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Once There Was a Great Russian Strongman Named Vladimir...


SEVASTOPOL, Ukraine—In Sunday's referendum, 123 percent of the Sevastopol electorate voted to join Russia. The turnout in the port city’s main square Tuesday to watch of President Vladimir Putin’s televised announcement of the annexation of Crimea was much less impressive. But the 500 or so people who stood in the spring sunshine, as Putin detailed a Western plot against Russia aided by “national traitors,” made up for their weak showing with enthusiasm.

Putin's speech was sprinkled with irony, as the man who crushed Chechnya supported Crimea’s right to self-determination. It was garnished with nonsense, as he praised Ukrainian territorial integrity while stealing a bit of Ukraine. It was baked hard, and served cold—which may sound unappetising, but the locals ate it up. They cheered so hard they scared the pigeons, particularly when he called Sevastopol a “legend-city, a city of great destiny, a fortress city.”

My favorite reference, however, was one that passed little notice by my neighbors in the crowd. It was to Chersonesos, an ancient Greek settlement on the edge of today’s Sevastopol. Chersonesos was the first place where another man named Vladimir decided to alter the way Russians approach the world. I had gone there Tuesday morning, before Putin's speech, and gazed into the mud-floored basin where in 988 Prince Vladimir—now known as Saint Vladimir—of Kievan Rus was baptized into Orthodox Christianity, thus giving Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus the faith they follow to this day.

It is a lovely place, full of ruins and set on a gentle hill above the turquoise waters of the Black Sea. It smelled of pines, was wafted by a sea breeze, and is topped by a handsome church with a gold dome. It felt more akin to Sicily or Crete than the austere lands to the north. I had it all to myself, but in 988, this was a bustling Greek town, where traders shipped in wine and fancy goods, and shipped out salted fish and slaves.

Chersonesos was a Dark Ages Hong Kong, perched on the edge of a vast continent, its inhabitants making money as middlemen, satisfying the desires of clients over the seas and its neighbours inland.

For the pagan Russian barbarians from the forestlands around Kiev, Chersonesos symbolized the warmth and wealth of the civilized world, the greatness of its laws, the steadiness of its institutions. When Prince Vladimir came here to have water poured on his head, he made a civilizational choice. Russians would integrate to the world, and he brought in monks and bishops to teach it how. He sent an army to help the Byzantine emperor against troublesome invaders, and the emperor gave him a princess to marry in return. It is because of her that the Russian crest is a Byzantine double-headed eagle. Indeed, that crest was directly to Putin’s left during his speech from Moscow.

On my bus from Chersonesos into central Sevastopol I got lectured by Ilya, the driver, about how Russia’s actions in Crimea were no different to those of Western countries in Kosovo, the Falkland Islands, Scotland. “You know the Holy Trinity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost? You can’t separate them. It’s the same with our peoples, you can’t separate Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia,” he told me as his aged bus juddered up the hill into town. This appears to be a viewpoint that Putin shares, though it is one I have never heard from a Ukrainian or a Belarussian.

“We are not just close neighbors,” Putin said in the speech. “We are practically, as I have said many times, one nation. Kiev is the mother of Russian cities, of ancient Russia. It is our common cradle, we cannot live without each other.” He had nothing against the Ukrainians, he said, or against Ukraine; quite the opposite, it was just that he really wanted Crimea, and he was going to take it. For Putin, Crimea is not a Hong Kong—a gateway to the rest of the world, where foreign people and their ways are welcome. It is more like Gibraltar, a strategic fortress where foreigners are suspect and foreign ways rejected.

Judging by the two elderly women next to me in the crowd in Sevastopol—Yelena Yevdokimova, who waved a Russian flag, and her friend Galina Vinokurova—this was absolutely fine with them. “We cried with fear before, and now we cry with happiness,” Yevdokimova said.

Considering they had just been cheering Putin’s wholesale rejection of everything the West had done since the collapse of the Soviet Union—its arrogance, its irresponsibility, its refusal to respect Russia’s viewpoint—the women were surprisingly happy to talk to me. It had not occurred to them that the prince who first took Russia to Crimea, and the president who just took Crimea for Russia, were both called Vladimir. They laughed delightedly when I pointed it out. “We’ll tell everyone that now,” Vinokurova said.

History has bestowed on Prince Vladimir the adjective “Great”: for opening Russia, for civilizing it, for making it part of the world. It is too early to know what adjective will be applied to this second Vladimir, to the president who effectively just declared a new Cold War, but I suspect history will be less enthusiastic about someone who has done so much to drive Russia into international isolation. I certainly doubt anyone will be praying—as a woman in a white headscarf was in Saint Vladimir’s church Tuesday morning—before an icon of him a thousand years from now.