As the head of the Euromaidan movement in the Crimean city of Sevastopol, Ukraine, Viktor Neganov led about 100 Ukrainians in his hometown to call for an end to corruption. At one protest, a crowd of pro-Russian “provocateurs” confronted the activists. They attacked Viktor, knocking him down and giving him a concussion.
Once the Russian troops took control of the peninsula, Viktor escaped to Kiev after his life was threatened. He snuck back to his hometown of Sevastopol this week, despite pro-Russian militias controlling the train and bus stations. I spoke with him via Skype while he was in hiding. He told me about his experience on the run and what he thinks is next for Crimea.
VICE: Why don’t you start by telling me how you got into activism and how you ended up running the Euromaidan movement in Sevastopol?
Viktor Neganov: I started because of the regime of Yanukovych and because of the loss of the lives when he was president. Many people died to live in this political and economic system. I, like other activists, was going out to the streets and saying that things should be changed.
When I met you in Sevastopol in February, even before Yanukovych absconded and Russian troops invaded Crimea, you told me that there were Russian FSB spies and pro-Russian provocateurs who were disrupting your Euromaidan protests. What would they do?
I know that some of them are real Russian military – moving out to our meetings like ordinary Sevastopol people. But they are not ordinary people. Pretending that they are Sevastopol people, they say that they don’t want Maidan here in Sevastopol. They push us, making noises, and after I spoke to the head officer, I was punished. I was beaten.
About the spies – these spies are and were in the Sevastopol institutions like Sevastopol administration, Sevastopol council, Sevastopol police, Sevastopol SBU (which is the equivalent of the FSB in Russia) and we have the proof. The proof is that all these institutes now say, “We are not Ukrainian institutions. Now we are Sevastopol institutions. We [are] supporting Russian aggression.”
These institutions are working not for Yanukovych, but for Russia. We know that Yanukovych is in Russia.
Yanukovych was probably a spy also. [laughs]
You were also attacked when the Berkut [Ukraine’s elite riot police] came to Crimea from Kiev. You suffered a concussion. You got a bloody nose. Tell me about what had happened to you.
I went there to ask several questions. I saw the deputy of the former Sevastopol governor and asked him, "Do they plan to separate Sevastopol from Ukraine?" When I asked him, the crowd, which was big, they saw me. They knew who I was [a Maidan activist]. They had previously come to our meetings and made provocations there, so they knew who I was.
And they started to punch me, so I tried to protect myself, but there were too many people – ten or 20 from different sides, different angles. It was hard for me to protect myself, so I got several punches in the head, fell down and, for a few seconds, lost consciousness. One policeman helped me to stand up and called an ambulance. The ambulance took me to the hospital.
I'd never met anyone up against so much opposition. You had 100 some people in your movement who were willing to speak up publicly, but this in a city of 350,000. What did you expect to actually achieve?
Yes, you can see that if we had 100 activists out of 350,000 people, it meant that it was dangerous to hold public meetings. But as I said before, we have many more people supporting Maidan ideas, but they are scared. They don’t want to be in public, because they have businesses or they work for the government. So that’s why not all of them go out on the streets.
And among the voters in the elections of the Ukrainian parliament in 2012, about 20 percent of them voted for the opposition parties in Crimea. And these parties support Maidan. But not too many people go out to protest.
What I expected to achieve was to show the world – to show Ukraine – that in Sevastopol, and also Crimea, we have people who support Maidan ideas, which means that this is not just Russian territory. This is Ukrainian territory. We have Ukrainian activists who support the Ukrainian ideas, the Ukrainian territory.
What effect did your movement have in Crimea?
We had several effects – good effects and bad effects. The bad effect was that our movement mobilised the pro-Russians. If we didn’t show up in Sevastopol, this Russian movement wouldn’t be so big as it is now. So we mobilised it. It’s not a good achievement.
The good is that we showed our position. We showed our faces publicly. And we said that Sevastopol is a real Ukrainian city. Yes, we understand that most people support Russia. But we have the law; we have Ukrainian territory here.
Once the Russians took control of the peninsula, you left for Kiev. You were telling me on Facebook that you couldn't get out by road and were going to try leaving by train. How'd you eventually arrive in the capital? What made you leave?
I arrived by train without any big issues. If you’re moving out of Crimea, it’s much easier to move out than to move in. So, when I moved out, it was maybe a week ago, and there weren’t any issues taking the train.
