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Kerch Bridge and fictions about Crimea

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es. Vienna, October 18, 2022

By Tim Snyder

Prof Snyder

On 7 October, an explosion destroyed some of the Kerch Bridge, which connects Russia to Crimea.  It is a new construction. When Russia invaded Ukraine the first time, in 2014, there was no such bridge, no road connection between Russia and Ukraine’s Crimean province.  From the perspective of Ukraine, Crimea is a peninsula.  From the perspective of Russia, Crimea is an island.

The Kerch Bridge was completed in 2018, as a way for Russia to control Crimea, which it claimed to have annexed from Ukraine.  This year, it has been used to supply Russian troops, carrying out a war of atrocity in Ukraine. The damage to the bridge will make it harder for Russia to supply the troops occupying Crimea and other parts of southern Ukraine.  The explosion was also a blow to Vladimir Putin’s prestige, since the bridge is a monument to his personal imperialism.  Its vulnerability suggests not only the foolishness of this war for Russia, but more generally the self-destructiveness of Russian attempts to extend empire by force.


The Kerch Bridge after the explosion


Most fundamentally, the burning bridge suggests the tenuousness of Russia’s connection to Crimea.  The explosion gives us a chance, therefore, to consider the history of the Crimean Peninsula, and so to reflect, from a perhaps unfamiliar angle, on the histories of Ukraine and Russia.  

Crimea is a district of Ukraine, as recognized by international law, and by treaties between Ukraine and the Russian Federation.  Putin, however, has taken the view, for more than a decade now, that international law must yield to what he calls “civilization,” meaning his eccentric understanding of the past. The annoying features of the world that do not fit his scheme of the past are classified as alien, and illegitimate, and subject to destruction (Ukraine, for example). 

The example of Crimea lays bare a problem within Putin’s thinking.  The idea that there is some sort of immutable “civilization,” outside of time and human agency, always turns out to be based upon nothing.  In the case of Crimea, Putin’s notion that the peninsula was “always” Russia is absurd, in almost more ways than one can count.  

The Crimean Peninsula has been around for quite a long time, and Russia is a recent creation.  What Putin has in mind when he speaks of eternity is the baptism of a ruler of Kyiv, Valdimar, in 988.  From this moment of purity, we are to understand, arose a timeless reality of  Russian Crimea (and a Russian Ukraine). which we all must accept or be subject to violence.  Crimea becomes “holy.”

It takes time to recount even a small portion of the ways in which this is nonsensical.  First of all, the historical event itself is not at all clear.  One source says that Valdimar was baptized in Crimea, as Putin likes to say; others that he was baptized in Kyiv.  None of the sources date from the period itself, so we cannot be certain that it took place at all, let alone of the locale. (If Valdimar was indeed baptized in Crimea, Putin’s logic would seem to suggest that the peninsula belongs to modern Greece, since the presumed site was part of Byzantium at the time.)

Valdimar was, to put it gently, not a Russian.  There were no Russians at the time.  He was the leader of a clan of Scandinavian warlords who had established a state in Kyiv, having wrenched the city from the control of Khazars.  His clan was settling down, and the conversion to Christianity was part of the effort to build a state.  It was called “Rus,” apparently from a Finnish word for the slave-trading company that brought the Vikings to Kyiv in the first place. 

It was not called “Rus” because of anything to do with today’s Russia — nor could it have been, since there was no Russia then, and no state would bear that name for another seven hundred years.  Moscow, the city, did not exist at the time. 

Baptism, whatever its other merits, does not create some kind of timeless continuum of power over whatever range of territory some later figure chooses to designate.  If it did, international relations would certainly look very different.  When Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, the Roman Empire controlled what is now Portugal, Spain, France, the Balkans, Israel, Turkey, North Africa…  But we would be very surprised to hear an Italian leader (even now) cite Constantine’s baptism to claim all of these countries. 

