Interview with Mikhail Chaliy, the brother of Aleksey Chaliy, who took an active part in the Sevastopol uprising in 2014, the year in which in fact the Crimea’s return to Russia began.
Mikhail, unlike Aleksey, was always somewhat in the shadows, but in the days of February 2014 he did great organizational work, ensuring the functioning of the transitional government and preserving the city’s life support systems.
The Word and The Deed. Mikhail Chaliy: “We were running across a burning bridge”
Journalistic materials, like children, have differing births: some ‘deliveries’ go easily and without pain, others in torment—for yet others, one has to resort to extraordinary measures. For this material, I had to resort to such extraordinary measures. To wit—I had to tell Mikhail Chaliy, to whom Sevastopolitans need no introduction, some obvious nonsense. Perhaps it was not quite ethical. But much of what has been said here was said only due to the fact that Mikhail Mikhailovich ‘buttoned up’, and was not prepared to talk about the difficulties he experienced…
“You acted more than right”
Looking back at February 23, 2014, all of the people of Sevastopol whom I had the chance to talk to, told me about the incredible relief that came to replace the uncertainty and fear. The rally on Nakhimov Square showed that the city was united and intended to fight. Most importantly, there were those who were willing to take responsibility for making decisions. And these weren’t some random, mindless citizens [Russian idiom “without king in the head” –trans.], but people who had a proven loyalty to Sevastopol and an ability to do real work, rather than just empty tongue-wagging. The proof of this was the rally itself.
Aleksey Chaliy did not promise citizens a life of ease—he said that the situation was critical, that every hour counted, and he left the tribune with the words “I’m off to work.” These words affected the people more than some optimistic promises from anyone else’s lips could have done: some of the participants of the meeting tried to convey their feelings using the eloquent expression “otpustilo” [relieved, lifted a burden –trans.].
But it’s one thing to know that someone reliable has taken responsibility on himself—it’s absolutely another thing to feel that burden on one’s own shoulders. Only the very naive could suggest that the rally put Aleksey Chaliy himself and his closest associates into a state of euphoria. Taking on this particular role allowed me to hear a candid account of how the protagonists of history actually feel in reality.
“I want you to understand how things actually happened and under what conditions we acted.
“On February 22 and in the first half of the next day there was a feeling of impending catastrophe. To anyone who knows Sevastopol and its people, it was clear that there would be a massacre, because the Banderites have their own bones to pick with our city. Up until February 22 we still had hope that Yanukovich would create an alternative government in the south-east of Ukraine, and we prepared the resolution of the meeting correspondingly—regarding our accession to the South-East. But it soon became clear that there would be nothing of the kind because Yanukovich had fled. All the regional, district and city councils, including those in Crimea, swore allegiance to the junta. The Sevastopol authorities showed no determination to resist either—they vacillated, argued amongst themselves, while time passed like sand through the fingers. The internet was riddled with reports that on February 23 the evacuation of the Russian fleet had begun. There was also “official information” being spread about an American warship entering our waters. The atmosphere was very tough—as if an enormous leaden cloud was hanging over Sevastopol.
“Events were developing from bad to worse, but we knew that it was necessary to act under the most difficult, the most odious and unfavourable circumstances, because otherwise the Pravoseki [Praviy Sektor militants –ed.] would have come here and they wouldn’t have stood on ceremony with Sevastopol or with Sevastopolitans. We didn’t expect any help either—the story of the 1991 referendum and subsequent events didn’t give any grounds for that. So any nonsense, even the creation of a city-state, seemed more realistic than the hope that we could become part of Russia. After the meeting on February 23 ended, everyone was well aware that in the case of unfavourable developments, payback for what we were doing would not be long in coming. The state machine which we were opposing could run us over without batting an eyelid. So, we didn’t have any euphoria, we couldn’t have!
“I remember it well, immediately after the meeting, as soon as people began to disperse, we moved to the inner courtyard of the Navy Sports Club. There were six of us, a light rain was falling… Going to the administration building would have been pointless—without reinforcements we would just have been sent packing. The first thing I did—I turned to the former head of the department of the state security service in Sevastopol, Lyosha Kabeletskiy [Lyosha, diminutive form of Aleksey –ed.], who knew all the security structures in the city, and appealed to him to provide security to Aleksey Mikhailovich [i.e Aleksey Mikhailovich Chaliy –ed.].”
“I responded that they had until the morning: during the night the Ukrainian special services would come to their senses and everything would be over. Therefore it was necessary to immediately run and knock on the doors of whatever Russian military unit—it was impossible to ensure the safety of Aleksey Mikhailovich and the others who ‘came to light’ at the rally of the leaders in any other way. Opposing them on the one hand were the Ukrainian authorities, on the other—the militants by whose hands the ‘revolution of dignity’ was made. Those people did what they wanted and they went unpunished. Going to the meeting, I saw one such group—a dozen guys in tracksuits. That’s why at the end of the rally I was really scared—Aleksey Mikhailovich and his team seemed really defenceless.
