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From A Historical Perspective, This Is Why Crimea Matters

Russian President Vladimir Putin, second right, looks on as Crimean leaders sign a treaty for Crimea to join Russia in the Kremlin in Moscow, Tuesday, March 18, 2014. On the same day, Putin signed a treaty to incorporate Crimea into Russia, describing the move as the restoration of historic injustice and a necessary response to what he called the Western encroachment on Russia’s vital interests. (Sergei Ilnitsky/AP)
Russian President Vladimir Putin, second right, looks on as Crimean leaders sign a treaty for Crimea to join Russia in the Kremlin in Moscow, Tuesday, March 18, 2014. On the same day, Putin signed a treaty to incorporate Crimea into Russia, describing the move as the restoration of historic injustice and a necessary response to what he called the Western encroachment on Russia’s vital interests. (Sergei Ilnitsky/AP)
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One late-autumn morning in 1782 Empress Catherine II sat in her study in the Winter Palace drinking coffee and contemplating the fate of Crimea. In her hand was a carefully-crafted letter from Prince Grigory Potemkin, president of the War College, commander-in-chief of Russian armed forces and grand admiral of the Black Sea and Caspian fleets. For some months Potemkin had been urging his sovereign to declare an end to the interlude of Crimean independence (which began in 1774) and annex the lands of the khanate, but Catherine was reluctant. With mounting frustration, Potemkin informed her that she should act soon, else “there will come a time when everything that we might now receive for free, we shall obtain for a high price.”

What, exactly, was at stake? Potemkin’s list was short but compelling: the security of the empire’s borders, the allegiance of the Russian inhabitants of the empire and unimpeded access to the Black Sea.

The significance of Crimea is now, as it was then, as much about security as it is about symbolism.

“Believe me,” wrote Potemkin, “with this acquisition you will achieve immortal glory such that no other Sovereign in Russia has ever had.” And if that were not enticement enough, Potemkin assured Catherine that annexation would “pave the way to still another even greater glory: with the Crimea will also come supremacy over the Black Sea.”

Here it is then, a timeless observation packaged in a handwritten note sent from one palace to another in the bone-chilling cold of 18th century St. Petersburg. The significance of Crimea is now, as it was then, as much about security as it is about symbolism. Just as important, it is as much about Crimea itself as it is about the projection of Russian power well beyond the peninsula.

The turmoil of recent weeks attests to the intimate cultural and economic linkages between the peninsula and much of eastern Ukraine. One need only consider Crimea’s utter dependence on the pipes and power lines carrying gas, water and electricity across the narrow spit of land at Perekop to get a sense of how deeply embedded Crimea is within Ukraine’s infrastructure and economy. The question becomes, is it possible to administer Crimea without also administering the territory running northward? The purported $20 billion savings that will accrue to Gazprom from rerouting the South Stream Pipeline overland across Crimea rather than across the deep Black Sea would certainly defray the cost of governance, but Vladimir Putin might well follow in the footsteps of Catherine, who linked Russian security with control of Ukrainian territory.

As Potemkin’s letter suggests, possessing Crimea allowed the empress and the long line of leaders who succeeded her, to assert influence over even broader swaths of territory than those constituted by modern-day Ukraine. By virtue of its geography, Crimea is a portal to the world of the Black Sea. As a former vassal of the Porte and home to some 300,000 Muslims, Crimea gave tsarist Russia entrée into the fractious politics of the Ottoman Empire. And as the last remnant of the Mongol commonwealth in the west, Crimea provided grounds for Russia to claim the mantle of inheritor of the imperial legacy of the Eurasian steppe.

There are echoes of these grandiose claims in the discourse emanating from Moscow. Putin has gestured toward the idea of Russia as a “Eurasian power” in the past, perhaps most prominently in his speech commemorating the 1,000th anniversary of the founding of the city of Kazan. His plan for the Eurasian Economic Union, which up until very recently was slated to open in January 2015, offers further evidence that Putin defines Russian power as both apart from and opposed to that of the rest of Europe.  In this context Crimea is the necessary western hinge on which turns the economic and geopolitical projection of Russian power.

Catherine II in the Russian national costume, circa 1780. (Wikimedia Commons)
Catherine II in the Russian national costume, circa 1780. (Wikimedia Commons)

But Crimea is more than simply a portal onto other, more strategically significant terrain. Crimea conjures a very particular meaning in the minds of government officials and private citizens alike. It is, for a host of complex and often contradictory reasons, a crucial site for exploring and articulating Russian identity.

As proof of this one need only consider the extraordinary ideological investment of the state since the formal annexation of Crimea to the Russian empire in 1783. At that point Catherine set about renaming the towns and rivers of her southern provinces and thus converting an unstable and threatening Turko-Islamic landscape into one infused with Classical Greek and Orthodox Christian meaning. She planted groves of olive, citrus and grapes imported from Tuscany and the Greek islands. She built Orthodox churches and sprawling villas. She spent outrageous amounts of money choreographing her tour from Petersburg through Kiev to Bahçesaray, the capital of the khanate — a tour designed with the express purpose of taking possession of Crimea through ritual and ideology.

Catherine and Potemkin concerned themselves too with demographics, settling tens of thousands of Slavic peasants as well as Bulgarian, Mennonite and Lutheran immigrants in what we think of as the Ukrainian steppe. Only 15,000 ethnic Russians had settled on the peninsula itself by the outbreak of the Crimean war, but the forced resettlement of two thirds of the Crimean Tatar population to Ottoman lands in the 1860s made it possible, at long last, to begin transforming the complexion of the population as well as the landscape.

Crimea conjures a very particular meaning in the minds of government officials and private citizens alike.

The events of the 1860s pale in comparison to the scale and trauma of the deportation of roughly a quarter million Crimean Tatars in May 1944. But the government’s investment didn’t end there. Stalin channeled exorbitant amounts of money to Crimea so that Sevastopol, the hero-city (and now home of the Russian and Ukrainian Black Sea fleets) destroyed during the German occupation of 1941-1944 could rise again, clad this time in elegant neo-Classical architectural stylings. Former mayor of Moscow Yuri Luzhkov, the Moscow Patriarchate, and countless oligarchs have continued the tradition of sponsoring the construction of elite residences, improved infrastructure, and gleaming upscale maritime oases.

Indeed, if contemporary Russian ideologues want to make a convincing case for why Crimea is now, has always been, and must always be part of Russia, they ought to cease making spurious claims about the need to protect the human rights of the ethnic Russian (majority) population. Instead, why not fortify their claims by referencing the enormous investment the state has made over the last 231 years in making Crimea Russian? They haven’t succeeded — not yet, anyway — but surely it is not for lack of effort.


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Kelly O’Neill Cognoscenti contributor
Kelly O’Neill is an associate professor of history and a member of the executive committee of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University.

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