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Witnessing the Annexation of Crimea: «It was a big betrayal»

​How did the takeover of Crimea really happen? Director Kostiantyn Kliatskin and Executive Producer Serhiy Maliarchuk explain what they learned while making the documentary Crimea. As It Was

Show hosts

Oksana Smerechuk,

Bohdan Nahaylo

Witnessing the Annexation of Crimea: «It was a big betrayal»
Witnessing the Annexation of Crimea: «It was a big betrayal»

Listen to a conversation with the filmmakers who made Ukraine’s first full-length documentary on the annexation of Crimea. In 2014, Ukrainians were shocked and in disbelief – how could the annexation of Crimea have happened? The film combines interviews with participants in the events and archival footage to try and answer this question. Oksana Smerechuk talks to Director Kostiantyn Kliatskin and Executive Producer Serhiy Maliarchuk about the making of the film: Crimea. As It Was.

Smerechuk: This week its exactly four years to the day when the little green men appeared in Crimea and in a creeping, stealthy style of occupation took over administrative buildings, units of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, pressured soldiers to defect, took over navy bases and any navy vessels they could. Ultimately annexing all of the Crimean Peninsula.

Crimea. As It Was is a documentary about those events. It seems that we already know the plot here. We know that Crimea was annexed in the space of about one month – by no means a happy end, rather a painful ending for Ukraine. Ukrainians were stunned and in disbelief at the turn of events. Why make a documentary about this? Why watch this documentary?

With me in the studio today I have the Director of Crimea. As It Was, Kostiantyn Kliatskin and Executive Producer Serhiy Maliarchuk to tell us all about it, the inside view of the making of the film. Welcome to Ukraine Calling!

Kliatskin: Hello!

Maliarchuk: Hi!

Smerechuk: Firstly, I was intrigued when watching this film because of the footage. You had two different sources. You can see archival footage of the events from 2014 and which looks like it was filmed by participants, people that were taking part in those events in Crimea. They were navy servicemen, observers or journalists. Other seems were filmed later when you did interviews with other people, mainly Ukrainian navy people. How did you get this footage? Was that a challenge?

Kliatskin: As you said, we have two different types of footage. We started filming when we had the first expedition in Crimea during the annexation.  We had contact with them and tried just to speak to them about what was happening in Crimea and why.

Smerechuk: So those are the interviews that you did.

Kliatskin: Yes. We tried to capture the moment. We started filming one year after the annexation and it was very fresh for them.

Smerechuk: They speak very naturally. It does not sound like a formal interview. They talk with very natural expressions.

Kliatskin: We started, it was like the one year anniversary, and their memories were very fresh at that time. We got very interesting live footage from them.

Smerechuk: I am intrigued: how did you find the original footage of people who were present in these events, the assaults on the bases for example?

Maliarchuk: Because initially this project wasn’t supposed to be commercial. It was just a good will [project] to do such a documentary with very little funds. So we called all people who could give us any footage, any material that we could use in future projects of documentaries. Mainly only Facebook was the place where we could say “Hello people, we’re going to make a documentary. Please send us any materials you have related to the events”.

Smerechuk: Like crowdsourcing.

Maliarchuk: Yes, for the footage, it was like crowdsourcing.

Kliatskin: Plus we had some footage from Babylon 13 because we’re its members. This footage was made during the referendum and annexation. It was very different footage because it was made by the documentary filmmakers. They made some accents there. For example, a journalist who was there or just military navy soldiers or  seamen.

Smerechuk: Let me ask you Kostiantyn , what inspired you to make this film? How did you get the idea in the first place?

Kliatskin: When we started the main question for me was what is going wrong in Crimea? Because at that time there was no news or chronicles of that time. I knew there were naval forces but I did not know what they did. It was like a mystery point in our history after Maidan. It was not in focus because Donbas started two months after and the focus was there and Crimea remained a mystery for me and that’s why I started to research it.

Smerechuk: What did you feel, what was your motivation?

Maliarchuk: At the time when the siege of the peninsula started, I was a part of the team at the Ukraine Crisis Media Centre, which was a fore post [in the forefront] of information coming in and it was widely discussed what’s happening.

People who came from Crimea at that time they reported that something wrong was going on in the place. We noticed some military is coming with an unmarked uniform. No badges, but presumably it was Russian regular forces. Well equipped with heavy weaponry, etc.  They are coming every day in a big number well prepared and ready for action. That was really disturbing. That we noticed from that time. Of course, the event was fully unexpected for all Ukrainians. As Kostiantyn mentioned, all attention was on the East of the country but whatever was happening in Crimea was another problem. We couldn’t cope with two things at the same time.

Smerechuk: One thing that I noticed when watching this film is that I was having a feeling of deja-vu, as I was listening to the narratives of some of the commanding officers. When they are describing the events, I am watching with a sense of dread and anticipation because I know what is going to happen, but at the same time with fascination. Deja-vu, not because of the real events, but because I have seen a TV thriller  – a Norwegian TV series, Occupied- and in strange way that emotion, that feeling is picked up also in this documentary. But this is not fiction, this is a documentary! When you were making this film what were you picking up on? What other things were you finding out?

