Researching Crimea pre-2014: a bottom-up perspective

This text is based on a talk that I gave at the Platform Ukraine Symposium on 19 September.

I am a PhD Candidate in Political Science in the Department of Government at LSE and completed my Master’s at SSEES – so I feel somewhat in between the strands of comparative politics and area studies and this is reflected in my current research project for my thesis where I look at the conception of ethnic majorities in Moldova and Crimea and their interaction, from a bottom-up perspective, with their kin-states of Russia, in the case of Crimea, and Romania, in the case of Moldova. In this talk I’m just going to reflect on my work in Crimea, based on fieldwork that I conducted in 2012 and 2013.

In the presentation, I’m briefly going to touch on:

  1. Research focus in Crimea
  2. Experiences of fieldwork
  3. Reflections – now and then

Research focus in Crimea

So in my current research, I’m interested in the relationship between Crimea and Russia, or at least the relationship that existed pre-2014, and to examine this relationship from a bottom-up perspective. That is to say not from a top-down institutional perspective but from the perspective of the lived experience of this relationship. And in the data that I gathered, I was interested in collecting data focusing on two questions related:

  1. Meanings: What does it mean to be Russian in Crimea?
  2. Practices: How are Russian policies practised in Crimea?

In terms of meanings, I draw on the field of everyday nationalism (see Brubaker, Fox & Miller-Idriss), to look at how being Russian is given meaning, experienced and/or subverted. In terms of practices, I look at how Russian policies, in particular Russia’s Compatriot Policy, is understood and practised in Crimea (e.g. did they identify themselves as Compatriots of Russia?). By Compatriot Policy, I define this as a quasi-citizenship policy (i.e. something that offers some rights and benefits, but not full citizenship) based on the rights it provided to resettle in Russia and some scholarship places. I was interested also in awareness of Russia’s engagement in Crimea and interaction with local pro-Russian organisations.

And ultimately, I’m interested in the interaction between the meanings of being Russian, the practices of Russian policies and ideas about territorial configuration, politically vis-à-vis Crimea’s relationship with Russia and Ukraine, and as I came to realise geopolitically also, in terms of respondents’ preferences for how Ukraine would align itself vis-à-vis Russia and Europe, or “the West”.

To gather this data, I collected 53 interviews, mostly in Russian language, with everyday actors in Crimea and in particular the post-Soviet generation. I wanted a breadth of respondents, so I interviewed people affiliated with youth wings of political parties across the political spectrum, pro-Russian organisations, as well as apolitical organisations, and students. I wanted to combine a comparative approach, requiring consistency across respondents and cases, with a naturalistic and conversational interview technique. I therefore used a consistent interview guide but used this more as a guide to the thematic areas I wanted to discuss with respondents, to ensure consistency and comparability.

Experiences of fieldwork

While my research interests are now fixed and by the time I came to the last bit of fieldwork, I knew what I was interested in gathering data about, this was not a predetermined process to the extent that I didn’t expect to find what I did. And this relates to the disjoint I’ve found between how Crimea has been discursively framed since the secession movement failed in 1994, as a hotbed of Russian nationalism waiting to secede from Ukraine. And I want to argue that Crimea’s secession and annexation by Russia this year should not be seen as confirmation of this tendency, at least not among a majority of Crimeans, outside Sevastopol, and, more particularly, among the post-soviet generation, who were the focus of my research.

I first visited Crimea back in 2011, and found almost from day one that my assumptions about Crimea, based on this framing from secondary literature, to be continually challenged. I had initially gone to look at how far Russian citizenship was being acquired in Crimea, because, based on the literature, I had expected this to be a common practice. Again in 2014, there was the claim, made by Charles King, that many in Crimea “are actually Russian citizens or dual-passport holders and by association, want Russian citizenship”. However, starting from my very first interviews, which were the pilot of the full research project, I found Russian citizenship to be something that respondents not only saw as illegal, because it was, but also undesirable and, frankly, unnecessary. No one I interviewed for my research expressed that they held Russian citizenship, and some might, but I can reasonably assume that a majority did not.

