Back in the USSR? Spying and control in the new Crimea

Editor’s Note: The writer lives and works in Crimea and has asked CNN to protect their identity. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

Story highlights

Life under total surveillance and control now the norm in Crimea, says writer

Old Soviet practice of denunciation has become commonplace, he says

He writes: The harder life gets in Crimea, the more people support Putin

CNN  — 

How can I describe life in Crimea after a year under Russia’s control?

You start saying things like “Let’s not talk about this on the phone” and become careful about the Facebook pages you “like.”

Because total surveillance and control has become routine – like it was in the Soviet Union.

In just one year so much has been lost and many Crimeans seem to have forgotten rights that were part of everyone’s life.

There is a growing level of censorship, inequality and political repression of those who don’t agree with the government.

In everyday communication, Crimeans, including those who support Putin and Russia, have to think about what they do and say.

Denunciation is back

Thanks to the activities of the FSB (Russia’s secret police) denunciation – where a citizen tells the authorities about the wrongdoing of another – is popular again.

In the Soviet Union, especially in the late 1930s, denunciations written by Soviet citizens about their neighbors, friends and even relatives resulted in millions of victims in prisons and Gulag camps.

Now in Crimea, no one feels safe. Anyone who doesn’t like you can write a denunciation and the next day you will take part in a “joyful” conversation with the security services.

Significant changes have also taking place in the most basic of rights, like freedom of movement.

Now, there are two borders manned by armed – and sometimes angry – men who always have questions about where you are going and why you want to pass.

Who left, who came?

For ethnic Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars, things have been very difficult and thousands fled to mainland Ukraine in the first months after annexation.

Their fears were confirmed when Ukrainian activists and young Tatars began to disappear. Some were later found dead, others are still missing.

Ukrainian patriots also left in the first month or two after occupation – it would have been dangerous and uncomfortable to continue living on the peninsula.

The next wave of migrants were those who hoped to adjust to the new rules, but could not. They started leaving when it became clear that things would get worse economically and politically.

They have been replaced by a new set of arrivals from Russia: Officials, police, FSB and other authorities.

After annexation, many who had worked for the Ukrainian government in the police, army and security services swapped allegiances to the Russian side.

The Kremlin was happy to have them but has put special stamps the new recruit’s personal files, which say they are “inclined to betrayal.”

Economics and everyday life

One of the main arguments of pro-Russian locals is that the average salary in Russia is much higher.

Indeed, since annexation, salaries have increased, especially in the public institutions like hospitals and schools.

The salary increases caused a kind of post-referendum euphoria, which quickly fizzled in late 2014 when a strong dollar meant higher prices for everything from food to gadgets.

Then wages were cut again, by anywhere from 30% to 70% depending on the industry.

Many doctors and teachers were greatly dissatisfied with wage cuts, but no one protested because in Russia, you must obtain permission for a public assembly. Of course, permission is mostly given to people or organizations loyal to the Kremlin.

Tourism, a formerly dependable income source for many Crimeans, has been hit very hard. More than half of all tourists who used to visit Crimea in the summer were Ukrainian and last year tourism was down by 50%.

Last summer, the peninsula was empty and many hotel owners had almost no customers.

The future is unclear

Despite of the deteriorating economic and human rights situation, many of those who were for the annexation of Crimea continue to support Russia.

As strange as it may sound, the harder life becomes here in Crimea, the more people support Putin and hate Ukraine.

In a little over a year, the Russian propaganda machine has turned Ukraine from “brother state” to Russia’s main enemy.

For some Crimeans 2014 was a year of tragedy and farewell to their homeland. Others saw a dream realized.

What things will look like in another year is unclear, but what is clear is that nothing will be the same again.