Waking up on a Crimean beach

Churchill and Roosevelt landed on the Crimean airfield during the war, in February 1945, from where they drove to nearby Yalta to negotiate with Stalin about the future of post-war Europe. The airport near Novofedorivka in the Crimea was a safe place in 1945, even though the war was still raging in the rest of Europe. During that week, history was written in Crimea, the foundations of post-war Europe were laid, zones of influence were divided, the fate of millions of people was decided and the fate of Nazi Germany was sealed. Even though it was winter, the mild climate in Crimea and the safe distance from the front was an opportunity for the three world leaders to take a break from the horrors of war, which they and their people had endured for years.

The airport at the Novofedorivka military base, however, exploded 77 years later, in the middle of the vacation season on the Black Sea coast. We don’t know what’s left of it, probably nothing, because the Russian authorities who control it days after the series of explosions are silent about the consequences. It is not known who or how caused the huge explosions at the airport and in the weapons warehouses. We only know what we could see on the faces of the tourists on the beaches and in the endless lines of cars towards the interior of Russia as huge “mushrooms” of smoke curled behind them.

The people fleeing Crimea to the north in endless lines on congested highways are Russians who have come on vacation. They were convinced that they were spending the summer on their coast, in their country, where they are safe even though some 200 kilometres away is the hell of war. Many of them probably had other plans for their vacation, but only Crimea remained, because they were prohibited from traveling to other popular destinations. But it is what it is, the summer vacation should be used and Crimea was the only option for many. Until last Monday, when the war reached their beaches. That is, the beaches they thought were theirs.

In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea. Although almost no one in the world recognized annexation of Crimea, Russia considered it a done deal. Russia invested in the Black Sea peninsula, built a bridge to connect it to Russia, invited people to travel there. Due to the annexation, the entire West imposed economic sanctions on it, but Moscow did not care much about it. Since February, Crimea has also become a launching pad for attacks on southern Ukraine, including the Novofedorivka base, now destroyed. During all that time, the only thing people could understand was that it had no effect on their vacation plans. Even at the moment when they were looking at the flames and smoke nearby from the windows that were shaking from the explosions, they were being assured from Moscow that everything was under control.

Margarita Simonyan, one of the Kremlin’s propaganda chiefs, told them to “take a breather and go to the beach”. Thousands of tourists did not listen to her, but got into their cars in panic and hurried home, as far as possible from the place where they could die.

These people will tell their neighbours, relatives and colleagues about their fear of dying, instead of showing them photos from the beach and restaurants. One summer vacation, which is a very important event for every family, was ruined. But even more than that, ruined was their belief that their country was not at war, that some kind of small, limited, “special” operation with which they have nothing to do, was being conducted in Ukraine. Would they even go on vacation if the country was at war? Their country convinced them that “everything was according to plan” and that they can lead a normal, everyday life. It convinced them of this, through the head of Russia Today and Sputnik, even when they saw with their own eyes the devastating explosions near the beach. But those who fled Crimea and all their friends to whom they will tell about their experience, will no longer trust their country.

The explosions in Crimea, apart from the Russian military base, also destroyed some very strong convictions among Russians. First of all, that the shooting is happening somewhere far away, that the country is not at war at all, but a small military operation that has a planned beginning and end. Furthermore, one cannot be calm and safe in a place that is meant for that, to rest and escape from obligations and problems for a few days. In the end, the notion that Crimea is Russia collapses. If Crimea is really part of Russia, then how the entire military bases explode in Russia, right in front of the bathers on the beach? Some of the tourist refugees will rightly wonder – maybe Crimea is, in fact, Ukraine, as long as things like this happen.

These are dangerous questions and dangerous dilemmas; they shatter the foundation on which Putin and the Kremlin prepared the nation to invade Ukraine. Tens of thousands of people saw the war with their own eyes, the war which they thought did not exist, so they went to the sea. These are well-to-do Russians who, upon returning home, will no longer take for granted what the state television, even the president, tells them. They become a danger for the Kremlin, because they felt first-hand how deceived they were. Even if they remain confused after everything, if they cannot distinguish between what they personally experienced and what they have been convinced of for years, they will not travel to Crimea again. Neither will their relatives who will believe their terrible stories, tears and worried faces. For many Russians, Crimea has ceased to be the desired oasis of peace. Perhaps it has ceased to be “our” sea, perhaps in their minds it is not even Russia anymore. They will be close to reality and within reach of the truth.

The Russian military is likely to rebuild the destroyed airport in Novofedorivka, clear the wreckage and bring new planes to the runway. The Kremlin will do everything to patch the holes and cover up the Crimean explosion. However, it will be in vain, because they will not be able to drive out the fear from the hearts of all those who believed they were living in one Russia, and then they woke up hearing detonations in a completely different one. It is the real Russia that they did not know much about, it is the aggressor in a difficult and bloody war, in a country that is not its own. If they ever want to spend the summer in Crimea, they will first have to believe their eyes and everything they saw when they woke up.