With nearly every other street named after a Russian general or a gruesome battle, its lovely seafront promenade dominated by a “monument to sunken ships” and its central square named after the imperial admiral who commanded Russian forces against French, British and Turkish troops in the 19th century, Sevastopol constantly feeds thoughts of war and its agonies.
Bombarded with reminders of the Crimean War, which involved a yearlong siege of the city, and World War II, when the city doggedly resisted Nazi forces until finally falling in July 1942, Sevastopol has never stopped thinking about wartime losses — and has never been able to cope with the amputation carried out in 1954 by the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.Wielding a pen instead of a knife, Khrushchev ordered Sevastopol and the rest of the Crimea detached from the Russian Federation and transferred to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. At the time, the operation caused little pain, as both Russia and Ukraine belonged to the Soviet Union, which chloroformed ethnic, linguistic and cultural divisions with repression.
When Ukraine became a separate independent nation at the end of 1991, however, Sevastopol — the home of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet since the 18th century — began howling, culminating in the Crimean Parliament’s decision Thursday to hold a referendum on March 16 on whether to break away from Ukraine and become formally part of Russia once again.
Explaining the city’s agonies this week to group of visitors, mostly Russians, to Sevastopol’s Crimean War museum, Irina Neverova, a guide, recounted how Britain, France, Turkey, Germany and others had over the centuries all tried and ultimately failed to loosen Russia’s grip.
“Every stone and every tree in Sevastopol is drenched in blood, with the bravery and courage of Russian soldiers,” said Ms. Neverova, who complained that school history text books written under instructions from Ukrainian officials in Kiev make scant mention of Sevastopol’s heroics and focus instead on the deeds of Ukrainian nationalist fighters in the west of Ukraine, whom many Russians view as traitors not heroes. “This is obviously Russia, not Ukraine,” Ms. Neverova said later in an interview.
For many years after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, the loudest voices calling for Crimea’s return to Russia were a motley collection of Afghan war veterans and fringe political groups. Wrapping themselves in the Russian and also the Soviet flag, they regularly called for a referendum on Crimea’s status but got nowhere, widely dismissed as dangerous crackpots nostalgic for the Soviet Union.
But that all changed last month when protesters in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, drove President Viktor F. Yanukovych from power and Russian television, which is widely watched in Crimea, and local media controlled by pro-Russian businessmen began portraying Mr. Yanukovych’s ouster as a fascist coup.
This turned what had been a marginal and seemingly doomed cause into a replay of heroic struggles in the past, allowing Sevastopol’s enemies of Ukrainian statehood to cast themselves as heirs to their city’s wartime resistance to Hitler’s invading armies.Thousands of Sevastopol residents gathered outside the office of the Kiev-appointed mayor, located in the shadow of a gargantuan World War II monument on the edge of Nakhimov Square, named after Crimean War hero Pavel Nakhimov, and forced him to resign in favor of Alexei Chaly, a Russian nationalist and businessman known for his sponsorship of war memorials.
Across the city rose a rallying cry resurrected from past sieges by foreign powers: “Stand Firm, Sevastopol.” The slogan now decorates a stage set up in the central square for pro-Russian rallies and concerts featuring the Black Sea Fleet choir and Cossack dancers.
Russia’s takeover of Crimea is already so complete that commercial flights to Kiev from the region’s main airport, located outside Simferopol, the regional capital 50 miles from Sevastopol, now leave from the international terminal instead of the domestic one as they did until last week. The shift suggests that Kiev and the rest of Ukraine are now classified as foreign territory.
Russian soldiers patrol the airport parking lot and, although still without markings on their uniforms, have dropped all pretense that they are not Russian. Asked where he was from, a masked soldier at the airport said he was with the Russian infantry and had been sent to Crimea a week ago on a mission to protect the region “against the enemy, Ukraine.”