A Journeyman's Guide to Vacationing in Crimea
UPDATE 3 MAY 2022
The solidification of Russian control of the Ukrainian oblasts of Kherson and Zaporizhzhiya, adjacent to Crimea, has resulted in a significant relaxation of the restrictions in place for entering or leaving Crimea by land.
The Ukrainian border guards have disappeared, as have the road blocks. If is now possible to drive a private vehicle across the frontier, including travel in a taxi, although there are no direct buses as of yet. There is a cursory check on the frontier by Russian military officials; but provided you hold a Russian visa you should not have any problems save for a quick look in your luggage and on your person to satisfy the guards that you are not a mercenary or associated with the Ukrainian armed forces. (Media reports of a man trying to cross the frontier with a prominent Azov Brigades tattoo have emerged; even he was permitted to pass after questioning.)
There are rumours of a Russian Railways direct train from Simferopol to Donetsk via Melitopol, but this author has not been able to confirm them so far. No public information is available about this service, if it exists, save perhaps at Simferopol, Donetsk and/or Melitopol railway stations. The existence of a thru-train would appear impossible at the current time by virtue of tenuous continued Ukrainian control of the strategic Donbass railhead of Avdiivka; but Avdiivka might fall at any time and hence the service may be anticipated to commence once the Russians have taken Avdiivka. We have no further information at the current time.
The currency on both sides of the frontier is now harmonised to be the Russian ruble. The Russian flag flies from public buildings in both Kherson and Melitopol. You should assume that Russian law applies in both Kherson and Zaporizhzhiya oblasts, including restrictions on publishing remarks about the conflict in Ukraine.
If you try to travel from Russia-occupied southern Ukraine to other areas of Ukraine, it does not appear that you will have problems at checkpoints with a passport stamp indicating prior presence in Crimea.
Travel to Crimea has just become substantially easier, just as total domination by Russia of the two southern Ukrainian regions has been completed.
21 APRIL 2022
This article describes, to the best of our knowledge, the issues involved in a person not of Russian or Ukrainian nationality travelling to the Crimean peninsula in the midst of the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Nothing in this article should be interpreted as any moral assertion about the rights or wrongs of any particular conflict in the region; or the legality of any particular act or position of any side involved in these complex conflicts. We seek only to describe the facts on the ground. The reader may form their own opinions; we are not making any such assertions.
The Crimean peninsula has a long and unusual history. Until 1783, what we now call the Crimean peninsula was divided between the Ottoman Empire (which basically had the south coast) and the Crimean Khanate, a Tatar state of Turkic peoples that encompassed the area that now includes the Ukrainian cities of Nikolaev, Kherson and Melitopol. The Ottomans used their hold on southern Crimea as a logistics route across the shores of the Eastern Black Sea all the way down to their territory of Palestine.
In 1783, in one of the first indications of the gradual collapse of the territorial authority of the Sublime Porte, Russia seized Crimea from the Crimean Khanate and the Ottoman Empire.
By 1853 the diminution of Sublime Porte control over her vassal states in general and over the Black Sea in particular, in favour of the Russian Empire, caused the British to fear that the balance of power in the region was being tipped too strongly in favour of Russia and against the Ottoman Empire. Hence a war between Anglo-French combined forces supporting the Sublime Porte and against the Russian Empire was initiated in Crimea on the pretext of Russian laws there being insufficiently tolerant of religious minorities.
Although the British won the Crimean War after mindlessly bloody warfare over three years, having no strategic interest in Crimea Her Majesty's forces thereafter promptly withdrew.
'The Valley of the Shadow of Death', Crimea, 23 April 1856
This further encouraged Russia to pursue a policy that today we would call ethnic cleansing: moving local Turkic populations to other parts of the Russian Empire, and replacing them with ethnic Russians, so as to limit the vulnerability of the Crimean peninsula to further warfare against the Russian Empire. That is because the inhabitants of the peninsula would then fight against any new Ottoman invaders.
This policy of Russian ethnicisation of the Crimean peninsula continued more or less constantly up to and during the Soviet Union period, particularly under Stalin's reign that was ruthless in the mass transportation of peoples to achieve geopolitical objectives.
In 1954 Crimean territory, that had a subfederal status under the USSR's complex multi-layered federal constitutional structure, was formally transferred from the governance of the Russian Socialist Soviet Republic to that of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.
