Morning Edition host David Greene and producer Lauren Migaki traveled to Crimea to see what's changed since Russia sent troops in this spring and shortly afterward annexed the territory despite widespread international criticism. Their stories will be on air and online this week.
We're traveling through flat farmland on a two-lane road in the far north of Crimea, when suddenly it's interrupted by a checkpoint. Actually, Russia now considers it the border, a physical reminder of the new divide between Russia and Ukraine — and the West.
A guy in military camouflage, with a Kalashnikov rifle slung over his shoulder, sees NPR producer Lauren Migaki with her tape recorder going, and he makes it clear he wants it off.
She turns off the recorder. But that's not enough. Another guy in military fatigues comes over and says we broke the law as foreigners by being so close to a Russian border. He takes our passports and asks our interpreter to come with him, leaving us to wait.
This little episode is a personal reminder that Russia is now in control. All across Crimea, the signs of Russian power and influence have arrived.
Ukrainian flags that flew atop government buildings have been removed, replaced by Russian flags. Menus in restaurants have been reprinted with prices in Russian rubles. New labels have been glued on wine bottles — even older vintages — saying the wine is from "Crimea, Russia."
And, there's a wall, perhaps a mile or so long, running alongside the road from Crimea's main airport. There are murals painted by schoolchildren who were assigned a theme: We Love Russia.
There are outlines of the Crimean Peninsula painted in colors of the Russian flag and scenes from Crimean cities. But someone took a section of a mural and painted a heart over it in the Ukrainian colors, blue and yellow.
So there is resistance to Russia's takeover here, even if you don't hear it openly.
Still, many Crimeans are elated to join Russia. And what Russia has going for it is a very deep history here.
The Crimean city of Sevastopol has this vast harbor opening onto the Black Sea. Ships travel south from here to Turkey, then through the Bosphorus Strait and out to the Mediterranean Sea. This explains why Russia has for centuries anchored its Black Sea naval fleet here.
After the Soviet Union broke apart in 1991, Russia rented and shared the harbor with Ukraine's navy. But now, Russia is taking all the spoils. The Ukrainian naval vessels in Sevastopol now belong to Russia, our guide tells us.
Sevastopol doesn't seem to fear change because it's been through so much of it. In World War II, the city was attacked and occupied by the Nazis, who leveled almost every structure in town. The Soviet navy eventually drove the Nazis out and liberated it.
This place has been filled with Soviet pride since then and all through the Cold War, when submarines from this port spied on the U.S.
One image Americans had of a Soviet sub commander lurking in the ocean was Sean Connery in the movie The Hunt for Red October.
How can we pass up the chance to meet a real Soviet sub commander? So we take a taxi up a hill from the harbor. The driver is blaring Soviet tunes as he takes us to the home of Valentin Danilov, former executive officer on a Soviet sub. Danilov, 83, is in full uniform, from the old Soviet glory days.
The dark blue uniform is cleanly pressed. A navy cap is trimmed with gold. A submarine pin is on his chest. On the shoulder is the blue and white flag of the Russian navy. He loves to wear it in public. During the 23 years after the Soviet collapse, when this was Ukraine, he got some dirty looks wearing the uniform. Those looks disappeared once Russia annexed Crimea.
"You feel more secure when you see guys in uniform walking down the street," Danilov explains. "It's good not only for men, but women love it."
The most important woman in Danilov's life was married to him for 60 years. She died a few months ago. He walks us into the apartment where he lived with her, apologizing for the mess. I'm a bachelor, he tells us. He says he's so happy his wife lived long enough to see Crimea return to Russia.
"My wife was energized," Danilov says. "Back in March, she was in the hospital. Her condition was severe, very bad. When she heard about this great news, it gave her power and energy to live a couple months more."
Before we leave, Danilov utters that Russian phrase that's either inviting or terrifying, depending on your mood. "Na pasashok," or "One for the road."
We say yes, and the captain brings out his homemade whiskey, along with pickles and sliced pork fat.
Older Crimeans, like Danilov, have lived in three different countries. The Soviet Union, then Ukraine and now Russia. All within 25 years. They haven't actually moved anywhere. But they feel like they've returned home.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Ukraine held parliamentary elections on Sunday, and exit polling shows pro-Western parties won a solid majority.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
But there were no elections in Crimea. That's because Russia seized the peninsula from Ukraine this spring.
INSKEEP: Over the protests of much of the world, Russia forcibly declared a change in the borders of Europe. Western nations still reject this move, but that has not stopped Russia from consolidating control over what was once part of its empire and is now again.
MONTAGNE: In the coming days, our colleague David Greene takes us to Crimea. He begins right at the place where Russia drew a new line on the map.
DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: Crimea is a peninsula that stretches out into the Black Sea. It's about the size of Vermont, and up in the far north, there's this two-lane road.
(SOUNDBITE OF CAR)
GREENE: It cuts through flat farmland until it's suddenly interrupted by a checkpoint.
I'm looking over at a border that, as of just seven or eight months ago, wasn't a border. There's some white structures there. I'm about a hundred yards away from where you would cross north into Ukraine. This is where cars are being checked out of Russia.
This border, it's a physical reminder of the new divide between Russia and the West.
