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‘I turn a blind eye to all that’ Explosions hit military targets in Crimea throughout August. Many Russian vacationers remain unbothered.
Story by Valeria Kholmova. Abridged translation by Eilish Hart.
As Russia’s all-out war against Ukraine reaches the six-month mark, the fighting has begun to spillover into Crimea. The peninsula, which Russia forcibly annexed from Ukraine in 2014, has seen a string of explosions throughout the month of August. On August 9, multiple blasts rocked the Russian military’s Saki Air Base in Novofedorivka; on August 16, another series of explosions went off at an ammunition depot near Mais’ke; on August 20, six to seven “flashes” and explosions were observed off the coast near Alupka; and another spate of blasts were reported in Sevastopol on August 20 and 21. Against this backdrop, Russia’s Association of Tour Operators recorded a 50 percent drop in the flow of tourists to Crimea. Be that as it may, many Russian vacationers haven’t been scared off — by all accounts, resorts and beaches are still packed.
‘I don’t feel any tension, to be honest’
The explosions at the ammunition depot near the village of Mais’ke began around 6:00 o’clock in the morning on August 16 and continued for several hours. According to Sergey Aksyonov, the Moscow-appointed head of Crimea, at least two people were injured and several residential buildings were damaged or burned down. The Russian Defense Ministry blamed Ukraine, calling the explosions an “act of sabotage.” Some 3,000 people were evacuated from the area.
The blasts also damaged the railroad that runs through the village, which tourists from Russia use to travel to the nearby town of Dzhankoy and Crimea’s second-largest city, Simferopol. As a result, the local authorities decided to stop all trains coming from Feodosia at the railway station in Vladyslavivka and have passengers continue along the route by bus.
The August 16 explosions marked the third time a Russian military facility in Crimea had been damaged over the summer. “When, on July 31, a drone exploded in the courtyard of the Black Sea Fleet’s headquarters, it was seen as a small-scale act by members of an unorganized underground,” wrote Pavel Aksenov, a defense correspondent for BBC News Russian. Six people were hospitalized as a result of the blast, which partially destroyed a wall and damaged the building’s windows and facade. Who was behind the attack remains unconfirmed.
The second spate of explosions occurred at a Russian military airfield in Novofedorivka on August 9. At least 14 people were injured and more than 60 apartment buildings were damaged. The blasts also destroyed a number of Russian warplanes. Aksyonov said that the victims would receive between 10,000 and 100,000 rubles ($166–$1,660) in compensation, depending on the extent of the damage. Though he didn’t specify how the damage would be assessed or when the money would be paid, Aksyonov did declare a state of emergency for the municipality.
Following the explosions on August 9, Novofedorivka residents reported traffic jams en route to the city of Yevpatoriya. According to Ukrainian media reports, Russians were leaving the Crimean Peninsula en masse and there were kilometers-long lines of traffic at the Kerch Strait Bridge for several days. But Sevastopol resident Darya told Meduza that she didn’t notice tourists leaving the city after the blasts.
Another source, Tatyana, said that on August 11 — two days after the explosions — there was a traffic jam at the Kerch Strait Bridge, but it wasn’t due to the number of outgoing vehicles. “On August 11, a relative was driving from Kerch to Anapa. There was a traffic jam [on the bridge] due to an accident. And in Sevastopol, due to roadwork. I wouldn’t say that everyone [the tourists] was leaving en masse,” she recalled. Tatyana came to Kerch on August 9, to visit her mother. She travels to Crimea with her husband and son every four years.
According to Tatyana, none of her friends tried to talk her out of visiting Crimea this year. “I don’t feel [any] tension in Kerch, to be honest. In the city everything’s fine,” Tatyana said. “By and large I don’t feel relaxed anywhere. I live in Tula, there are military factories there, and I think that if necessary, the opposing side [Ukraine] will blow up our factories,” she added. “But the [Kerch] Bridge, it seems to me, is more protected and, perhaps, it will be even safer here.”
On August 21, the Association of Tour Operators of Russia reported that the flow of tourists to Crimean resorts had halved, supposedly in connection with the end of the summer season — not the recent string of explosions.
‘I come here like I’m going to the dacha’
The Russian tourists in Crimea who spoke to Meduza had no intention of changing their holiday plans. They all wanted to finish out their vacations. Alexey, a 45-year-old Muscovite visiting Crimea with his son for the eighth year in a row, wasn’t put off by the ongoing war. The two were camping in tents on the seashore near Sudak. “I was never afraid [to come to Crimea] and I was absolutely unafraid this time too. There were no doubts about the trip,” Alexey maintained. The news about the explosions didn’t change anything, he said. Alexey and his son have been in Crimea for more than a month and a half and had no plans to go home yet.
Alexey insisted that nothing could stop him from visiting his favorite places, even if there were active hostilities in the area. “I turn a blind eye to all that, I don’t give a damn [about the explosions]. If I want [to], I go and relax. And as for what’s happening [in Crimea], well [I thought] we’ll go and figure it out on the spot. I don’t trust the media or anyone else, I only trust my own eyes.”
Dina, a 27-year-old blogger from Tolyatti, told Meduza that she was visiting Crimea for the third time this summer. “I come here like I’m going to the dacha,” she said. “My relatives [in Tolyatti] are a little worried about the fact that the [administrative] border [with Ukraine] is nearby, where the ‘special operation’ is going on. They were especially worried when there were bombings.”
