Since the Pereiaslav / Pereyaslav treaty of 1654, Ukraine has only enjoyed statehood independent from Russia at moments of extreme geopolitical dislocation, such as in the final days of the First World War, in the wake of the Russian Revolution of 1917. Russian nationalists today appear to view Ukrainian independence as a similar aberration, the consequence of what President Vladimir Putin labelled the greatest geopolitical disaster of the twentieth century: the collapse of the Soviet Union – a.k.a. the Russian Empire – in 1991.
The historical links between the two countries, ancient and modern, are manifold and profound. The Orthodox churches of Ukraine and Russia share a patron saint – St. Vladmir or St. Volodmyr.
For a long time, Russians saw Ukrainians as being little more than country bumpkin relatives. Theories of Slavic ethno genesis described the two peoples as siblings born of the same Slavic womb: the “Great Russians” (i.e. Russians) on one hand and the “Little Russians” (i.e. Ukrainians) on the other. Ukrainian literature, which began to emerge in the nineteenth century, was patronizingly viewed as the picturesque product of a peasant society, essentially subordinate to Russia’s own literary canon, even when it produced such great poets as Taras Shevchenko. The fact that the flowering of Ukrainian national culture was strongest in western Ukraine, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, made some Russians dismiss the whole thing as an anti-Russian ruse sponsored by external forces, a familiar refrain to those heard today.
In the Soviet period the idea of Ukrainian nationhood was viewed with similar suspicion, now additionally freighted with suggestions it was intrinsically counter-revolutionary. In April 1918, as Russia imploded in revolution, a conservative German-backed regime was set up in Kyiv. Its leader Pavlo Skoropadsky revived the title of Hetman, an ancient Cossack military title, last held by a man who had died aged 112 in 1803, in a remote Russian monastery which the Soviets would subsequently turn into a gulag. Later, in the Great Patriotic War, some Ukrainians signed up with the Germans to fight the Soviets – some even joined the SS. Nationalist anti-Soviet actions continued into the 1950s – providing the basis in historical memory for the contemporary lumping together of even moderate Ukrainian nationalists with right-wing extremists as “fascists” and “bandits”.
In the Soviet era Ukrainian national identity was never completely subsumed into Russian or Soviet identity. Sometimes, indeed, it could be useful to the Soviet state.
It is perhaps easy to see the Russian attempt to seize control in Crimea as nothing more than a cynical land-grab. But while the strategic and economic importance of the peninsula cannot be ignored, it is the issue of Russian identity that is at the heart of the Crimean crisis. As the Russian military has strengthened its hold over key sites in recent days, it has become clear that political leaders in both Simferopol and Moscow are acting on the belief that the troubled peninsula is culturally and ethnically a part of Russia. It was after hoisting the Russian flag above the Crimean parliament that de facto Prime Minister Sergey Aksyonov appealed for President Vladimir Putin’s help in securing the region against perceived threats from the new, pro-European government in Kyiv. And as large-scale pro-Russian demonstrations swept across Crimea, it was on the grounds of protecting “Russian citizens” that Putin himself asked the Duma for permission to deploy troops in the region. In the eyes of Akysonov, Putin, and their supporters on the ground, Crimea is Russian through and through.
Russia’s claim to Crimea is based on its desire for territorial aggrandizement and – more importantly – on history. As Putin and Akysonov are keenly aware, Crimea’s ties to Russia stretch back well back into the early modern period. After a series of inconclusive incursions in the seventeenth century, Russia succeeded in breaking the Ottoman Empire’s hold over Crimea with the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca (1774), before formally annexing the peninsula in 1784. It immediately became a key factor in Russia’s emergence as a world power.
Crimea was absorbed into the Russian empire along with most of ethnic Ukrainian territory by Catherine the Great in the 18th century. Russia’s Black Sea naval base at Sevastopol was founded soon afterwards.
The process through which the borders of modern Ukraine were defined, both in the west and on the Black Sea, was part and parcel of Russia’s own headlong expansion through three centuries of Eurasian history. In the 1700s and 1800s, as the Russian geopolitical imagination became obsessed with the idea of turning the Black Sea into a Russian lake – perhaps even going so far as to seize control of Constantinople/Istanbul – the Ottoman Empire was bloodily and repeatedly pushed back from its redoubts on the northern side of the Black Sea. The Ukrainian provinces were the territorial beneficiaries. The country became ever more tightly integrated into the economics and politics of the growing Russian empire, serving as its breadbasket, and as its route to the sea.
More than half a million people were killed in the Crimean War of 1853-56 between Russia and the Ottoman Empire, which was backed by Britain and France. The conflict reshaped Europe and paved the way for World War One.
In 1921, the peninsula, then populated mainly by Muslim Tatars, became part of the Soviet Union. The Tatars were deported en masses by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin at the end of World War Two for alleged collaboration with the Nazis.
Russia’s first appearance on the Crimean scene, peninsular society was nothing if not heterogeneous. Since the early Middle Ages, the greater part of the population was comprised of Tatars, amongst whom could be numbered Central Asian Muslims, Karaite Jews, and even a few Goths. Thanks to the Ottoman Empire’s longstanding presence, there were also a large number of Anatolian Turks, Greeks, Wallachians, Armenians, and Moldavians. But in the mix were also Genoese left over from the days when the city dominated trade in the Eastern Mediterranean and a sizable number of Cossacks from the Don region.
The non-Russian population of Crimea was to suffer further even worse under the Soviet Union, and between 1921 and 1945, two broad phases of persecution devastated their position in the peninsula. The first was dominated by the fearsome effects of Stalinist economic policy. In keeping with the centralized aims of the First Five-Year Plan (1928-32), Crimean agricultural production was collectivized, and reoriented away from traditional crops such as grain. On top of this, bungling administrators imposed impossibly high requisition quotas. The result was catastrophic.
The second phase – covering the period between 1941 and 1945 – compounded the terrible effects of the Holodmor. On its own, the appalling casualties caused by the savage battle for Crimea would have decimated the peninsula. Some 170,000 Red Army troops were lost in the struggle, and the civilian population suffered in equal proportion. But after the Soviet Union regained control, the region was subjected to a fresh wave of horror. Accusing the Tatars of having collaborated with the Nazis during the occupation, Stalin had the entire population deported to Central Asia on 18 May 1944. The following month, the same fate was meted out to other minorities, including Greeks and Armenians. Almost half of those subject to deportation died en route to their destination, and even after they were rehabilitated under Leonid Brezhnev, the Tatars were prohibited from returning to Crimea. Their place was taken mostly by ethnic Russians, who by 1959 accounted for 71.4% of the population, and – to a lesser extent – Ukrainians.
The lesson of this terrible history is clear. If Russia’s seizure of Crimea is predicated on claims that it is culturally and ethnically Russian, the peninsula has only acquired this character because of Russian brutality. Even setting aside the fact that few ethnic Russians want the Crimea to be subject to Moscow, the realization that Russia has systematically victimized its people over centuries must surely caution against any resumption of power in the peninsula. If he were to consider the past more closely, therefore, Vladimir Putin would see that atonement and not invasion is what is required.
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