Maliarchuk: Well a close look at the events and the witnesses of the events is always interesting, because you are the first ones to hear it and to film it. That is the most exciting moments in making documentaries because you are filming the history. It’s not fiction. So that makes you feel a bit responsible…not a bit but on a full scale responsible for people and for what they are saying because its going to be a history. So we did it and of course it was very exciting to find those people and to talk to them and to hear their stories. At the time, we’d been investigating and researching the other characters and we realized that we are really filming a history, not a big one, but some parts of history, and what happened to those people.

Smerechuk: Can you pick a favourite interview?

Maliarchuk: Well, yes, all of them!  All of them were very emotional and because those people were very open and whatever the lengths of the interview or story it makes it very valuable to our history.

Smerechuk: That’s interesting how you felt it was very emotional, but of course they’re all armed forces men speaking. They’re not going to be emotional in the sense of crying… or angry… but it’s all very restrained because they just matter-of-factly tell you this story. Yet, it’s true though, you can sense their emotion.

Maliarchuk: I’ll tell you why its been emotional because the main words we had from almost all of them was “it was a big betrayal.” That’s why it became emotional. When we talked to them they felt and what they were feeling at the time, almost all of them said, “Look, we just lost our families, we lost our friends, we lost everything we believed in and in one day it was broken – family relations, friends relations, everything.” And that was another tragedy with what happened to our characters.

Kliatskin: And also they were so open with us, because we are not the media or some news centre. We are documentary film makers. When we had a first meeting with someone we just told them, “We don’t have a deadline, we don’t have financing from someone, so if you want you can tell us your story and how it was with you. And if you don’t want to, it is yours, and that is okay, but you need to know that your story will not be for us but for many people which will live after us.” That was the main way that we filmed this film.

Smerechuk: Yes its noticeable … there’s this quality of openness. They are relaxed in their speech, they’ll throw in four-letter-words sometimes, and they’re just chatting, which says something about how they felt.

Maliarchuk: Well it wasn’t that easy just to come up to them and chat. Before we came to them there was a whole row of TV interviews from different channels and some reporters both changed their words or changed the meaning of what the servicemen said, and they became just angry with them. They said, “We don’t trust them anymore, and who are you guys? You’re making some documentary? Okay tell us about what your main purpose of such a documentary?” So it was another challenge to persuade them that we are going to do a true story. We didn’t film the very first day, we just talked to them asking, “Hello. How are you doing? Where are you from?” all just to make the relationship more friendly. Then when it happened we started the process of filming.

Smerechuk: So you get some very interesting revelations or observations from some of the servicemen during the process. For example, I was struck by one of them who says, “How can you just be complacent and not feel anything when someone comes to your Navy vessel and says, ‘Okay, now it is ours. It belongs to us.’ It’s the same as if you own a personal car and someone came to you in the street and said ‘Hey, give me your car.’ I mean, how do you feel?” I think that is a good way of expressing that emotional reaction that they felt.

Maliarchuk: Yes because our characters are simple [ordinary] people. They are not the very high-ranking officers of any kind. It was from the privates or majors or colonels, they were no bigger [higher rank] than that. So their stories are very close to common people and what they felt, so it was the common tragedy. You mentioned that very simple example of car seizure. So they felt the same because they consider their ship or military vessel their home. You can’t just say, “Hello, this is it, you must go out of [leave] this home and now it is ours.”

Kliatskin: When we started the film we tried to focus on the emotional part of the narrative because we know that if we make the film with more informational parts it wouldn’t be more trustful. So when we speak with them we tried to make an atmosphere for them so they could speak in trust and compare to things like your car or house because we didn’t want to get official information from them.

Smerechuk: But still, nonetheless, you do get a lot of information from the interviews, especially with the commanding officers. Particularly what comes to mind is a narrative like Brigade Commander Hlukhov, was describing in great detail the whole process of how, step-by-step, the various devious ways that the vessel—his ship—was basically taken and with it there is a whole lot of ambiguity. On the one hand he says, “They invited us to a big holiday festival on the 23rd of February to celebrate the Black Sea Fleet, where Ukrainians and Russians joined together. Everyone was hugging, with flowers. It was nice, a good mood.” And then the next day, all these little events, which they didn’t know how to interpret.

Maliarchuk: I’ll tell you one thing. It’s not because of the joint parade, and because they used to live together in one building. They attended the same kindergartens, schools. One of these navy seals told us a story. When there was an emergency in Feodosia they would donate blood to the locals. The Squadron Commander said look, it was really a betrayal because we used to do everything together. And then one day they just came up and said, ‘Go away! You’re fascists, go away!’ And he said it was all of a sudden. Because we didn’t change anything. We were the same as we had always been. We’ve been trying to live like one big family. We didn’t divide Ukrainians and Russians. He said it was a very dramatic moment, because they said, ‘You are different, you are part of the Kyiv coup,’ and things like that. Very abusive things. And he said it was the most traumatic thing for him, for his family. It was a challenge, a big one.

