Crimean narratives of Russian historical memory

Olena Snigyr
Ph.D., Head
Department of Informational and Analytical Support, Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance

The ongoing Russian war against Ukraine began due to doctrinal narratives imposed on Russian society by Russian propaganda. Crimea possesses a special place in the Russian historical memory – it has absorbed most of the unifying historical narratives. Also for a modern Russian identity, Crimea acts as a cultural frontier. Thus, the Russians perceive Crimea not only as a symbol of a naval power for protecting the empire’s borders but also as an outpost of Soviet (cultural) heritage.

Virtually the entire legitimizing discourse on the occupation and annexation of Crimea is built through references to the past and presents this event as a correction of historical injustice and previously committed illegal acts.

The historical continuity of the relationship between Crimea and Russia is marked by the significant state-building and military narratives:
* the baptism of Prince Volodymyr in Chersonesus is presented as a symbol of Russia’s succession to Byzantium and as a symbol of the state act that laid the foundations for future Russian statehood;
* the goal of the military contests for Crimea in the 18th century was to strengthen Russia’s presence in the Black Sea and gain the right to enter the Mediterranean, and the peninsula itself is seen as a “fair trophy;”
* the Russians associate Crimea in the 20th century primarily with hostilities and casualties during World War II, and therefore the peninsula is closely linked to the historical narrative of the Great Patriotic War and victory.

The leitmotif of the Crimean theme in Russian historical memory is the concepts of “justice” and “truth”. “Truth” is understood in Russian culture as a synthesis of law and justice, law and morality. In this sense, “‘truth’ is the highest expression of justice that is inherent in Russian civilization” and is opposed to “law as a limited expression of justice that is inherent in Western civilization”.

In referencing historical events, the “justice” of Russia’s ownership of Crimea is being justified by the duration of its ownership of the peninsula, its sacred significance for the Russian state and spirituality, and the blood shed for this territory. The historical narrative of the continuity of Russian statehood since the baptism of Volodymyr the Great in Crimea turns further contests for Crimea into Russia’s “fair” desire to keep “what rightly belongs to it,” which naturally reinforces the military dimension of historical memory. Therefore, it is logical that Russian scientific discourse is given to the historical military background: military glory gained during the wars for Crimea in the 18th century, stories of heroism and sacrifice of the Great Patriotic War, and so on.

In this context, certain rhetorical and comparative techniques used in the Russian public space deserve attention. In addition to the above-mentioned terms “truth” and “justice,” the symbol of the mother is widely used, which strengthens the ethical arguments by showing the inseparable link between Russia and Crimea and emphasizing Russia’s duty to protect the peninsula. The use of the mother image is considered a traditional method of military propaganda, designed to convince of the purity of a state’s intentions and the just nature of the war on its part.

The Kremlin and representatives of pro-government scientific discourse regard the inhabitants of the occupied peninsula, in particular the Crimean Tatars, with distrust, which is expressed in certain interpretations and emphasis on the specifics of inter-ethnic relations when describing the Soviet and post-Soviet periods of Crimean history. The Russian focus is on the destructive role of the Crimean Tatars as collaborators during World War II and the the Crimean Tatars as the possible source of modern international terrorism.

The other focal points of Russian propaganda are “the rights” of the Russian Federation to make “peacekeeping interventions” in Crimea, the “illegitimacy” of Ukrainian claims to Crimea, and the legitimacy and legality of the Russian Federation’s actions. These narratives are constructed mainly by manipulative interpretations of legal documents, processes and events. For example, Russia fails to recognize the relevance of these internationally binding agreements and obligations concerning Crimea (e.g. the CSCE Helsinki Final Act of 1975 is called by Russian side irrelevant because it consolidated the political and territorial results of World War II as of 1945 when Crimea was part of the RSFSR) and the legality of Russian intervention in Crimea and policy towards Ukraine.

It can be said that the topic of Crimea in the policy of the Russian Federation is a special instrument, by which the Russian government uses/crafts historical memory to strengthen its domestic and foreign policy actions.(so far, in the eyes of its own population). Russian citizens unequivocally support the illegal annexation of Crimea as an act committed for the sake of “truth,” “justice,” and “memory of the heroic past” – categories that, in the opinion of most Russians, outweigh all other considerations. Such support, in turn, gives these categories a special power – the power to legitimize other illegal actions in the eyes of their society if they are interpreted and explained accordingly. The desire of Russian politicians and scholars to make these conceptual approaches acceptable in the field of international relations is part of the general destabilizing influence of Russia on the international legal order, considering the vast (false) narratives/ ideas and myths that can stem from Russian historical memory.

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