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Closed McDonald's In Moscow Taken As A Political Message


And this week, we're visiting the scene of an international crime - at least, that's how Western nations view Russia's seizure of Crimea. To Russians, there was no crime at all. Russia was simply recovering a place that for centuries was part of the vast Russian Empire. David Greene is taking us on a journey to Crimea, starting in the capital of Russia.

DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: Our trip to Crimea would not of been complete without a brief stopover in Moscow.

So a lot of Moscovites begin their day here. They'll come out of the subway, walk outside into sunny streets of Moscow. We'll be coming up now on to Pushkin Square, which is one of the main squares in the city, and something very important here - McDonald's.

There was a time in that McDonald's represented Moscow getting cozier with the West. It was the first in the Soviet Union to open. Today, it's shut down - health code violations, the government says. But many believe it's really Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, sending a message, which brings us to what is now next-door.

Right next to the McDonald's, there's a T-shirt shop. And there's a T-shirt with Vladimir Putin looking incredibly muscular. He's this sort of Arnold Schwarzenegger pose. And right above that, there's a photo of him in a suit with Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. It says, they are patriots - you?

Questions like that have loomed over the Russian people for centuries - something we want to talk about with the man we're meeting across the street.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: You know, if somebody wants to meet you in north central Moscow, they'll say, meet me under the statue of Pushkin in Pushkin Square.

GREENE: It's NPR's Moscow correspondent Corey Flintoff, who has been covering a period of transition in Russia - this new conflict with the West and also growing support for Putin.

FLINTOFF: Oh, yeah, his poll numbers are through the roof. It would be the envy of any Western population because Russians did favor the annexation of Crimea. It's something that goes very deep into the Russian soul.

GREENE: Crimea had been lost by Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It fell away as a part of independent Ukraine. In the spring, Putin took over the peninsula, a place Russians cherished.

FLINTOFF: Crimea's been part of Russia since Catherine the Great's time. And, you know, Russians will tell you that they've made a lot of sacrifices over many years and many wars to maintain their hold on Crimea.

GREENE: And Russians have also always loved vacationing there. And you can understand why when you visit, which we do after leaving Moscow.

As you drive across Crimea, you really do get a sense for why people just want this place. It is stunningly gorgeous. We drove through these lush valleys, and we're driving along the coast now. The sun has totally set. There's this bright moon in the sky, and the moon is just lighting up the water of the Black Sea. It's really a spectacle.

But those scenes of serenity intermingle these days with images of Russian power and authority arriving. On a square in the capital, we find young Crimeans with new opportunities.

This is a ceremony for young men and women who are in blue uniforms. And they are apparently in school to become members of the Department of Internal Affairs of Russia, which is domestic security, and they run the FSB, which is the modern day KGB. And all of them are standing here and declaring their oath to Russia, here in the middle of the Crimean city of Simferopol.

One person taking in this scene with us - a journalist named Nadjie Femi. She's Crimean Tatar, part of the Muslim minority that was shipped out of Crimea by Stalin in World War II. Many Tatars came back to Crimea in the 1980s, but they fear this takeover by Russia.

You seem very surprised and stunned that this was happening in Crimea - all of this sort of Soviet pageantry. How did you react to that?

NADJIE FEMI: You know, sometimes it seems to me I'm dreaming, and now I understand that it's reality. And I understand what's its meaning. It's like a symbol of power of Russia. It's like - look at us. We are here.

GREENE: Putin is here, having redrawn borders and taken over Crimea, despite loud objections from the West. And changing borders - it's more complicated than just putting up new borders posts. Lives change, and tomorrow we'll hear how Crimeans are dealing with questions about their citizenship and their identity. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.