When I returned to the field in 2012 and 2013, I went to gather data not about Russian citizenship acquisition, but to focus on how everyday people experienced being Russian and engaged with Russia’s compatriot policy. Again, I found my assumptions about Crimea being challenged and I had to really learn to listen to my respondents. What I found was a huge degree of complexity concerning what it meant to be Russian. Some felt marginalised by Ukraine and victims of Ukraine’s policy of Ukrainization. While others didn’t: they didn’t feel “patriots of Putin” but just Russian speakers who were happy to reconcile being Russian with living in Crimea and Ukraine, and did not want to be seen by Ukraine as “patriots of Putin”. Others did not identify as Russian at all: they had not been born or brought up in Russia but in Ukraine. Further there were those who felt everything simultaneously: Crimea, Russian, Ukrainian. They felt they belonged to both, Ukraine and Russia, because Crimea had been both Russian and Ukrainian, and many had both Russian and Ukrainian parents and relatives. The majority, which on paper might be defined as “ethnically” Russian, was therefore much more fragmented, in terms of self-identification as Russian and with Russia, than I was expecting and than had been covered by the literature.

So my assumptions that everyone felt at ease to identify as Russian was really challenged by those I interviewed and I had to pay attention to what they were telling me.

I also found a hazy engagement with the Compatriot policy. The minority who felt discriminated by Ukraine, felt let down by Russia: the Compatriot policy neither offered them rights they were interested in, they didn’t want to migrate to undeveloped Russian regions, and did not go far enough offering them rights that they did want, such as Russian citizenship. However these were a minority of respondents: the majority identified neither as a compatriot of Russia, Ukrainian citizens were their Compatriots, nor had much knowledge or interest in the Compatriot policy or its associated rights. Across the board, respondents did not want to leave “sunny Crimea” for “snowy Siberia”.

Lastly, I just wanted to mention briefly the absence of support for separatism among those I interviewed, including, interestingly, those affiliated to movements that would later spearhead the secessionist movement and support annexation, such as the Russian Community of Crimea and Russian Unity party. It was much more about Ukraine’s relationship with Russia and the feeling that relations with Russia were an indelible part of Crimea and Ukraine. As one discriminated Russian explained:

Reflections on Crimea post-2014 and post de facto annexation

As this is a bottom-up project, one of the hardest things is to know so many people on the ground who had to experience the change from being an autonomous republic in Ukraine to an de facto annexed republic of Russia, facing uncertainties of how to make this transition (in terms of pensions, education systems, banking systems, property to name a few) and to face the reality of having their homeland “stolen”. I’ve observed now, in particular among those who I define as the post-Soviet generation of political Ukrainians, how many have left to Kyiv and Lviv, and Ukraine. This has ruptured families and will continue to do so.

So why was Crimea annexed by Russia? This is something I’m going to continue to research and write about elsewhere, but I’m pretty certain that it is not about nationalism, discrimination, and the rights of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers, as Putin would like us to believe. Rather, I would argue that this is more about corruption (and the ties of corruption between Ukraine and Russia), vested personal interests and the assumed threat to these interests post-Yanukovych, which Russia were willing to support militarily, and probably were worried about too, in terms of their interests, BSF, property, tourism etc., in Crimea.

More broadly, this has made me rethink the foundations on which my research is based. My assumptions about kin-state relations were premised on 23 years of Russia not intervening on behalf of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers (the Russian-Georgian war is a bit different). I started my PhD research in a very different political and geopolitical climate to the one which I will complete the research, and these changes have an indelible impact on how I frame and interpret the research, and given weight to what previously seemed unthinkable, that Russia would seek to challenge its borders with Ukraine, and therefore the norms under which post-Soviet states had been living for 23 years.


You can listen to podcasts from the event on the CEELBAS website.