There's a military vehicle with a guy in camouflage holding a gun on his right side.
And just then, he wanders over to us with his Kalashnikov rifle on a shoulder strap pointed towards the ground. He sees our producer, Lauren Migaki, still has her recorder going, and he makes it clear to our interpreter that he doesn't like it. He wants it off.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken).
LAUREN MIGAKI, BYLINE: Should I turn it off?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Yes.
GREENE: We turn off the recorder, but that's not enough. Another guy in military fatigues comes over and says we broke the law as foreigners being so close to a Russian border. He takes our passports leaving us just to wait.
So there we were, we were kind of helpless, couldn't go anywhere since we didn't have our passports and stood outside our vehicle for, you know, an hour or so. This one guy in a uniform, not sure what it was - it was sort of mismatched, the kind of thing you might buy at an army supply store. He said he was something in between the FSB, which is the modern-day KGB, and the Russian Border Patrol.
Either he didn't want us to know what Russian agency he works for, or he's not entirely sure himself. He didn't seem like the most powerful guy, though his gun said he was. All this was our personal reminder that Russia is in control. It is a country that loves to intimidate and doesn't always embrace Western values, such as, say, a free press. And all across Crimea, signs of Russian power and influence have arrived. Ukrainian flags that were flying atop government buildings, gone. They've been replaced by Russian flags. Menus in restaurants have been reprinted with prices in rubles. New labels have been put on wine bottles, even older vintages saying the wine is from Crimea, Russia. And there is this wall, perhaps a mile or so long, that runs alongside the road from Crimea's main airport. There are murals there painted by schoolchildren who were assigned a theme - we love Russia.
There are outlines of the Crimean peninsula painted in the colors of the Russian flag and scenes from different Crimean cities. But other people have come and painted over the children's work. There's one section here where there's an outline of Crimea. It says Recia (ph) across it for Russia, and it's in the colors of the Russian flag. But someone took a section and painted over it - painted a heart over it - in the Ukrainian colors, blue and yellow.
So there is resistance to Russia's takeover here, and we'll hear some of those voices later. But most Crimeans are elated that Russia is in control. And what Russia has going for it is a very deep history, which you can feel in this harbor.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Welcome to Sevastopol. We are starting our excursion to Sevastopol Bay.
GREENE: The city of Sevastopol has this vast harbor that opens up onto the Black Sea. Ships can travel south from here to Turkey and then through a water way, the Bosphorous, out to the Mediterranean. And from there, anywhere, which explains why Russia has for centuries anchored its Black Sea naval fleet here. For the past few decades, the Russians sort of rented space and shared the harbor with Ukraine's Navy, but now our tour guide tells us Russia is taking all the spoils.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: These submarines used to belong to Ukraine. And now it became Russian. You can see a white flag with blue cross. It proves it belongs to Russia now.
GREENE: This place is dripping with history and pride. The Soviet Navy liberated this city from the Nazis. And then through the Cold War, this was a base for Soviet subs that spied on the United States. I remember as a kid imagining those Soviet subs out there lurking in the oceans. My image was Sean Connery as commander, like in the movie "The Hunt For Red October."
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) The turn, captain.
SEAN CONNERY: (As Marko Ramius) Not yet.
GREENE: So how could we pass up the chance to meet the real thing? We take a taxi up a hill from the harbor.
(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED SONG)
GREENE: The driver is blaring his Soviet tunes. We're heading to the home of Valentin Danilov, former executive officer on a Soviet sub. And as we turn a corner and come down a street, a figure comes into view. It's Danilov in full uniform from the old, Soviet glory days.
David Greene. Nice to meet you.
VALENTIN DANILOV: (Foreign language spoken). Hello and goodbye.
GREENE: Danilov, who's now 83 years old, got himself ready for our visit.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: He's been studying English all night long.
GREENE: Wow. Thank you.
GREENE: And your uniform is beautiful.
A Navy cap trimmed with gold and a submarine pin on his chest. During the 23 years after the Soviet collapse, he got some dirty looks wearing this uniform. Those looks disappeared after Russia took over.
DANILOV: (Through translator) I spent all my life wearing a uniform, and, you know, you feel more secure when you see guys in uniform just walking down the street. And women love it.
GREENE: The most important woman in Danilov's life was married to him for 60 years. She died a few months ago. He walks us into the apartment where he lived with her. He apologizes for the mess. I'm a bachelor now, he tells us. He says he's so happy his wife lived long enough to get her wish - for Crimea to be back with Russia.
DANILOV: (Through translator) Back in March, she was in the hospital. And her condition was very severe, very bad. And when she heard about this great news, it gave her power and energy to live a couple of months more.
GREENE: Before we leave, Danilov utters a Russian phrase that is either inviting or terrifying depending on your mood - na pasa shok, one for the road. We say yes, and the former Soviet executive officer brings out his homemade whiskey along with pickles and sala, which is sliced pork fat.
DANILOV: (Foreign language spoken).
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: You are original Russian.
GREENE: Thank you.
You know where this goes. Older Crimeans like Danilov feel like they've lived in three different countries - the Soviet Union, Ukraine now Russia - all within 25 years. They haven't actually moved anywhere, but they say they have returned home. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.