Three weeks ago, Knoxville native Bob Gilbertson walked into a parking lot and smashed bottles of Stolichnaya, an imported Russian vodka, on the concrete. He did it for Ukraine.
Gilbertson, who opened Bob's Wine and Liquor in West Knoxville in 1970, sold the remaining thirty cases of Russian vodka at cost, making no profit. The bottles flew off the shelves within a few hours. Where they once sat, there is now only a sign citing "Russian aggression" as the cause.
"It's about all I could do to show my displeasure," Gilbertson said. "I'm alarmed at what is going on in Ukraine and Crimea."
The Ukrainian Revolution began in November 2013 after its government decided to abandon a deal with the European Union in favor of strengthening ties with Russia. President Viktor Yanukovych was expelled as a result.
Already a region of great dispute between world powers, the sovereignty of the Crimean Peninsula has become a point of contention between Ukraine and the neighboring Russian Federation.
Pro-Russian forces wearing unmarked uniforms began invading Crimea on Feb. 26. The Crimean parliament officially requested to gain independence from Ukraine on March 17 and the next day, Putin reclaimed the region as part of Russia.
When put to a vote via referendum March 11, nearly 96 percent of voters in Crimea supported joining Russia, although many Tartars (an ethnic group indigenous to Crimea) and pro-Ukrainian citizens in the region boycotted the vote. Because these groups were not represented, the European Union released a statement March 16 stating the referendum was "illegal and illegitimate" and the outcome will not be recognized by the EU.
Natalia Pervukhin, a professor in the Russian department, discounts the vote, claiming those who voted to rejoin Russia are "mostly former Communist Party members with a severe nostalgia for the Soviet Union." The Tartars, however, were exiled to Crimea by the Russians in the 1940s after the fall of the Soviet Union. The absence of such a perspective likely skewed the vote's results.
"It was completely fake," Pervukhin said. "For example, only about 1,000 Tartars of almost 300,000 voted. It is a statistic that has no relevance, zero."
Born in Moscow, Pervukhin immigrated to the United States in 1979 when she was 36. Having spent her summers in Crimea, she has witnessed the political struggle surrounding the peninsula and the corruption of the Russian government.
"There is a long-standing ideology in Russia that started long before the Revolution – some messianic drive," Pervukhin said. "Russia is supposed to spread all over the world."
The international community has denounced Russia's annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. The United States imposed economic sanctions on Russia while the European Union suspended economic dialogue with the country.
Stephen Blackwell, professor and chair of the Russian department, believes Western attitudes will heavily influence the conflict's outcome.
"The behavior of the West towards Russia – our foreign policy – will have a major effect on whether the world heads toward more conflict and possibly war, cold war, economic war or, possibly, an eventual era of cooperation," Blackwell wrote in an email.
Pervukhin echoed Blackwell's comment, saying Crimea's "only hope" lies in the West. Otherwise, it will be "swallowed up by Russia." Russians who speak against the annexation, she added, will "immediately lose their jobs."
"In Russia, it's like people are drugged," Pervukhin said. "People became so insanely patriotic and Putin's popularity grew. Even recently when people say they don't like Putin, they say 'At least we have Crimea.'"
An open forum to discuss the political situation in Russia and Ukraine will be held April 8 in Hodges Library Auditorium. The panel will include Alexandra Sviridova, a New York based writer, journalist and filmmaker originally born in Ukraine when it was still part of the Soviet Union.
Denis Osipov, a first year Ph.D. student studying electrical engineering, was born in eastern Ukraine and hopes to see major change in the country where his family still lives.
"I would like to see fair presidential elections on May 25," Osipov said. "In the future, I hope to see us joining European Union to improve our economy and decrease corruption and also NATO to protect our territory from future invasions."
Anna Mislitskiy, senior in kinesiology, was the first child of her family born outside of Ukraine.
"Keep up with the news," Mislitskiy said. "Use Ukrainian news channels and translate them because there are lots of differences between what Ukrainian media says and U.S. media."
But for now, the Stolichnaya shelves in Gilbertson's store will remain empty, collecting only dust. Even small acts of protest, he believes, speak volumes.
"I don't really think my two cents will change anything much, but I just had to do something to protest what was going on," Gilbertson said. "If this continues to go on, we are going to have to do something. I don't know what's going to happen, but it should be alarming to every person in western civilization."