BUCHA, Ukraine -- It wasn’t so much the armed troops on Crimea’s streets that led Anton Plitus to leave his homeland shortly after Russia annexed the peninsula. Instead, it was what he described as an atmosphere of hatred and intolerance.
Thus began a personal odyssey that saw the 29-year-old Plitus, wife Masha, and their two children uproot their lives in the peninsula and leave behind jobs, friends, and family. They settled in the picturesque Kyiv suburb of Bucha, where Plitus's parents live.
And on May 25, they were among the thousands of displaced people from Crimea who cast ballots in Ukraine's landmark presidential election.
Anton was born to Ukrainian and Russian parents in the eastern Donetsk region and had lived in Simferopol for seven years. He says he never thought in separate terms of “Russians” and “Ukrainians.”
But in this crisis, politics has trumped all. And, although theirs is a Russian-speaking family, Anton and Masha call themselves Ukrainian patriots. Their bilingual children attended Crimea’s one Ukrainian school. When separatists demonstrably removed the yellow-and-blue Ukrainian flag that flew at the school, it made their young son Misha cry.
The decision to leave was hard. They first sent their children to Kyiv, and then packed up their belongings and traveled themselves.
Hoping For A Return To Normal
As the couple cast their votes, like many Ukrainians they said they hoped the election would bring catharsis to Ukraine and legitimacy to the authorities.
“Once the elections are over, more or less normal life can begin again,” said Anton, who worked in Simferopol as a sales manager at a construction-materials firm and is currently searching for work. “Financing will appear for construction. I say that as I work in construction, but I think this goes for everyone.”
WATCH: RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service followed a group of Crimean Tatars who drove from Russian-controlled Crimea to neighboring Kherson Oblast to vote in the May 25 election:
Nationwide, more than 6,000 Crimea residents were registered to vote outside the peninsula on May 25. Most of these left Crimea during its annexation by Russia, Andriy Ivanets, the head of the presidential administration’s department on occupied territories and social adaptation, told RFE/RL
That, however, is only a small fraction of Crimea's 1.5 million voters.
Residents of Crimea who wanted to vote were allowed to do so on the mainland. But they still had to first travel to an adjacent region and register before May 19. That logistical challenge, coupled with fears of hassle on the border, helped keep the numbers low.
The 'Lucky' Ones
Overall, 9,000 people have officially left Crimea and taken up residence elsewhere in Ukraine. Most are now based in Kyiv and the western city of Lviv.
The Ukrainian government was initially slow to accommodate Crimea residents leaving the peninsula, and hundreds of families on the mainland offered up spare rooms and apartments to people leaving.
Anton and Masha see themselves as “lucky” that they have friends and family on the mainland they can count on.
But they are also concerned that a similar exodus from parts of eastern Ukraine where pro-Russia separatists have taken control is just around the corner.
“The separatists will leave, but there will nonetheless be hate left behind,” said Anton. “There will be a certain hate left behind that you cannot simply eliminate.”