As I sat in the train on my way to Dnipropetrovsk, I was taking a last look back at Simferopol. The Crimean chapter came to an end. Minutes later a man in his mid-twenties joined me in the compartment, introducing himself as Viktor. He had come to Crimea to visit his far relatives in Sevastopol. Now he was heading back to his hometown Kiev, where - unlike in Crimea - most people oppose the return of the peninsula to the Russian Federation. Recalling my impressions in Crimea, it seemed to me very likely that his far relatives in Sevastopol also advocate rejoining the Russian Federation. To get certainty on this issue, I asked him how they feel about the most recent developments in Crimea. "They are happy about the current situation there", he admitted in a way that made it clear that he does not share the euphoria of his relatives. Since he is from Kiev, I was expecting that he has a different view on this. "Imagine, for example, Dresden wants to be indepedent from Germany. Would this be legal? Would Germany accept that?", he asked me rhetorically. Such comparisons, critics have argued, do not consider the differing historical and contextual circumstances. But for now I kept on listening to what he had to say to learn more about his informational background and personal views.
Regarding the crisis in Ukraine, Viktor seemed to be divided in several aspects, and he did not conceal the fact that some questions were difficult for him to answer, because he identifies himself as Ukrainian, even though his parents are Russian and he had just met his far relatives who shared their personal view which stands in stark contrast with what he had learnt. His everyday environment is predominantly pro-Ukrainian, naturally having a strong influence on him. What would it mean for a guy like him if he suddenly changed his views after having grown up in such an environment, if his final conclusion favors Russia instead of Ukraine, even though he identifies himself with Ukraine? Wouldn't he be treated like a traitor? To what extent would he be alienated from the social network that he built over all the years? To what extent would this affect his working environment, especially when working for a big company like Nestlé, as he does? But even though he seemed to be in the midst of an identity crisis, his circumstances do not hide the fact that being honest to himself and sticking to the truth was important to him. Viktor claimed that even some Ukrainian people in his environment judge him easily. Although he considers himself to be the opposite, there are Ukrainians who label him "Pro-Russian", just because he also points out facts that are not always in favor of the Ukrainian government. At the same time Viktor wished Crimea was still a part of Ukraine. And who would be surprised? Who would be happy to lose such a beautiful piece of land? But more importantly, he apparently shared the predominant view in the West that territorial integrity stands above the right of self-determination (this will be dealt with in a separate article).
A well-dressed man joins us. His name is Nick Lyakovych, a communicative business man, who had recently planned to have a run as a deputy in the Kiev City Council (Kyivrada) that is currently led by Vitali Klitschko. He introduces to us his little daughter, who would entertain us in the next hours, drawing pictures, jumping and climbing around and singing a variety of songs. Her version of the famous Russian song "Katyusha" reminded me of the great time I had with the locals of St. Petersburg. As for her father, a man, who was more involved in the political issues than the ordinary citizen in Ukraine, I was wondering all the more how he felt about the Ukrainian crisis. Nick mentioned the decisive role that Sergey Aksionov, the prime minister of Crimea, played when Crimea seceded from Ukraine to join the Russian Federation. According to him, Aksionov made the right choice and Nick would not have acted differently in his position. He did not share his thoughts on Russia or its government, but therefore his comments on the Ukrainian government were all the more expressive: "Now I don't like our current government, they are bastards and murderers. Bandits are in charge now."
At some point of time only me and Viktor were left again in the compartment. As we got closer to the border, we started feeling more and more uneasy. Viktor was concerned that he might has to join the Ukrainian army sooner or later, so he is never really thrilled when he meets Ukrainian soldiers. And I was wondering if I will be able to enter Ukraine without the Russian migration card, which - along with other valid documents - usually ensures that you can leave the country without any complications. To our surprise, a very friendly Russian soldier appears in front of our compartment. His good mood broke all the clichées of soldiers who check passports in the slavic region. Viktor was not less surprised than I was. "I think this is a 'good cop-bad cop' strategy', he told me after the soldiers left. Maybe he was right: Minutes later, a much more serious Russian soldier appears and checks our passports, subsequently asking me for my migration card. I followed the instructions that I read in a forum on the internet for such cases, acting dumb and just smiling. With a grim look on his face the Russian soldier gives us our passports back and leaves. We made it! At least that's what we thought.
The train stopped for a while. Two Ukrainian soldiers entered our compartment, checking our passports, especially mine. They communicated something to each other, before one of them sat down right next to me, while the other one was trying to close the door behind him in vain, as the door latch was sticking. Meanwhile they explained to my new friend from Kiev what the problem was. For several minutes I tried to grasp some of the words they used. Finally, Viktor let me know what their request was, telling me that I could only stay in the train if I guaranteed that before leaving Ukraine, I would head to another Russian-Ukrainian border to get a stamp on my passport. From then on it was clear that I would have to head to Kharkiv. Sounded good to me. This means that I would get to see more of Ukraine. But this was not the only condition. The soldiers continued to talk to Viktor. I understood how they were talking about money and how Viktor helped me out by telling them that I was only a poor student. Hence, a small amount of money was enough to please the soldiers who thanked us and again stressed that in any case I need to get to another border to receive a stamp on my passport, otherwise I would not be able to leave Ukraine and can get into big trouble. Well, I was not in a rush to leave Ukraine anyway.
The Ukrainian soldiers left, after which Viktor agitatedly jumped off his seat , searching something while saying to me: "You are the luckiest man in the world". He grabbed a pen and a piece of paper, drawing something to finally explain to me what the deal is. According to Ukrainian law, Crimea is occupied by Russian troops and rightfully belongs to Ukraine. Therefore, I should have received a stamp in my passport when I arrived in Simferopol by plane. This means that according to Ukrainian law I had been in Ukraine illegally for a week now. But getting a Ukrainian stamp in Crimea is of course not possible, because there are no Ukrainian soldiers left in Crimea. "They could have accused you of being a spy", Viktor said. Leaving aside what could have happened, if it wasn't for Viktor, who had already proven in several moments during the trip that he is a helpful guy, it is questionable whether I would have made it to Ukraine at all, so I let him know that I owe him one and we would meet again when I arrive in Kiev.
Click here to learn more about how the people in Kharkiv feel about the Ukrainian
A trip to Crimea six months after the peninsula rejoined Russia: For the story and picture gallery click here
*For privacy reasons, some names in the articles might have been changed