In History Today, Alexander Lee talks about the historical attitude of Russia toward the Crimean peninsula and some of the terrible things it has done to gain and retain control over the region:
… Russia’s claim to Crimea is based on its desire for territorial aggrandizement and – more importantly – on history. As Putin and Akysonov are keenly aware, Crimea’s ties to Russia stretch back well back into the early modern period. After a series of inconclusive incursions in the seventeenth century, Russia succeeded in breaking the Ottoman Empire’s hold over Crimea with the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca (1774), before formally annexing the peninsula in 1784. It immediately became a key factor in Russia’s emergence as a world power. Offering a number of natural warm-water harbours, it gave access to Black Sea trade routes, and a tremendous advantage in the struggle for the Caucasus. Once gained, it was not a prize to be willingly surrendered, and the ‘Russianness’ of Crimea quickly became a cornerstone of the tsars’ political imagination. When a spurious dispute over custody of Christian sites in the Holy Land escalated into a battle for the crumbling remnants of the Ottoman Empire in 1853, Russia fought hard to retain its hold over a territory that allowed it to threaten both Constantinople and the Franco-British position in the Mediterranean. Almost a century later, Crimea was the site of some of the bitterest fighting of the Second World War. Recognising its military and economic importance, the Nazis launched a brutal attempt to capture the peninsula as a site for German resettlement and as a bridge into southern Russia. And when it was eventually retaken in 1944, the reconstruction of Sevastopol – which had been almost completely destroyed during a long and bloody siege – acquired tremendous symbolic value precisely because of the political and historical importance of the region. Even after being integrated into the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic and – later – acknowledged as part of an independent Ukraine after the fall of the USSR, Crimea’s allure was so powerful that the new Ukrainian President, Leonid Kraychuk, claimed that Russia’s attempts to assert indirect control of the peninsula betrayed the lingering force of an ‘imperial disease’.
The non-Russian population of Crimea was to suffer further even worse under the Soviet Union, and between 1921 and 1945, two broad phases of persecution devastated their position in the peninsula. The first was dominated by the fearsome effects of Stalinist economic policy. In keeping with the centralised aims of the First Five-Year Plan (1928-32), Crimean agricultural production was collectivised, and reoriented away from traditional crops such as grain. On top of this, bungling administrators imposed impossibly high requisition quotas. The result was catastrophic. In 1932, a man-made famine swept through the peninsula. Although agronomists had warned their political masters of the danger from the very beginning, the Moscow leadership did nothing to relieve the situation. Indeed, quite the reverse. As starvation began to take hold, Stalin not only prosecuted those who attempted to collect left-over grain from the few remaining collectivised farms producing grain, but also hermetically sealed regions afflicted by shortages. He was using the famine to cleanse an ethnically diverse population. A true genocide, the Holodmor (‘extermination by hunger’) – as this artificial famine is known – killed as many as 7.5 million Ukrainians, including tens of thousands of Crimeans. And when it finally abated, Stalin took the opportunity to fill the peninsula with Russians, such that by 1937, they accounted for 47.7% of the population, compared to the Tatars’ 20.7%.
The second phase – covering the period between 1941 and 1945 – compounded the terrible effects of the Holodmor. On its own, the appalling casualties caused by the savage battle for Crimea would have decimated the peninsula. Some 170,000 Red Army troops were lost in the struggle, and the civilian population suffered in equal proportion. But after the Soviet Union regained control, the region was subjected to a fresh wave of horror. Accusing the Tatars of having collaborated with the Nazis during the occupation, Stalin had the entire population deported to Central Asia on 18 May 1944. The following month, the same fate was meted out to other minorities, including Greeks and Armenians. Almost half of those subject to deportation died en route to their destination, and even after they were rehabilitated under Leonid Brezhnev, the Tatars were prohibited from returning to Crimea. Their place was taken mostly by ethnic Russians, who by 1959 accounted for 71.4% of the population, and – to a lesser extent – Ukrainians.