Simferopol, Crimea — “You need a valid passport to enter Ukraine. If you are a U.S. citizen, you do not need a Ukrainian visa if you will be in Ukraine for fewer than 90 days.” (Website Ukrainian Bureau of Consular Affairs)
While visiting Simferopol, Crimea, in mid-September, I had the opportunity to visit some cities in Southeast Ukraine to interview and talk to people about the impact of the civil war and the oligarch/neoliberal/fascist coup in Kiev.
As you can see from the above quote, a U.S. passport holder is not required to have a visa to enter Ukraine for under 90 days. I was skeptical, but could not pass up the opportunity to speak with people who were bravely continuing the struggle under the junta’s occupation.
I rode on an overnight sleeping train that runs from Simferopol to several cities in Southeast Ukraine, primarily transporting local working-class residents visiting their families. I crossed the Russian border with no problems, although the Russian border guards seemed a bit surprised at my presence.
Then, in the middle of the night, the train was boarded by armed Ukrainian soldiers who woke everyone and inspected our paperwork. Not armed with holstered sidearms like the Russians, mind you, but with unslung rifles.
People face dangers in Southeast Ukraine
They took one look at my passport and ordered me into an adjoining car. None of them spoke English, and my Russian is limited to a few basic phrases. The head guy seemed to indicate that I didn’t have the right paperwork. Perhaps they didn’t know about U.S. passport holders not needing a visa. Or just as likely, it was the fact that I was entering Ukraine from Crimea, now part of the Russian Federation.
In any case, I didn’t feel like I was in any position to argue with them, given the language barrier and the potential danger if they suspected my mission and political views.
I was sent back to get my things and marched off the train under armed guard. I was taken into the train station at Melitopol, and then inside a large room filled with people (mostly Crimean residents) who had been pulled off trains because they did not have junta-approved paperwork.
Armed Ukrainian soldiers stood and sat around the periphery of the room. I saw other people who were removed from my train, including a senior woman carrying several heavy bags and a father holding his young, sleepy daughter.
Fortunately, they did not search my backpack, which contained my laptop and copies of Workers World. Nor did they do any kind of research on me so far as I could tell. I was able to use my cell phone to text my location to friends back in Crimea. I stayed within the character of the naive U.S. American tourist, and they didn’t challenge this.
After about an hour and a half, I and the older woman were put on a train heading back to the Russian border. Our passports were not returned to us, but given to the train steward.
Unfortunately, as I later learned, the train was not going to Simferopol. When we arrived in the town of Dzhankoy in northern Crimea, the Russian border guards returned my passport and suggested I get off there. I had to take a taxi 60 miles back to Simferopol.
While there was nothing to indicate I was ever in any real danger, the experience certainly gave me added insight into the very real dangers people in Southeast Ukraine face every day. And added respect for those who continue to resist, from exile and from underground.