SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine – Sometimes, the old actor remembers the war far too clearly. Though he was only a child, he can tell you about the explosions and the Nazi soldiers patrolling the streets. He can list the friends and relatives who didn’t survive.
The last thing he wants is for war to return to Crimea. So what did he think when Russian soldiers suddenly appeared last week on the streets of the regional capital city, a silent, heavily armed presence that surrounded the local parliament and deployed around Ukrainian military bases?
He was relieved.
If the Russians weren’t here, the government of Ukraine would come and occupy us, said Vladimir Sukhenko, a retired stage actor. They would make us speak Ukrainian.
Fear runs deep in Crimea, nourished by history and propaganda. If some Crimean Russians are quietly angry at the soldiers’ presence, more see them as protectors from a new Ukrainian government in Kiev that, they say, is ready to crush its Russian-speaking population.
Ukraine faces a potentially crippling geographic and cultural divide between supporters of Russia who dominate the east and south of the country and western Ukrainians who yearn for closer ties to Western Europe. One side of that divide is starkly visible in Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula long cherished by Russia for its strategic location and warm weather.
From the late 1700s until the fall of the Soviet Union, Crimea was almost always under Russian, and then Soviet, control. Today, most Crimeans can trace their heritage to Russia, and some here see themselves as only nominally Ukrainian. Russian is by far the dominant language.
So there was barely a hint of public opposition when Russian President Vladimir Putin, furious that an ally had been driven from power in Kiev, quietly dispatched soldiers last week to effectively seize control of Crimea.
Because, beneath the geopolitics, many here are simply afraid.
Some, like Sukhenko, fear that their language could be pushed aside. Others have darker fears: of anarchy, or roving bands of Ukrainian right-wing militants, or terrorists who target Russian-speakers.
It’s hard to find anyone who has been a victim of an anti-Russian attack. But it’s easy to find people who believe it is happening.
We are so scared, said a middle-aged grocer who identified herself only as Lyudmila, speaking in the decaying Crimean naval town of Novo-Ozerne. Like many Russian-speakers, she believes the protesters in Kiev and the new government are dominated by nationalist militants and that dozens, or even hundreds, of Ukrainian security forces were murdered by them during the demonstrations.
I’m so frightened of the chaos in Kiev, she said, weeping in obvious terror. It might come here.