Smerechuk: In the process of interviewing people, and perhaps researching, did you come across some people that would have been deemed traitors? Who defected over to the Russian side? Or quit the Ukrainian Armed Forces?

Kliatskin: Our film is not about those people. We had many conversations about them, because as Serhii said, these people lived together for 10, maybe 15 years. And when you have the crew of the plane, for example, and half of them became ‘traitors’ in one moment, it’s very difficult.

Smerechuk: Bad for morale.

Kliatskin: A crew is like a family. This is a human tragedy. One of our hero’s said that for him it’s easier to think of them as though they had died.

Smerechuk: Think of these people [who went over to the Russian side] as being dead?

Kliatskin: Yes, like dead people who betrayed them.

Maliarchuk: We just buried them, that’s it. We don’t consider them alive any more.

Smerechuk: Thats a very strong statement.

Maliarchuk: It’s a strong feeling. Very strong feeling. And almost half of them said the same thing, ‘We consider them dead people. That’s it. We’re done.’

Smerechuk: So how did you research this film? Did you read? Or did you just go and talk to people?

Maliarchuk: There was a volunteer who helped a lot with this project. Valentyna. She was a very active at that time, the time of the seizure. And she said, ‘I have this idea to make a short movie, and I know some people who might be interested from a historical point of view.’ And Kostiantyn said, ‘It’s not going to work like that, because it’s too much. It’s too big of a story to fit into a short social advertisement. Let’s go for big!’ And that’s what we did!

Kliatskin: We just started filming. It was a volunteer project for us. The main plus for this project was that everyone was on the same mind.

Smerechuk: Likeminded? On the same wavelength?

Kliatskin: Yes, on the same wavelength.

Maliarchuk: And there was another challenge for us. There were no films about Crimea. Even one year later. We were the first, like pioneers, exploring this history and filming it. And even now, there are very few documentaries, I think there are about two, other than Crimea as It Was. I think the Crimean Tatars made a documentary about how their people have been affected by the seizure. And it seems to me there is one more documentary, its title has slipped my memory. And that’s it! In four years, three documentaries.

Smerechuk: Well. You’ve contributed to the body of film, its a big contribution.

Maliarchuk: Thank you.

Smerechuk: Although I would like to point out that there were memes, if you could call them that, that were available previously in social media, that then turn up in your documentary film as well. One thing that has resonance with me, I think with a lot of people, is that clip of the Navy cadets. That they have to watch the raising of the Russian flag. They are way at the bottom of the rung, they have not much say, and they have to watch the raising of the Russian flag over their base. And at the same time, while the musics playing [the Russian anthem], THEY sing the Ukrainian national anthem.

Maliarchuk: Yes.

Smerechuk: This also appears in the documentary, its a part of it. And you somehow found this footage.

Maliarchuk: This footage was given to us by one of the participants of this scene. Later he was serving on the battleship Balta, a former cadet of that Academy. He said, ‘I’m proud that we did that! Because that was our attitude towards what was happening. It was kind of our protest.

Smerechuk: And one last question. You started out as a volunteer project, but ultimately you found financing. Was it difficult to raise financing for this film? Where did you get financing?

Kliatskin: We didn’t need large financing like you need to make a big movie. It was financing to finalize the film, to make a cinema copy, to do colour correction. We couldn’t do that with volunteers. This was the point at which we needed money. We found support from the NIDC, the NATO Information and Documentation Center in Ukraine. And this was really great support, because we didn’t get support from any other structures [organizations.] We had some volunteer money for travel, to go do these interviews, because the heroes of the film live in different places in Ukraine, and it was hard to get to them.

Maliarchuk: And the Ukraine Crisis Media Center helped us financially as well, at the initial stage of the project.

Smerechuk: Thank you very much, its been very interesting to hear the details of the making of this film, Crimea As It Was. With me in the studio Ive been speaking to Kostiantyn Kliatskin and Serhii Maliarchuk. Thank you very much for coming in.

Maliarchuk: Thank you!

Kliatskin: Thank you!

Crimea As It Was, is the first full-length documentary on the occupation of Crimea made by Ukrainians. The film was produced by DocNote Films and #BABYLON’13, which is a community of filmmakers, recording civic protest in Ukraine since 2013.

Crimea. As It Was. is now available online and you can watch it on Youtube.


There’s a band in Odesa called Public Drama. They recently released a new song. It’s called, Lead Me. They composed the music and lyrics, with Dmytro Zhuravel. We’ll post a link to the video on our website, but for now enjoy the sounds!


Next week we’ll be back with more conversation with people who make things happen in Ukraine, so tune in again for a new edition of Ukraine Calling. We would be happy to receive any feedback from you. Write to us at: [email protected]. This is Bohdan Nahaylo in Kyiv. Thanks so much for listening.

Interview transcribed by Marta Dyczok, Caroline Gawlik, and Larysa Iarovenko. Music by Marta Dyczok. E-mail distribution by Ilona Sviezhentseva. Sound engineer Andriy Izdryk. Web support Kyrylo Loukerenko.