Russia and Crimea: Heroism and ethnic cleansing

Johannes Remy,
Visiting Assistant Professor,
Columbia University in the City of New York,

The Crimean Khanate was established in 1441 as one of the successor states of the Mongol Golden Horde. Its dominant ethnic group was Turkic-speaking Crimean Tatars and religion Sunni Islam. In 1475, Khanate had to accept a vassal relationship to the Turkish Sultan. Russia and Crimea came into contact with each other in the late 15th century. The relations turned hostile in the 16th century, when they competed for the legacy of the Golden Horde. Crimeans burned Moscow in 1571. Slave trade was an important part of Crimean economy. Slaves were mainly Slavs who were acquired in fast surprise raids in Russia and Poland-Lithuania. Russians came to know the Crimean Tatars as formidable enemies in war. Until 1700, Russia paid regular tribute to Crimea in order to avoid Tatar raids on its territory.

Russia annexed Crimea in 1783. The empire legitimated its conquest by claiming European cultural superiority. They also referred to peninsula’s pre-Tatar history: Russians were purportedly descendants of the Scythians who lived in Crimea in classical antiquity. Several cities were renamed using Russified forms of names that derived from Greek: Simferopol, Evpatoria, Sevastopol, Feodosia. Initially, the empire treated Crimean Tatars relatively well, but with time, Tatars lost to Russians much of their land. Sevastopol was made the main base of the Russian Black Sea fleet. By the 1870s, Crimea was also an established holiday resort for Russian tourists.

The Crimean War 1853-56 made Sevastopol part of Russian national historical mythology. The city fell to the allied Franch, British and Ottoman troops in September 1855 after a heroic defence. After the war, Russians often blamed Tatars for collaboration with the enemy, and seized more of Tatar land. That was why the majority of Crimean Tatars, approximately 200 000 persons, moved to the Ottoman Empire. This made Tatars a minority in Crimea.

In the Russian Civil War, Crimea was the last European stronghold of Whites who left the peninsula in November 1920. At that time, the Tatar troops independent of the Reds held areas on the mountains. Soviet Russia and Tatars reached a compromise in 1921, and an autonomous Crimean Soviet republic was formed within Russia. Its official languages were Crimean Tatar and Russian. The republic’s leadership consisted mainly of Tatars. Until 1929, the USSR generally promoted cultures and languages of non-Russian minorities. However, in Crimea this policy ended earlier than elsewhere. The Crimean party leader Veli Ibrahimov’s execution in 1928 was the first among the high-ranking Communist in the Soviet Union. In the following years, the local Communist Party and intelligentsia were purged of real and supposed Ibrahimov’s adherents.

In Second World War, Sevastopol again resisted siege for almost a year until finally succumbing to Germans in July 1942. After the war, the city was granted the title of “hero-city.” During the German occupation, some Tatar collaboration occurred, but Tatars also fought in Soviet partisans and the Red Army. However, after the USSR regained Crimea, all its Tatars, 194 000 of people, were accused of collaboration and deported to Uzbekistan. At least 20% of them perished during the first 18 months after their deportation. Crimean Autonomous Soviet Republic was abolished, the peninsula made a regular Russian province, and all Tatar place names replaced by Russian names. Crimean Tatars received the right to return to their homeland in 1989. By 2001, they formed 12.1% of the Crimean population. Most of them support Ukraine.

After the war, the USSR promoted Russian and Ukrainian migration to Crimea. For pragmatic reasons, Crimea was transferred from Soviet Russia to Soviet Ukraine in 1954. Because of Crimea’s geographic location, it was easier for Ukraine to supply Crimea, for instance, with water and electricity. Russian remained the language of administration and instruction.

After the collapse of the USSR, Crimea’s status was disputed. In 1994, pro-Russian Iurii Meshkov was elected President of Crimea. Under his leadership, Crimea unilaterally enacted a new constitution that transferred substantial prerogatives from the Ukrainian central government to autonomous Crimea. However, Russia did not back these demands and Ukraine abolished the office of President of Crimea. Crimean parliament then enacted a more modest autonomous constitution that was subsequently modified in the Ukrainian parliament and entered force in 1999. Crimean regional politics was then dominated by those all-Ukrainian parties that supported Ukrainian-Russian bilingualism and cultivated good relations with Russia. In the last democratic elections to the Crimean parliament in 2010, this was Ukrainian President Viktor Ianukovych’s Party of Regions. Unity of Russia party of Crimea’s present leader Sergei Aksenov gained good 4% of votes and three of the parliament’s one hundred seats.


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