Crimean history. What you always wanted to know, but were afraid to ask

Russian myths about Crimea (Image: Ganna Naronina, EUROMAIDAN PRESS)

Collage by Ganna Naronina 

Crimea, Featured, More

Article by: Olena Makarenko

In fact, similar propaganda really did take place at that time. Russia had been rewriting history books centuries ago, as it now rewrites Wikipedia pages about MH 17, Kyivan Rus, Crimea, and others. As the Russian Empire always had more resources on nurturing myths and rewriting history, guess whose versions became mainstream?

In 1783, Russian empress Yekaterina II established the Commission on Creating Notes on Ancient History, Primarily of Russia. The task of the Commission was to “create” the history of the Empire. The following generations of Russian historians also labored to create myths about the great Russian nation.

Swiss historian Valentin Getermann wrote in his work, Studying the History of the Soviet Union:

“Historians in democratic countries are always free to criticize the prevailing philosophy in their own countries…But in the Soviet Union there is, according to all the indications, virtually no scope for the expression of unorthodox opinions. It is even likely that many Russian historians are compelled to suppress utterances which they consider to be absolutely correct, and to declare themselves in favor of opinions which run counter to their convictions.”

Recently Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the creation of the Fund of Popularizing Russian History. The “popularization” will be aimed at Russia, as well as other countries.

Censorship and myths in Russian history are created and propelled on several topics. Crimea is one of them.

The most outrageous of the myths is that Crimea is “primordial Russian land.”

Vladimir Putin has repeatedly exploited the myth. Just after the illegal annexation of the peninsula in one of his statements he said: “In Crimea, everything is penetrated by our common [Russian and Crimean] history and pride.”

Crimean historian and publicists Serhiy Hromenko, unmasks the myth of the “primordial land” in his article and quotes the book Crimean Gothia by  Igor Phioro, another historian:

Of all the current hypotheses about Slavs in Crimea, the most probable is probably the  opinion of Jacobson and Korzukhina, on emigration of some groups of the population from the ancient Rus in the XIII century during the Mongol invasion … About early Slavs there was no convincing evidence yet – either written or archaeological. All the attempts to find them were biased, and sometimes even with a pseudo-scientific character. Leading Soviet researchers have already given up the majority of the proposed concepts of the early colonization of the Crimea by the Slavs.”

Dynamics of the populations of Russians and Crimean Tatars in Crimea. Image: RFE/RL

A permanent Slavic population appeared in Crimea after the ХІІІ century. Prior to the first annexation of Crimea by the Russian Empire in 1783, it was extremely small.

We see how the population of the Crimean Tatars steadily decreased after the annexation. This happened as a result of their oppression by the authorities of the Russian Empire. The majority of Crimean Tatars fled their homeland and resided in the neighboring Turkey, Romania, and Bulgaria, where large numbers of Crimean Tatar diaspora currently lives. So we can conclude that the Russian population appeared in Crimea because of permanent pressure on the indigenous people of the peninsula. The steep drop in Crimean Tatar numbers in 1941 is their deportation to Central Asia after being accused of “collaborationism” by Stalin.

Another event which is actively exploited by Russian propagandists now is the transfer of Crimea to Ukraine by Nikita Khruschev in 1954, then First Secretary of of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

Disregarding the details who exactly decided to transfer the peninsula, it is worth mentioning that the propaganda outlets usually don’t state the reasons of such a step. This step was initiated by Russia itself: almost ten years after the World War II, the peninsula was still devastated and exhausted. This is how in February 1954 the situation was described by Mykhil Tarasov, the Head of the Presidium of the Supreme Council of the RSFSR:

Considering community of the economy, territorial proximity (the Crimean Oblast, according to the speaker ‘takes up the the entire Crimean peninsula and territorially adjoined to the Ukrainian Republic, being like a natural extension of southern steppes of Ukraine’), and close economic and cultural ties between Crimean region and the Ukrainian SSR, and also having an approval of the Presidium of the of Ukrainian Republic, Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the Ukrainian Republic, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the RSFSR considers that it is appropriate to transfer the Crimean Oblast to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.”

Check out how much efforts it took from Soviet Ukraine to rebuild Crimea from ruins (infographics in 5 languages available here).

Occupying Crimea in 2014, Russia forgot about the “territorial proximity and the economic and cultural ties” between Ukraine and Crimea became a priority for the Russian Federation in another way – as a military base.

So, let’s assemble all the myths together.

 Russian myths about the history of Crimea.

Myth 1. Crimea is 'primordial Russian land'

Propagandist billboard in Crimea saying: “What is next? Doesn‘t matter, even if stones fall from the sky! We are in our Motherland!”

Reality: Being “primordially Russian” evokes the idea that Crimea has belonged to Russians since the time immemorial. However, this is not true. The first known ethnic group in Crimea – the Cimmerians – appeared nearly three thousand years ago, in the 9th century BC. Russia established its sovereignty over Crimea only in 1783 after the Treaty of Kuchuk-Kaynarca. According to Russian censuses, Russians became the ethnic majority in Crimea only in 1917. It turns out that the peninsula became “Russian” only in the early 20th century, and the period of Russian ethnic domination in Crimea accounts for only 3,5% of its entire history.

