History, Myth, and the Struggle over Crimea

When empires collapse, disputes over new borders – both political and cultural – are inevitable. Such disputes are especially acrimonious, and often turn violent, when the territory in dispute involves what the eminent French historian Pierre Nora called lieux de memoire – “places of memory” that are revered by citizens of a nation.

The Russian Empire, followed by the Soviet Union, invested considerable effort in creating a special cultural map dotted with “places of memory” meant to instill love of the fatherland among disparate ethnic groups. Following the Soviet collapse in 1991, a number of such sacred places ended up on the “wrong side” of the border of the Russian Federation, the state that claimed the mantle as the Soviet Union’s successor. Crimea is one such place.

The lines penned by the patriotic-minded Russian poet Aleksandr Nikolayev in the early 1990s reflect very well the confusion caused by the Soviet empire’s demise and the resultant shredding of the imperial cultural map:

On the ruins of our superpower
There is a major paradox of history:
Sevastopol – the city of Russian glory
Is…outside Russian territory.

Russia’s de facto occupation of Crimea certainly wasn’t driven by a Kremlin desire to undo this “major paradox of history” and make Russia’s cultural and political maps coincide. Yet history and myth are significant factors in Moscow’s efforts to legitimize its geopolitical gambit.

On March 11, Crimea’s Supreme Council adopted a declaration of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea’s independence – a document that also states that, following presumed ratification in a March 16 referendum, independent Crimea will ask Moscow to accept it as a new subject of the Russian Federation. Also on March 11, a noteworthy petition appeared in Moscow, signed by more than a hundred leading representatives of Russia’s cultural elite. The document expressed the signatories’ “full support” for Putin’s position on Ukraine and Crimea. “In the days when the fate of Crimea and of our compatriots is being decided, Russian cultural figures cannot be indifferent observers,” the document reads. “Our common history and common roots, our culture and its spiritual origins, our fundamental values and language have united us forever.”

One might discount this appeal because of historical tradition: the bulk of Russia’s cultural elite – those “engineers of human souls” to borrow Stalin’s favorite phrase – have always tended to be subservient to the powers that be. (It is worth noting that an earlier petition, even more hyperbolically supportive of Putin, was signed by the members of Russia’s writers’ union in March 6.) However, recent polls demonstrate that Putin enjoys the support of nearly 70 percent of Russian citizens. Moreover, as Boris Kolonitskii, a history professor at the European University of St. Petersburg, wrote in his recent op-ed in the New York Times, “I can personally attest to the fact that many intelligent critics of Putin support his Ukrainian policy.”

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former Russian oil tycoon who was pardoned late last year after spending more than a decade behind bars, does not necessarily support the Kremlin’s Ukraine policy. Yet in a lecture that he gave at Kyiv Polytechnic Institute on March 10, Khodorkovsky had this to say; “For Russians, [Crimea] is a sacred place, an important element of our historical memory and an open wound since the collapse of the Soviet Union. I will not be wrong if I say that for many Russians, Sevastopol is like a piece of the Holy Land.”

Whence such a widespread attitude? By all appearances, what we are dealing with here is a powerful cultural myth. To understand its origin and purpose, this myth needs to be deconstructed.

Historians have long noted Ukraine’s regional diversity. Ukrainian regionalism stems from the fact that the country’s present territory was assembled out of not of one or two, but out of three former empires: the Russian/Soviet, the Austro-Hungarian, and the Ottoman. Crimea was the latest addition to this patchwork of lands, transferred to Soviet Ukraine from the Russian Federation by then- Communist party leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1954.

If Crimea is indeed a special province, it is not because it is uniquely “Russian,” but because it is extraordinarily multicultural – both in the past and present. Throughout its history, Crimea was home to a wide variety of peoples, including Greeks, Armenians, Italians, Jews, Turks, Tatars, and Slavs. The Russian Empire gained control over the strategic peninsula from the Ottomans only toward the end of the 18th century. During the preceding 350 years, Crimea had been the core territory of the Crimean Khanate, a splinter of the Mongol Golden Horde and vassal of the Ottoman sultan in Istanbul.

Slavic agricultural colonization in the 19th and 20th centuries, the construction of Sevastopol to house a base for the Russian imperial (and then Soviet) Black Sea Fleet and the deportation of the Crimean Tatar population en masse in 1944 dramatically changed local demographics. Ukrainian census figures from 2001 show that Russians constituted a majority on the peninsula, but that majority was far from an overwhelming one -- 58 percent of Crimea’s population of just over 2 million. Ukrainians constituted 24 percent of the 2001 population and Tartars 12 percent. In the years since that census, Ukrainian and Tatar numbers seem to have increased at a pace faster than that for Russians. According to some estimates, for example, Tatars now comprise 15 percent of Crimea’s population.

Remarkably, the first makers of the myth of Crimea and Sevastopol being quintessentially Russian were empire-builders who were fully aware of Romanov Russia’s ethnic and cultural diversity. The myth’s origin can be traced to the immediate aftermath of the Crimean War and is based on the heroic narrative of the defense of Sevastopol in 1854-55 against the allied forces of the British, French and Turks. Numerous monuments and museums glorifying Russian war heroes have been instrumental in creating the image of Sevastopol as a “city of Russian glory.” But was does “Russianness” mean here? For imperial mythmakers, it pertained to empire as such, to the vast composite state ruled by the All-Russian emperor. If the notion of “Russianness” did have an ethno-cultural connotation, it referred to the Greater Russian nation, comprising Russians, Ukrainians and Belorusians. The second crucial point in the making of the Crimea myth concerns the glorification of the heroism of the Soviet people during the siege of Sevastopol in 1941-42. Yet “Soviet” here is an inclusive identity – just as “Russian” used to be in the Russian Empire.

Although Khrushchev was of Ukrainian origin, he was a true communist internationalist. He authorized the transfer of Crimea to Ukraine mainly as a symbolic act to commemorate the 300th anniversary of Ukraine’s “unification” with Russia. His decision was also driven by economic considerations. Ravaged by World War II, the peninsula was (and still is) heavily dependent on Ukraine for its electricity and water supply. It’s true that as early as 1948 Sevastopol enjoyed a special federal status alongside Moscow and Leningrad. However, Soviet economic planners often included it in Ukrainian and Crimean budgets and its residents participated in Soviet Ukraine’s elections. During the Soviet era, all this blurring of the lines of distinction didn’t matter that much, given Soviet centralization and the ubiquitous presence of the sprawling communist apparatus.

After the Soviet collapse, the Russian government under then-president Boris Yeltsin voiced a desire to forge a civic Russian nation based not on ethnicity, but on common citizenship and shared values. This task, however, proved extremely difficult – not least because of the growing “ethnicization” of the term “Russian” (russkii). The economic tumult that accompanied the empire’s demise played a major role in encouraging this transformation in the understanding of Russianess.

That broad sectors of Russian society now understand the Crimea myth in exclusively ethnic terms is a manifestation of this phenomenon. When Putin manipulates the notions of “compatriots” and “co-ethnics,” he appears to be employing ethnic rather than civic concept of the nation. In other words, he is twisting the meaning of Crimea’s Russianess to suit his geopolitical ends.

This is a bad policy – for two reasons. First, it is going to bring about escalation of inter-ethnic tensions inside Russia. Second, it will give a boost to anti-Russian nationalists in neighboring countries.

Igor Torbakov is Senior Fellow at Uppsala University and at Södertörn University, Stockholm, Sweden.

History, Myth, and the Struggle over Crimea

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