In the spring of 2010 I was on a train from Simferopol to Sumy, in Eastern Ukraine. I didn’t see much of Simferopol – it is the capital of Crimea, but it is inland, a town of administration, big buildings and airports and train stations, not a place where tourists linger. I had just spent five days with a British tour of southern Crimea, viewing the well-known historical treasures in the region of Yalta, the spectacular scenery. Then the tour abandoned me, as planned, to return to London, and I stayed on, feeling vulnerable, adventurous, very much alone with my limited Russian and my eagerness to explore, to be no longer the tourist but the traveler.
The train was old, Soviet-era, seemed to hold together with layers of paint. I had the compartment to myself; our guide had explained this was the only way to make a reservation from outside Ukraine. I looked forward to the long, overnight journey – Sumy is in the northeast, beyond Kharkiv – and to the solitude, after five days with ebullient, gregarious fellow travelers.
A short while after we left Simferopol a young man came into the compartment. I was reluctant to talk, given my rusty command of the language, and I was worried about how long he intended to stay; but after a few awkward minutes he asked where I was going, heard my accent, was intrigued, and the conversation began.
He had come from Sevastopol, where he was taking a course, learning to be a sailor, and was heading to Dzhankoy, a town in northern Crimea, which was where he was from. He told me he had an uncle in Saint Petersburg, and was hoping to find work through him once he finished his course; prospects were bleak in Ukraine, he said. He was discreet, thoughtful, serious, almost shy. Blond with blue eyes. He condemned the government (Yanukovich had been elected four months earlier) for their corrupt extravagance, for their ability to spend $50,000 on their official vehicles when the average Ukrainian was earning $200 a month. I missed some of what he said, tried to answer his questions about California or Switzerland. Before he left the train, perhaps forty-five minutes or an hour later, he told me his name was Andrei.
When I was younger I had many such encounters with strangers on trains, but they grow rarer as you get older, and the opportunities don’t arise as frequently; people on planes don’t like to talk. And how often are you on a train from Simferopol to Sumy… (The following year, the same tour operator with whom I had visited Yalta tried to organize the same journey to Sumy – and their train was cancelled.)
It’s not that Andrei and I had a deep philosophical conversation, or that there had been any kind of special connection, or regret when he arrived in Dzhankoy. I was actually relieved to have the compartment to myself again; the provodnitsa came in soon thereafter to make up my berth, and I fell asleep to the comforting lull of train tracks, waking now and again when we stopped in a major town.
But I haven’t forgotten him – perhaps because it was such a rare, unexpected encounter. And now it seems to contain so many elements of the terrible, tense situation unfolding in Crimea – the young Russian-speaking Ukrainian with family in Russia; the connection to Sevastopol; his youth, ripe for military picking.
I wonder where he is now. Perhaps safely on his uncle’s ship, ferrying Russian goods to China or Western Europe; perhaps standing in line in a recruitment office somewhere in Ukraine, about to be issued with a uniform and a weapon. Or perhaps still in Crimea, one of those polite, anonymous pro-Russian militia who have occupied government buildings, surrounded the airports, the Ukrainian bases. I would not recognize him, but I wonder which side he is on.
If we could continue the conversation, I expect he would tell me that Crimea is Russian, is Russia. I might agree with him up to a point, but say that there is a problem with that, that legally Crimea now belongs to Ukraine. Is within Ukraine’s sovereign, inviolable borders. Perhaps there could be a referendum, let the Crimeans decide for themselves? Would he say, who are the Crimeans? Would he tell me only the Russians, because historically Crimea belonged to Russia from the time of Catherine the Great until 1954? But wait, I would say, what about the ethnic Ukrainians, and the Tatars: minorities who must be allowed their say, and their guarantee of security; he might reply that they no longer belonged there, because they supported the new government in Kiev/Kyiv. On the other hand he might see the possibility of peaceful continuity, of remaining an autonomous part of Ukraine, with respect for both the original inhabitants (the Tatars) and the newcomers (the Russians and the Ukrainians). He might testify that he has always been well-treated as a Russian speaker/ethnic Russian in Ukraine and that there is no reason why that should change; or he might argue violently, along with Vladimir Putin, that the current government in Kyiv/Kiev is not legitimate, that it is made up of fascists and, according to the Russian media (perhaps his uncle is watching television in Petersburg and has been calling to warn him) that Russians are in danger not just in Crimea but all through Eastern Ukraine; this was, after all, Putin’s pretext for invading Georgia.
Would Andrei agree with me that Putin is just looking for a pretext to enlarge the borders of his empire? That the media in Sotchi inflated his ego and made him more power-hungry than ever, and he knows he can do what he likes with impunity? Or would he say I have misunderstood, that Vladimir Vladimirovich is a great leader who has restored pride to the Russian people and made Russia a great nation again?
Would he listen if I said, How proud will you be if every country on earth turns against you now? Would he – fair enough – throw the long list of my own government’s sins back in my face for Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Vietnam? Is that ever a valid argument for justifying incursion into another sovereign country?
We could argue the differences and similarities between autocracy and democracy all the way to Sumy. Between nationalism and enlightenment. It wouldn’t stop the guns, or even necessarily further understanding. No train ride is long enough for that.
But I would like to take that train ride again someday, or at least to know I can take it. Above all, I would like to know that Andrei, and millions of young men like him, will have other prospects in life than those Vladimir Putin is offering them.