The reason for this seemed to be because Nikita Khrushchev was Ukrainian.
Nevertheless it made no practical difference at the time, because notwithstanding the USSR's federal constitutional complexities, in practice the Communist Party ran everything from Moscow.
The Russian population moved there under Stalin stayed there and became older. Crimea, a place of outstanding natural beauty, became a place for Russian retirees.
At the same time, due to its strategic importance in the Black Sea, Sevastopol in Crimea became a major Soviet naval base. Upon the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Soviet Navy became the Russian Navy and by treaty it was agreed that the Russian Navy could stay there.
Under the post-Soviet regional schema, there was no real conflict between Russia and Crimea, with its formal status as Ukrainian territory but informally a Russian retirees' destination; a Russian tourist destination; and a Russian military base, until 2014.
In 2014 the Maidan Revolution in Kyiv to overthrow the Moscow-leaning Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich was in substantial part funded by Viktor Pinchuk, a Ukrainian oligarch who had seized the only principal business of note in Crimea, it's pipe building industry (essential to trans-Ukrainian hydrocarbon flows from Russia to Europe). During the 1990's bogus privatisation movement in the former Soviet Union, a small number of businessmen became fabulously wealthy as a result of their manipulation of the privatisation procedures to seize vast quantities of state infrastructure and assets.
The Kremlin perceived Pinchuk as a threat to its stable position in Crimea as the occupier of a major military base. If Pinchuk could fix the government in Kyiv adversely to the interests of Moscow, then he could manipulate the Ukrainian political process to eject the Russian navy from Crimea.
Therefore Russia annexed Crimea on the spot. There was no resistance, because pro-western political elements in Kyiv have no traction in Crimea, which is dominated by ethnic Russians.
The annexation was subsequently affirmed by referendum.
Russia asserts that Crimea is now a province of Russia. Crimean telephone numbers are all now +7 (the Russian country code), not +380 (the Ukrainian country code). The time zone has been changed from that of the Ukrainian mainland. The currency is the Russian Ruble. If you attempt to enter Crimea without a Russian visa, you can expect very serious problems.
If you need consular assistance in Crimea, approach your Embassy in Moscow. Your Embassy in Ukraine will not be recognised by the Russian authorities in Crimea.
Russian law applies in Crimea. That includes the law against speaking about the war in Ukraine. Do not speak about the war in Ukraine, talk on the telephone about it, email people about it, publish articles or blogs about it, or anything similar, while you are in Crimea. Otherwise you may be arrested and sentenced for a period of up to 15 years' imprisonment.
Nor should you criticise the Russian government while in Crimea. You may find yourself violating a range of internal security and/or media regulation laws. The penalties may also run to several years of imprisonment.
Crimea has a heavy Russian military presence. Do not take notes about that military presence or attempt to photograph or video it. Nor should you take notes, electronically or by handwriting, about any issue relating to the war. If you do, you may be arrested for espionage and transferred to Moscow for trial.
Do not imagine that you have better cyber-security skills than the Russians have cyber-hacking skills. You do not.
Simferopol, the regional capital of Crimea, has an airport with both domestic and international flights. However along with all airports in southern Russia, it is closed at the time of writing due to the conflict in Ukraine. There are no exceptions.
Most people who enter Crimea currently do so via the Kerch bridge, a 19 kilometre bridge from Kerch in eastern Crimea to Anapa in southwestern Russia. You can take trains across the bridge: both suburban to Anapa several times a day, and regional that run to Krasnodar at least once a day.
There are also Russian regional buses across the bridge.
It is inadvisable to cross the bridge in one's own motor vehicle, although some taxi drivers may be prepared to undertake the voyage with a foreigner in the car. They will need to be paid substantially extra.
Everyone who uses the bridge is subject to a Russian checkpoint principally to search persons for weapons or instruments of violence towards the structure of the bridge.
There are reportedly also ferry services across the Kerch straits, although we have been advised not to use them for a variety of serious reasons.
Travel around Crimea is easy enough. The world's longest trolleybus ride runs 86km from the capital Simferopol to the seaside resort of Yalta. Otherwise use taxis or marshrutkas (Soviet era minibuses).
Do not attempt to visit Sevastopol without invitation, or you may be arrested for espionage. If you are invited to Sevastopol, be very careful about what you photograph or otherwise take notes or records of. It is a military town.