To take an example of another east European baptism: at the moment when the Lithuanian grand duke converted to Christianity, he ruled not only today’s Lithuania, but also what is now Belarus, most of what is now Ukraine, and a portion of what is now Russia.  By way of baptism in 1386 he was able to marry the Polish king (who was a girl) and take the Polish crown.  The Lithuanians at the time were also deeply engaged in Crimea, fighting the Crimean Khanate.  Taking advantage of fractures and power struggles, the Lithuanians integrated sizable numbers of Crimean Tatars into their own armed forces, and allowed them and their descendants to settle in Lithuania, to enter commercial trades (such as tanning), to build mosques, and to print holy books.  

In 1410, when the Lithuanian Grand Duke defeated the Teutonic Knights in the famous battle of Grünwald, some of his fighters were Crimean Tatars.  Ostroh, in what is now Ukraine, is known as the place where the first slavonic bible was published, but it was also the site of a mosque for Crimean Tatars.  Navahrudak, in what is now Belarus, is the birthplace of the famous Polish Romantic poet Adam Mickiewicz; it too was the site of a mosque for Crimean Tatars.  In my office I have a printed edition of a kitab, a Crimean Tatar prayer book from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, using Arabic script, but in a Polish-Belarusian language with Turkish phrases.  Its first words, enticingly, are “This is the key to heaven.”  It bespeaks a coherent Crimean Tatar culture that endured for centuries extended well beyond the borders of the Crimean Khanate itself.

I like to think that this Lithuanian-Polish-Belarusian-Ukrainian-Crimean history is worth knowing — I am busily teaching it — but if the Lithuanian president were to proclaim today that Jogaila’s baptism in 1386 somehow gave him the right to rule Poland, Belarus, Ukraine and its Crimean province, we would be puzzled.

In one respect, though, our imaginary Italian or Lithuanian claims are less nonsensical than the Russian one.  Even if we were to accept every other Putinesque oddity, including the profound fallacy of the legitimation of present borders by ancient baptisms, we would be brought to a halt by geography. 

Putin’s mythical structure is based upon the restoration of Rus, an east European entity centered in Kyiv whose high point was 1000 years ago.  The Lithuanian and Italian governments are based in Vilnius and Rome, which were also the ancient capitals. Putin is talking about a state that is distant not only in time but in space. Moscow was not the capital of Rus; it did not exist when Valdimar was baptized. 

And even if we bend our brains to accept Putin’s odd scheme, we can’t avoid another basic geographical fact: the Crimean peninsula was never part of the lands of Rus.  Neither shore of the present-day Kerch Bridge was in Rus.  None of the southern Ukrainian territories, for that matter, were in Rus.  Kherson region, for example, was not in Rus.  Very little of the land that Russia occupies now in Ukraine was part of Rus.

History, as we work to see it, is ever so much more interesting than the myths that bring senseless wars.  The political fantasies of tyrants, which claim to encapsulate some eternal truth, draw our attention away from the actual territory and the actual peoples who inhabited it and the actual institutions they built.  

This is the essence of colonial logic: only we, the colonizers, have a history; anyone whom we encounter along the way does not.  For the purposes of a colonial war, this logic must be insisted upon, even if it rests on the wisp of a baptism.  And so Ukrainian history, including the Cossack entities that did in fact reside in southern Ukraine, has to be derided. 

The Crimean Khanate, an actual state which preceded any based in Moscow, has to be ignored. Its early rulers shaped Muscovite history rather than the other way around.  It endured for several hundred years on the territory of Crimea, and other parts of what is now southern Ukraine.  (If one were to accept the principle that ancient statehood and baptism legitimized modern borders, than it would be the indigenous people of Crimea, the Crimean Tatars, who would have a voice. When their leaders underwent a religious conversion, to Islam, they ruled much of what is now the Asian part of Russia. Do they get it back?)

In fact, the history of Moscow makes more sense if we start from Crimea.  The origins of the Crimean state and the Moscow state are closely related, and for quite a while the more significant entity was the Crimean one. 

Both the Crimean Khanate and the Moscow state are direct results of the Mongol invasions of eastern Europe of the late 1230s.  By that time, Kyivan Rus was fragmented, and the Mongols easily took control of most of the remnants (except for what is now western Ukraine).  They also conquered east European lands that had nothing to do with Rus, for example, the Crimean peninsula, and what is now southern Ukraine.  At the time, Crimea seems to have been dominated by Turkic Cumans, who either fled or were assimilated into the Mongol polity that arose in Crimea.