“There is one important point I want to make here. Everyone who participated in the ‘Russian Spring’ has their own story and all of them are great lads. But giving an opinion or shouting it out in the crowd—it’s not much of an achievement. Someone’s presence at a rally is meaningless—they can always say they weren’t speaking ‘for’ it but ‘against’ it, they just weren’t heard. And if Vasya or Petya say the opposite, then it’s just slander. You can even stand relatively quietly at the roadblocks if nobody knows you. The only one who truly takes a risk in this situation is the one who identifies himself, that is, the one who ascends the tribune and openly declares himself and his intentions. It’s like stepping off a cliff, after which there’s no turning back. Especially if we’re talking of a famous person, known by everyone in the city. Give me the name of at least one public figure who would identify himself thus in the first days! Later, when it became clear that there wouldn’t be any beatings, other heroes appeared. And then…”
“And then Lyosha Kabeletskiy said that we needed to take our families and run to the Russian military, and then evacuate to Russia with their help. But nobody did so, and we continued to be guarded by two men, one of whom had a traumatic pistol [a pistol firing supposedly non-lethal rubber or steel rounds –ed.] and the other a combat Makarov. I knew Lyosha’s advice was of no use, because it’s impossible to intimidate Aleksey Mikhailovich. Also, it was unimaginable that he would abandon the people who believed in him. A huge plus was the fact that everything we had done in previous years—supporting pro-Russian movements, the 35th Battery [the restoration and conversion into a museum of the so-called Maksim Gorky Fortress, north of Sevastopol, in which Aleksey Chaliy played a large role –ed.], all our resistance to the Ukrainization of the city—my brother had managed to organize it so that we were out of sight of the Ukrainian security forces. Those who shouted too loudly and tore the shirts on their chests, they surveilled them and realized that they weren’t serious. But we never sought publicity, our work was ‘encrypted’ [Russian slang meaning “unnoticed, without attracting attention” –trans.], so we went unseen. Well, he built some crazy memorial—obviously there’s nothing for a man to do. Well, he published textbooks on Sevastopol Studies—nonsense. And suddenly on February 23 we went, in all our glory, under the cameras…
“So when you say that after the rally everything was good, it’s complete nonsense. We had only the smallest chance to sneak between the raindrops and somehow navigate out of this situation. That whole month we were following some kind of intuition at the edge of consciousness—it was like a running across a burning bridge that’s collapsing behind you. And you can never turn around or slow down, otherwise the abyss will swallow you up. Later, very serious specialists told me: you didn’t act right, you acted more than right. Because if you’d acted according to the rules, you wouldn’t have succeeded…”
Not to be victims
The state machine would really have easily crushed those who stood in its way if it had not been for the people of the city. Only because of the unity and organization of the people who hurried to the centre of the city at the first call did the attempt to arrest Aleksey Chaliy fail and the session of the City Council take place where the deputies confirmed his authority as the head of the executive power. The most tragicomic now is that some of the People’s Deputies of that time who in every possible way tried to prevent this, and who threatened the People’s Mayor with severe penalties, are already writing “heroic memoirs” of those days.
But let’s not get distracted. The people of Sevastopol began to fight for the right not to act as resigned victims much earlier—soon after the well-known events began to unfold on Maidan. There were, of course, also optimists who didn’t take another bout of Ukrainian infighting very seriously. But it soon became clear to us that it would not come to any good.
“We couldn’t just wait for the Pravoseki to arrive in Sevastopol and start to make everyone kowtow to them. The people of Sevastopol are unique, many also have a military background, so the citizens started to organize themselves into self-defence groups. But their level of organization was very variable. There are several categories of self-defence units, and anything lower than the third category has no chance of survival in a collision with organized enemy forces. And the highest of them, in addition to requiring self-organization, implies communication and direct contact with the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Exactly the kind of unit we had created back in January. Prior to that, we had thoroughly studied the experience of Bishkek—at that time the most recent experience connected with mass riots and killings. The main conclusion drawn from that study: trying to sit things out in one’s own courtyard, taking a double-barrel in your hands and letting the dog off the leash—it’s no more than a complicated method of suicide. Imagine—there are three hundred courtyards in the street, in each of them frightened people have locked themselves in. A gang of twenty people takes one yard, slaughters the family and the dog, and then goes to the next house. And like that the whole street is destroyed. But if those three hundred people with hundred guns came together, they would have gone through this gang like a hot knife through butter…
“We really were prepared to defend our families, our city, and if necessary, to evacuate people and to provide cover. There were many such groups at different levels of organization in Sevastopol. After February 23, when it became clear to everyone that there were people capable of taking control of events, we didn’t lack people wanting to help. On the contrary, we had more than enough. The unity of the city was incredible, just crazy, it’s true.
“I had a genuine problem—as soon as I appeared on the street, people would grab me by the hands and offer their own solutions for saving Sevastopol from the villains. If I had listened to them all, it would have taken exactly twenty-four hours a day. Which is to say, the activity of the helpers was such that it also had to be digested. Organizing the people, many of whom had never even taken an oath was difficult. But it worked out. I think what helped was that at the time all the people of Sevastopol wanted the same thing. Also, this greatly helped to avoid misunderstandings.
“Many had come to the rescue of Sevastopol even from other cities. Some offered material aid, others just came and asked—what do you need us to do? There were also Ukrainians among the non-citizens, for each of whom it was an act of state treason. Unfortunately there were also those who from the beginning expected to receive from this fantastic event the maximum dividends, to monetize patriotism. You could spot them straight away—they’d only display frantic activity when the TV cameras appeared. Eventually I simply forbade them from entering the government building, because their aim was obvious. But it only surfaced later, once we had started to win. During the first five or six days, when the danger was real, everyone, including thieves, prostitutes and scoundrels abandoned their bad ways and went to the barricades. Observing people on February 24, I didn’t see a mob, but a highly organized group of people. Even transport went among them normally—when the bus appeared, everyone parted, let it pass, and then closed ranks again. The people became the power in Sevastopol, that’s why we won. But they didn’t in Odessa, because no worthy leader was found…”