SEVASTOPOL, Ukraine -- It doesn’t take long for a visitor to Sevastopol to notice evidence of the city’s historic role as a heroic defender of Russia. Souvenir stalls sell Russian flags, and monuments and street names refer to Russian naval commanders as well as cultural icons.
Ukrainian national symbols are confined to municipal buildings, including a conspicuously orange and blue post office on the main thoroughfare, Bolshaya Morskaya Street.
This image has been cultivated since its inception, as Mikhail Yurlov, a former Ukrainian diplomat and director of NGO Fund “Sevastopol,” as well as an advisor to the chairman of the Sevastopol City Administration, said: “Sevastopol is different to any other city in the Crimea, because it was built in 1783 as a Russian military fortress and developed as such over two centuries.”
This history, Yurlov believes, came to define its inhabitants’ mentality.
Leo Tolstoy’s first-hand accounts of the siege of the citadel during the Crimean War both reflected and added to this image in the mid-19th century. In “Sevastopol in December,” the first of Tolstoy’s Sevastopol Sketches, he describes the city under siege, noting: “The one central, reassuring conviction you have come away with is that it is quite impossible for Sevastopol ever to be taken by the enemy. Not only that: you are convinced that the strength of the Russian people cannot possibly ever falter, no matter in what part of the world it may be put to the test.”
When Sevastopol was besieged a second time during World War II, this imagery was revived and updated with new tales of heroism.
But a number of points contradict those who see Sevastopol as a purely Russian city, not least the fact that Sevastopol is now situated in an independent Ukraine. How the October Revolution and later Ukrainian independence affected the city and its Russian identity is a divisive issue, with some saying it is as Russian as ever and others recognizing other influences.
The first threat to Sevastopol’s Russian identity came with the advent of the Soviet Union and the introduction of a new ideology. Karl Qualls, an associate professor and department chair at Dickinson College and the author of “From Ruins to Reconstruction: Urban Identity in Soviet Sevastopol after World War II” sees the impact of Soviet thinking on the city’s identity as minimal.
“The city had been settled as primarily an ethnically Russian city throughout the 19th century, and the Soviets did nothing to change this,” he said.
Although Sevastopol faced the prospect of a Ukrainian identity in 1991, it would have had to have been created from scratch. Yurlov pointed to a subtle shift in the way Russia viewed the base after 1991, seeing it as something it leased rather than something it owned. But while various policies to Ukrainianize the city have been introduced in the last two decades, there remains resistance to certain innovations, such as changing the names of key locations: “War memorials, sacred places, etc. are all tied to Russia,” said Qualls.
“So even though children now learn Ukrainian language and history in school, their local history all points to Moscow. When they get married and take their photographs at monuments, where is the Ukrainian hero to honor? Taras Shevchenko? To my knowledge, he never even visited the city.”
Sergei Tsekhov, the spokesman for The Russian Community of Crimea and co-chairman of the political movement Russian Unity, also sees Sevastopol’s identity as something which continues to hinge on notions of Russianness.
“Not only is Russian feeling in Sevastopol not on the decline, it is stable and even increasing,” he said. “Changes in the status of a territory don’t change the spirit of a city or how the people who live there feel, which in Sevastopol is Russian.”
This is despite what Tsekhov describes as a policy of forced Ukrainianization, which is being carried out by the government in Kiev. “Ukrainianization is taking place in practically all spheres of life here,” he said.
“It is the policy of Ukraine to remove Russian from legal proceedings, education, but you hear Russian spoken everywhere. I think it is unnatural because everyone has the right to choose the language they use.”
Other potential alternative identities are represented by the Karaite Jewish community and the revival of Crimean Tatar culture. But the decimation of the former in World War II and the fact that the key sites of a newly flourishing Tatar culture are elsewhere on the peninsula make this relatively unlikely.
While the Ukrainian language has become more dominant in the city since Ukrainian independence, the weight of Russian history and myth could prove difficult to overcome, particularly while the Russian Black Sea Fleet continues to call the city its home.
For the time being, Sevastopol is still adapting to the news that the Black Sea Fleet will be housed in the city for some time. The previous Ukrainian government, under Viktor Yushchenko, had put a 2017 deadline on the Russian Navy’s presence in Sevastopol.
The new deal stipulates that the fleet will remain in Sevastopol until at least 2042, with an option to extend this to 2047. This agreement has a lot of popular support in Sevastopol, both among residents and those involved in the political and business spheres.
“The Black Sea Navy? I would like the Black Sea Fleet to stay forever,” said Yurlov. “As the Romans said, ‘if you want peace, prepare for war.’ Let it be an ingredient for the Black Sea collective security forces.”
