originally published March 19, 2014
This past weekend the citizens of Crimea voted to break up with Ukraine and run away with their old lover, Russia. What does this mean to you? Unless you have a personal stake in the matter – relatives in Simferopol or perhaps you’re reading this from your котедж in Alushta – probably not much. But it’s big news on the international scene, and there exists a genuine possibility that the fallout from this will one day make its presence felt in your life.
For a detailed analysis of how this re-sketching of the Eastern European map will impact US-Russian relations or the various branches of the region’s trade networks, have a look at a reputable news source. Those people know a lot more than I do on the topic, given that they follow it for a living, whereas 24 hours ago I was writing about garden gnomes.
I’m interested in the backstory. How little Crimea has been passed around from empire to empire like an unclaimed puppy or a mildly funny knock-knock joke. Crimea has always been a gorgeous little clump of land surrounded by hungry and greedy hordes. Maybe the new union with Russia will stick, but I might hold off on changing the stationary letterhead for a bit.
That’s Crimea, dangling like a toddler into the Black Sea. Perhaps too conveniently, she’s precariously clinging to the southern tip of Ukraine with one hand, while reaching to the east where Russia is just out of reach. Her first inhabitants were the Cimmerians around the 8th century BC. They eventually became the Tauri, which is how the peninsula came to be known as Taurica by the Ancient Greeks. They were subservient to the Greeks, but only on paper. In fact the Tauricans were known for their bad-ass piracy and rigid backbone.
By the second century BC, the area had slid under the rein of the Bosporan Kingdom, a branch office of the Roman Empire, and eventually a Roman province under Emperor Nero. The peninsula did pretty well, financially speaking. The region was famous for its exquisite honey, its bountiful supply of fish and wheat, and its compliant slaves. All the blue-chip industries of the day were covered.
For the next millennium and a half, the peninsula was batted around from passing empire to passing empire. The Goths took over in 250 AD, then came the Huns, followed by the Bulgars who ran the place for about 400 years. Then enter the Khazars, the state of Kievan Rus’ (the forerunners of Ukrainians and Russians alike), the Byzantine Empire, the Kipchaks, the Kojaks, the Sajaks, that strange period of the middle ages in which the entire region served as a training ground for the Kansas City Royals, and lastly the Mongols, who sauntered by in 1237. Oh, then the Republic of Genoa took over for a while.
In 1366, the bodies of the warriors of the Golden Horde (the Mongols) were tossed over the city walls of Feodosia, then known as Kaffa. Those warriors had died of the plague, and it’s believed that this act may have helped to launch the Black Death on its extremely popular European tour. Not long afterward, a descendant of Genghis Khan known as Haci I Giray formed the Crimean Khanate, a genuinely independent region on the outer rim of the Ottoman Empire. The two powers were linked (there was nothing to gain by pissing off the Ottomans, so concessions were made) until 1783. That’s when the Russians rolled in.
Catherine the Great created the Tauridan Oblast in 1784. That sounds like a magnificent party drink, but it was actually a government of the new governorate of the Russian Empire, which consisted of the Crimean peninsula and a swath of what is now lower Ukraine. Due to its storied history, the region was filled with Crimean Tatars (the Turkish descendants of the inhabitants of the Crimean Khanate – and yes, they probably called their kids Crimean Tatar-Tots), Russians, Ukrainians, Jews, Germans, Bulgarians, Turks, Armenians and Greeks. It was a melting pot of former conquerors.
In the 1850’s, the Ottoman Empire was revving up its engines for its quick drive into history’s sunset, and the remaining European powers were hungry to scoop up any land they could. So began the Crimean War, with the French, English, Sardinians and Ottomans on one side and the Russians on the other. The Russians lost that war, and with it they lost a lot of their influence in the region. Things settled down in Crimea long enough for its residents to take a breath, then the proverbial shit fell through the political cheesecloth again in 1917.
After the Russian Revolution threw the region into a heap of crumpled chaos (and the Tsar six feet into the ground), things were just as manic in Crimea as they were everywhere else in Russia. Actually, everywhere else in Europe – there was still that pesky World War going on. The place changed names ten times – no exaggeration – between December 1917 and October 1921, when they finally decided upon the Crimean Autonomous Socialist Soviet Republic. The Greeks and Tatars suffered under the new regime, as lands were claimed and collectivized, all for the good of “the people”.
If that wasn’t bad enough, the Nazis got hungry for the strategically advantageous peninsula in 1941, and they took control, butchering over 170,000 members of the Red Army in the process. In 1944 the beautiful city of Sevastopol was reclaimed by the Russians and destroyed in the process. It took years to rebuild. The Tatars were forcibly exiled once the Russians had regained full control, as Stalin believed they had conspired with the Nazis. Those Tatars could get no love.
In 1954, The Soviet Union elected to transfer Crimea from Russia – which was but one of the USSR’s republics – to Ukraine. It was an economic and cultural decision, but also seen as a symbolic move, commemorating 300 years since Ukraine and Russia had been linked through the Russian Empire. This move would be questioned by the Supreme Soviet of Russia in 1992 – was it treasonous for Khrushchev to do this? Was it constitutional? Could… could we please have it back now that we’re all independent countries?
The answer to the last question was no. When Ukraine became its own nation in 1992, Crimea was part of the package. Even when pro-Russian Yuriy Meshkov became president of Crimea in 1994, promising to return the peninsula to Russian control, nothing came of it. Moscow finally accepted they’d lost Crimea in 1997.
This brings us to the present. As Russia and Ukraine clash helmets and prepare for a territorial scrum, the people of Crimea have voted to switch flags and join the Russian Federation. The European Union and the United States have called the referendum illegal, given that armed Russian troops were blanketing the land at the time, but for now this is how the borders appear to be drawn.
That said, if you’re sketching out your own European map of the present, I’d advise you not to use a permanent marker in this area. You never know who’ll be in charge next week.