The aim of this article isn’t to analyse the current political situation in Crimea, but rather to explore the historical context that led up to the currently volatile situation. As source material, I used various newspaper articles published in the New York Times, articles published in National Geographic magazine (and also some of their online publications), Wikipedia, and even travel blogs and blogs of people living there. I tried as best I could to balance the western-perspective news articles with firsthand experience from travellers and actual people living in that area. Admittedly, it was tough going getting a local perspective as most of the blogs are in Ukrainian and Russian, but here and there I found something that gave me a bit of insight into the people, and their perspective on their own history.
One of the predominant themes I found running through most of the blogs (and which was also the conclusion of a National Geographic article on the subject) is that the Crimea, and the Ukraine in general have very little sense of self-identity. People do not know what it means to be Ukrainian, and therefore do not know how to identify with an independent Ukraine.
One can hardly blame them for this. Looking back specifically at the history of Crimean peninsula, it’s changed hands so often, it’s a hodgepodge of cultural and national influences. Originally named Taurica, the Crimean peninsula was originally inhabited by Scythians. The Greeks built a city in what is now called Sevastopol. It passed to the Romans, the Goths, the Huns, the Bulgars, the Khazars, the Byzantines, the Kumans, the Monguls, the Genoans and the Venetians , all of whom left their marks on the people of the region. The only people one could say are native to the peninsula are the Crimean Tartars, who established a Khanate in the mid 1400’s. Conflict with the Ottoman empire (now Turkey) led to semi-autonomy until it fell under Russian influence during the rule of Catherine the Great and her successor, Empress Anna.
Conflict, both political and religious, between the largely Islamic Khanate of Crimea, with support from the by then fading Ottoman Empire, and the expansionist Russian Empire ultimately led to the Crimean war of 1853-1856. Russian expansion into lands formerly held by the Tartars and Ottomans brought Austria, Britain and France into the conflict. Napolean wanted to re-establish France as the dominant power, while Britain simply didn’t want the Russians to gain too much new territory. The Crimea offered Russia a eans by which they could access the Black Sea, and they had a strong naval history there, initially even defeating the navies of the opposing side until the tide turned against them.
By the end of the Crimean war, and during the immediate aftermath, the map of the region was completely redrawn, and ultimately also laid the foundations for the first world war. Although Russia came out second best during the Crimean war, they remained a major influence, not just in the Crimea, but the entire region. Russia revived its expansionist ambitions, and over the next twenty years added Bulgaria, Chechnya, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Serbia to its protectorates. It pushed the Ottoman Empire to collapse, which then effectively ceded control of Crimea to Russia. Russia continued to expand its sphere of influence and thereby contributed greatly to events that led to the first world war. During that time, the Bolshevik revolution ripped through Russia and by December 1917, the Crimea became the ASSR, or Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, which yen formed part of the Soviet Union.
During the second world war, Crimea was again a place of conflict between Germany and Russia, with Germany briefly occupying Sevastopol . In spite of the Nazi victory in Sevastopol, the natives themselves remained unconquered in their strongholds in the Crimean mountains. This was a source of great pride for the region.
By the end of WW2, the Soviet Union consolidated its hold on the Crimea, and deported the Crimean Tartars en mass, sending them into exile. With its own native population removed, Russians moved in to claim the region.
Ten years later, the Soviet Union, under leadership of Ukrainian-born Nikita Khrushchev, transferred the ASSR to the Ukraine to celebrate the 300th anniversary of Russian dominance in the Ukraine. Sevastopol became one of the major Soviet naval bases in the Black Sea, even as it had been during the Crimean war of a hundred years earlier.
With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the establishment of an independent Ukraine, the people found themselves for the first time without a national identity of their own, and borders that had been established during the Soviet days for administrative reasons that didn’t reflect the ethnic realities of the region at all.
What complicated matters even further was the return of the Crimean Tartars to their homeland. Although they make up only about 13% of the total population, they are wary of Russians due to their long history of abuse dating back to the days of Catherine the Great. The Ukrainians themselves hadn’t really had any national identity of their own since the days of the Russian Empire, while the Crimean Russians, who had been living there since the ejection of the Tatars at the end of WW2 had sympathies that leaned more toward Russia than the Ukraine. 70% of the population is Russian, and supports Russian policies. If not for the actions of Nikita Khrushchev forty years earlier, the Crimea would have been part of Russia instead of the Ukraine.
The Russians living in the Crimea would very much like to be part of Russia, while the Tatars just as empathically would not. Indeed, their position is that it would be better to have an entirely separate Crimean republic. Meanwhile, the Ukraine, which effectively have possession of the Crimea as a historical blunder, needs to retain it for the revenue it generates, both as a tourist attraction, and as an area of trade. The Russian naval base is still in existence and remains a point of pride for the 70% of the population that is Russian in every way except for their identity documents.
In effect, the former Soviet Republics face the same difficulties faced by many African nations upon gaining their independence: lots of ethnic groups who have more pride in their own ethnicities than the geopolitical entities they’ve been divided into by foreign powers. With this historical background, is it any wonder that those former Soviet states are crumbling? Were we really naive enough to expect the Ukraine to avoid this fate?