Tsekhov also sees the extension of the lease in Sevastopol as a positive move, and not just for Russian organizations or Russian people in the Crimea. “The Black Sea Fleet is a big factor in Ukraine’s relationship with Russia. It also plays a part in the stability of our international relations. If they removed the fleet, I think that there would be a serious conflict with the local population and the Ukrainian government. It’s a big part of our lives,” he said.
Qualls describes the fleet as “a tangible symbol of Russianness in the city.” He believes that the lease extension will make the development of a stronger Ukrainian identity in Sevastopol difficult.
“I think it certainly extends the time until the city might become known as truly Ukrainian. Educating children in Ukrainian is a vital step. But until the Russian babushkas have passed away and are no longer able to undo what the Ukrainian education system is trying to do, there will remain a strong identification with Russia.”
Alongside its impact on the city’s identity, the deal struck in April could have wide-ranging consequences for the local economy. In the wake of the signing of the agreement, Medvedev ordered the Russian minister of defense to develop a social-economic plan for Sevastopol, although Yurlov notes that he is yet to see any sign of this.
The fund head also believes that the peak of Russian government investment in the city happened a long time ago. “I would be happy if the Russian government invested a lot in the city, but I don’t think it will ever be like it was before,” he said.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union the scale of the Black Sea Fleet’s forces in Sevastopol has been reduced drastically. “To take just one example, before the collapse of the Soviet Union, there were 30 submarines and other warships, now Russia has only one in Sevastopol,” Yurlov noted.
This has had a great impact on the labor force in Sevastopol, a much larger proportion of which used to be employed making and repairing this equipment.
Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov is another of Russia’s key investors in Sevastopol, and he has cut a controversial figure in recent years. The mayor has invested heavily, constructing housing for sailors, a secondary school and establishing a branch of Moscow State University in the city, as well as a business and cultural center called Moscow House.
But while this helped to make him popular with the locals, it has led to tension with the central Ukrainian government. “In my understanding, Moscow has been seen by locals as doing much more for the city than Kiev. If Russia continues to be a prominent financier of development, how and why would people feel gratitude to Kiev?” Qualls asked.
In May of 2008, following Luzhkov’s assertion that Sevastopol should not have been transferred to Ukraine along with the rest of Crimea in February of 1954, he was banned from entering Ukraine. This ban was lifted two years later, and Luzhkov was in Sevastopol to celebrate Navy Day in late July this year.
During this trip he announced a three million dollar investment plan, pledging finance and support for projects including housing and education facilities in Sevastopol, to be carried out between 2011 and 2013.
Yurlov notes that the tone of Luzhkov’s rhetoric has changed, which he sees as a positive development. “The fund’s main activity is to attract investment, so when Luzhkov, one of the most important Russian investors in Sevastopol, was a persona non grata, it put Russians off further investment,”he said.
Not all Russian investment and involvement in the city enjoys such popular support, however. Yurlov pointed to Russian Konstantin Grigorishin and Ukrainian “chocolate king” Petro Poroshenko as two businessmen who have caused controversy with their investment strategy in Sevastopol.
“They bought shares in the Sevastopol Marine Plant, a large shipbuilding and repairing facility, which had always been a symbol of the town. But they weren’t interested in the traditional industry that had been based there for more than 200 years. They almost closed the factory and tried to turn it into a residential and entertainment complex. This was very unpopular in Sevastopol. Although these plans have not been implemented for various reasons, the plant now employs only 200 people, where before more than 16,000 worked there,” he said.
For Yurlov, the demise of certain industries linked to the Black Sea Fleet and the rise of alternatives has changed the city significantly. “Sevastopol is already more than just a naval base,” he said. “Therefore it needs to diversify its economy and create a brand which is not just related to the two naval bases that it houses.”
To do this Yurlov and his colleagues are working on a new regional development plan for Sevastopol that they hope will retain elements of the Black Sea Fleet while also expanding Sevastopol as a city of international economy, culture, science and tourism.
The city is aiming to secure cooperation with organizations such as the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) to implement the scheme.
Yurlov cites Singapore as a good example: “In 1960 when the British left, the local authorities went to the UNDP, which told them to develop a special economic zone. Singapore is now one of the largest industrial-financial centers in the world.”
And the city is already benefitting from external help. A “Strategic Investment Plan” adopted by Sevastopol City Council was elaborated with the help of USAID. And Director of the EU Delegation’s Office in Ukraine Ambassador José Manuel Pinto Teixeira has also announced a € 12 million ($ 15 million) joint cooperation initiative in Crimea.