In 1853, Russia invaded the Danubian Principalities, just west of its empire on the Black Sea. Britain and France responded by allying with the Ottoman Empire and declaring war on Russia. Much of the fighting over the next three years would take place in Crimea, as allied forces tried to break Russia’s grip on the city of Sevastopol. The Crimean War would leave about 375,000 allied troops and anywhere from 143,000 to 522,000 Russian troops dead—mostly from disease—and devastate the Crimean Peninsula.
During the Russian Civil War, Crimea would become a stronghold for the anti-Bolshevik White Army and its sympathizers. But by 1920, the White Army was evacuating and the Bolsheviks stormed the peninsula. The communists distributed questionnaires and, foreshadowing Nazi tactics that would one day be used against them, used the answers to divide the population into those to be killed, imprisoned, or saved. More than 50,000 people, most of them civilians, were slaughtered over about six weeks.
In 1944, in preparation for an enormous anti-Turkish propaganda campaign, the Soviet Union deported nearly 194,000 members of Crimea’s indigenous Tatar ethnic group. The Tatars, who had inhabited Crimea since the Middle Ages, were sympathetic towards Turkey. They were given only half an hour to prepare for evacuation before being herded onto trains and resettled in what is today Uzbekistan. More than half of the Tatar population perished over the next three years.
Today, Crimea is once again the battlefield for two larger powers. Earlier today Russian troops stormed a Ukrainian military base, killing one Ukrainian soldier, the first reported death resulting from the Russian occupation. Meanwhile Vladimir Putin is moving to rapidly annex the peninsula following this weekend’s overwhelming vote by the Crimeans to join Russia.
Albert Camus, after years in the leftist trenches, threw up his hands and wrote an essay declaring that, beneath all ideology, “today’s primary political problem” was to reject “a world in which murder is legitimate and human life is considered futile.” Camus refused to sentence anyone to death in the service of a greater idea or plan. Likewise, underlying the questions of ideology and culture and language in Crimea today is the imperative to preserve lives. Much of the commentary surrounding Crimea has portrayed the country as a strategic global location, tugged between East and West, autocracy and liberty. But we should remember that real people are caught in the crossfire and resist the urge to view them as pawns in a greater global chess game. An all-out war would be a catastrophic and unacceptable outcome, regardless of what direction the bullets fly from.
Crimea has already suffered heavily. That troubled little peninsula doesn’t need any more spilled blood.