Crimea’s Trail of Tears

By A. G. Moore
crimea 18_May_Monument_in_Sudak_(Monument_of_Crimean_Tatars_Deportation)

Sudak Monument to Deported Crimean Tatars
Image by Lystopad
Wikimedia Commons Attribution-Share Alike license
A Few Words on the Russian Occupation of Crimea:

As conversations about Crimea and the will of its people continue, some historical context might illuminate the discussion. If it is true that the majority of those who live in Crimea favor alliance with Russia, this is not by chance. It is the result of carefully engineered demographics. The present composition of Crimea was achieved at no small cost to its original inhabitants, the Tatars. Over the centuries, Tsarist and Soviet expulsion of Tatars effectively “cleansed” Crimea of non-Russian peoples.

Russian domination of Crimea began with Catherine the Great, who annexed the peninsula in 1783. There has never been a doubt about the strategic importance of Crimea–not only to Russia, but to Turkey and Europe as a whole.

Catherine understood that mere possession of this land did not insure lasting control; she therefore set about removing the area’s Turkic residents. At the same time, she induced immigration from the Ukraine and Russia. Thus Catherine ensured a more Russia-inclined populace. 

While Catherine’s actions enhanced Russia’s relationship with Crimea, coveted control of the Black Sea remained an unrealized goal. In 1853 the opportunity arose to secure that prize when religious differences with Ottoman Turkey flared. A war was fought; Russia won. However, the victory was short-lived. France and England joined forces with the Ottomans and together these allies waged war against Russia. Thus began the conflict known today as the Crimean War.

After three years of fighting, with a total death toll estimated as high as 750,000, Russia relinquished control of the Black Sea, which was then open to all.

The Tsar turned once again to secure his hold on Crimea by “cleansing” the peninsula of its Tatar residents. Many of these fled to Ottoman Turkey. Many were killed.

Though Russia lost control of the Black Sea after the Crimean War and even sacrificed its Black Sea fleet to keep the ships out of enemy hands, one valuable asset was gained from this war: a legend. The Siege of Sevastopol, which lasted 11 months and left the coast city in charred ruins, became iconic in the Russian imagination. Perched on the southern tip of the Crimean peninsula, Sevastopol was fixed as a symbol of Russian heroism.

Flash forward to Russia under Stalin. Nationalist sentiment, which had been rising among Crimean Tatars, was crushed; Tatar leaders were “purged” and aggressive Russification of the peninsula was instituted. Repressive though these measures surely were, they were benign in comparison to what was to follow.

In 1944 Stalin charged all Tatars in Crimea with treason. The Tatar population was deported en masse. Some analysts estimate that as many as 40% of those transported eventually perished either on their journey or in gulags.

After 1944 the Crimean peninsula was truly Russified. Not only had the Tatars been expelled, but the city of Sevastopol had once again undergone a brutal siege, this time by the Nazis. The iconic standing of the Black Sea port was indelibly seared into the Russian psyche.

Tatars who survived the 1944 expulsion were not allowed to return to the Crimea until the 1990’s. Today, Tatars represent a small minority of the total Crimean population.

So–when it is reported that Crimeans identify more closely with Russia then they do with Ukraine, it may help to remember the history of the Tatars and to recall how they came to be a minority in their own land. It may also help to recall the way that Russia has fought to gain and keep control of the strategic peninsula.

When Nikita Kruschev “gave” Crimea to Ukraine in 1954,
many in the Soviet Union found the gesture perplexing because of perceived historic ties of the peninsula to Russia. Although Ukraine became independent in 1991, a treaty was signed in ’97 that allowed the Russian fleet to be stationed in Stevastopol. The term of this lease was later extended to 2042.

Nothing in Russia’ past and current actions suggests that its hold on Stevastopol–and all of  Crimea–will be relaxed before, or even after that date.

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