On a street in Simferopol, a young man is surrounded by a pack of people so angry, even the little old ladies are yelling at him. One actually shoves him, swearing and calling him an imbecile.

Sayid Mehmet is a Crimean Tatar, and he dares to hold up a sign saying he wants to stay in Ukraine — in the middle of a city and a region now firmly under the control of pro-Russia politicians and militias, not to mention Russian soldiers wandering about without their insignia.

“Crimea doesn’t work without Russia,” the pushy woman is saying to him. She’s old enough to remember the region as part of Russia, before it was gifted to Ukraine by Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev in 1954.

Mehmet is only 30, but he’s old enough to have absorbed the pain of his ancestors, the Crimean Tatars exiled by Stalin with such harsh cruelty in the 1940s. They only started to come back in numbers after Ukraine’s independence in 1991.

Most would not welcome a return to Russian rule.

“You know what Aksyonov said?” Mehmet asks, referring to Sergei Aksyonov, who has become the de facto prime minister of Crimea.

“That Russia is what will be here, and those who don’t agree can have three days. He’ll give us the corridor to run to mainland Ukraine. That’s what may happen to us. Especially Crimean Tatars, who have nowhere to run. Our motherland is here. We cannot run.”

Soldiers in Crimea

Russian soldiers walk near a military base just outside of Simferopol, the capital of Crimea. (Margaret Evans/CBC )

Tatar leaders have called on their community to boycott the Sunday vote, which will apparently offer just two choices: joining Russia or an independent Crimea. The status quo is not an option. 

Legal or not, the referendum is forcing people across the Crimean peninsula to examine identities often blurred by the region’s long and complicated history – and to pick a side.

Choosing between Moscow and Kyiv

For ethnic Tatars, the issue of identity is clearer than most. The same can also be said for many ethnic Russians, who make up about 60 per cent of the population. The roar of “Russia! Russia!” that echoes through the streets, carried by newly formed civilian defence units and paramilitary groups hoisting the Russian flag, speaks for itself.

Many less militant Russian speakers also see themselves as closer to Moscow than Kyiv.

“My biggest worry is about my children,” a 31-year-old accountant named Irina told me at a rally to celebrate the referendum. “Because I have two children and I want [them] to speak Russian, to read Russian literature.”

One of the first things Ukraine’s new revolutionary leaders in Kyiv did after ousting pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovych in February was to introduce a bill in Parliament that would downgrade the status of the Russian language in Ukraine. Russian speakers in Crimea took note.

But for many others in the peninsula, it’s not so easy to pluck out a single identity and run with it. Not all ethnic Russians, for example, want to be tied to Moscow.

“I am ethnic Russian, but all my life [has been spent] in Ukraine, and I don’t want to become a part of any other state,” a young man named Boris told me at a recent – and rare – pro-Ukraine rally in Simferopol.

He and others at the rally said their values are not the same as those espoused in Russia. A number said they fear for their civil liberties.

“I’ve read Solzhenitsyn,” one young woman told me pointedly. “It is not possible to be free in Russia.”

Generational divide

It is members of this younger generation, who have grown up in a Ukraine striving more and more to improve links to western bodies such as the European Union and NATO, who are more likely to be looking toward Kyiv as their centre, and not Moscow.

Ukrainian girls in Crimea

Natalya Subotina and her sister Olga sing the Ukrainian national anthem at a rally in Simferopol. (Margaret Evans/CBC)

Natalya Subotina, a 17-year-old born and raised in Crimea, now studies in Kyiv. She was born in Simferopol and came back to participate in the pro-Ukraine rally, singing the Ukrainian national anthem and shouting “Glory to Ukraine!” along with a few dozen others carrying white balloons to symbolize peace.

“I’m Ukrainian and I wouldn’t like to live in Russia, and I don’t think it’s acceptable, this military force of Russia in the 21st century,” she said. 

Katya Komaschko’s parents were born in Crimea when it was part of the Soviet Union, while she was born in Crimea after Ukraine gained independence. She says she’s confused about where she belongs.

“We’re used to being a part of Ukraine. And we have a lot of relatives here. But we have Russian friends, so it’s really difficult to say.”

Family divisions

People in Ukraine, not just Crimea, are fond of saying Ukrainians and Russians are all just one big, happy family. Even with Russian troops besieging Ukrainian soldiers in their barracks, they’ll still say it.

But the little eruptions on the street, like the one between Sayid Mehmet and the pro-Russian crowd, are becoming more common with each passing day, with the mood getting a little uglier. And more than that, families are being torn.

Pro-Russian militia

A pro-Russian militia group gathers to take an oath of allegiance to Crimea. (Margaret Evans/CBC)

One of my translators was a young man named Andrei, who has a Russian father and a Ukrainian mother. His father was actually a commander in Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, and remained in that post after Ukraine’s independence in 1991.

Andrei also followed a navy career, but on the Ukrainian side. He says he and his father have not spoken about the potential rupture of Ukraine.

“It’s better that way,” he says.

Andrei has other problems: He says his ex-wife, who lives in Sevastopol with their daughter, is happy to stay in Crimea if it joins Russia. Andrei wants to leave for Kyiv, but doesn’t want to leave his daughter behind. The worry seemed more deeply etched on his face with each passing day.

These very human stories are in danger of being overshadowed by all the geopolitical drama over the future of Crimea, and talk of a new cold war.

The referendum is forcing people to make enormously painful choices: to choose a single identity in a region where many once thrived; to abandon one nationality and keep another; to convince a parent or a child to stay or to go.

And all in what seems like a heartbeat.