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Alan Philps: Savage history of Russia and Crimea

Pro-Russian supporters take part in a mass rally in the centre of Donetsk in Ukraine. Picture: Getty

Pro-Russian supporters take part in a mass rally in the centre of Donetsk in Ukraine. Picture: Getty

Russians have never reconciled themselves to the loss of a territory so intimately entwined with their history, says Alan Philps

With its strategic position dominating the Black Sea and its unstable ethnic mix, it’s not surprising that Crimea is often called a tinderbox.

It has long been central to Russia’s sense of itself as a great naval power — even during the past two decades when the peninsula has formally belonged to Ukraine, a separate country.

After the break-up of the Soviet Union, arguments over the division of the Black Sea Fleet between Russia and the fledgling Ukrainian state were seen as likely to spark a war.

When I visited the port of Sevastopol in the 1990s and saw that the old Soviet fleet was just a collection of idle rust buckets, it was clear that the famed Crimean tinder was too damp to catch fire.

So it proved until now. The Russians kept their ships at Sevastopol. Russian sailors and retired naval families enjoyed the sunshine and kept the base as a down-at-heel Soviet theme park. Ukraine was too poor, too corrupt and too disorganised to change the status quo.

Last month’s unexpected Ukrainian revolution and Vladimir Putin’s swift response crushed the old certainties. What is clear is that Mr Putin’s coup de force will strike a chord among many Russians, who have never reconciled themselves to the loss of a territory so intimately entwined with their history.

It was here that Saint Vladimir was baptised in 988, thus binding the early Russian state to Christianity. During the Crimean War of the 1850s, when Britain and France were keen to protect the Ottoman Empire from Russia’s growing power, the port of Sevastopol was besieged for 11 months until the garrison surrendered. In the Second World War, the port held out against Hitler’s troops and aircraft for 247 days, long enough to impose a critical delay in the Nazi advance on Stalingrad. For that defence, Sevastopol was honoured with the Soviet title of “hero city”.

Today the population is almost 60 per cent Russian — the only part of Ukraine with a Russian majority. Twenty-four per cent are Ukrainian and 12 per cent Crimean Tatars, descendants of a once powerful Muslim khanate who were expelled by Stalin for collaboration with the Germans and then allowed to return under Mikhail Gorbachev.

To this day politics is coloured by the battles of the Second World War and the rival Russian and Ukrainian narratives. For many Russians, Ukrainian nationalism is fatally infected by the legacy of Stepan Bandera, who declared an independent Ukraine after the Nazi invasion in 1941 and co-ordinated Ukrainian support for the Wehrmacht against the Red Army. That is why Russian propaganda describes the protesters who forced out President Yanukovych as “fascists” and “Nazis”.

None of this would have any consequence today but for a bizarre act by the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev who “gave” Crimea, previously part of Russia, to Ukraine in 1954 — a meaningless gesture at the time, since both republics were part of the USSR.

Khrushchev, who began his working life in the coal fields of Eastern Ukraine, was toppled for his many hare-brained schemes. But who could have imagined that his thoughtless signature on a piece of paper would give Moscow, 60 years later, the chance to start a new war in Crimea?

 

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