Yulia, a 24-year-old advertising manager from the Tomsk region, was visiting Crimea for the third year in a row. Her parents enjoyed their last two trips to the peninsula so much that they decided to move to Crimea. Yulia and her friend were outfitting a house in Sevastopol for her family to move into. “Of course my relatives and I discussed the danger of explosions. But we aren’t panicking one bit. I think that everything will be fine, we have an excellent government, it won’t allow our civilians [Russian citizens] to suffer,” Yulia maintained.
Anna, a 37-year-old entrepreneur who lives in Moscow, was born in Crimea and loves vacationing on the peninsula. She and her family discussed the potential risks beforehand, but still made the decision to make the trip this year. Like Yulia, they put their faith in the Russian authorities. “My position is trust in what’s happening in the country, in the actions of the president. Therefore, I understood perfectly well that everything would be fine with the situation in Crimea,” Anna insisted.
‘I panicked at the first three bangs’
Alexey can’t quite remember how the news about the explosions reached him, but he said he reacted calmly. “I saw [the news] and moved on, I wasn’t especially interested in it. I’m on the seashore, the Internet here is really bad. So I don’t watch the news, I’m fine [without it],” he explained. Alexey attributed his indifference a general lack of interest in politics. “It’s none of my business […] I just didn’t think about it,” he stressed.
According to Alexey, there are far fewer vacationers in Crimea this year. But he hasn’t noticed any signs of panic among them. Local news media also didn’t publish any reports about traffic jams in Sudak or reactions from local residents and tourists.
“There was no tension until August 9 — until explosions started nine kilometers [five and half miles] away from me,” said Dina, the blogger, who was on the beach in Saki when the explosions hit the nearby air base. Dina immediately started recording a video and commenting on the blasts. The footage, which she posted on Instagram, shows some beachgoers looking at clouds of black smoke, while others continue to sunbathe and swim.
“I panicked at the first three bangs, I was afraid, although I’m not given to this. I always hold it together, I try to be calm,” Dina told Meduza. “When I realized that [the series of explosions] was happening in approximately the same place [and not getting closer] [...] I stopped worrying.”
The Russian Defense Ministry blamed the blasts on a “fire safety violation.” Although Kyiv did not claim responsibility officially, anonymous Ukrainian officials told Western journalists that Ukrainian forces were behind the attack. “Most of the locals and tourists are sure it was an act of sabotage,” Dina said.
Yulia, from Tomsk, spoke to Meduza from Sevastopol. She said she learned about the August 9 blasts from the news, but “didn’t panic one bit [or] worry.” “There’s some tension due to the fact that there’s a military airfield here. Fighter jets and helicopters fly over us very often,” she said when asked about the atmosphere in Sevastopol. “Of course, it’s slightly unpleasant, but what happened, happened.”
Anna, who was vacationing with her family in Pryberezhne — a village located about 10 kilometers (6 miles) from Novofedorivka — said she went to Simferopol on August 9 and didn’t witness the explosions. However, she remembered that the very next morning, people made their way to the beach in Pryberezhne and the hotel where she was staying was filled with tourists. According to Anna, no one even talked about the explosions — “everyone was living their lives.”
“My friend lives in Sevastopol and, after first, she said she was very overcome, [she even had] panic attacks. And then she decided that anything can happen, there’s no point in being afraid in advance, you need to proceed from the situation [at hand],” Tatyana recalled.
Tatyana visited Sevastopol on August 14. The city is located about 100 kilometers (62 miles) from the Saki airfield, but things were far from tense. “There’s also a big port there [in Sevastopol], but the atmosphere is absolutely resort-like: there’s a bunch of people on the embankment, the restaurants are open. There’s no warnings about danger anywhere […] everything was as usual,” Tatyana said.
‘One explosion isn’t so terrible’
After the explosions on August 9, Dina’s mother tried to convince her to leave Crimea, but she and her husband decided not to cut their vacation short. That said, Dina did begin to worry after the explosions in Mais’ke on August 16. “I watch both Ukrainian and Russian news. I saw a map with three points where [ammunition] depots are located, and two of them had already been blown up, and the third point is located literally a kilometer from the place where I’m living,” Dina said, laughing nervously.
Yulia said that she’s still helping her parents get ready to move to Crimea. “We wanted to move, so we’ll move. The [August 9] explosion was a a one off, if it had been a massive terrorist [attack], then of course we would’ve put the breaks on the move. But one explosion isn’t so terrible, I think,” she said.
Tatyana also has no plans to return home. “I’m more worried that sanctions are intensifying all over the world [and] the Schengen [Area] is being closed. Soon we won’t be going anywhere,” she said. “This is more unpleasant than explosions.”
“If I had known there would be explosions, I still would’ve come. If an explicit [attack] had already begun, the front line had moved, and [the Ukrainians were saying] that they want to conquer Crimea, then I would’ve thought twice,” Tatyana explained. She doesn’t believe there will be full-blown fighting in Crimea any time soon.
“[After the explosions] my friends asked how the atmosphere was in Crimea. We explained that everything is calm, everything is normal. Even the helicopters that were patrolling the area didn’t spoil the relaxation. If it was outright dangerous, we probably wouldn’t have gone, but on the peninsula everything is under control,” Anna concluded. “Overall, I recommend Crimea to everyone!”
Abridged translation by Eilish Hart
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