Translated by Ollie Richardson & Angelina Siard
The news agency News Front continues the publication of excepts from Konstantin Knyrik’s book “The Crimean front of the Russian spring”. This publication is devoted to the anniversary of events of three years ago. The author’s view is subjective. But these are the memoirs of a person who was in the thick of events and has full right to reflect on what was going on in February 2014…
On February 21st, in Kiev, after the bloody events on Maidan, which claimed the lives of about 100 people with the mediation of foreign representatives, the agreement on the settlement of the crisis in Ukraine was signed. The agreement was signed by leaders of opposition parliamentary parties and the still-legitimate President of Ukraine. But, already the next day Viktor Yanukovych secretly left Kiev. The agreement with Maidan leaders was worthless. Militants of “Right Sector” and other illegal armed formations were just going to storm the residence of the President of Ukraine, while the President already scurried away. In the same day, the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine adopted a number of resolutions, having usurped power in the country. Deputies of the Rada, who for fear of nazi fighters armed with automatic weapons, and others for the sake of their personal selfish ambitions, betrayed their electorate. And already on February 23rd, the day after the cowardly escape of the Supreme Commander, the newly appointed speaker of the Verkhovna Rada, the extreme nationalist and one of leaders of Euromaidan, Aleksandr Turchynov, became the acting President of Ukraine. These days the speed of political processes in the regions of Ukraine sharply increased. Everybody tried to reach an agreement with each other, the political negotiations between political forces were actively being conducted, between those whose power was thawing before the eyes, and those who suddenly received the full package of authoritative options. In high offices, when there wasn’t still a question about the possible detachment of Crimea or other regions of Ukraine from the center, the lights were still on. But we already at this time unfurled active informational work aimed at the formation and strengthening of public opinion that is non-accepting of the coup in Kiev. Especially as most Crimeans, and, in general, inhabitants of the Southeast thought of the coming to power of the leaders of Maidan supported by nationalist fighters as an action hostile to them.
On February 22nd, when the Verkhovna Rada obeyed the organizers of the coup, in Kharkov the Congress of Deputies of all levels of the Southeast of Ukraine took place, where the resolution was adopted that proclaimed local councils now assume all power in its entirety in the Southeast of Ukraine until the restoration of Constitutional order in Kiev. We, at the time, still had hopes that the result of this congress will be a statement by Viktor Yanukovych as the lawful president of Ukraine about the creation of a temporary administration based in Kharkov, and that the President will engage in correcting the tragic mistakes made by him and his colleagues. But instead, the whole world saw the limp and bleating Viktor Yanukovych in a luxury hotel suite against orange wall-paper. It was obvious that this person was cooked, and that there wasn’t and couldn’t be a stake placed on him. The Sirs who organized this congress – Mikhail Dobkin, Gennadiy Kernes, and others – already then were preparing to flush the protest movement of the Southeast, and using all available channels were negotiating with Kiev, seeking to keep at the price of treachery their capital and power.
During the period from February 22nd to February 26th the spine of the Crimean activists was formed, who showed their determination and readiness to take responsibility upon themselves. We united in the movement “Crimean front”, having overcome the latest disagreements and mistrust towards each other. The Russian spring determined who is who. Authors of “The letters of fifteen”, our ideologists, in all its structure entered the “Crimean front”. Our movement was divided into three components. The first – physical force, which included in its structure two units of self-defense. The second – a group of public figures who had experience in the organization of meetings, pickets, flashmobs, and other street protests. And the third component – the media.
Oleg Slyusarenko, who in recent years was engaged in the organization of the Great Russian Word festival and the youth military patriotic camp “Donuzlav”, training in which were the youth not only from Crimea but from all the CIS countries, assumed the carrying out of mass street actions. Without feeling self-pity, he conducted all our meetings, straining his voice, using hot milk for relief. We, with Yury Aleksandrovich Pershikov, assumed informational work.
Our long-time comrades Sergey Yurchenko and Vadim Ilovchenko headed the physical force bloc, those two units of self-defense consisting of volunteers who never stopped to arrive. That patriotic elan that Crimeans felt propelled them towards direct participation in the events of the Russian spring.
