”The man called the police and said: “Slava Ukraini! Putin khuylo!” The person was fed up.” The head of the “Crimean Platform” Maria Tomak talks about mobilization, torture and partisans in the Crimea

Oksana Rasulova
Tetyana Lohvynenko
”The man called the police and said: “Slava Ukraini! Putin khuylo!” The person was fed up.” The head of the “Crimean Platform” Maria Tomak talks about mobilization, torture and partisans in the Crimea

Kateryna Bandus / «Бабель»

In 2014, Russia occupied Crimea. In eight years, it actually destroyed any manifestations of Ukrainianness there, began repression against the Crimean Tatars, connected the peninsula with mainland Russia via the Crimean bridge and turned it into a military base. And on February 24 of this year, Crimea became one of the bridgeheads for the Russian offensive against Ukraine. However, it turned out that even after eight years of occupation, Russia does not have total support there — the locals began to express their disagreement with a full-scale invasion. Anonymous leaflets with threats to the occupiers, yellow-blue paints, and manicures in the national colors of Ukraine appeared in Crimea. People went out on single pickets and smashed cars which have “Z” symbols on them. A year before the full-scale invasion, Ukraine founded the “Crimean Platform”. Its goal is to bring the de-occupation of Crimea closer by non-military means. Human rights activist Maria Tomak headed it in January 2022. Since the beginning of the invasion, she and her team have been studying Russiaʼs new war crimes in Crimea, monitoring the movement of the Ukrainian resistance and communicating a lot with those who remain on the peninsula. In a conversation with “Babel” journalist Oksana Rasulova, Tomak told how Crimeans oppose the war, how Russia uses the peninsula to occupy mainland Ukraine, and what is more important than the partisan movement.

What role does Crimea play in the war now, after February 24?

I would mention four key aspects.

First: Crimea is a Russian military base. Everything is now focused on the offensive. Missiles are flying from the waters of the Black Sea, planes can fire missiles at [mainland Ukraine] from the Crimean airspace. Russia also uses civil infrastructure — hospitals, morgues, railways. Crimea has turned into a military machine that serves the Russian Federation.

The second aspect: Crimea became a springboard for an attack on the Kherson oblast. The occupiers expected that they would be greeted with flowers and that everyone would immediately run to cooperate, but no one wants to. Therefore, personnel are sent from Crimea to Kherson oblast. Teachers are being taken to retrain Kherson educators for the Russian program. Kherson teachers refused to go to Crimea for "reforging". Also, Crimean "journalists" are taken to "press tours" in the Kherson oblast. Russia is trying to build bridges between the oblast and Crimea in order to swallow the region more easily.

The third aspect: Russia uses Crimea as a "gray zone" to transport and sell Ukrainian grain, mainly from the Kherson oblast. The occupiers rob farmers and agricultural companies and take everything to Crimea, where they falsify documents, clearing the "Ukrainian trail". Grain flows to the Mediterranean — to Syria and, it seems, to Turkey. Ukrainian law enforcement agencies are already investigating several cases: violation of the entry regime and, more seriously, a possible war crime, since the Russians are exporting bread from the occupied territory.

At the same time, Crimean or Russian products are brought to Kherson, which are 3-4 times more expensive than Ukrainian products used to be. People from the south of the oblast regularly go to Crimea for food. And on the peninsula, Kherson vegetables and fruits are sold for nothing.

Getty Images / «Babel'»

Crimea is also used for the "transit" of people from the occupied territories.

Yes, this is the fourth aspect: Crimea as a hub for illegally displaced persons. People from Mariupol or the southeastern regions could not leave for territories under the control of the Ukrainian government. So someone went to Russia through “Donetsk/Luhansk Peopleʼs Republics” or Crimea.

The Crimean "border guards" refused to let one family from Mariupol through until they signed a ready-made "testimony" addressed to the Russian Federation, which describes on 20 pages “how Ukrainian Nazis fire on civilians”. The same thing happened in 2014-2015 in Donbas. People are forced to sign these documents.

You mentioned that Russia uses Crimea as a resource base for its offensive. Are people being mobilized into the Russian army there, as is the case in the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts?

