On Saturday as the clock struck 10 p.m., a crowd in Simferopol, Crimea, watched as their railway station's clock was set forward two hours. It was now midnight in Crimea, as the peninsula formally joined Moscow's time zone. According to Reuters, as the clock was changed, those gathered began to sing the Russian national anthem. It was a proud moment for them.
The clock change was, of course, a symbol of the bigger shifts in the Crimean peninsula over the past few months. After the Euromaidan protests overthrew a pro-Russia government in Kiev, "self-defense troops" took to the streets in Crimea, and a referendum was quickly held that saw Crimea vote to leave Ukraine and join Russia. The change of the clocks is just a small part of the package; Moscow is already controlling Crimea's currency and paying government salaries in Crimea, and now it controls the time, too.
Perhaps it seems like one of the more mundane details, but time is a strangely political factor in Russia, a country which has nine time zones, more than any other on Earth. In recent years, the timing system has been changed country-wide once, and it may well be changed again soon.
Back in 2011, then-President Dimitry Medvedev decided to move Russia away from its daylight savings system (where the clocks change twice a year, like in the United States) to one of permanent summer time. Medvedev justified this move by citing a medical report that said that the number of heart attacks increase by 1.5 times and the rate of suicides grows by 66 percent in the period when clocks were changed.
Perhaps Medvedev's move sounded sensible, but it prompted a big backlash. Laptops and phones would change automatically, and in some regions of the country, the sun was reportedly rising at 9 a.m. at some points during the year. More broadly, Medvedev's clock move was seen as a last-ditch attempt to give his presidency a legacy. While a lot of Russian liberals had hoped that his presidency was a move away from Vladimir Putin's increasingly authoritarian style, by 2011, those hopes had been dashed, and it was clear Medvedev, for all his talk of modernizing Russia and fighting corruption, was at best a lame-duck president, and at worse a place-holder for Putin, his predecessor, successor and mentor.
Putin may not want Medvedev to have a legacy. Since he returned to the presidential office in 2012, there's been a lot of talk about possibly switching back to daylights savings time. In October 2012, Masha Gessen wrote about rumors that Putin and Medvedev had agreed to keep the clock change in place for one term, to save Medvedev from humiliation. In January 2014, a State Duma deputy put forward a law that would change the clocks again, but not back to daylights savings: Instead, the clocks would change to permanent winter time. “After a government consumer rights agency released data on the state of health in the country it is evident that nothing can compensate for the harm inflicted by the time scheme that currently exists in Russia,” Sergey Kalashnikov, the deputy behind the bill, said at the time.
It's perhaps fitting that not long after the clocks changed in Crimea, Medvedev, now prime minister, made a visit to Crimea, announcing that the area would become a "special economic zone" for Russia. As his own complicated legacy shows, changing the clocks can be a political act. Time zones are a remarkably simple way to effect every citizen's day-to-day life.
In Crimea, it remains to be seen exactly how the clock change will actually affect life – a sudden two-hour shift could well bring some complications. According to Agence France-Presse, local newspaper Krymskaya Gazeta has already warned that the clock change could lead to "health problems such as sleep disorder, apathy, depression and possible changes to the endocrine system."