Simferopol Is the Conspiracy-Theory Capital of Crimea

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SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine—Listening to Russians can be a lot like listening to Ron Paul. Much of what they say is refreshing, speaking truth to power. The hypocrisy inherent in the U.S. foreign policy of cloaking realpolitik in the rhetoric of “nation building” and “democracy promotion”? The Russians get it. But just when you’re starting to see their side of things, they drop a conspiracy theory to rival the secret plan to adopt the Amero.

Take Sergei Kiselev, a leading scholar of post-Soviet geopolitics and a geography professor at Tavrichesky National University, the largest university in Crimea. I interviewed him at his office in Simferopol, the capital of Crimea, and he made some important arguments about Ukrainian politicians pushing NATO for their own political gain and about the excesses of Ukrainian nationalism.

And then he explained why Crimea, unlike many other analogous territories, remained peaceful after the collapse of the Soviet Union. There are a variety of theories for this, but Kiselev offered a novel one. “Look at the map of Eurasia—Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Macedonia, Transdniester, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Nagorno Karabakh, Chechnya, Ingushetia, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Xinjiang, Tibet. All of these places have had war. But not Crimea. Why?” he asked. “Russians, in their blood, have a genetic aversion to violence. Russians absorb violence like a pillow,” he said. “This isn’t nationalism, this is analysis and observation.”

Later, he outlined a “well-known plan” of Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko to widen the war from Georgia into Ukraine. The plan, Kiselev said, involved provoking a conflict between the Russian and Ukrainian navies in the Black Sea, blowing up the Russian consulate in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, and occupying several Russian-operated lighthouses on the Crimean coast. For good measure, the plan apparently included the bombing of a synagogue in Dniepropetrovsk, an industrial city just to the north of Crimea. What a synagogue had to do with a war between Ukraine and Russia, he didn’t explain, but presumably a conspiracy seemed incomplete without somehow including the Jews. This plot, he said, was foiled only because the Ukrainian interior minister had exposed it. I hadn’t heard any of this, so I checked back with journalists I had met in Kiev. None of it, of course, was true.

Crimea was, in fact, part of the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic until 1954, when Khrushchev changed the internal borders to give it to Ukraine. Why he did so is not clear. Russians argue that it was because he was Ukrainian and that he was drunk when he made the decision; some have tried to dispute the legality of the hand-over. There is some geographical logic to the move: Crimea is connected to mainland Ukraine by a thin isthmus, but it’s not connected to Russia. (These days traveling between Crimea and Russia requires a short ferry ride; Russia has been trying to build a bridge, but Ukraine has blocked the efforts.) Politically, though, Crimea leans Russian. More than half of the peninsula’s residents are ethnic Russians, and many of the Ukrainians there have pro-Russia sympathies. In the 2004 presidential elections that precipitated the Orange Revolution, the pro-Russian candidate, Viktor Yanukovych, got more than 80 percent of the vote in Crimea. Until recently, the Communist Party, which supports Ukraine reintegrating with Russia, dominated the regional parliament.

In Simferopol, it’s easy to imagine you’re in Russia rather than Ukraine. Everyone speaks Russian, and most signs, TV and radio programs, and ads are in Russian. Visually, the city is remarkable mainly for its lack of local flavor. It has pretty much everything you find in the average post-Soviet city of 400,000 people—concrete, short skirts and furs, sad babushkas selling cigarettes in cold underpasses—and nothing you wouldn’t. The local economy, as in most of these sorts of places, seems to be driven mainly by coffee, cell phones, and lingerie.

I came here by overnight train after a week in Kiev, where, for the most part, I heard the point of view that I could get from Washington: Russia is a threat; Ukraine will benefit from membership in NATO and the European Union; the West, by promoting democracy and NATO membership, is representing Ukrainians’ real interests against Russian interference and malfeasance. All this is at least partly true, but there is considerable room for skepticism as well, and I was looking forward to hearing the other side.

There was, to take a small example, the question of Russian passports. Most of the “Is Ukraine Next?” stories that appeared after the Georgia war repeated the same ominous detail: The Russian consulate in Simferopol had been handing out Russian passports en masse (as many as 70,000) to residents of Crimea. This was ominous because Russia had done the same thing in the Georgian breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia—it gave nearly everyone there a Russian passport, which then provided a pretext when Moscow wanted to intervene: It was protecting its citizens.

When I was in Kiev, several government officials repeated this story, but usually with the caveat that “there were reports from Simferopol …” This caveat suggested two things to me: Either they were making the story up and hiding behind “reports” to dodge responsibility, or they really didn’t know what was going on in Crimea. After spending time in Crimea, I eventually determined that both were probably true. But I found no evidence that there was any attempt by Russia to co-opt Crimea’s residents, as in South Ossetia. While it’s impossible to prove a negative, I asked a lot of people in Simferopol of varying political motivations, and no one had seen any evidence of a mass passport giveaway. (I tried and failed to get comment from the Russian Consulate.)

But other than pointing out where their enemies are wrong, what are the Russians offering? Since the end of the Cold War and the discrediting of communism, the Western ideal of democracy and free markets has not been much challenged. But as it has gotten stronger and more assertive during the Putin era, Russia has begun to mount a geopolitical challenge to the West. It’s bolstering alliances with other countries that want to challenge American hegemony, places like Iran, Venezuela, and China. But it’s not yet clear whether Russia is putting forth any sort of new principle to challenge the West. In Simferopol, the people I talked to—generally pro-Russian think tankers, journalists, and analysts—did not appear to have any new ideology. I did, however, see impressive advances in the fields of conspiracy theories, hysterical overreactions, and dubious logic.

A friend had recommended that I talk with a journalist at Krimskaya (Crimean) Pravda, but when I reached the reporter, he suggested that I talk instead to the editor-in-chief. As the name suggests (and as the hammer and sickle on the front page drive home), the paper is a leftover from Soviet days. But the editor, Konstantin Bakharev, is young, dynamic, and English-speaking. He put out little bottles of Vitel water, imported from France, that I later learned cost about $7 in Simferopol.

(The Russians I met in Crimea, it should be noted, were extraordinarily hospitable. While the people I met in Kiev were generally all business, in Crimea no meeting took place without coffee or tea and a tray of cookies. And while interviewees are usually looking at their watches by the 45-minute mark, the Russians I met in Crimea would happily talk for two hours or more—until my head ached, my translator was exhausted, and my voice recorder was out of memory.)

Bakharev challenged the notion, still widely held in Kiev and Washington, that Russia had unilaterally started the war with Georgia. He’s right. But then he went a step further, and argued that Washington had pulled strings in Georgia to start the war. His “proof,” as he put it? His father-in-law was recently traveling in Georgia, and on his way from the airport, he noticed a road being built. Black men—not an everyday sight in Georgia—were doing the construction. When he got to Tbilisi, he asked one of his government contacts what the story was with the black guys working on the road. The explanation was that Washington was funding the construction of the road but didn’t trust the Georgian government not to steal the money—so they’d sent their own road workers. He concluded triumphantly: “So, if the U.S. doesn’t trust Georgia to build a road by themselves, do you think they would trust them to start a war?”