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A uniformed man believed to be a Russian soldier stands guard near a Ukrainian military base in the village of Perevalnoye, outside Simferopol, March 6, 2014. (VASILY FEDOSENKO/REUTERS)
A uniformed man believed to be a Russian soldier stands guard near a Ukrainian military base in the village of Perevalnoye, outside Simferopol, March 6, 2014. (VASILY FEDOSENKO/REUTERS)

How Ukrainian loyalists are bearing the brunt of Russia’s intervention Add to ...

COMMUNISTS GATHER UNDER LENIN’S STATUE SHOUTING, “RUSSIA! RUSSIA!”

Driving through Simferopol, we come across a small gathering of Communists waving hammer-and-sickle flags and standing next to a small red tent bearing the words “Ukraine’s Choice.”

Fittingly, it’s in Lenin Square, one of the city’s main gathering places, where a giant statue of a founding father of communism stands as the centrepiece. Today someone has affixed a small handwritten sign at the bottom: “Hands off our leader.” It’s a reference to other cities in Ukraine where statues of Lenin have been defaced or torn down during the recent uprising against pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych, who has been ousted.

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Inside the tent, a pair of women hand out literature for the referendum slated for March 16 on the future of Crimea. The pamphlets decry Crimea’s fortunes within Ukraine – how more money flows to the capital, Kiev, than comes back and how the territory would be better off on its own or as part of Russia.

Practically no one here supports the new government in Kiev or membership in the European Union or the Maidan, as the protest movement against Mr. Yanukovych has been called. For these people, the Maidan was led by extremists who took control of the government illegally and kicked out the duly elected president. That message has been reinforced on billboards across the city that depict a helmet-clad Maidan protester wearing a gas mask and hurling a Molotov cocktail with the words “No to foreign interference.”

The heroes here are Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Russian army, which has come to save Crimea from the Maidan fascists. “Russia guarantees our independence,” says one of the demonstrators, Tanya Krotova, who adds that she adores Mr. Putin.

One woman shouts that Mr. Putin is a dictator – which is good because only a dictator can solve the problems facing Crimea. When approached by a reporter, she refuses to speak, telling a friend that the media are liars.

After a while, a group of people show up with a couple of Russian flags. The crowd gathers behind the flags and shouts: “Russia! Russia!”

Few doubt the outcome of the referendum, which will ask Crimeans whether they want to stay in Ukraine or join Russia. Crimea is largely Russian-speaking, and much of the population has an affinity for their eastern neighbour. The Crimean government has already asked Russia to take over the peninsula, over the objections of Kiev, and Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has announced plans to ease citizenship requirements for people who live in former Soviet republics.

As the sun sets, the group picks up a flag and begins an impromptu march down a city street, continuing its pro-Russia chants. The march is warmly received, with several cars honking. “We are Russians,” one man says. “Not Ukrainians.”

PRO-RUSSIAN FORCE MEMBERS BURST INTO NEWSROOM

Sergey Mokrushin was at his desk in the newsroom of the Centre for Investigative Journalism in central Simferopol last Saturday when frantic calls started coming in from colleagues in Kiev.

They are coming to take over your office, the friends said in panicked voices, citing video they had just seen online. Suddenly, Mr. Mokrushin heard a crowd of people running up the stairs to the centre’s third-floor office. Then there was the sound of breaking glass and shouting.

The men, about 50 in total, were part of a newly formed “self-defence” force – a pro-Russian group that has started patrolling streets and standing guard over Crimean government buildings. Their main duty lately has been to form lines in front of Russian soldiers, preventing anyone, particularly reporters, from getting too close. They abhor those who express support for Ukraine, calling most “provocateurs,” and they’ve become more intolerant of independent media outlets like the centre, which gets most of its funding from the United States, Europe and Ukraine.

While Mr. Mokrushin and his colleagues cowered in another room behind a locked door, the men denounced the centre for not telling the truth and made a show of putting on their own press conference. They eventually left, and the newsroom went back to work, publishing critical articles on the centre’s website and producing two television news programs.

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