“Imagine the Crimea is yours,” wrote the Russian statesman Grigory Potemkin to his imperial mistress Catherine II late in the autumn of 1782, “and the wart on your nose is no more.” The annexation of the Crimean peninsula had become Potemkin’s cause célèbre in recent years, as the Romanovs locked horns with the Ottomans and as rival European powers made colonial inroads all across the world. “There are no powers in Europe that have not distributed among themselves Asia, Africa, and America,” but in the Black Sea basin Potemkin saw an opening. “Believe me,” the imperial advisor continued, “that doing this will win you immortal glory greater than any other Russian sovereign ever,” and though “the conquest of the Crimea will neither strengthen nor enrich you… it will bring tranquility.”
Russia, Potemkin insisted, “needs paradise,” and Crimea represented his country’s longed-for Garden of Eden. Vasily Petrov, Count Potemkin’s in-house bard, had in a 1778 ode urged his patron to
Be known as the adopter
Of tribes from the entire world.
Plants of foreign countries
Are transported to the north: regenerate foreign people
Into Russians; Toil hard: your garden
Is the whole of Russia.
The starting point for this civilizing project would be the fertile peninsula of Crimea, though Potemkin would reject the Tatar word Krym in favor of the Greek place-name Tauris, said to be derived from the Greek taphros, or “a ditch dug by human hands.” Time would tell whether that ditch’s true purpose was for irrigation or for mass interment.
Convinced by her consort’s audacious proposal, Catherine issued a “most secret” rescript to prepare Russian forces for an intervention in Crimea, then a Turkic khanate in the grip of civil unrest, and it was a matter of months before the Russians had raised their flag over the newly-minted Taurida Governorate. The indigenous Tatars, led by their berobed and bemused murzas and mullahs, were soon gathering in open fields, swearing oaths on the Koran to their new suzerain in Saint Petersburg. Potemkin could hardly contain himself, writing again to his czarina: “Tauric Kherson — the origin of our Christianity and hence of our humanness — is already in the arms of its daughter. There is something mystical in this.” There were, of course, geopolitical as well as spiritual dimensions to Russia’s conquests, for “today’s new border promises peace to Russia, jealousy to Europe, and fear to the Ottoman Porte. So write down this annexation, empurpled with blood, and order your historians to prepare much ink and paper.” France, Britain, Austria, and Prussia might have looked askance at Russia’s drive to the Black Sea but, as the British Foreign Secretary Lord Grantham cursorily noted, “Why should we meddle? Not time to begin a fresh broil.”
The broiling would come regardless, and if Potemkin imagined that the conquest of Crimea would bring peace and tranquility to Russia’s borders, he was profoundly mistaken. After all, Russia is constitutionally incapable of geopolitical repose, and seems destined to be, as the Marquis de Custine put it a few decades later, a “tightly sealed boiler on a mounting fire.” Tranquility would not be found in the Russian colonization of Tauris, a failure by any measure, at least at that historical juncture. By 1810, the Briton J.C. Loudon would find that “no Russians are allowed to inhabit the town [of Bakhchisarai]; and in fact, the Crimea in general may be said to be given up to the Tatars and their goats.” Neither would Russian advances in the Black Sea region provide for diplomatic equanimity either, with the vicious Crimean War following naturally and immediately from Potemkin’s conquests, caking the peninsula and the region as a whole with Russian, European, and Tatar gore.
It was for the Tatars in particular that Petrov’s poetic prophecy happened to come true, in a cruelly altered form, when it came to the matters of toiling and forced transportation. In the midst of the Crimean War, the Russian Count Adlerberg, who considered the peninsula’s indigenes to be a dangerous fifth column, declared that any Tatar “who finds himself in a forbidden zone, should be treated as a traitor, given the death sentence, and shot,” and that “as concerns the Tatars on the southern coast, I consider it absolutely necessary to deport all Tatars, without exception,” ideally to far-flung Kursk. In the coming years, some 200,000 Tatars would be forced from their native land, and, as the English observer Rev. Tomas Milner observed:
The Tatars are a rapidly diminishing race; and failing numbers is accompanied with declining moral energy. This melancholy fact is referable to their position as a conquered people, spoiled of territorial wealth, social and political importance and exposed to the harassing peculation of subaltern agents of government. It is painful to reflect, that the present war must be an additional disaster to them.
Another onlooker, the French geographer Xavier Hommaire de Hell, was “strongly inclined to anticipate” the “total extinction [of the Tatars] at a more or less remote date,” a prognostication seemingly confirmed by the state of towns like Feodosia in the mid-nineteenth century, which “resembled more of a desert than a city.”
The May 18, 1944 Soviet deportation of the Tatars, based on a secret Kremlin decree mandating the expulsion of each and every one the Crimean Tatars, has thus been described by the Crimean writer Aleksei Gaivoronskii as the fulfillment of the “eternal dream of tsarism.” That night, in the dim light of a waning crescent moon, scores of thousands of Tatars found themselves crammed into cattle cars trundling east towards Siberia and Central Asia, destined for a Sürgünlik, or “exile,” that would kill nearly half of them in a span of less than three years, by starvation and thirst, by disease, by forced labor, and by the bullets and bayonets of the NKVD. They would “toil hard” indeed in their various spetsposeleniia, or “special settlement camps,” but all of Russia was not their garden, but rather their gulag and their hecatomb. As the dissident poet Viktor Nekipelov put it best in his “Crimean Triptych,”
I am only a custodian, a keeper of ancestral legends.
