Even before the official results of the referendum were announced on March 16, hundreds of people were walking around Simferopol, the Crimean peninsula capital, and celebrating. They waved Russian flags and chanted “Russia! Russia!” People even carried small children late into the chilly night, an unusual situation for a normally quiet provincial city.
Sitting on her father’s arms and carrying a small Russian flag, little Sofia said happily that she was allowed to cast her father's ballot for Russia.
“See how many people are smiling now on the streets,” said Aleksandr, who was also carrying his little daughter. “For 23 years spent in Ukraine, I have never seen so much joy in Simferopol." He would not give his full name for fear of retribution from his employer for voicing his opinion.
But when asked why they were so happy, not many people were able to explain their reasons for wanting to leave Ukraine. Many of them talked about nostalgic feelings.
“I voted for Russia, because I like Russia, I was born there,” said Yevheny Lukiyanchenko, an 18-year-old t-shirt printer, standing wrapped in a Russian flag.
His girlfriend Susanna Shefla, 18, who is studying to become a nurse, said her parents persuaded her to vote for joining Russia. “We have lived enough in Ukraine, with its anarchy and low salary,” she said. “And nurses in Russian make more than here.”
Tatiana, who earlier in the day refused to give her last name for fear of persecution on the way out of a polling station, said that she would like to join Russia together with all of Ukraine. “If we came to Russia together with Ukraine and Belarus it would be a new USSR, just like in my childhood,” she said. “That would be great.”
Daria Zhuravleva, a 27-year-old housewife and mother of three children, said there was no way back to Ukraine. She decided after seeing how Berkut policemen were been burned by Molotov cocktails that were thrown at them by EuroMaidan protesters, she said. “All these Ukrainian pop stars, who are now agitation for unity of Ukraine, where have they been when our Berkut boys were killed?” she said angrily.
A number of participants of the so-called AntiMaidan rally, opponents of the EuroMaidan Revolution that ousted President Viktor Yanukovych on Feb. 21, found shelter in Crimea. So did many members of the disbanded Berkut riot police units, known for their brutality towards protesters. Seen as criminals in Kyiv, both AntiMaidan participants and Berkut police officers are perceived in Crimea as victims of the brutality of EuroMaidan activists.
Thousands of Russian troops as well as paramilitary Russian-backed Cossack units that invaded the peninsula on Feb. 27 are also perceived by majority of people in Crimea not as foreign invaders but as those who help to protect and keep the order and prevent bloodshed.
Dozens of Cossacks guard the parliament of Crimea, which has been dissolved by the central government in Kyiv. It does not recognize the Crimean parliament's authority. Most admit they came from Kuban in southern Russia, but some say they are local volunteers. They admit they came to keep order. But at least one handed out leaflets with a portrait of Russian czar Nicolas II and a “prayer for war.”
“It was good day,” one of the Cossacks said, smiling on March 16.
Editor’s Note: This article has been produced for Kyivpost with support from the project www.mymedia.org.ua, financially supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark, and implemented by a joint venture between NIRAS and BBC Media Action.The content in this article may not necessarily reflect the views of the Danish government, NIRAS and BBC Action Media.