As Mongolian power fragmented, in its turn, in the early fourteenth century, Lithuania gained control of most of what had been Rus, including Kyiv.  The Lithuanian Grand Dukes styled themselves rulers of Rus.  Some of the old territories of Rus, in its extreme north and north east, reconsolidated around a new town called Moscow, but under more durable Mongol rule and on a new principle. 

These lands of Mongol Rus were ruled by descendants of the princely Rus family, but these rulers were chosen by the Mongols according to their ability to raise tribute.  After a couple of formative centuries under Mongol control, Moscow began its independent political career, first conquering the cities to its west, then the Muslim territories to its south, and then making a quick eastward advance across Asia to the Pacific.


This map shows the Crimean Khanate, as well as Lithuania. Former territories of Rus, displayed north of the Crimean Khanate here, were subject to Lithuania.


In its origins, the Moscow state was a Mongol vassal, one that after a couple of centuries broke out into a new sort of political existence.  The Crimean Khanate, by contrast, was a direct successor of the Mongol empire. 

Mongol leaders converted to Islam in the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century.  The Crimean Khanate, which covered most of the Crimean Peninsula and much of what is now southern Ukraine, was a Muslim state ruled by princes descended from Chingis Khan.  It had a nobility which was represented in an assembly, or kurultai. 

In principle the ruler (the khan) was elected, but in fact was always from the same family. In this (and in some other matters) the Crimean Tatars much resembled their neighbor Lithuania. After 1386, and for almost two centuries, the same Lithuanian dynasty provided kings of Poland generation after generation, although Polish kings were supposed to be elected.  The Crimeans farmed and raided for slaves, some of whom were sold at the markets on the Crimean coast, which were run by Europeans.  Another source of income was the tribute that the Crimean Khanate collected from Moscow until 1699.

Crimea was ruled by a larger Mongol state for a couple of centuries, and then as the Crimean Khanate from 1441 to 1783 — quite a long time.  During much of its existence, it made foreign policy for the Ottoman Empire in the north, with respect to Lithuania, Poland, and Muscovy.  At some point around 1650, the Ottomans gained dominance over Tatar politics; this was at around the time, however, when Ottoman power was otherwise weakening.  The Tatars now fought in wars chosen by Istanbul, which did not always go well.


Ruins of Ottoman Yeni-Kale fortress, Crimea


Tatars fought, for example, in the 1683 Ottoman invasion of the Habsburg monarchy, which was meant to take Vienna.  The Habsburgs held out in their capital, thanks to the intervention of the Polish-Lithuanian army, which in a famous charge stormed the besieging Ottoman forces. 

This battle is recalled as a triumph of Christianity.  What is not always remembered about that charge is that the Habsburg allies could not tell the Polish-Lithuanian soldiers from the Crimean Tatars.  Centuries of deep engagement had led to similarities not only in tactics and weapons but in attire.  It was after that Ottoman defeat that Moscow stopped paying tribute to the Crimean Khanate.

In 1721, the Moscow state renamed itself the “Russian Empire,” in a self-conscious rebranding exercise, referring to Rus.  Three other states that occupied the territory between the Baltic and Black Seas — the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Crimean Khanate, and the Ukrainian Cossack state — were defeated or fell apart during the eighteenth century.  The Russian Empire, unlike these other three states, broke forth spectacularly into the European age of discovery, with trade to the Atlantic and the Pacific.  The complex struggles among those other three entities were also crucial to Russia’s eventual triumph.  

The most important of these conflicts was the Ukrainian Cossack uprising against Polish rule in 1648.  It led, after the Polish-Lithuanian army began to prevail, to a desperate alliance between the Ukrainian Cossacks and Moscow, sealed at Pereiaslav in 1654.  The alliance was the beginning of the submission of the Ukrainian Cossacks.

By the end of the eighteenth century, Poland-Lithuania had been partitioned, and the Russian Empire was using the Ukrainian Cossacks, now under its command, to drive the Crimean Tatars from what is now southern Ukraine and then to win control of Crimea itself.  Once those goals were attained, the Russian Empire dissolved the remaining autonomy of the Ukrainian Cossacks inside the Russian Empire. 

