Different Chapter, Same Book

What Crimea’s history can teach us about Crimea’s future.


In 1979, Russian writer Vassily Aksyonov wrote a satirical novel called The Island of Crimea, in which he played with an alternate history of Crimea in the 20th century: The region became neutral and independent. One of the big political questions that the novel raised was whether the Russian people, including the inhabitants of the Crimean peninsula, could ever have a state free of tsarism, communism, and imperialism.

Current events have brought into sharp focus the geopolitical significance of Crimea, while also showing that Aksyonov’s plot is likely to remain a fantasy, at least for the time being. It is a real possibility that a separatist rebellion in Crimea, on the heels of President Viktor Yanukovych being ousted in Kiev, could split Ukraine for good. If this happens, Moscow is unlikely to formally annex Crimea — but even an independent Crimea would probably be dominated by Russia’s long reach.

On May 25, when Ukrainians go to the polls in the recently announced general election, voters in Crimea will be asked to decide whether or not they wish to be free of Kiev’s authority. Crimea only became a part of Ukraine in 1954, and the region of some two million people remains strongly pro-Russian. That its residents want greater autonomy can hardly be doubted. The critical question, rather, is whether moves will be made to connect Crimea to Russia either formally or informally — perhaps even before May. Will the regional parliament in Simferopol decide itself to separate Crimea from Ukraine’s authority and ask to become part of the Russian federation? Or will Moscow be "invited" into the region even sooner — sending in military "advisers" and possibly troops to protect the security of Crimea and its Russian population from so-called subversive foreign elements and the nationalist government in Kiev?

Understanding these questions, and the context surrounding them, requires a look back at Crimea’s long, complex, and multicultural history. Settled during the Stone Age, it was incorporated, in different periods of history, into Greco-Roman civilization, the Byzantine-Empire, the Kievan Rus, the Ulus of Jochi, the Ottoman Empire, and the Russian Empire. After the defeat of the Mongols by Timur in 1441, it was also a Khanate, an independent political entity of Crimean Tatars. Tatars are now a minority in Crimea, as many perished either in Stalin’s Great Purge or during the en masse deportation to Uzbekistan at the end of World War II. It comes as no surprise that today Tatars are on the side of the Ukrainian revolution.  

Today, Crimea remains very dear to the Russian nationalist psyche. The peninsula became part of the Russian Empire under Catherine the Great in 1783, providing access to the Black Sea and new land for development. At the end of the 19th century, Alexander III built two lavish palaces in the coastal city of Yalta, called Livadia and Massandra. Stalin hosted Roosevelt and Churchill at Livadia at the Yalta Conference in February 1945; the U.S. president even stayed at the palace.

The Crimean city of Sevastopol, known in Russia as "the city of Russian glory," plays a particularly important role in Russian perceptions of Crimea. Two bloody battles took place there: the first in 1854 between Imperial Russia on the one hand and the Ottomans, French, and British on the other; the second during World War II between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. Both battles have been glorified in Russian art, literature, and popular culture. And Sevastopol still harbors the Russian Black Sea fleet.

It was in 1954 when Nikita Khrushchev transferred Crimea to Ukraine — a gesture that was later very difficult to reverse during the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Bitterness about the loss of Crimea remained in the hearts of many Russians, both ordinary people and politicians, and pro-Russia nationalists have continuously strived for independence (with their most recent, serious effort occurring in 2004, amid resentment at the outcome of the Orange Revolution).

Now, some leaders in Moscow seem to be willing to put Sevastopol or all of Crimea back under Russia’s thumb. Indeed, in the wake of the political revolution in Kiev, developments are dangerously close to spiraling out of control. Although the Russian foreign minister has spoken of Moscow’s intention to respect the "territorial integrity" of Ukraine, Russia ominously conducted military exercises close to the Ukrainian border this week. Meanwhile, masked men stormed governmental buildings in Simferopol and raised the Russian flag. (Their efficiency and professionalism made it look like they were full-time soldiers — possibly Russian ones — rather than spontaneous protesters.) "Crimea is Russia," one of their signs proclaimed. "We want a united Russia," the leader of the group is reported to have said.

Two major airports in Sebastopol and Simferopol have also been taken over by unidentified gunmen, and Russian transport planes reportedly landed at the latter on Friday. (Airspace is now closed in the region.) In addition, armored Russian vehicles have ben seen in Crimea’s major cities and elsewhere. Amid these developments, U.S. officials have warned Russia against military action. "I urge them not to take any steps that could be misinterpreted, or lead to miscalculation during a very delicate time," Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told reporters.

The Ukrainian crisis, and Russia’s influence in it, is reminiscent of the crises in Eastern Europe during the Cold War years. In particular, the events in Hungary in 1956 and in Czechoslovakia in 1968 come to mind. In both cases, military intervention was requested to quell unrest, and Moscow complied after a period of consideration and hesitation. Even more apt, however, is the comparison with Russia’s war with Georgia in August 2008. At the end of that conflict, the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia split from Georgia, and Russia quickly recognized both territories as independent countries. Although hardly any other nation followed suit and offered diplomatic recognition, both territories are now under the full, de facto control of Russia, while Georgia has no influence.

This might well be the model that Russian President Vladimir Putin has in mind regarding Crimea. A notionally independent but Moscow-dependent Crimea would satisfy Russian interests. Internationally Moscow could claim not to have annexed Crimea, but Russian nationalism, namely the strong feeling that Crimea is an integral part of Mother Russia, would be satisfied. And the geopolitical significance of Crimea, including its role as the home of the formidable Russian Black Sea fleet, would also have been retained for Moscow.

Would the European Union and the United States be happy with such an outcome? Hardly. Would they be able or willing to do much about it? Not likely. It is not probable that anyone in the West would wish to go to war over Crimea. Perhaps Putin has realized this, too, and thus is flexing his muscles in the region.

In Sevastopol Sketches, Leo Tolstoy described the horrors of the Crimean War (1853-1857), which resulted in the victory of Russia’s imperial armies and further control of Crimea by the tsar. The last of the three stories, "Sevastopol in August of 1855," ends with a very grim observation on the mood of Russian soldiers, despite their success in battle:

"On stepping upon the further end of the bridge, nearly every [Russian] soldier pulled off his cap and crossed himself. But behind this instinct there was another, oppressive and far deeper, existing along with it; this was a feeling which resembled repentance, shame, and hatred."

The triumph of conquest, in other words, was marred by the disgrace of imperialism, ironically undercutting the nationalism that had propelled the invasion in the first place.

One hopes leaders in Moscow, including President Putin, will take time to reread Tolstoy before they decide to interfere further in Crimean politics, take military action, or otherwise try to dominate a region Russia once controlled.     

<p> Peter Eltsov is a Washington-based political analyst who has conducted research in Russia and Ukraine and taught at various U.S. and European universities. Klaus Larres is the Richard M. Krasno Distinguished Professor of History and International Affairs at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a senior fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins/SAIS in Washington, D.C. </p>