It was the stabilization of the situation in terms of inter-national relations, which was a priority task that we tried to solve. Kiev was kindling the flame of hostility between the Russian inhabitants of the peninsula and the Crimean Tatars, hoping with their help to quell the anti-Maidan protests in Crimea. Banderists had nobody to lean on in Crimea except Tatars. It was impossible to find among Crimeans even slightly active and numerous public groups who worship the symbols of Maidan and Ukrainian nationalism, and who were ready to sacrifice themselves. To this day the first and only attempt of neobanderists to hold a meeting near the Supreme Council took place in January, 2014. At the time, they succeeded to gather from all of Crimea fifty brainwashed adherents of Maidan and admirers of UPA. But their meeting didn’t last for very long. Very soon activists of the Russian movement collected on the square, as well as citizens who were simply passing by, and after a short debate the Crimean Banderists left the square. There was no business for them here. But, on February 26th, 2014, they came here together with supporters of Mejlis, hoping to use the Crimean Tatars in their interests.
But the radical ideas that were declared by the Mejlis were far from pleasing for all representatives of the Crimean Tatar people, not to mention the sane-thinking person, regardless of national and religious identity, the prospect of civil war and its consequences can’t be desirable. While militants from Maidan hadn’t yet been brought here in the necessary quantity. And, on February 26th, during a confrontation with radicals of Mejlis and euronazis, in one rank with our activists was standing a group representing the Crimean Tatar party Milli Firka, headed by the chairman of this party Vasvi Abduraimov. They, as well as us, sought not to allow a conflict on the grounds of interethnic contradictions, which the hostile-to-Crimea forces tried to kindle. The Russian movement of Crimea and party of Milli Firka sought to return the situation to a peaceful course in order to allow everyone to express themselves in the Referendum. It was important for us that the Crimean Tatars were with us in one chain, and not on the side of the nazis, who arrived to unleash a massacre. This moment was extremely indicative, including for the international community. After we took administrative buildings under our control, all touring neobanderists who managed to slip into Crimea before the outposts on the border were established left for Ukraine. Local radicals laid low.
Be that as it may, but for 24 years ethnic Russians and Crimean Tatars in Crimea learned to live in a good neighbourhood and understanding. Our children go to the same kindergartens and schools, we live on the same streets, we work in the same collectives. Despite the fact that some leaders from both sides did everything to set us against each other, we managed to get along. It is quite possible that these leaders won back some theatrical and drama roles, with the aim of bringing the conflict to bloodshed, in order to, having sat down at the negotiating table and divided the power with representatives of the main ethnoses of Crimea, heroically overcome confrontation and to present Crimea on a silver platter to the Kiev power. But it was a very dangerous game in which ordinary Crimeans would play the role of a bargaining chip. We couldn’t allow such a development. And politicians who were capable of such things, who served Kiev before the arrival of Polite people, were plentiful. It was then that they became the main Patriots of Russia in Crimea. It is precisely such a cowardly and treacherous model of behavior of leaders of a protest in the Southeast that ruined protests in the regions that rose together with Crimea, Donetsk, and Lugansk. Politicians from the Ukrainian school, by definition, were and remain opportunists and timeservers. This especially concerns organizers and participants of the Kharkov congress of Deputies of all levels. On the one hand, they declared their negative attitude to the coup, promised to spearhead the establishing of constitutional order, at the same conducting negotiations with leaders of Maidan, trying to get for themselves preferences in exchange for betraying the electorate. Mikhail Dobkin and Gennadiy Kernes put the Kharkov protest at the mercy of militants of nationalist organizations that were delivered to the city.