This incredible series of eighteenth-century victories for the new Russian Empire did not amount to a restoration of “lost” territory.  The lands of ancient Rus that Russia gained had been in other political systems for half a millennium — for much, much longer than Rus had even existed.  Other lands that Russian gained in the eighteenth century, such as Poland, Crimea, and what is now southern Ukraine, had not been part of Rus at all. 

When Empress Catherine II integrated Crimea and what is now southern Ukraine into her Russian Empire, she called these lands “New Russia.”  Once something is declared “new,” everything that came before is subject to elimination.  In this familiar colonial term, the sense is that something is about to become part of the Russian Empire.  There were practically no Russians living in these places at the time, and no available Russian history at all. 

Unlike Putin and contemporary Russians, Catherine (who was German) understood that what was happening in Crimea was not a reclamation.  When she declared the place to be “New Russia,” it was in the spirit of English settlers in “New England” or James Cook with respect to “New Wales” or “New Caledonia.”  When you apply your own name to a populated region with a history, you are bracketing the local people and the past, and giving yourself the right to do what you want (this all applies to U.S. history as well).

With the “new” Catherine combined the very old.  Herself without any family connection to Russian or east European history, aside from the Russian husband who was murdered so that she could rule, she reached freely into ancient references as she imagined the future of her new lands.  In order to efface the Crimean, Muslim, and Ottoman character of the territory, she reached back to a still older history that was familiar to her: that of classical Greece. 

It is true that Crimea belongs to the classical world.  The southern coast had been continuously settled by Greeks for more than two thousand years.  This history granted Catherine the possibility of imagining all of “New Russia” in classical terms, and thereby imagining her Russian Empire into some sort of continuity with the ancient world.  This of course meant suppressing the history of the peoples and states of the “New Russia,” Ukrainian Cossacks and Crimean Tatars.

To bring together the old and the “new,” Catherine replaced Turkic names in Crimea with Greek(ish) ones.  When new cities were built in southern Ukraine, they were also given names with a classical feel.  And thus Kherson, today in embattled southern Ukraine, recalled ancient Greek Chersonesos, which was in Crimea.  Mariupol, which today’s Russia has completely destroyed, recalls the ancient Greek Mariampol, which was also in Crimea.  The actual Greeks who lived in Crimea were deported, confusingly, to these new settlements in southern Ukraine — hence the large Greek population in Mariupol until 2022, when most were killed or forced to flee by the Russian invasion and destruction of their city.


Ruins of Khersonesos, Crimea


Catherine had olive trees planted so that the region would look more Greek (and planted a single apricot tree in Kherson).  These south Ukrainian regions, like Crimea, had never been part of Rus.  They did, however, have a very immediate Ukrainian past.  It was precisely in southern Ukraine, on the Dnipro River, that the Ukrainian Cossacks had their strongholds over the centuries.  All of the classicizing in southern Ukraine was meant to efface this very recent history of Ukrainian Cossack politics, just as all of the classicizing of Crimea was meant to efface the history of the Crimean Khanate and the Tatars.

With the renaming came a new human landscape.  The Russian Empire gave away land plots in Crimea to officials and nobles, who built manors in what they regarded as classical styles.  Russians liked Crimea because it was warm, and their country was cold (this remains the case).  The peninsula became a site of imperial naval bases. 

The Crimean population had to give way.  At the end of the eighteenth century, when the Crimean Khanate had ceased to be, almost the entire population of the peninsula was Crimean Tatar.  About a third of the Tatars emigrated in the first years of Russian imperial rule.  During the Crimean War of 1853-1856, more than a hundred thousand more left.  Around that time, the Crimean Tatars became a minority in what had, until so very recently, been their own country.  During the remaining decades of the nineteenth century, the position of the Crimean Tatars weakened further.  

After the collapse of the Russian Empire during the First World War, Crimea changed hands several times between Ukrainian, Crimean, Red (Bolshevik) and White (neo-imperial) Russian forces. In May 1920, a representative of a Crimean parliament sent a petition to the League of Nations to make of the peninsula a League mandate. Invoking the “tyranny” of Russian imperial rule, he asked that the mandate be granted to Poland. The League responded that the Crimean question could not be separated developments in Russia as a whole. Those developments proved to be the seizure of the peninsula by the Bolsheviks that November.

