March 9, 2014, marked the 200th anniversary of the great poet, writer, and artist. That date was more than just a milestone birthday. It was a day when hundreds of Ukrainians came out to protest against the Russian occupation of Crimea near the monuments of Taras Shevchenko in Simferopol and Sevastopol. This was just the beginning.
The "little green men" were blocking the Ukrainian military bases, and there were lots of Russian state flags on the streets. Unknown people had already abducted Reshat Ametov, a first victim of the Russian occupation. In this kind of environment, a celebration of the 200th anniversary of Taras Shevchenko was more than just a symbolic statement that Crimea is Ukraine. Of course, this date was very uncomfortable for the occupants. The monuments to Shevchenko were the places of concentration of Crimean pro-Ukrainian forces. Protestors recited Shevchenko's poetry, sang the Ukrainian anthem. Back then, not all Crimean residents understood that Russia is incompatible with the freedom of speech.
Roughly half an hour after the beginning of the protest in Sevastopol, several Russian flags appeared among the Ukrainian flags of the protestors. Then pro-Russian activists, armed with bats and whips, attacked the Ukrainian protestors. Out of around 200 participants, several dozen received injuries of various severity. Some of the attackers were Russian Cossacks. That same day near Taras Shevchenko's monument, members of the so-called "Russian block," dressed up in camouflage, attacked a correspondent of the internet channel "Spilno-TV" Lidiia Hyzhva. Lidia was thrown to the ground. The attackers took away her mobile phone, which she used to record the attack. Lidiia Huzhva also informed that the attackers took away a driver's license from her colleague. Huzhva further said that people who attacked her had been brought in an organized way. The attackers wore no insignias. Some of them were armed and belonged to a so-called "Russian block" or a pro-Russian "self-defense."
Besides, that same day members of the pro-Russian "self-defense" abducted the coordinators of the movement "Euromaidan-Crimea" Andrii Shchekun and Anatolii Kovalski near the Simferopol railway station. In addition, in Bakhchisaray, lieutenant colonel Volodymyr Sadovyk became a victim of abduction. Three activists, Olena Maksymenko, Kateryna Butko, and Shura Riazantseva, were detained in Armiansk.
This was a hard day, but back then, it was at least possible to sing Ukrainian songs in Crimea.
A year later, in 2015, the situation was completely different. Crimea spent a year under occupation, and of course, this had its influence. Everything Ukrainian became forbidden. All mass demonstrations became forbidden. According to the Russian legislation, all mass demonstrations or protests need to be approved by the government. This includes information about the date, time, place, format, and number of participants. Therefore, a demonstration near the monument to Taras Shevchenko got forbidden. However, Ukrainian activists still managed to meet in Simferopol's park of Gagarin. Then they marched in the city, holding portraits of Taras Shevchenko and Ukrainian flags. Some people silently brought flowers to the monument of Shevchenko. As a result of a peaceful gathering in the park of Gagarin, three activists, Leonid Kuzmin, Veldar Shekerdzhyev, and Oleksandr Kravchenko, were illegally detained by the occupying police.
Russian police brought the detained activists to the so-called Zaliznychny district police station. They all got convicted for an administrative offense and had to perform 40 hours of obligatory work. A week later, on March 14, during Oleksandr Kravchenko's interview with a Polish channel, "Polsat News," a Polish journalist Tomasz Kulakowski got detained by the pro-Russian "self-defense." As a result, Tomasz called the police, but the effect was unexpected. The occupying police had no concerns about the actions of "self-defense" but brought Tomasz to the "police station." Later he was released. By the way, Oleksandr Kravchenko had to leave the peninsula after the decision by the so-called "court" in Crimea.
In 2016 the occupying power rejected the demonstration dedicated to the anniversary of Taras Shevchenko. According to the official version, the reason for this was the introduction of restrictions on mass actions in Crimea beginning from November 22, 2015, by the so-called head of the Crimean government Sergei Aksionov. This decision was caused by an emergency in the sphere of electric supply and an epidemy of African swine fever.
In 2017 the demonstration got rejected again. On March 3, 2017, Leonid Kuzmin, a member of the Ukrainian Cultural Center, received a rejection from the so-called municipal administration of Simferopol after he had submitted an application for a demonstration on February 22. The application was deemed not corresponding to the legal requirements by the so-called municipal administration. On March 6, 2017, Leonid Kuzmin received an official warning saying that violations of law and forbidden demonstrations were unacceptable. This, however, did not stop or surprise pro-Ukrainian activists in Crimea. Over
three years of occupation, they dealt with problems like that multiple times. Therefore, they still put flowers near Taras Shevchenko's monument, supervised by the occupying law enforcement officers, and cameras installed by the center for combating extremism. All Ukrainian symbols had already been forbidden at the time. Therefore, activists had to be inventive: dressing up in colors of the Ukrainian flag was still allowed. It became rare to meet people dressed in Ukrainian embroidered shirts. More and more Ukrainian cultural events became private, reduced to narrow circles of people, who recited poetry, sang songs, and dressed in national costumes.
During the following years, the occupying authorities started their official events near the monument. Those events were attended by the local "deputies" and occupying bureaucrats and the "Russian community of Crimea." They gave speeches, called Shevchenko a Russian poet, and put flowers near the monument. During one of those events, few women dressed in Ukrainian costumes started singing the Ukrainian anthem. They were immediately surrounded by the occupying police officers who asked them about the legal status of their gathering.
The year 2021 is not an exception. No matter the prohibitions and restrictions related to the pandemic, Ukrainian activists continue bringing flowers to Taras Shevchenko's monument in the occupied Crimea. Mostly those are blue and yellow bouquets. At least these colors of flowers are free to purchase in the store.
During the annual demonstration in Kyiv near the monument to Shevchenko, people brought flowers, recited poetry, and sang songs. In recent years the park near the monument hosts demonstrations by human rights activists, journalists, and other Crimeans who had to escape from the occupied Crimea. Many of them talk about political prisoners, enforced disappearances, violation of human rights, and Russian war crimes in Crimea. This is a symbolic demonstration of solidarity with those Crimeans who resist the occupation every day. This year's demonstration also hosted a book-crossing. All participants were encouraged to bring books in Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar languages. Those books will then be delivered to the administrative border with Crimea, where everyone would take them to the occupied Crimea.
Taras Shevchenko's poetry inspired generations of Ukrainians and continues to do it today. A monument to Shevchenko in Crimea is a special symbol that replaces a forbidden Ukrainian flag. This monument, flowers, and an internal sense of freedom and things that cannot be forbidden.