Putin misuses the history of Crimea in the war against Ukraine

Serhii Hromenko
Ph.D., Expert
The Ukrainian Institute for the Future

The invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops on February 24, 2022, is a continuation of the dramatic Russian-Ukrainian confrontation that began on February 20, 2014, with the occupation of Crimea. The reasons why this small peninsula is of such great importance to Vladimir Putin are well known. Firstly, it is a “natural aircraft carrier” that allows one to keep the Black Sea basin under control, and secondly, Crimea is an important “memory space” in Russian culture. That is why, to justify the attempted annexation of Crimea, the Kremlin used alleged “historical” arguments as understandable to the majority of Russians.

Let’s take them in turn.

1. According to the supposed “canonical” version of the myth, Crimea was allegedly inhabited by Slavs for a long time, and only with the arrival of nomads, they were forced out of the peninsula. A cursory glance at the modern ethnographic map of the peninsula, 60% of whose population are ethnic Russians, adds weight to this statement.

There is, in fact, no archaeological evidence of the presence of a permanent Slavic population on the peninsula until the 11th-13th centuries. Even later in some cities, there were only separate quarters for Rus` merchants. There is also no evidence of a permanent Russian population in the era of the Crimean Khanate. During the eviction (de facto deportation) of Christians from the peninsula by order of Catherine the Great in 1778, Russians (and Ukrainians) were not recorded among 33,000 of Christian exiles. By the time of the Russian Empire’s first annexation of Crimea in 1783, there were barely 2000 immigrants from Russia.

The transformation of Russians from a minority into an absolute majority of Crimean residents was the result of Russia’s purposeful policy – both imperial and Soviet. On the one hand, the Center created unfavorable conditions for the Crimean Tatar population, mainly due to land fraud, forcing Crimean Tatars to emigrate en masse to the Ottoman Empire. On the other hand, this policy stimulated the resettlement of Russians from the central regions of the country to Crimea in every possible way.

Even under these conditions, only at the beginning of the twentieth century, the number of Russians exceeded the number of Crimean Tatars, and only after the deportation of the indigenous people of Crimea of 1944, Russians turned into the absolute majority of the population of the peninsula.

2. Another argument that Russia justifies the seizure of the Crimean Peninsula with is Crimea’s supposedly eternal belonging to Russia. From this point of view, the events of 2014 do not look like the seizure of someone else’s territory, but instead the so-called “restoration of historical justice” and “return to their native harbor.”

In particular, there are claims that part of the Kerch Peninsula belonged to the old Russian Tmutarakan principality and that the ancient Chersonese, taken by Prince Vladimir, fell into the sphere of influence of Russia. Thus, Moscow’s claims to the alleged “Old Russian heritage” are legitimized.

In fact, many years of excavations have proved that modern Kerch and its surroundings have never been part of Russia. Professional historians of both Ukraine and Russia agree on this. Similarly, Chersonesos, after being captured by Vladimir, was returned to Byzantium and did not remain subject to Kyiv. Nevertheless, school textbooks and atlases simply replicate false information about Crimea’s history fabricated by Moscow’s propaganda machine.

Thus, there can be no question of any ancient possession of Crimea by Russian princes. Under these conditions, the real “Russian period” in the history of the peninsula began in 1783 with the first annexation of Crimea and ended in 1954 after its transfer to Ukraine.

Against the background of the 3,000-year written history of the peninsula, the time of Russian power over it lasted formally 171 years or 5.5%. For comparison, the Crimean Khanate existed on the peninsula for exactly twice as long.

3. On March 18, 2014, Putin said that when the USSR collapsed in 1991, the residents of Crimea were not asked if they wanted to live in an independent Ukraine, but were granted to the new state “like a sack of potatoes.” Allegedly only Putin himself asked the opinion of the Crimeans at the “referendum”.

In fact, on December 1, 1991, an absolutely legitimate national referendum on the attitude to the declaration of independence of the country was held throughout the territory of Ukraine. On it, 54% of residents of Crimea and 57% of residents of Sevastopol supported the independence of Ukraine. Thus, Putin simply lied.

The so-called “Crimean referendum” on March 16, 2014, was completely illegitimate, so its results were not recognized by anyone in the world, except Russia itself.

So, Putin, Russian officials, and even, unfortunately, some professional historians have lied or manipulated the facts when it comes to Crimea and continue to do so. Unable to justify the occupation with legal arguments, Moscow resorts to historical – or rather, quasi-historical ones.

You can read more in my book “#CrimeaIsOurs. History of the Russian Myth” (Kyiv, 2017), which is legally available on the Internet.

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