Soviet leaders understood that Crimea had a quite distinct past, and until 1945 the peninsula was regarded as an autonomous republic within the Russian republic of the USSR.  In its last years as an autonomous republic, the entirety of its remaining indigenous population was forcibly resettled. 

Stalin falsely portrayed the entire Crimean Tatar people as collaborators with the German occupation, and ordered that every single one of them be deported from their homeland.  (Putin’s practice of associating entire nations with the Nazis and then seeking to destroy them has, as we see, a tradition.) 

In just three days in May 1944, the Soviet secret state police rounded up and forcibly deported 180,014 Crimean Tatars, most of them to Soviet Uzbekistan.  Included later in the deportations were Crimean Tatar Red Army veterans who wanted to go home after their release from German camps.  All of these people lost their homes and property; they were replaced by settlers from the rest of the USSR, usually Russians.  It was thanks to this rather recent ethnic cleansing that Crimea became Russian in population.

Its political status, though, remained uncertain.  Crimea had been an autonomous region thanks to the presence of the Crimean Tatars, who had been eliminated.  After the war, it was just a normal oblast, or region, of the Russian republic of the USSR.  It fell to Nikita Khrushchev, Stalin’s successor, to decide what to do with the peninsula.  A decade after the mass deportation, the peninsula was transferred, at Khrushchev’s initiative, from the Russian to the Ukrainian Soviet Republic. 

Khrushchev’s motives were practical.  The connection with the Russian republic was a logistical and administrative nightmare.  There is no actual land connection to Russia, but there is to Ukraine.  Crimea could be sensibly supplied with water and with energy from the Ukrainian side.  Since Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine by force in 2014, water has been a constant problem.  (An odd thing about Elon Musk’s recent tweeting about Russia and Ukraine was that he mentioned this water supply issue, which is well known to Russian authorities but not common knowledge.)

Khrushchev, who knew Ukraine well, saw an opportunity for political gain in presenting this administrative decision in a pro-Ukrainian way.  Soviet Ukraine had suffered horribly from famine and terror in the 1930s, as Khrushchev well knew.  He had also been personally involved in the suppression of Ukraine nationalist partisans in lands, taken from Poland, that had been incorporated into Soviet Ukraine in 1945.  So he dressed up the administrative measure in national garb — quite literally.  

The transfer took place on the year of the three-hundredth anniversary of the Treaty of Pereiaslav, the agreement back in 1654 that brought in Moscow’s army on the side of the Ukrainian Cossacks against Poland-Lithuania.  In 1954, this was presented — without historical foundation — as a choice of Ukrainians to join Russia forever.  Cigarette packs and nightgowns were printed with the slogan “300 years” to celebrate the supposedly ancient Russo-Ukrainian synthesis.


Contemporary Crimea. It is easy to see what the Soviet leadership had in mind in thinking that Crimea would be more easily supplied from the north than from the east. The red bit at the far left is Russia; the thin line is the Kerch Bridge.


In this bit of intra-Soviet national propaganda, aimed at Ukrainians and Russians, the Crimean people were entirely lost, as they often are today in discussions of the peninsula.  No one mentioned that the peninsula had lost its autonomous status after an ethnic cleansing of its native population.  No one went to Uzbekistan to ask the deported Crimeans, a very large percentage of whom had perished, what they thought of the celebration.

After the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, deported Crimean Tatars, or their children and grandchildren, made their way back to their homeland, which was now part of independent Ukraine.  Every single region of Ukraine voted for independence in a referendum that year, all of them by very wide margins: except Crimea.  In Crimea, the vote for Ukrainian independence was still positive — 54% — but this was thirty-six points below the overall national outcome, which was 90%. 

Between 1945 and 1991, Crimea had become home, or often retirement home, to more than a million Russian newcomers, whose origins and only political experiences were in the Soviet Union. 

Because of the Soviet naval bases, it was also home to retired officers and their families.  As recent arrivals, they were naturally prone to believe that Crimea had “always” been Soviet, or Russian.  After 1991, Crimea was the district of Ukraine with the greatest local separatist tendency within Ukraine, although this was never more than an irritant.  The Ukrainian state welcomed the returning Crimean Tatars, who managed to build themselves back to about 10 percent of the peninsula’s population. 