The situation cannot be compared with the occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, where it is full of horror. But there is illegal conscription in Crimea. Over 8 years, about 34,000 people were drafted there. Some of them have already served, but quite a lot of people are currently in the Russian army. There are people who sign a contract there, and there are traitors who defected to Russia in 2014.

Russian propaganda has always worked in Crimea, starting from kindergartens, schools, and the "YunArmia". But now it has become extremely toxic. For example, shelters on the territory of Crimea for "refugees" are closed, they are guarded. It seems to me that this is done so that these people do not communicate with the locals and do not spread the truth about the war.

Now we are looking for information from open sources about how the participants of the "special military operation" are hidden in Crimea. There are more than 100 such people. Approximately half of them are citizens of Ukraine. Mostly sailors and marines of the Black Sea Fleet of the Russian Federation were among the dead. Most of them are from Sevastopol. We donʼt know the exact data, because Russians often recognize a person not as dead, but as "missing", as was the case with "Moscow" cruiser. This allows to avoid payments to the families of the dead. Relatives of some of the dead, such as Yehor Shkrebets, demand justice. This is very sad to watch. I am surprised that people expect justice — not only from Russia, but also in the occupied territory. There will be no such thing.

One of the most popular appeals to us is "how to avoid mobilization in Crimea". Often this is the same as "how to leave Crimea". Back in February, we developed instructions on how to avoid the draft. The best thing is to disappear from all radars. But covert mobilization in Crimea concerns not only the armed forces. This includes the transition of industry, infrastructure, and administrations to military lines. For example, doctors are taken from Crimea as "volunteers" to “D/LPR”. That is, people go to the front. It is difficult to distinguish this from actual mobilization.

Russia uses Crimeaʼs resources very brutally. And I agree with the opinion that the same will happen in other occupied regions. This is a classic of colonial politics. And there is another aspect to this — activists and prisoners of war are taken to Crimea from the Kherson oblast.

Letʼs talk about it in more detail. How massively does it happen, how is the process organized? Who exactly is being taken to Crimea?

We know for sure only about individual cases. For example, Denys Myronov, an activist and former soldier, was kidnapped in Kherson, brutally beaten and brought to Crimea, where he died.

Activist and former military man Denys Mironov

Facebook / Vadim Chervonoshtan

People are being held in at least two places in Simferopol and Sevastopol. We know from three sources that kidnapped activists and prisoners of war from the Kherson oblast are brought to the pre-trial detention center in Simferopol to a separate wing called the "monastery". They are brutally tortured there.

In Sevastopol, we have not yet established where the kidnapped are being held. One of the sources said that it was a barracks of an educational institution, to the windows of which bars were welded. I think that there are not enough places for this in Crimea. Although there is a whole system of temporary detention centers.

Is it comparable in scale to "Isolation" in Donetsk?

Yes, it can be compared with what happened and is happening in “D/LPR”.

During eight years of occupation, the Russians repressed the Crimean Tatars on the peninsula. There are also large Crimean Tatar communities in the Kherson oblast. Do the occupiers treat them more harshly than the rest of the population in these territories?

Yes. They are perceived as a disloyal category along with the categories of "journalists" or "activists". Crimean Tatars in the Kherson oblast are regularly searched. They are kidnapped and taken to the territory of Crimea. But, unlike the rest, their detention is documented. At least four such cases are known. Documents are drawn up as if these people were detained in Crimea under Article 208 of the Russian Criminal Code. The reason is allegedly participation in the battalion named after Noman Chelebidzhikhan, which is recognized as a terrorist organization in the Russian Federation.

I donʼt know what is "better" in this situation. People who were abducted "unofficially" may be treated worse — but they have chances for a quick exchange. For the Crimean Tatars under Article 208, this will be possible in the best case after the "court verdict".

Maria Tomak


Is there resistance in Crimea after February 24?

Now we can talk about a separate wave of anti-war actions and statements. It is difficult to call it protests, because these are isolated manifestations, about 100 recorded cases. And the form of resistance is very different — blue and yellow manicure, ribbons, postcards, graffiti, personal messages, posts and videos on social networks, "No war" signs, posters.

We try not to come into contact with the protesters on our own, so as not to expose them to danger. We learn about them mainly from the court register. For example, from cases related to the discrediting of the armed forces of the Russian Federation. These are mainly administrative cases, the punishment for which is limited to a fine, but there is also a threat of criminal liability, because this article also appeared in the Criminal Code. Other articles are also used — terrorism, vandalism, damage to property, hooliganism.

