Happy Russians

03.18.15 9:15 AM ET

Putin Has a Sailor Cheerleader Fan Club in Crimea—and Quiet Opposition

In Sevastopol a year after the annexation, the girls who marched in sailor shirts and waved Putin signs are thrilled to be part of Russia. Others quietly rejected Russian passports.

In black tights, black boots, and a striped sailor shirt, her shiny hair framing her pretty face, 17-year-old Anna Gritsenko was a cool-looking kid. A future sociologist and political scientist, she hoped. From an early age she had danced hip-hop, admired Angelina Jolie, visited museums with her parents, and studied the fascinating history of her beloved hometown, Sevastopol. Gritsenko adored Vladimir Putin for his qualities as a leader, she said, for “establishing historical fairness” and making Sevastopol and Crimea part of Russia.

On April 25, 2014, Gritsenko and a few dozen other Crimean girls, dressed in sailor shirts and carrying portraits of Putin, marched through Sevastopol’s downtown. The girls called their group “Officers’ Daughters,” and their stunt was organized by the Kremlin-backed Russian youth movement “Set,” or Network. All pretty and under 25, the activists claimed to be daughters of current and former Ukrainian officers who had switched sides. Gritsenko, for her part, said her father quit the Ukrainian navy eight years ago. On Monday, she and two friends in the movement, Yelizaveta Kuksova, 24, and Diana Kun, 24, discussed Crimea’s new Russian ideology at their modern, upscale Sevastopol office overlooking the Black Sea.

So what is it that makes Russia different from the West, and how have the Officers’ Daughters contributed to transforming Crimea into Putin’s Russia? “In the West they have equal relations between men and women, while we Russian women recognize that men have more authority in families,” Kun said. Kuksova chimed in: “Feeling Russian is a state of one’s soul—there’s no need to be ethnically Russian. We feel patriotic, proud of our army, which defended us. We are working on creating an image of a Russian woman devoted to the president and to his ideology.” Gritsenko spoke last: “I think our common history and culture is what makes us Russian,” she said quietly.

Gritsenko knows her hometown’s history well. With teenage passion she described the yearlong siege of Sevastopol in 1854-1855 by British, French, Ottoman, and Sardinian forces—her history books referred to it as “the first defense.” As a child she liked to visit the Panorama museum, a round building perched over the bay whose walls feature a 375-foot-long painting by Franz Roubaud of a Crimean War battle. Then Gritsenko spoke of “the second defense,” the Siege of Sevastopol in 1941-1942. Hundreds of thousands of Russians died fighting for her hometown’s freedom in the two world wars. “This land is soaked in blood of heroic Russians. We call last spring’s events “the third defense of Sevastopol,” she said.

This week, as Crimea celebrated the first anniversary of its new history with Russia, most Crimean girls and boys felt proud and happy to be carrying Russian flags. To them, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland’s recent claim that Crimea is “suffering a reign of terror” was more than an exaggeration—it was an assault. “Every member of my family cried happy tears when Putin signed the order for Russia’s reunification with Crimea,” Gritsenko said. “We have no war here. We hope to be the generation that turns Russia into an independent and successful state.”

But there are still young, talented girls in Crimea who feel unhappy and isolated today. At least 3,000 of Crimea’s 2.4 million residents did not apply for Russian passports, staying faithful to their Ukrainian identity, to their political views. The change of status, flag, and ideology failed to change Anzhela Starovoitova’s mind. Her views shifted long ago, in 1997, when she spent a month in Britain studying psychology and critical thinking. On coming home, she threw herself into activism. The motto “Be the change you wish to see in the world” motivated Starovoitava’s charity work with Crimea’s homeless. For the last few years, she and her civic group, Foundations for Freedom, have organized dialogues to mediate social conflicts.

The roundtables organized by Foundations for Freedom were much needed, as Ukraine’s east and west traditionally had different interpretations of history and culture. “We brought together groups of people with contradicting values, discussed what it meant to think critically, to keep your mind open, try to see things from all angles,” Starovoitova said told The Daily Beast in a recent interview. By 2010, the two groups in Crimea, Russian and Ukrainian, already had “serious tensions,” she said, including arguments about Soviet and anti-Soviet monuments and memorials. “Since last January, because of pressure from the local authorities, it has become impossible to hold the roundtables in Crimea, so we moved our activities to Kiev,” she said.

Last spring, when thousands of locals in her hometown of Simferopol lined up to receive their Russian passports, she stood in a different line, for those who wanted to turn down Russian citizenship. “The annexation of Crimea was a deep, personal trauma for me,” Starovoitova, 37, said. “I felt hurt and lost when I saw my best friends—intellectuals, scientists, priests, and community leaders—leaving.” All of a sudden, life was full of bureaucratic complications: Free medical insurance could not be obtained without a Russian passport; crossing borders became more difficult. It was impossible for Starovoitova to conduct any banking transactions, withdraw cash, or pay Ukrainian taxes, but she was stubborn and continued to live proudly on her Ukrainian passport. “It is not for anybody, but me—I need to know who I am,” she said over a cup of coffee at a Simferopol cafe.

Even when it became clear that Crimea was not going to return to Ukraine anytime soon, the prospect of life in the minority did not scare Svitlana Gavrilenko, an attractive 24-year-old artist from Yalta, and her businessman-husband. In spite of all the moral and practical complications and pressure, they stayed in Crimea. “I identify myself as a Ukrainian living in Russia-occupied territory. I don’t like Putin and avoid speaking with people about him so as not to get disappointed and yelled at. I believe in democracy, in Western values. People like me live underground in Crimea,” said Gavrilenko.

Now spring has come to the peninsula. The first blossoms of the daffodils and apricot and peach trees dot the Crimean hills. The blue bays and picturesque landscape are firing the imaginations and creativity of modern artists the way they did dozens of Russia’s best poets and writers, from Anton Chekhov and Leo Tolstoy to Marina Tsvetaeva, Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam, and Joseph Brodsky. Most Russian intellectuals have visited Crimea at least once in their lives and felt happy on the peninsula.

But Crimea is beloved not only by Russians. The Ukrainian Gavrilenko could not leave Crimea because the peninsula itself made her happy, she said. “Ukraine has so many of its own issues, but without the annexation of Crimea, there would have never been a war in eastern Ukraine. People like me, Ukrainian freelance artists, designers, and IT programmers, live in Crimea and keep quiet about our thoughts, unable to leave because we do love this place,” she said.