KIEV, UKRAINE — Even if you don’t know the lyrics, the state anthem of the Russian Federation is one of the most stirring national anthems ever written. This week, on assignment in Crimea, I heard it in full rousing splendor, sung by a chorus of uniformed young men standing at attention, and I had to catch myself from being swept up in the moment.
It was almost midnight on Sunday, in a vast plaza dominated by a statue of Lenin, with banners waving and fireworks exploding. Officials announced that 1.2 million Crimean voters had just chosen, by 97 percent to 3 percent, to become part of the Russian Federation. Women screamed with joy, and elderly veterans saluted.
Onstage were a pair of Crimean politicians who had just been thrust from right-wing obscurity to the center of Moscow’s new triumph. They grinned for the cameras and struggled to sing along, but then gave up after a few verses. The words hardly mattered; the anthem had already done its work.
For nearly two weeks, I watched and listened as the Crimean capital of Simferopol was filled with patriotic songs from World War II, posters and broadcasts promising that life in Russia would be secure and prosperous, and warnings that a new fascist threat from Kiev was at the door. And virtually every ethnic Russian I met seemed to believe it.
Retirees shopping for potatoes and carrots were overcome with gratitude that their pensions would be higher under Russian rule. Middle-aged women trembled with delight at the prospect of returning to their ethnic motherland. Some were hostile to me at first, saying the Western media had distorted the truth. Others grabbed my hand and asked me to tell the world how thankful they were to Vladimir Putin for saving them.
Putin, of course, is the elected president of a post-Soviet Russia, but he is also a former senior officer in the Soviet Union’s feared state intelligence service, the KGB. He has publicly lamented the demise of the USSR as “a major geopolitical disaster of the century,” and he has been criticized in the current crisis as behaving more like a Soviet intelligence boss than a major head of state.
Over and over, I kept wondering how Crimean Russians had managed to block out a half-century of hardship and repression under the Soviet rule that ended in 1991. It was as if the endless lines, the stony bureaucrats, the labor camps, the Afghan war, the pressure to conform and betray — none of that had ever happened. Their only complaint was that Nikita Khrushchev had given Crimea away in 1954.
Occasionally, I met someone who questioned the official line but never anyone willing to be fully identified. One was a stocky former soldier in his 50s named Volodya who was downing shots of vodka between bites of potato salad at a working-class cafe. “They say my pension will go up, but so will this meal,” he said. “People in a crowd tend to hear slogans and get excited. Analysis comes later.”
At a fancier, Western-style jazz bar, an insurance company executive named Slavo told me he was planning to move his office to another city in Ukraine, partly from concerns about new rules and red tape, but partly because he feared the advent of Moscow officials and the rise of their Crimean lieutenants would bring more aggressive and corrupt methods of doing business.
Despite his cynicism, he confided that his parents had been won over by the barrage of pro-Russian propaganda warning of fascist threats from Kiev. “They told me to be careful and not to associate with people there,” he said with chagrin. “It is like a demon that possesses people and they are no longer able to think.”
But the only Crimeans willing to publicly point out the uglier side of Soviet history were the small minority that opposed the referendum to rejoin Russia, especially the Muslim Tatars who had been forcibly exiled by Joseph Stalin in the 1940s. (Simferopol, I noticed, was full of monuments and plaques honoring Lenin, the father of communist theory, but none of Stalin, its brutal enforcer.)
I met many Tatar families during my time in Crimea, all of which had honed permanent narratives of Soviet victimization while rebuilding their lives in an independent, Westernizing Ukraine. They were the only Crimeans I heard use the word “gulag,” and many of their protest posters spelled it in capital letters. In many worried conversations, they warned of repression to come.
As the referendum approached, the capital was calm, but the streets were filled with a swelling number of stocky security men on corners and outside government facilities. Some wore signature Cossack fur hats and greatcoats, some wore masks and unidentifiable green military uniforms, and others were vigilantes in leather jackets and boots.
For the most part, they stood around looking tough, but their mere presence was intimidating, and they seemed to gain power by the day, especially after the official referendum results were announced. On Monday, a squad of armed men took over a large hotel where many foreign journalists were staying, pointing guns at them and confiscating camera equipment before they left.
On Tuesday, word spread that the body of a missing Tatar activist had been found dumped in a rural forest, naked and showing signs of violence. That afternoon, I drove to a Muslim cemetery outside the city where hundreds of Tatars had gathered to mourn and bury the murdered man, who had last been seen being taken away by unidentified security enforcers at a March 3 protest rally.
That evening, as I drove back to my hotel and prepared to catch a night train out of Crimea, I passed an official building with a metal grilled gate, where people had taped up posters saying, “Where are the missing?” A few minutes later, I turned a corner and saw a young man with his hands up, being hustled by a group of hefty civilians into a white windowless van with no license plates.
I tried to remember the tune of the Russian national anthem, which for a brief moment that week had filled me with sheepish patriotic inspiration, but it had vanished from my memory.