These cases mostly involve people we didnʼt know before. Of course, there are those who went to solidarity actions for eight years. But now people for whom this is something new are protesting. They did not express their position, and then, for example, they saw the news from Bucha. Or the woman went on a picket because her daughter lives in Irpin. It seems to me that people are pushed to protest by personal contacts with mainland Ukraine.

Can we that there is a network of "Crimean partisans"?

I would like to say so, but I think it is unlikely. Individual actions are partisanship, but not a network. Although there may be connections between some activists.

Perhaps it is bad that there is no partisan network in Crimea, but it amazes me. For eight years, Russia “poured concrete” over it and intimidated people. Officially, approximately 52,000 residents left the peninsula — primarily opponents of the occupation. The fact that those who remained spontaneously signal their support is as if a person was crushed by stones, and he or she is trying to raise her voice from under the rubble: "We are alive, we are waiting for the deoccupation of Crimea." To be honest, it really inspires me.

Is this resistance greater than you expected?

It is not possible for us to provide a statistically perfect picture. The main reason is that Crimea is occupied. In the Russian Federation itself, 80% of respondents refuse to participate in public opinion polls, I think this number is even higher on the occupied peninsula. Hysteria has already started there, and pro-Ukrainian people cannot stand it and are leaving. They are threatened — I think this is done by the FSB, but they pass it off as threats from "ordinary people".

I think that if Crimea had not been occupied for the past eight years, there would have been the same resistance as there is now in the Kherson oblast. In 2014, we did not have such an army, a government that would have the trust of citizens, such a developed civil society. Crimea then simply had no one to rely on.

Activists at a pro-Ukrainian rally in Simferopol. March 8, 2014

Getty Images / «Babel'»

You used the word "hysteria" when referring to the atmosphere on the peninsula. How does propaganda in Crimea differ from propaganda in Russia?

In Crimea, propaganda is now pouring out of every pillow. Ukrainian media are blocked there, and you need to have special tools to get true information. I assume that it is the same on the territory of Russia. But I know that the people who have decided to leave now donʼt want their children to be in that environment. It used to be possible to endure or avoid it, but now it is not. In schools, "heroes of special operation" are honored, "patriotic lessons" are held, and we received several presentations for schools proposed by the Russians. This is just Putinʼs speech, translated into childrenʼs language. The genocide of Ukrainians has already been sewn into it — they point that there is no Ukraine and there should not be, there is no Ukrainian people, there are only Nazis.

You mentioned communication with people in Crimea. How do they experience such participation in this war?

Maybe I have a professional bias, but the fact of the invasion as such did not impress me. But many people in Crimea were affected by this — even more than the occupation of the peninsula in 2014. Someone was struck by February 24, someone by Bucha. And if people who lived under the occupation for eight years are so affected and forced to suffer by the rocket attack on Kyiv, it means that they have a sense of involvement. Obviously, they were not pro-Russian all this time — they simply lived and did not express their own position.

To me, the situation with Crimea now reminds me of the Euromaidan — in 2013 society was shocked by violence on November 30, and on December 1, a lot of people took to the streets, although the authorities planned to scare everyone. Occupied Crimea began to react to the war, and I feel solidarity and sympathy from these people. They donʼt just say "hold on" — they are complicit, because this is their country. This live human response is more important to me than a partisan network.

We donʼt even know about many manifestations of solidarity. For example, one of the activists said that a man was with him in the place of detention, who called the local police and said: "Slava Ukraini! Purin khuilo!". The person was simply fed up with everything. He was arrested for this, but we would never have known about it from the court registers. And Iʼm even sorry for that. We will probably find out about the scale of resistance already after the deoccupation of Crimea.

We are trying to maintain interest in the peninsula at the international level. But against the background of the general flow, this is a drop in the ocean. All these talks about territorial compromises are not always concrete, but we understand that they mean, first of all, to cede Crimea. Of course, this is unacceptable for Ukraine, and the president stated this. It is clear that Russia will hold on to Crimea. Without it, their imperial myth cannot be preserved.

Translated from Ukrainian by Anton Semyzhenko.

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