By ANDREW HIGGINS MARCH 6, 2014
SEVASTOPOL, Ukraine — Drawing on his experiences as a young artillery officer in imperial Russia’s military during the 1853-56 Crimean War, Leo Tolstoy described in “Sevastopol Sketches” how a wounded Russian soldier whose leg had been amputated above the knee coped with agonizing pain.
“The chief thing, your honor, is not to think,” Tolstoy’s amputee remarked, “If you don’t think, it is nothing much. It mostly all comes from thinking.”
It is advice, however, that virtually nobody in Crimea,particularly not here in Sevastopol, shows any sign of heeding. With nearly every other street named after a Russian general or a gruesome battle, its lovely seafront promenade dominated by a “monument to sunken ships” and its central square named after the imperial admiral who commanded Russian forces against French, British and Turkish troops in the 19th century, Sevastopol constantly feeds thoughts of war and its agonies.
Bombarded with reminders of the Crimean War, which involved a yearlong siege of the city, and World War II, when the city doggedly resisted Nazi forces until finally falling in July 1942, Sevastopol has never stopped thinking about wartime losses — and has never been able to cope with the amputation carried out in 1954 by the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.
Wielding a pen instead of a knife, Khrushchev ordered Sevastopol and the rest of the Crimea transferred to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. At the time, the operation caused little pain, as both Russia and Ukraine belonged to the Soviet Union, which chloroformed ethnic, linguistic and cultural divisions with repression.
When Ukraine became a separate independent nation at the end of 1991, however, Sevastopol — the home of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet since the 18th century — began howling, culminating in the Crimean Parliament’s decision on Thursday to hold a referendum on March 16 on whether to break away from Ukraine and become formally part of Russia once again.
Here's an analogy for the way Russians see Crimea, especially Sevastopol. Say your family has owned a beautiful vacation property on the beach for generations where many of your family's memories were written. Years ago your new bride so charmed your grandmother that grandma rewrote her will to leave it to her personally. That seemed like a sweet, meaningless gesture because you were hitched for life, right?
But years after grandma died, the company you'd started went under and your wife left you. Since you got divorced, your ex-wife has been letting you use the beach house about as often as you can get away, so it hasn't really been an issue. And your mutual children will inherit it, right? And, now that you are back on your feet financially, you figured it was only a matter of time until you won her back.
But you just heard your ex-wife wants to marry your arch-rival in business, the man who ruined your company, especially with all the underhanded things he did after you agreed to sell an interest to him. He's incredibly pushy and entitled, so you can just picture him never letting you use the beach house, and then leaving it to all his kids from his first wife, or maybe they'll have some kids of their own. Whatever he's scheming it's got you hot under the collar.
So, you break into the summer house on the beach and now you are in there. You figure your ex-wife and her new husband aren't brave enough to throw you out physically, and if they try to take you to court, you can always publicize all the bad things her new husband has done over the years to get so rich.
Sounds like a plan, right? (Okay, admittedly, you've been drinking kind of heavily since you heard the news about your ex-wife, but, like the song advises, you've sent for lawyers, guns, and money, so what could possibly go wrong?)