Myth 2. Crimea has always belonged to Russia

Karasu-Bazar, the second most important city in the Crimean Khanate

Reality: Contrary to popular opinion, the campaigns of Kyivan Rus princes in Chersonese (the most famous of which was the campaign of the Kyiv prince Volodymyr the Great) did not lead to the Kyivan Rus’ subjugation of Crimea. Similarly, despite erroneous maps appearing in school textbooks, the Kerch Peninsula was never a part of the Tmutarakan Principality of the Kyivan Rus, and therefore can’t be considered Slavic territory, and moreover Russia.

Russia first gained control of Crimea in 1783, when it eliminated the Crimean Khanate and annexed its territory during the reign of Catherine the Great. The peninsula remained part of the Russian Empire until 1920, with a break in 1918-1919 German and Anglo-French occupations. Crimea became a part of the Russian SFSR in 1920 and remained there until 1954, again with a break during the Nazi, occupation of 1941-1944.

Even if you ignore these “gaps,” Russia’s nominal subjection of Crimea lasted only 170 years. Just see this visualization by Mariana Pashchuk (full size here).

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Myth 3. Ukraine has no relation to Crimea

Tugay-Bey, Crimean Tatar commander (left) stands next to Ukrainian Kozak Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky (right)

In reality, military and political alliances between Ukraine and Crimea were established regularly between the 17th and 20th centuries. In 1624, Khan Dzhanibek Geray and his Ottoman Janissaries attempted to seize the throne of Crimean Khan Mehmed Geray III, but the Ukrainian Kozaks intervened on the side of the Crimean Khan, defeating the enemy near Karasu-Bazar (Bilohirsk).

The first ever Kozak-Crimean alliance was signed in January of the following year. In 1628-1629 the Kozaks participated in another civil war in Crimea, supporting their old ally Mehmed Geray III against his enemies. Hetman Mykhailo Doroshenko died in the battle near the Ama River in 1628 for the sake of the Kozak’s alliance with Crimea.

From 1648 to 1654, the Crimean Tatars allied with Ukrainian Kozak Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky, and although the Hetman did not always approve of their behavior on the battlefield, together they managed to achieve a range of victories. Crimean troops assisted the Kozak Hetmans in their struggle for independence from Poland and Muscovy until the Treaty of Bakhchisarai in 1681, and between 1692 and 1734 they supported Ukrainian political emigration in a number of ways, including by military force.

During the course of the 1917-1921 revolution, various Crimean authorities established different types of relationships with mainland Ukraine, ranging from alliances to oppositions.

Myth 4. The transfer of Crimea to Ukraine is illegal – it was a 'gift' from Nikita Khruschev

Nikita Khruschev, First Secretary of the Communist Party of the USSR from 1953 to 1964

Reality: First of all, Nikita Khruschev did not wield such singular authority in 1954; the transfer of Crimea was a collective decision of the Soviet leadership. Georgiy Malenkov, the leader of the Soviet government at the time, was an ideological Stalinist and opponent of Krushchev, and it was he who organized this transfer of power. Furthermore, it was the formal head of the Soviet Union – Kliment Voroshilov, head of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR – who signed the documents.

Secondly, although there were real legal disputes concerning the transfer of Crimea, they were all extinguished in 1954 with the introduction of amendments to the effective Constitution of the constitutions of the USSR of 1936 and to the constitutions of the Russian SFSR and Ukrainian SSR of 1937, and again in 1978 with the introduction of new Russian and Ukrainian constitutions under Leonid Brezhnev. In all these documents, each bearing supreme legal authority, Crimea and Sevastopol were designated constituents of the Ukrainian SSR.

Myth 5: Sevastopol was never transferred to Ukraine

A Russian military base in Sevastopol

Reality: Yes, it is true that in 1948 Sevastopol was separated from the rest of the Crimean Oblast and given the status of a federal city under direct republican subordination. It is also true that in 1954 no specific document was issued declaring Sevastopol’s new status as a Ukrainian city. However, this is irrelevant, because in the old Constitution of the Russian Federation SFSR of 1937 – which was amended in 1954 – there was no mention of any cities of direct republican subordination, while the new constitution of 1978 stated that there are only two such cities – Moscow and Leningrad.

Kyiv and Sevastopol were specified as cities of direct republican subordination in the 1978 Constitution of the Ukrainian SSR. So, even if Soviet legislators had somehow ‘overlooked’ something in 1954, any such flaws were corrected through amendments to the republican constitutions.

These myths are gathered in the Anthology of Modern Crimean Mythology which is a civic initiative of Internally Displaced Peoples from Crimea. The brochure is printed of the support of the Ministry of Information Policy of Ukraine.

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Edited by: Alya Shandra

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