February 27 marks the fifth anniversary of the Russian occupation of Crimea. This was the first time since the Second World War that one country in Europe seized the territory of another sovereign state destabilizing both the European and global security system.
As it also violated the terms of the Budapest Memorandum by which Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in return for pledges by Russia, the United States and the United Kingdom to respect its sovereignty, it also placed the whole issue of nuclear non-proliferation into question.
Internationally, the annexation of Crimea was almost unanimously condemned, even though the Kremlin was confident its aggression would be overlooked as it was the case with Georgia in 2008. But while there is no doubt that Moscow has flagrantly breached international law, and that Crimea legally belongs to Ukraine, many still fall for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s myth that “Crimea has always been Russian”.
This myth is both absurd and unsubstantiated, so I would like to lay out the historical facts that will correct this misconception. They can be verified by any objective source.
Here are the facts.
Crimean Tatars are the indigenous people of Crimea who once had a flourishing, highly cultured, Muslim state — the Crimean Khanate. This was a powerful and highly cultured Muslim country.
In the early 18th century, Tsar Peter I of Muscovy, having changed the name to the Russian Empire, embarked on a campaign of expansion into neighbouring states. Peter and his successors seized the Baltic states and Poland, as well as Finland. These countries gained independence after the collapse of the empire in 1917 and are now sovereign states, members of the UN, the EU and (except for Finland) NATO. Hardly anyone would claim that “they have always been Russian”.
The Crimean Khanate wasn’t annexed by Moscow until 1783, which is quite recently from an historical point of view. Until then, there was no Russian presence in Crimea.
But, unlike the other above-mentioned nations, the Crimean Tatars failed to regain their independence following the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917. Crimea, like Ukraine, was seized by the Bolsheviks and remained in new Russian empire, now renamed the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).
But even within the USSR, Crimea had a lesser status than Ukraine. While Ukraine became a union republic having the nominal trappings of state sovereignty, Crimea only received autonomous status within the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR) in 1921.
Not only did this deny the Crimean Tatars at least the semblance of sovereignty, but it made no sense geographically. The Crimean Peninsula is territorially linked to Ukraine -- not Russia. Its energy, goods and supplies come from Ukraine – not Russia. Moscow finally recognized this geographic anomaly in 1954 when the Kremlin transferred Crimea from the RSFSR to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Since the right of self-determination, the union republics theoretically had existed only on paper, nobody at that time imagined Ukraine would ever become independent and Crimea remained de facto Russian.
It is important to note that the transfer of Crimea was conducted in full compliance with USSR laws and procedures. There exists a popular myth that a foolish Khrushchev arbitrarily gave it to Ukraine when he was drunk. This cannot be true because In 1954 Khrushchev had not yet gained enough power to take such action unilaterally.
So, what does the catchphrase “Crimea has always been Russian”, really entail? Only the 134 years under the Russian Empire and the 33 under the RSFSR.
However, the myth remained and Russian have been obsessed by it right from the moment the USSR collapsed. As far as they are concerned, were it not for the transfer in 1954, Crimea would have remained in Russia, notwithstanding the fact that it used to be a sovereign state and was territorially linked with Ukraine.
This came to a fore in 2014 with the collapse of the pro-Russian Yanukovych regime which prompted the Kremlin to embark on its illegal annexation.
Yet another myth has been propagated by Putin, who refers to Crimea as “the spiritual source of the formation of the Russian nation”. The assertion here is that Prince Volodymyr the Great was first baptized there before proceeding to convert Kyivan Rus as a whole. Yes, Volodymyr was baptized in Crimea in 988 (according to the chronicle at least), but he was a Kyivan, not a Muscovite prince. In 988, neither Moscow, Russia nor the Russian ethnos existed as such. Finno-Ugric tribes predominated in the forests, where modern Moscow lies. It was only a couple of centuries later that these tribes assimilated with Slavs and became the core of the modern Russian nation.
But Russian historical propaganda always tried to portray Kyivan Rus as an early Russian, as opposed to Ukrainian, state, the purpose being to deny Ukrainians their historical heritage in order to justify Moscow’s occupation.