In the morning of February 26th, my long-time comrade Sergey Mikhaylovich Veselovsky organized a cordon of our activists at the building of the Supreme Council of the Crimea. At the same time, thanks to these people who stood up in defence of the building in one rank with police officers, the first attempt at occupying the building was thwarted. When it is said that it was a confrontation between Russian activists and Crimean Tatars — it is not true. Except the radicals of the Mejlis, people with banderist black-red flags tried to enter the building. For the first time in 20 years of Ukrainian statehood, we saw in Crimea an unfurled banner of Ukrainian nazis. Even for those who still doubted, at this moment it became obvious that we were observing the export to Crimea of the Maidan scenario, with its reprisals of the discordant, with its extreme ideology of hatred. Our fears came true and the most gloomy forecasts were close to coming true, as never before. Thanks to the fact that we were doing everything possible in order to stop such a development, we succeeded to withstand the first storming attempt. Realizing that the enemy will not stop at this, will rearrange and will use all its best efforts, and will apply all the skills received in training camps of Islamists and nationalists and on Maidan, we prepared for new ordeals.
By 16:00, despite the fact that the first blood was shed in Crimea, and it was the blood of our activists, the degree of conflict significantly fell. At that time, Mejlis members and Ukrainian nationalists, with the help of tear gas, already pushed aside our activists from the courtyard of the building of the Supreme Council. The radicals who didn’t manage to seize the building of the Supreme Council in the morning, having received such a chance in the evening, suddenly retreated. Instead of freely entering the building already at midday and to continue to win back their role, they had to face the resistance of Crimeans. Someone’s “brilliant” plan was broken. Understanding that their further actions can develop into a bloody massacre, their leaders didn’t begin to go further. The chairman of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar people Refat Chubarov ordered his supporters to disperse. The situation demanded judgment and coordination of further plans, according to new primary data.
What events happened at this moment in the “headquarters” of radicals — I don’t know. Who they consulted, what reinforcements and resources they requested, what actions were planned? — we couldn’t genuinely know. But, a second attempt by the radicals at storming the building was more than probable. That’s why leaders of the “Crimean front” made the decision to build barricades at the entrance of the building of the Supreme Council, and to establish there our civilian post. Vasily Semenyuk — the leader of self-defense and Timofey Denisyuk – the communist, the Komsomol leader — these are those people who assumed the functions of the organization and equipping of our new post. Near the Supreme Council the Orthodox church was under construction. Our delegation went there with a request to borrow construction materials and a trestle for our barricade. Activists received understanding, at first by the watchman, and then the priest. Besides shaky wooden constructions, we also received a blessing from the priest. For us it was the first blessing of the Crimean spring. In the courtyard of the Supreme Council we established an army tent so that activists had the opportunity to drink hot tea, to have a bite to eat, and be warmed. About fifty of our people remained on the barricades all night long. Nothing was predetermined yet. Our activists who remained on duty at the building of the Supreme Council of Crimea could be swept away by armed radicals at any time.
The scenes filmed on the morning of February 27th in Simferopol at the building of the Supreme Council of the Crimea were beamed around the whole world – with a person in a baseball cap and glasses, who, with a blissful look, to the question of journalists “ Who are they?”, answered:
“Armed, to the teeth!”
It was said with such sincere enthusiasm that can’t be imitated. That short dialogue remained in my memory as a symbol of the reaction of Crimeans to the appearance of Polite people, who took administrative buildings under their control, and to the flags of Russia hoisted on these buildings.
At 13:00 I was called by the news host of the channel Russia 24 Evgeny Popov and was asked to comment on the situation developing in Crimea. At the time, the agency even didn’t have any photos of me at their disposal, and, as is usually done on television, they placed a silhouette avatar in the corner. This broadcast became symbolic for me. Despite the excitement that captured me, I managed to formulate the main objectives and demands of our movement and the inhabitants of Crimea.
After this telephone comment, which was broadcasted all over the world, I absolutely clearly realized for myself that either we will win, or we will simply be killed. Or, at the very least, I will be obliged to sit in a Ukrainian prison for a very long time. In this comment I, for the first time, stated that we insist on a Referendum. I sounded the theses that, up to now, had been diplomatically avoided in official comments. I was the first who dared to make such statements. There wasn’t any sense any more to play to diplomacy and political correctness. The leaders of the coup in Kiev didn’t offer any other choice to those who didn’t accept their ideology and the power than to resist them with all available means.