“There were these young men, sitting in a bar, loud, drinking and laughing. One of them said ‘We are unlucky; if our stupid grandfathers had not won the war we would drinking good German beer instead of this piss’. Then they laughed again, can you imagine?” Nicolai Bogoluyvov shook his head, the recollection from the visit to Kiev still making him visibly angry.
He had served in the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan and had the campaign medals on his dusty brown overcoat to prove it. His father had been wounded fighting Hitler’s troops, an uncle died in the advance to Berlin. Late last night the former artillery sergeant was haunched beside a fire, in the field outside an Ukrainian army base, in support of Russian troops seeking to disarm the garrison inside.
The stand-off at Perevalne had drawn crowds throughout yesterday afternoon from both sides of the bitter divide in Crimea, the majority of whose population, of Russian extraction, are expected to vote in a referendum for secession from Ukraine, paving the way for rule by Moscow.
Heated arguments and a few scuffles had taken place, without interference from the Russian and Ukrainian soldiers outside and inside the gates. Now just a handful of opposing protesters were left, separated by the width of the stretch of road into the base, and very different views on Ukraine’s place in the world.
Those showing solidarity with the soldiers inside were a mixed group of women and men and two priests. The clerics, from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, stressed that they desperately hoped for peace; their voices in prayer floated across to the Russian supporters, almost all of them men. Some of these did not looking much different from rednecks in America, florid faced, tattooed, beer bellies hanging over their jeans and combat trousers. Instead of castigating "pinkoes and commies and the media" their grouse was against "Nazis and fascists and the media".
The complaint here was that the views of those who wanted to unite with Russia, their birthright, were being ignored, while the "criminals of the Maidan", Kiev’s Independence Square, which had been the centre of protests which overthrew Viktor Yanukovych, were being lauded as heroes.
There is, indeed an argument that the views of the Russian speakers on the streets had not been adequately expressed in international press and broadcasting. Some of those beside the fire were too drunk and bellicose to do so last night, but they quietened down when the old soldier Mr Bogoluyvov told them to do so.
As well as what he saw as the treacherous views exemplified by the young men in the Kiev bar, Mr Bogoluyvov was keen to remind the West of what was at stake. “Maybe people in London and Paris have also forgotten about the fight against the Nazis; but you still need Russia for Syria, there’ll be no settlement, peace, in Syria without us.”
Another man, Vladimir Churkin, an engineer, suggested loudly that people should go and join President Assad’s forces to beat al-Qa’ida. “America and Britain made a big mistake supporting them in Afghanistan, they are making a big mistake supporting them in Syria, and now they are supporting the fascists in the Maidan and the Muslim extremists right here”. The last reference was to the Crimean Tartars, who are vehemently opposed to joining Moscow.
Speaking later, Father Ivan, the parish priest of St Mary Pakrova Savatoi, a church next to the garrison gate, keeping vigil in the Ukrainian "peace camp", stressed there was little evidence of radicalization in the Tartar community: “But it is easy in this atmosphere, as you know, to say your opponents are devils. Then ugly words turn into ugly action, that is what we really fear.”