Victory Day has always been a big thing on Crimea and now it is even bigger. Contrary to a growing majority in Ukraine, Crimea didn’t turn its back on the sacrifice made by the Soviet Union to defeat the Nazi occupiers and liberate the occupied countries including Crimea. I am told that the past 2 celebrations on Victory Day were even bigger events than normally because now this historical event is also seen as celebration of the reunification with Russia and the sacred oath of Russia to always defend Crimea as it has done so many times, too many times, in the past. There is however a day which has an even stronger emotional value for the Crimean population and that is Naval Day. It is said that every citizen of Crimea has at least 1 family member who serves or served in the Navy. The Black Sea Fleet with its home-base on Crimea in its different roles and size over the path of history, has always been of high importance to the rulers of Russia, from the Russian Tsars to the Soviet Union, and post-Soviet leaders of Russia. The Black Sea Fleet was the main point of negotiation and tension between Ukraine and Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union and the main pressure point for the USA during this phase. Some even suggest that access to the Crimean naval bases was the main reason for the USA to be involved in the Ukrainian Revolution last year and I tend to agree with that argumentation.
The Black Sea Fleet and its power base in the Black Sea and neighboring countries was also the reason that Crimea was attacked and occupied over and over again. During the Crimean War by British, French and Italian forces with support of the falling Ottoman Empire. During World War I by the German Empire. During the Russian Revolution after Crimea declaring itself a Soviet Republic by the White Army with support of British, French, Italian, Greek and Croatian Forces. During World War II by Nazi German, Romanian, Italian and Slovak and Croatian Forces. All these occupations have several things in common. Sevastopol and its surrounding natural fortified bases were always the main objective for the occupiers and Sevastopol was always the last city to fall after massive destruction by the attackers. On all occasions, the attackers and occupiers were joined by elements of Ukrainian and Tatar militias. And every occupation of Crimea showed severe ethnic cleansing against the native Russian population, reaching its dark and diabolical height during the occupation by Nazi forces. And it was always the Navy that took the last stance to defend Crimea and its population. It was always the Navy that undertook dangerous missions to evacuate civilians for approaching enemies. And during all occupations by the enemies of Crimea, it was always the Navy that made the first effort to liberate Crimea again. The Navy also played a major role in securing the referendum and reunification last year. So it is only understandable that the Navy is a big thing for Crimea and the Crimean population.
Because Sevastopol is the stronghold of the Black Sea Navy and my parents served there, we decided to celebrate Naval Day there. The demonstrations were fantastic and the fireworks were amazing. But there is something else, something much more important. Something moving which shows the real relationship between the Navy and Crimea. The crowds are of course filled with people proudly wearing their Naval Uniform, just like on Marine Vloot Dag in The Netherlands which I visit when i can. But here on Crimea, I witnessed something which I have never seen before and which moved my literally to tears. It is the respectful way full of gratitude in which the Navy veterans are treated by the rest of the crowd. Proudly wearing their uniforms and medals, they are the center of attention from all visitors, old and young. People thank them, give them flowers. Crowds move aside to make place for a veteran passing by, people give up their perfect spot to make place for a veteran who wants to see the show and fireworks. And people proudly show pictures of their family members who served in the Navy.
My sweet Aunt, a Naval Nurse for decades and proud instructor of young nurses, shined in her white Navy Uniform and was handed more flowers than she could carry. People stopped her and kindly, yes even respectfully asked if they could take her picture which was mostly followed by the request if they could take a picture with her. And my Aunt enjoyed the attention, every beautiful second of it. After the celebration, we were invited to a late night supper and reunion of some of her former colleagues. I was impressed to learn that many have come to Crimea from other places just to celebrate Naval Day in the place where they have served. Among them were several Ukrainian Navy veterans who returned to Crimea and Sevastopol for that day. And after seeing what I witnessed on that beautiful day, I wasn’t the least surprised about it, just impressed.
The center of attention during the reunion was a Navy Veteran in his mid-nineties, his old Uniform covered in Soviet medals. My Aunt told me that he was one of the few survivors of the Navy Riffle Brigade which defended Sevastopol against assaulting Nazis and escaped captivity to join the Partisan movement during the occupation. Both of us in a wheelchair, we automatically got connected when we had to visit the restroom at the same time and I tried to greet him respectfully in the little Russian that I have learned so far. He responded in English with a charming but heavy accent and told me that he speaks “my language” after serving many postwar years as a Naval Attaché around the world. When I explained him that I have Dutch nationality, he swarmed about our Navy and our Naval history, citing battles won by the Dutch Navy centuries ago. He told me something about the Russian Flag I wasn’t aware of before. Originally installed as a Naval Flag for the Russian Navy, inspired by the Dutch Flag because Katarina the Great was impressed by the Dutch Navy and hired several Naval experts from The Netherlands to strengthen her Fleet, it later became a symbol for Russia and Russian identity. With a smile and wink, he told me to be extra proud of seeing the Russian Flag because it also is a little bit our Flag and a tribute to the Dutch contributions to the Russian Navy.
After more talks and some drinks, I decided to do something which a rarely do. I proudly showed him the picture of my parents in their Navy Uniforms, the only picture of them I have before I was born. My beautiful mother with flowers she got from my proud father, her arm linked in his. He looked at the picture and told me that he already knew “you are one of us, why didn’t you join the Navy in your country?”. Let’s just say that the vodka shot we took to salute my parents caused the tears in my eyes. We talked more and I am formally invited to celebrate Russian Naval Day with him next year. I hope and pray that this wonderful man will still be alive next year. One way or the other, I will have a drink on him next year in Sevastopol!
The Russian Navy isn’t just celebrated and admired during Naval Day on Crimea. Signs of respect and appreciation for the Russian Navy throughout history can be seen everywhere. Many musea and monuments are dedicated to the sacrifices and contributions made by the Navy. This might also partially explain the strong emotional ties between Crimea and Odessa, once the other main base of the Black Sea Fleet and historically the main supplier of servicemen and women in the Crimean based Black Sea Fleet. Nobody on Crimea seems to have forgotten that the Odessa based Fleet escaped Nazi occupation to form the main defense of Crimea and Sevastopol, which also had the main contribution in evacuating civilians when the defense of Sevastopol was in the final days. Nor did anyone forgot the sacrifices by Odessa’s Naval Personnel in doing so.
Crimea isn’t just proud of its Navy and its history. Crimea expresses respect and gratitude for the contributions and sacrifices made by its Navy, from far gone history to recent times. The Russian Navy has always been and will always be part of Crimea and Crimea shows respect and gratitude like only Crimea can. And many countries should learn something from that!
Welcome home Crimea, welcome home Russian Navy!