The underlying premise of Vladimir Putin’s seizure of Crimea is false: Crimea has not been part of Russia from time immemorial. Instead, it has had a complex history, one in which Russia’s role has been remarkably brief. As a result, it is important that the future of the peninsula be decided by the people of Crimea itself rather than by Moscow.
That logic, widely recognized by many but unfortunately not by all in the West, has now been presented by Andrey Zubov in today’s “Vedomosti” newspaper in an article entitled “Is Crimea Ours? Just How Weighty are the Arguments that Crimea Historically Belongs to Russia”
Zubov, who was a professor at Moscow State Institute for International Relations (MGIMO) until he lost his position there because of his pro-Ukrainian positions, uses this article to lay out for Russian readers just how tendentious and wrong are the Kremlin’s arguments at a time when few in that country or elsewhere are willing to challenge them.
The beginning of the tragedy that is Russia’s current one in Ukraine was Ukraine which Moscow seized on the basis of Vladimir Putin’s claim that “Crimea always was and again has become Russian,” a claim that many have accepted without challenge and without reflecting that absorbing the lands of others “never will occur quietly and peacefully.”
If Crimea was “always” Russian as Putin insists, such an “injustice should have been corrected,” Zubov says, but it should have been done via referendum without the introduction of Russian military force as in the case of Scotland in Great Britain or Catalonia in Spain. That is not what happened because Crimea wasn’t.
And if it had been true that there was a genocide of ethnic Russians there, then United Nations rules about the right of peoples to self-determination under threat of disappearance might have been applied, the Moscow historian says. “But there was no genocide in Crimea while it was part of Ukraine.”
That has forced the Russian side to rely on three other arguments: that “Crimea was always Russian,” that “Crimea has been covered with Russian blood in many wars,” and that “Crimea was handed over to Ukraine illegally.” All of those, Zubov argues, collapse upon even the most superficial examination.
In antiquity and the medieval period, the Crimean peninsula was controlled by many states and populated by many peoples. Russia and Russians weren’t among them because neither a Russian state nor a Russian nation existed, the Russian historian points out. It only became part of the Russian world in April 1783 when it was seized in a bloody war.
As a result of that occupation, the population of the peninsula declined by a factor of five, and many of the Muslims who remained were forcibly converted to Christianity. Indeed, Zubov says, until the 1930s, many Muslims urged their children to protect Christian cemeteries there because their own ancestors had been buried in them.
Over the course of the century of Russian rule from Catherine II to Alexander II, about 900,000 Muslims left Crimea. In their place arrived Christians from the Ottoman Empire – Greeks, Bulgarians and Armenians and Germans from Russia, Germany and Austro-Hungary, Zubov continues.
As a result, the share of Tatars in the Crimean population fell dramatically: from 87.6 percent in 1795 to 35.6 percent in 1897 and to 19.4 percent in 1939.
But even if Crimea was absorbed by the Russian Empire, one must keep in mind, Zubov says, that “the Russian Empire of the 17th to 19th centuries and present-day Russia are not one and the same state.” The former included many peoples, “and present-day Russia can hardly pretend to any lands only on the basis that sometime they were part of the Romanov empire.”
The Bolsheviks rejected the notion that they were the successors of the Russian Empire. They insisted that “they were building a new state of workers and peasants,” and once in power, “they changed the borders among these states many times,” taking land from one and giving it to another, including the transfer of Crimea from the RSFSR to Ukraine in 1954.
But what is important, Zubov argues, is this: “however conditional [these administrative borders] were in the USSR, after the disintegration of the USSR, they were confirmed by international agreements” and by the declarations of the countries which emerged, including the Russian Federation.
As far as time of control is concerned, the Ottoman Empire controlled Crimea for three centuries, the Russian Empire for 134 years, the RSFSR and the Russian Federation which has declared itself that entity’s successor 34 years, and “the Ukrainian SSR and present-day Ukraine 60 years (from 1954 to 2014).”
Moreover, the Russian historian points out, during the Soviet period, “a multitude of crimes were committed against the indigenous Crimean Tatar and all other peoples of the peninsula including Russians.” Some 60,000 died in battles at the end of the Russian Civil War, and another 80,000 died in the succeeding famine.
Collectivization and forced deportation had an additional and horrific impact. In August 1941, 63,000 Germans were expelled, in January-February 1942 700 Italians, and in 1944, 191,000 Crimean Tatars, 15,040 Greeks, 12,242 Bulgarians, 9600 Armenians, and 3650 Turks and Persians were deported. Many died in the process.
That reduced the population of Crimea by two-thirds, Zubov says, and the places left vacant were then filled by Soviet war veterans, NKVD officers, and political workers. As a result, “the composition of the population of Crimea was dramatically changed.” Only in the 1980s did the Crimean Tatars have a chance to begin to return.
“And now,” Zubov concludes, “’Crimea is ours,’” a declaration that not only is without historical justification but one that has led to the horrific war in Ukraine and the international isolation of Russia. “Is there a way out? Yes,” he says.” But that will requires giving up claims to this land and returning the question of its fate to the people who live there.