Life After Annexation: An Uneasy Return To Crimea

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Since Crimea was annexed by Russia in March, says Neil MacFarquhar of The New York Times, the overriding sentiment there has been uncertainty. He speaks to Melissa Block about his experiences there.


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block. It's been four months since Russia annexed Crimea - the peninsula jutting into the Black Sea seizing it from Ukraine. The majority of Crimea's people are ethnic Russians and in a referendum, they voted overwhelmingly to reunite with Russia. Crimeans were promised that under Russian rule, they'd have better salaries, bigger pensions and lower taxes. Well, we wondered, have those promises been borne out and what's changed in Crimea now that it's under Russian control.

New York Times reporter Neil MacFarquhar is just back from the second of two reporting trips to Crimea, and he joins me now from Moscow. Neil, welcome to the program.


BLOCK: And first of all, are Crimeans seeing those higher salaries and pensions and lower taxes that they were promised?

MACFARQUHAR: They are to a certain extent, but they're also seeing higher prices. And when you talk to them, you find that they think of themselves living not so much in a new state, as in a state of perpetual confusion because nobody really knows what's going on in terms of law, car insurance, license plates - I mean, all that sort of mundane day-to-day stuff hasn't really been switched over yet and nobody has the answers to when it will be.

BLOCK: A state of perpetual confusion?

MACFARQUHAR: Yeah, I mean, everywhere you go something isn't working. The passport offices - there's hundreds of people in line. Credit cards aren't working 'cause the Ukrainian banks have been all shut down and the Russian banks aren't operating. Real estate offices - a bunch of Russians went down there because, you know, Crimea has - was sort of the Hamptons of the Soviet Union and the Tsar before that, and so they were all wanting cheap summer houses they hoped they could get. But the real estate offices are all shut because the - you know, their land records are all in Kiev - ditto with the court cases. Nobody knows what law to use in the courts. I mean, virtually any aspect of life you pick, people aren't really sure, you know, what Russian law is or what to apply.

BLOCK: Well, in terms of the economy, tourism used to be the main driver of the Crimean economy. There were millions of people, mostly Ukrainians, who would come for the beaches, cruise ships would dock there. What's happening with tourism now?

MACFARQUHAR: Right, that - the numbers were big, as you said, 6 million - about 4 million Ukrainians, 2 million Russians, and the rest a few hundred thousand Westerners on the cruise ships. I mean, you're hoping for 3 million mostly Russians. And, you know, Mr. Putin himself became the main booster telling people to vacation there, and he lowered airplane prices accordingly. But they're not really coming in droves like that.

We talked to one factory manager at a meat factory and he said they're only running at 35 percent capacity 'cause there just isn't the demand that there has been in previous summers.

BLOCK: Neil, you spent time with Crimean farmers who are, apparently, facing real problems getting their produce to market in Russia or even getting crops in the ground. What's going on?

MACFARQUHAR: With agriculture, you know, the mainstays are things like wheat and barley. And the crop was stunted a little bit from the lack of water because the Ukrainians shut off the spigot on the main irrigation canal in April, which was a 340 mile canal that ran down from the Dnieper River all across Crimea.

BLOCK: They just turned the water off?

MACFARQUHAR: They just turned it off, yep. But they said they were helped a little bit by the rains, and also because the tourism is down, then the demand is down also. So they grew about what fruits and vegetables they needed.

BLOCK: Has there been a lot of outmigration. Do you hear about Ukrainians who lived in Crimea who decided to leave - leave for Ukraine?

MACFARQUHAR: You know, it's hard to characterize because it's just a little bit anecdotal. I was working with a student who was my Ukrainian translator and she's a graduate student at the university in political science, and she said, you know, half a dozen of professors in her department had left for Kiev. And the first time I was there, I interviewed the professor of a Ukrainian high school. And she had been harassed for not flying the Russian flag and been told to stop teaching Ukrainian even though the Constitution is supposed to preserve it as one of the official languages. She pulled up stakes and left. But some people are staying. You know, a lot of the Russians who lived there who voted for the annexation were, you know, military or retirees from the military, and they are obviously happy to be back in Russia and are staying.

BLOCK: Neil MacFarquhar is Moscow bureau chief for the New York Times. He's just back from a reporting trip to Crimea. Neil, thanks so much.


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