean, these seats are plastic. And if you look across to the other side, the white seats spell out Tavria in Russian, and that's the name of the team that played here for years going back to Soviet times. New team, new name and also a different feel in the stadium. We're told that this place used to be packed. I mean, a lot of energy and some magical moments. If fits about 20,000 people. They used to fill a lot of those seats - not anymore, not tonight. Only a few hundred people - loud. But only a few hundred people. So different from the past.

There were glory days for this team in the past. And look around the seats, you get a feel some of the fans lived through them.

The guys behind me, they're maybe in their 50s, 60s, chewing sunflower seeds, dropping the shells on the ground, kind of griping about everything, which I can kind of understand as a sports fan.

The guys are watching a tense, scoreless game. At halftime, they introduce themselves as Viktor and Viktor. Viktor Kielov has been coming to this stadium for 54 years.

Were the crowds much bigger?

VIKTOR KIELOV: (Speaking Russian).

GREENE: Of course, they were much bigger?

KIELOV: (Through translator) Of course, much bigger. (Speaking Russian) It was like minimal, it was 10,000.

GREENE: Ten thousand fans. Now, mostly empty seats, but these guys, they're willing to put up with that for a while. For one thing, their pensions have shot up since the Russian government took over. And aside from what's happening on the field, things feel better.

KIELOV: (Through translator) We feel, like, at home.

GREENE: As part of Russia.


GREENE: And wouldn't you know, their team scores a goal. Up 1-nothing on the Russian team, the other Russian team. This year has forced Crimeans to think about their loyalties, and it is not always clear-cut.

MANITA MISHIN: We start from inside. This is a dorm room for six people.

GREENE: We're in the city of Sevastopol to meet Manita Mishin. She owns a hostel. It's called The Funny Dolphin. There are little mottos decorating the walls all in English. On the stove, there's one that says keep calm and have a cupcake.

MISHIN: You can see the balcony. Still a lot of Russians, they smoke. You know, we need to have such place, you know, because they smoke.

GREENE: And that's even more important today because almost all of her guests are Russian. A year ago, they were Americans, Germans, Brits, and Manita could show off her English. They stopped coming after the Russian takeover, and Crimea is feeling isolated again.

MISHIN: It reminds me a little bit of Soviet times, you know, when there was an iron curtain - probably you heard about the Cold War? Yeah, you know. Of course. Yeah. And it reminds a little bit of this situation.

GREENE: And that's tough for her to swallow. She has these fond memories of when Sevastopol began to open up to the West in 1994, the first time Westerners arrived in the harbor.

MISHIN: Yeah, I remembered it was a cruise ship. We were trembling and afraid to work with them - they were Americans.

GREENE: What was so scary?

MISHIN: Because we - we didn't see any American before. You know, how to talk with them, how to behave, you know, everything was very new for us.

GREENE: Well, this feels like such an important moment now. You know, a lot of people in Europe are worried about coming to visit Crimea because of everything that's happened. What is your thinking right now?

MISHIN: I don't like it. I don't like that now, we are isolated probably from the Western world. Really, I don't like it.

GREENE: But then she says this.

MISHIN: We still think that we are more happier to live in Russia than in Ukraine.

GREENE: She says the last 20 years haven't exactly been easy. Ukraine's government, she says, was corrupt, didn't do much for people and was especially unfriendly to Russian speakers like herself. And her family always felt a closer cultural connection to Moscow.

MISHIN: When my mother was dying 16 years ago, her probably last words were, I wish you would be in Russia very soon.



GREENE: It is much easier to find people in Crimea today, who say that overall, Russian's takeover will make life better here. Crimean Tatars, a Muslim minority long persecuted by Russia, they're worried about what Russian rule means for them and many of them openly voiced that dissent. Other pro-Ukrainian voices are quieter. But they're there in cafes, bars, hush conversations away from the microphone - at least ours.


GREENE: At this karaoke bar, a young man takes the stage and shouts glory to Ukraine. And then he launches with friends into this Ukrainian song.


GREENE: We were there with Zhenva Novytska. She's an interpreter who worked with us in Crimea. And she says there are people who felt a close connection with the West and today feel this sense of loss.

ZHENVA NOVYTSKA: They're trying to keep low-profile. But if you talk to them like this, they usually would say like, yeah, I do not like this situation here.

GREENE: As for her Zhenya, she's a single mom. She was working for a U.S. funded program to improve tourism in Crimea. After the Russian takeover, that program was shut down. Zhenya was out of a job. She's now among those Crimeans trying to find their way in this new reality.

NOVYTSKA: I can say that I'm of this party, so I will not leave Crimea. I will stay here. And I don't like what is going on here, but I will do - my best just to continue my life here, living with my son, trying to make him happy. I was 10 years old when Crimea became a part of Ukraine. That was difficult times there. Now it's part of Russia so it's - I will adapt.

INSKEEP: That's our colleague David Greene, former Moscow correspondent for NPR News, author of a book on the Trans-Siberian Railway, now visitor to Crimea. For photos of his journey, you need only travel to npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.