SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine — On the eve of the Crimean referendum, while the world anxiously awaited the climax of Ukraine’s political drama, I went to Simferopol’s Crimea Russian Drama Theater to see a production of Nikolai Gogol’s The Government Inspector. In spite of the tension in the city, in spite of the insolent men in military fatigues patrolling every street and intersection, the house was still half-full that Saturday evening, with families, couples and groups of high-school students occupying the plush seats under a gorgeous, blue-edged, floral-and-butterfly-themed ceiling.
The plot of The Government Inspector is classic bitter Russian satire: A new arrival in a provincial, corrupt town — an imperious young man named Khlestakov — is mistaken by local officials for an important government inspector from St. Petersburg, sent incognito to examine the town’s affairs. The terrified mayor and his cronies immediately grovel before him, offering bribes and favours. The town merchants, believing Khlestakov a real inspector with the power to finally clean up their town, also court him. At the end of the play, the ruse is revealed, but too late: Having taken advantage of everyone, Khlestakov suddenly departs, never to be seen again. In the final act, the real government inspector arrives.
I did not stay until the end of the play. In the intermission, I checked my Twitter account and discovered with alarm that anonymous masked men, armed with automatic weapons, had barged into Hotel Moscow in Simferopol, where most of the international journalists covering the referendum — many of them my friends — were staying. I grabbed my jacket from the cloakroom and rushed out of the theater back to my hotel to meet my photographer, Boryana Katsarova, so we could decide what to do next. It seemed that on the eve of the referendum, the Crimean authorities, prodded by the Russians, had recklessly decided to carry out a crackdown on the international media. My fear was not completely unfounded: A few days earlier, Boryana and I had come across another group of armed masked men, as well as a few Cossacks, who were raiding an Associated Press TV studio in downtown Simferopol right in the middle of the day. Seeing us filming, they pounced on us, throwing me to the ground and putting a gun to my head. They took away my smartphone, and yanked away Boryana’s camera, before jumping into a white van with no licence plates, speeding away with our (and the AP’s) equipment.
Back at my hotel, I met a wild-eyed Boryana. We opened our laptops and began following the messages streaming in over social media from Hotel Moscow, half-expecting commandos to rush into our own place any second. Nobody knew exactly what was going on, and the information was getting weirder by the minute: There were a dozen masked men with silenced assault rifles going through the hotel floors; they were either Berkut, the elite police corps responsible for many of the civilian deaths in Kiev, or maybe the Ukrainian Alfa special forces unit. Some of them were wearing fatigues, while others were plainclothes; some were masked, others were not. They were looking for an armed criminal; no, it was all just a training exercise; they were looking for an armed criminal, but had been acting on false information; no, it was all just a drill. As Simon Shuster, a reporter for Time staying at the hotel, tweeted: "In Russian gangster parlance what happened tonight at the hotel could be called a [mask show]. Crimea, welcome to Russia!"
In some ways, all of what has unfolded in Crimea over the past few weeks has been a different kind of mask show — a Gogolian theater play. The peninsula has thrown itself at the feet of a man from Moscow, giving him all they have with no second thoughts, imagining that he’ll be able to work it all out for them, sort out all their troubles. The opening act was action packed: In Crimea, on Feb. 26, scores of phantom troops with no insignia, pretending to be local forces protecting the population from phantom fascists, took over the entire peninsula, gradually securing government institutions, vital infrastructure, transport networks, and army bases. In the second — more melodramatic — act, the new prime minister of Crimea, Sergey Aksyonov, appealed to his older and stronger brother, Vladimir Putin, to help ensure peace in his small Crimean kingdom by the sea. In the third act, our hero — or is he the villain in disguise? — rushes to the rescue. It is the kind of plot that Vladimir Propp, the early 20th-century Russian scholar known for breaking down his country’s folk tales into their most vital components, would recognize immediately.
All Crimea’s a stage and all Crimeans merely players: from the pro-Russian "self-defence units," who strut up and down the streets in their mismatched fatigues and red armbands, to the local teenagers who never spent a day in the USSR but guilelessly wrap themselves up in red Soviet flags and listen to Soviet marches, to the Crimean Tatars who try to stage a kind of counter-theater with their own rather defenseless self-defence units. The referendum itself, which took place on Sunday and resulted in over 96 per cent support for a union with the Russian Federation, was nothing more than theater-of-the-absurd: A group of people pretending to make a choice and others pretending to scrutinize the fairness of that choice, while in fact there was no choice at all. In a sense, even we, the journalists reporting from Crimea, are at times complicit in that theater by pretending we are covering a real event — as problematic as the term "real" is — rather than a staged one. The poet Coleridge once called this condition "suspension of disbelief": the ability of a person to suspend judgment about the implausibility of a given narrative in order to participate more fully in its magic.
Yet not everything is theater in Crimea. Sunday night, after the referendum, I stood at Simferopol’s Lenin Square with thousands of people of all ages waving Russian flags and shouting "Russia! Russia! Russia!" On a large brightly-lit stage at the back of the square, famous musicians and dancers entertained the people, who danced along and embraced each other, singing Russian songs until their voices went hoarse. There were tears in the eyes of many, and not simply for the cameras. The joy seemed genuine, heartfelt, though certainly also fueled by substantial amounts of vodka and beer. People were happy not because they were drinking, but were drinking because they were happy.
For many of them this was a national fairy tale come true: the return home, homeward, domoj. The tropes around which we build so many plays — the prodigal son returning, humble and penitent, to his father’s house; the discovery of the Promised Land after years of wandering in the desert — these are not simply plot lines, but narratives deeply rooted in our collective memory. To call them theater would be to diminish something of what makes us all human.
The joy may not last long. The play may be drawing to a close, but the final act remains to be seen. Will the residents of Crimea prosper? Or will they, too, be swindled by their government inspector? Worth keeping in mind: Russian literature is not known for its happy endings.
This project is funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.