But maintaining the myth regarding “Russian Crimea” was not enough for the Kremlin leaders who decided to make it a reality through ethnic cleansing in May 1944.
Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin accused the entire Crimean Tatar nation of collaboration with Nazi Germany, which occupied Crimea during 1941-1944. And all the 191,000 Crimean Tatars, including babies, were uprooted and deported to remote Asian regions of the USSR. The operation was completed within two days. That the allegations of treason were just a pretext, is borne out by the fact that the families of 9,000 Tatars who were serving in the Red Army and fighting against Nazis were also deported. Later these warriors suffered the same fate. Along with the Crimean Tatars other ethnic groups were also deported, namely: Greeks, Bulgarians, Armenians, who had lived for centuries on the peninsula but were not accused of treason. Thus, only the Slavic ethnic groups remained on the peninsula – Russians and Ukrainians.
After the Tatars were removed, they were replaced by ethnic Russians, who were massively resettled the 80,000 empty dwellings left by the indigenous people. This is very similar to what much as what happened in central and eastern Ukraine in the wake of the genocidal Holodomor of 1932-33. It is on the basis of this act of genocide and ethnic resettlement, that Moscow now lays claim to Crimea, much as it does with eastern Ukraine. And genocide – not deportation – is the correct term for this criminal act, During
he first four years of deportation alone, 46.2 percent of the Crimean Tatars died due to extremely difficult living conditions. But, much as the Holodomor was successfully covered up by Soviet-Russian propaganda for decades, so this genocide remains virtually unknown.
As long as the USSR existed, the Crimean Tatars were forbidden from returning to their homeland. This only changed when Ukraine gained independence. And it was this nascent state that had to shoulder all the expenses and care for relocation of the entire population. By 2013 however, 266,000 Tatars had returned to their homeland, constituting 13.7% of the population of the peninsula.
For them, the latest Russian occupation has become a real national catastrophe. Those who managed to survive Stalin’s Gulag, now found themselves in a new Gulag – one of Putin’s making and one right in their own homeland. Up to 25,000 Tatars have once again been forced to leave Crimea, this time emigrating to mainland Ukraine. The Kremlin has banned the Mejlis, the national Crimean Tatar parliament. The Tatar media, education, culture and religion have been repressed. There are many documented cases of torture, arbitrary detentions, forced disappearances by Russian security forces and courts. One poignant example is that of Eden Bekirov, a Tatar community activist, who wanted to visit his 78-year-old mother. In December 2018 he was arrested upon entering Crimea. Bekirov is severely handicapped. He has an acuteform of diabetes, an amputated leg, and four stints in the heart after last year's cardiac arrest. Detention without the prescribed medication and medical care amounts to a death sentence for him. Nevertheless, he remains under arrest, accused of attempting to smuggle a 15 kg bag full of explosives, even though, with his health condition, he is incapable of lifting even two kilos.
But Crimean Tatars are not the only victims of Russian repression. The illegal imprisonment of film director Oleg Sentsov, an ethnic Russian and Ukrainian patriot, who has openly opposed the Crimea’s annexation is quite well known. Another symbol of courage is Volodymyr Baluch, an ethnic Ukrainian who was thrown behind bars for raising the Ukrainian flag over his home. Moscow’s violations of human and national rights on the peninsula have been repeatedly condemned by the United Nations and other international organisations. But more needs to be done. I am convinced that those members of the international community who truly care about human rights should triple their efforts to help achieve the release of all political prisoners – including a more vigorous application of their respective Magnitsky laws.
Today’s attempts to eradicate the Crimean Tatars as a people is a direct extension Stalin’s 1944 crime. Consequently, Moscow needs to nurture the myth that “Crimea has always been Russian” to justify its actions and preserve the gains of genocide.
Therefore, while Crimea’s annexation can be condemned on legal and political grounds, there is also a powerful moral issue involved. No perpetrator of genocide should ever be allowed to profit from such a criminal act. Crimea must be liberated and its indigenous population must be saved from extinction – even if it takes decades to do so.