Crimean Tatars tended to see Ukraine as a counterbalance to Russian nationalism and to Soviet nostalgia, which, for obvious reasons, they did not share.  When Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014 and seized Crimea, 10,000  or so Crimean Tatars fled north and settled elsewhere in Ukraine.  In the present Russian invasion, Russia deliberately mobilizes Crimean Tatars in occupied Crimea so that they can die fighting in Ukraine.  This is part of a larger Russian strategy of killing indigenous men.

That prior Russian invasion, eight years ago, was justified by the idea that Crimea had “always” been Russia, just as this invasion is justified by the idea that Russia and Ukraine were “always” together.  I’ve written here and elsewhere about the problem of “always together”; in my history books (for example Reconstruction of Nations, Red Prince, Bloodlands, Black Earth, Road to Unfreedom) I begin the history of eastern Europe from other premises, which can perhaps help us to see our way through it or around it. 

During the 2014 invasion, Russian propaganda was much more successfulthan this time around; perhaps for that reason, far too many people in North America and Europe seem to think that it is reasonable to say that Crimea was “always” Russia.

Yet Russia’s “referendum” of 2014 in Crimea was no less a bogus social media exercise than the “referendums” that were just “held” in four other Ukrainian provinces.  No less than now, that electoral farce was carried out by invaders who told local people how to vote. 

Posters in Crimea before that 2014 “referendum” proclaimed that the choice was between Russia and Nazism (again, that theme).  At the time of the ballot, people in Crimea had no access to international or Ukrainian media.  On the day, they had to choose, in good Orwellian fashion, between two options, both of which amounted to the annexation of Crimea by Russia. 

According to internal information of the Russian presidential administration, less than a third of eligible voters turned up, and the vote split between the two options: and so, insofar as one can say that such a farce can be “lost,” Russia lost it. 

To end where I began: in the basic legal sense, none of this matters.  Legally speaking, Crimea is part of Ukraine for the same reason that Maine is part of the United States, or Provence is part of France: international law and the principle of mutual state recognition. 

Even were Putin’s arguments about Crimea and Ukraine something else than multidimensional nonsense, they would provide no justification for invasion and annexation.  That said, the history of Crimea is fascinating on its own (see excellent books by Kelly O’Neill, Charles King, Neal Ascherson, Natalia Królikowska-Jedlińska, and the late Patricia Herlihy, among many others, on Crimea and New Russia.)

Some knowledge of Crimean history also gives fresh angles on the history of eastern Europe – and on contemporary Ukrainian and Russian proposals for the peninsula.  Russia’s idea is to treat Crimea as a base for present-day empire, with more state terror and naval bases, and further oppression of the indigenous Crimean Tatar population.  The Ukrainians are proposing that Crimea become a demilitarized zone with a national park, and with recognition of its indigenous people.

So what exactly was Putin doing when he attacked Ukraine’s Crimea province in 2014, when he built that bridge in 2018, when he attacked Ukraine in 2022, when he supplied his invading army across the bridge?  In all of Putin’s accounts of the past, it is as though there is no Russia, unless Russia can somehow attach itself to someone else’s history.

Russia is not for, it is only against.  His myths have a kind of parasitical or even vampiric quality about them, as though a Russian self-imagination of eternity sustains itself by consuming the actual histories of actual neighbors.  

Putin has nothing to say about the future.  He seems to have no idea of what Russia itself might be, as a state or a society, beyond the conflicts that his own mysticism is supposed to sanctify. His references to the past as it wasn’t leave open the question of what “Russia” is or might become.

Catherine, at least, had an idea behind her imperialism: that the Russian Empire was joining general European practices and becoming a European empire, complete with a handy link to the ancient Greeks. 

Putin, who presents his wars for Crimea and for Ukraine as part of a larger death struggle with the West, does not even have that. His imperialism is for its own sake, or perhaps just for his own sake.  His profound mischaracterizations of the past, leading as they do to absolutely nothing, are the slippery edge of an abyss, into which contemporary Russia itself is falling.

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