I left because of the dangerous situation. I was beaten before. I had many messages by phone – or over the internet on social networks – that said my life was in danger, that some people wanted to punish me. Messages saying, after I was beaten up, “We could do much more to you.”
Did they threaten to kill you?
Nobody said they were going to kill me, but some people said they would cut me with a knife. But on the streets, people were negative to me. They said, “You’re not a good guy. Leave Sevastopol. You’ll get many more punches.”
How did you eventually make it back to Sevastopol?
I made it by train, though now we have pro-Russian self-defence forces that are controlling the train station. I asked the people who were running the train to hide me for an hour or so. So I hid in a train compartment for 40 minutes, and then these people from self-defence left and I went out. I waited for them.
That sounds risky.
I took some risks. And now I’m not in my flat. I’m hiding at my friend’s place with some safety, I hope. I didn’t attend some public meetings after Crimea was occupied, so I hope these Russian guys aren't thinking too much about me now.
What do you expect they would do if they found you?
First of all, they know my face. They know my name. There have been examples of activists who were caught and the Russian guys took them out of the city to the woods. Some were beaten, some not. They left them there. So the Russians take some steps to make them scared.
But you don’t know what will happen next time.
For now, they're not killing – they're just kidnapping people for several days. But tomorrow things could change. They could do other things. So there’s no sense in taking that risk. I try to protect myself.
I remember I was interviewing local people walking along the main boardwalk in Sevastopol, and they all said basically the same thing: "Euromaidan activists are extremists and criminals. We feel closer to Russia. We have no interest in activism coming to Sevastopol." You weren't really surprised and said it was part of an information war. Tell me more about that.
People here in Crimea are basically Russian. We also have Tatars, but Russians are the majority. Russians have roots in the Russia Federation. Now some of them have families there, so they're connected to Russia. They support Russian and Kremlin policies.
Politicians and officials here aren't working for the people, but for the corruption – how to make the corrupt money. So people see that Ukrainians here are not helping them. They don’t feel the real support of Ukraine for them. That’s why people don’t love Ukraine.
But also they don’t feel the Russian support. At the same time, they see that Russia is a big country, and they have roots in Russia. And Russian soldiers here have big wages; they spend their money here in Sevastopol. They support the Sevastopol economy. So people see that Russia is much more part of Crimea than Ukraine.
Many of the people look at Russian television and its Goebbels-style propaganda. Lying, lying, lying. People put on Russian TV and hear that, in the Maidan movement, we have criminals, we have Nazis, we have extremists, we have provocateurs, we have some psychotics, etc.
People couldn’t check it. I know some of my friends support Russia. They weren’t at Maidan. They don’t really know what was happening there, but they were watching Russian television. Russian television is saying that people there are bad people. But every time I tell them to go to Maidan and see for themselves what is happening there.
Aside from Russian media like RT, there are also Western columnists, pundits and academics in New York and DC who characterise Euromaidan as a nationalist, extremist, homophobic, anti-Semitic movement that ousted Yanukovych in what they call a coup. Your thoughts?
About RT – you know this is the propaganda tool of the Kremlin. I know that Mr Putin and the Kremlin spent money on Western journalists. They give them money and say, “You need to make some articles that are good for us.” So it’s not strange that some Western journalists write articles for the Kremlin for money and say that Maidan is nationalistic, extremist, etc.
I recognise that in Maidan we've had some situations [involving] extremist topics. But it’s a minority. It’s a real minority. The majority of Maidan are good people. They love Russians, Ukrainians – they love all nations.
Do you expect the referendum results to show that Crimeans want to rejoin Russia?
Yes, because none of the Ukrainian channels are working in Crimea. Here in Crimea, we have only Russian channels. You can’t watch any Ukrainian channels, except over the internet. And these Russian channels say that Crimea should come to Russia.
We also have propaganda here. We have a propaganda war in the papers. We have stickers on the streets that say "Vote for Russian Crimea". So we have propaganda here, and we have another mindset because Russian soldiers, with Russian guns, didn’t give the opportunity to people who represent another view to make our propaganda and say what we want to say.
Here, for us, it’s dangerous to hold public meetings. So we haven’t got any public opportunities to say what we’re thinking about.
This article was published after confirmation that Viktor had safely returned to Kiev.