From Troubled Water: A Journey Around the Black Sea, by Jens Mühling (Armchair Traveller series; Haus, 2022), Kindle pp. 12-14:
I have a very clear memory of the moment the Black Sea suddenly moved from the margins to the forefront of European perception.
I was on a pleasure cruise around Sevastopol’s harbour in March 2014. Less than a fortnight earlier, Russian soldiers had appeared in Crimea and surrounded Ukrainian barracks. Although their uniforms bore no insignia or rank, no one had any doubts about where they came from. Parliament had been dissolved and replaced with puppets under the Kremlin’s orders, a hastily arranged referendum on Crimea’s integration into the Russian Federation had been announced for the next day, and Ukrainian and Russian warships were facing off in the harbour – and yet tour boats continued to ply their trade between the destroyers as if everything were completely normal.
I had travelled to Sevastopol as a journalist to report on the act of political piracy that was taking place. I had no idea at the time that in 1773, not far from that same harbour, on the south-western coast of Crimea, Jan Hendrik van Kinsbergen had laid the groundwork for Catherine the Great’s annexation of the peninsula. All I knew was that I was witnessing Russia’s second annexation of Crimea.
The tour boat passed close to the warships’ towering grey hulls. The Ukrainian and Russian Black Sea fleets still shared the port in that tense time before the Crimean referendum, and I had hoped that out on the water I might gain a better understanding of their muddled positions. The boat was full of Russians from Sevastopol, high on alcohol and patriotism, who made no secret of the fact that they wished a plague on the Ukrainians.
‘Fascists!’ they roared at the ships flying blue-and-yellow flags. For weeks now, Russian propaganda had constantly dubbed all Ukrainians fascists. The same old story, I thought. A country on the warpath in search of some barbarians to fight. One man stood slightly apart from the others by the railing, staring silently out to sea. He was the only person apart from me who didn’t join in with the shouting. As we disembarked at the end of our tour, I approached him to enquire why he was there.
‘To say goodbye to the sea,’ he said tersely.
He was a Tatar. He had been born in Uzbekistan after his parents were deported under Stalin, and only when the Soviet Union collapsed, and Crimea and the rest of Ukraine gained its independence, had he been at liberty to return to the land of his ancestors.
‘Now the Russians are taking over again,’ he said gloomily. ‘I’m not going to wait for them to expel us a second time. My wife has family in Ankara. The day after tomorrow, we’re going to put the kids in the car and leave.’ His lips twisted into a bitter smile. ‘It won’t be the first time we’ve had to start from scratch.’