Note: the photographs above are not necessarily contemporaneous. They are provided just to give an illustration of the nature of the issues.
It is a vexed question as to whether it is currently possible for a third country national to cross the Ukraine-Crimea frontier amidst wartime conditions.
There are two road entries: one from Kherson and one from Melitopol. Both these cities are under Russian military control at the time of writing.
There are no trains across the frontier; it is believed there are no buses; it is believed that regular private vehicles are not currently allowed to cross.
Hence if one is to attempt crossing this frontier, then it is a matter of taking a taxi and then walking across the border, then taking another taxi at the other side. Do not think of trying this without pre-arranging every step so that you know there is a driver to meet you 'on the Russian side'. Also do not attempt it at night or there is a risk of your being shot.
Expect to walk a few kilometres, and be pleasantly surprised if you don't. Your luggage should be sturdy, as should you. Crimean weather can lurch from the very cold to the very warm. Dress in layers and carry food and water for the walk.
Until the February 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine , Ukrainian border guards would only let you exit to Crimea using this route if you had a permission certificate from a Ukrainian government office in Kherson. However now Kherson is occupied by Russian forces; and the office is apparently closed.
There are apparently persons 'on the Ukrainian side of the border' appearing to serve as immigration officials of a kind; but is not obvious exactly what their instructions are nor who they are taking instructions from. At some point of course these officials may just disappear. Russian intentions for the future administrative structure of this region are not currently clear.
With a good story (which does not include journalism or any international organisation or civil society role, all of which are effectively prohibited in Crimea), you may be permitted to cross the frontier. If the officials suspect you of falling into one of the above prohibited categories, you may be arrested and then your life is going to become very bad.
You need to check very carefully in Kherson or Melitopol (Kherson is better) before attempting this route. We have been told that in principle it is entirely possible; but you would be well-advised to have some sort of authority, even if informal, from the Russian military. Plus of course you need a valid Russian visa, preferably one with a strong invitation behind it.
We have no information as to whether it is possible as a third country national to pass in the other direction (from Crimea to Ukraine). Probably it would depend very much upon the reason you give the border guards for your intended crossing of that frontier. Again, with a bad story you might be arrested or told to use the Crimean bridge to leave.
Pending whatever administrative changes the Russian armed forces have in mind for Kherson and Melitopol, this information could change at any time.
There are people in Kherson (and possibly other towns in southern Ukraine) offering to transport you into Crimea using informal roads, i.e. no border checkpoints and no walking. If you are a third country passport holder then for God's sake don't do this. You are likely to be arrested at the first hotel you reach in Crimea, if travelling south. If you travel from Crimea to 'the Ukrainian mainland' doing this then the Russians may arrest you for espionage before you get to the border. The attitude of the Ukrainians, should they find out what you have done (e.g. by studying your passport stamps), is unpredictable but in theory doing this is prohibited in Ukrainian law and the offence carries a heavy prison sentence.
Crimea has traditionally been a popular tourist destination, although the war in Ukraine has reduced that because now Crimea is more difficult to travel to. You may find you have hotels and restaurants much to yourself.
Western travel search engines have self-blocked much information about Crimea. However Crimean hotel and restaurant websites remain functional and accessible - if you can find out what they are. Therefore you can contact tourist venues and make reservations with them.
If you need help finding lists of accommodation, restaurant and service options in Crimea (we have decided not to provide a list here), you may contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org for information about where to stay to attract the least unwelcome attention. Please explain the purpose of your visit to Crimea so that we may decide whether to help you.
It is virtually essential to speak some Russian to travel around Crimea.
Crimea is generally very physically safe. There are fewer problems with violent drunks, sexual encounters that go dramatically wrong, etcetera, than is typical elsewhere in the region. The streets are fairly safe at night. If you imagine that the Russian army isn't there, it really feels quite relaxed.
You should assume that you must pay for everything in Crimea in cash. Take EUR and/or USD in small notes.
There are methods of paying for facilities in Crimea using Western credit cards, and for wiring money to Crimea, but we are not publishing them. If you want to know how to attempt to do these things, then please contact us on email@example.com and we will decide whether we are prepared to help you.
Be careful what you photograph! Travel in Crimea has some complexities but in principle nothing is impossible.