An uninvited specter, a chance shadow on the wall,
Even if mournful ashes knock about and putrefy inside me.
I am conscience and dismay, someone’s great disgrace.
I am a Crimean Tatar, I am a son of these sun-drenched mountains.
Crimea may host Russia’s “city of glory,” Sevastopol, but there are only a handful of episodes in all of recorded history more inglorious than the Tatar Sürgünlik.
The Russians and Tatars have their own ugly history, but the Ukrainian state, which inherited the peninsula via an administrative act in 1954 and retained it at independence, has likewise had to wrestle with the ambitions and vexations that seem to emanate from that restive Black Sea headland. Stepan Rudnytsky, writing in 1923, mirrored Potemkin in his certainty that the Euxine region held the answer to his country’s geopolitical questions:
The river system… along with the fact that the Black Sea, this only natural border of Ukraine, force our fatherland, with the finality of determinism, to seek its political geographical mainstay on the Black Sea coast: Polish and Muscovite political-geographical threats will demand that Ukraine shift its center of gravity to the Black Sea, rest permanently and firmly on its coastline, and seek relations and alliances with the powerful nations which dominate and have interests in Asia Minor.
What was more, “the loss of the Crimea, which even then [in 1917] had a sizable Ukrainian majority, immediately doomed Ukrainian statehood. For there can be no independent Ukraine without the Crimea: the latter breaks down the main support and mainstay of the former — the Black Sea coast.”
Although the politico-geographical considerations are much the same, wholly absent from Rudnytsky’s rhetoric is the hoary Russian horticultural topos of allegedly beneficent exploitation. Ukrainian relations with the Crimean Tatars, though historically adversarial, have also been marked by episodes of cooperation absent from Russian-Tatar interrelations. As Orest Subtelny has noted,
Ukrainian Cossackdom had developed some of its most distinctive features of self-government as a result of its constant struggle with the Tatars in the steppe. And yet, when the Ukrainians sought to defend their political individuality, it was to the Tatars that they turned most often for support. Thus, two societies which were inherently antagonistic in socioeconomic and cultural matters often found themselves facing common political enemies, whether these were the Muscovite tsars or, earlier, in the seventeenth century, the aggressive Polish szlachta.
It is not for nothing that in the 2012 parliamentary elections, the Tatar Mejlis executive body joined the Batkivshchyna, the All-Ukrainian “Fatherland” election list spearheaded by Yulia Tymoshenko. And a useful alliance it is for Ukrainian nationalists, who can present the Tatar community as Exhibit A in the case being made for the unacceptability of the return of Russian sovereignty in Crimea.
Ultimately, the centuries-old wrangling over Crimea provides more than enough support for the Ukrainian historian Yuri Lypa’s contention in The Vocation of Ukraine (1953)that “the Ukrainian lands arc not in any case a God-forsaken peripheral area. Given its geopolitical position and trade opportunities, it is one of the most important parts of the world.” Yet the effect of the ongoing Russian occupation of Crimea, and the planned March 16, 2014 peninsula-wide referendum on secession from Ukraine, will only be to marginalize the region. The G7 has already issued a formal statement insisting that “any such referendum would have no legal effect. Given the lack of adequate preparation and the intimidating presence of Russian troops, it would also be a deeply flawed process which would have no moral force. For all these reasons, we would not recognize the outcome.” Ukraine has for its part maintained that “Crimea was, is and will be an integral part of Ukraine,” and so, without any prospects for international recognition of a Russian Crimea, the inevitable result of this illicit process will be de facto statehood, not unlike that which is on display in the Russian satellite quasi-states of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transnistria. Those polities, which exist outside the bounds of normal international intercourse, represent notorious havens for black marketeers, utterly reliant on Russian subsidies and essentially frozen in time. And those places, troubled as they may be, are not as crosscut by ethnic differences as Crimea, where non-Russians still account for forty-two percent of the population, including those Tatars who managed to return to their native land and live a semi-autonomous existence, governed as they are by their own parliamentary Qurultay and executive Mejlis.
Like any blood-soaked corner of our planet, Crimea has long represented “someone’s great disgrace” — albeit more often than not a Russian one. It is a land of blurred ethnic lines, a sort of palimpsest with residual traces of Cimmerians, Scythians, Greeks, Huns, Kipchacks, Khazars, Turks, Tatars, Kievan Rus, Ukrainians, Russians, and more besides, with present-day demographics made possible only by a centuries of “harassing peculation” at best and outright genocide at (not infrequent) worst. Above all, it is a land of nursed grievances, with its institutions ground-wrought on a bed of bones, and its status inexorably contested. Russian policymakers like Yury Luzhkov have contended that the Crimean issue “sooner or later will be resolved as history and justice demands,” a veiled threat that has rather different meanings in non-Russian settings. Any way one views it, however, Crimea is located in a part of the world where history and justice rarely intertwine, and where conquests seldom bring the tranquility and equipoise often expected by the victorious. And all the while, the peninsula remains faithful to the etymology of its Greek appellation, a geopolitical ditch burrowed by all too human hands, separating one people from another, and excavated out of the black earth of international good will, straight down to the bedrock of bad faith. In the coming days and weeks we can expect to encounter what frightful discoveries lie in wait even further down.