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14 March 2017

Crimea. The battle of myths

Why is Russia discriminating against Crimean Tatars?

Three years have passed since Russia took Crimea from Ukraine. After that, the Donbas was invaded, then came the Malaysia Airlines incident and the military campaign in Syria. Initially, Russian TV channels broadcast all this as a sequence of events to reinstate Russia’s geopolitical influence, and then it was all reversed. At first, the Kremlin stopped talking about “Novorossiya”, then abandoned the use of the terms “DNR” and “LNR” on an official level, and now prefers to describe the occupied territories as “certain areas in Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions”.

The term “Russian Spring” has been replaced with “Crimean Spring”, which reveals the main point: the Ukrainian peninsula is Moscow’s only trophy from a three year long campaign. The future of the Donbas is unclear; it might face a similar fate as Transnistria or East Germany. But the Kremlin – at least currently – is weeding out any sprouts of dissidence from Crimea. It is not surprising that the Crimean Tatars have become the main victim in this process.

Battles for the past

Time after time, the Kremlin transmits the idea that Crimea is an “indigenously Russian territory”. The peninsula’s sixty years as a constituent part of Ukraine (1954–2014) have been declared an embarrassing error. But in order to make sure that no-one should put this position into doubt, Moscow is fighting for “purity of mind” in Crimea. Any public attempts to call a spade a spade – including mentioning the fact that what happened in February–March 2014 was against the law – fall under article 280.1 of the Russian Criminal code (“incitement to violation of territorial integrity”).

In the last three years in Crimea, Moscow was not bringing charges based on ethnic grounds. A more apt description would be persecution on the basis of political viewpoints. Yet, approximately half of all cases involve Crimean Tatars. Considering that this ethnic group represents only 15% of the peninsula’s population, the discrepancy is obvious and easily explained.

On the one hand, the reason is that, after the annexation, Ukrainian siloviki in Crimea were given an opportunity to swear an oath of allegiance to Russia. The majority rushed to seize this opportunity, so the Russian secret services gained access to their entire legacy. Naturally, Moscow didn’t need the information collected on pro-Russian separatists, but was after the Crimean siloviki’s inquiries into Crimean Tatar civil society organisations.

On the other hand, all that is happening could also be explained by the fact that Crimea is a territory where two myths, and two systems of collective visions of the past and the future collide. One is Russian, the other – Crimean Tatar.

“Sanatorium for the whole Soviet Union”

The Russian history of Crimea is not so long, only spanning about 240 years. However, after defeating the Tatar Khanate of Crimea, Russians started actively settling in the peninsula, gradually reinforcing connections to the region.

The “cradle of Orthodox Christianity”, two sieges of Sevastopol (twice named a Hero-City), Pushkin, Tolstoy, Chekhov, the Tsar’s summer residence, the last outpost of the White Army – these are all ingredients of Russia’s myth about Crimea. It is pointless to attempt to rationalise myths as, in a sense, they are almost spiritual: they can be defeated only by rival myths. Hence, it is irrelevant that during the infamous Crimean campaign of 1854–1856, a large part of the Russian army regiments fighting for Sevastopol consisted of Ukrainians. That page of history has only remained in Moscow’s state historiography, so the Crimean campaign is now used by the Kremlin to confirm its rights to the peninsula.

The most significant part of this myth had already been formed in the 20th century, when the number of Russians in Crimea began to exceed the number of Crimean Tatars for the first time. Therefore, for the Russian collective unconscious, the peninsula conjures up both the “unsinkable aircraft carrier” and a “sanatorium for the whole USSR”. The deportation of the Crimean Tatars in 1944 only facilitated this process, as the bearers of the main competing myth were resettled to Central Asia. Only their repatriation at the end of the 1990s helped rekindle the historical debates about who the peninsula should really belong to.

Blood and Land

The Crimean Tatars’ myth about Crimea is the story of their “stolen homeland” and “Islamic paradise lost”; the sovereign statehood of the Crimean Khanate; the deportation of the native population and filling their places with people from the mainland. This myth contains stories about pre-war Crimea, where common courtyards were multicultural and the Crimean Tatar language was the language of merchants and, therefore, used in everyday communication.

This myth, like the Russian one, answers the main question of who Crimea belongs to. It is not surprising that they provide mutually exclusive answers. For the Crimean Tatar myth, the last two-and-a-half centuries tell the tale of how settlers and conquerors gradually drove them out of their homeland. For the Russian myth, Crimean Tatars are, at best, just another nation conquered by the empire and, at worst, “traitors” who were “rightly deported to Central Asia”.

The difference between these two myths is that the Russian one is inclusive – in the imperialistic sense of the word. Those who were ready to swear allegiance to a new capital and a new concept of history were accepted as “one of us”. At the same time, the Crimean Tatars’ myth is exclusive: it was defensive from the very beginning and aimed not to expand their ethnic territory, but to protect it. This is understandable: the Crimean Tatars were a minority, and it was important for them to protect themselves from assimilation and obliteration.

There was also a Ukrainian myth about Crimea, but it was weaker than the previous two. This was probably because it was a myth centred on the idea of rebuilding Crimea after the war. The peninsula was transferred to the UkrSSR in 1954, and it was during that Ukrainian period of the region’s history that the main infrastructure was built, including the North Crimean canal, which finally solved the region’s problem of water shortages.

It was this “practical” content of the Ukrainian myth that undermined it – it was hard for its urbanistic concept to compete with the “military theme” of the Russian myth, and the Crimean Tatar myth’s “vital” nature. Therefore, Kyiv still regularly refers to the “Crimean Tatar concept” for the region in official discussions.

An inconvenient native population

This is why the Crimean Tatars are still under scrutiny from the Russian siloviki. They are Moscow’s main bugbear, because they stand for an alternative view of the region’s past and future. Initially, the Kremlin attempted to “privatise” them, promising official posts and resources in exchange for loyalty. But when the Crimean Tatar Majlis (parliament) refused to recognise the legitimacy of the flag being changed in February–March 2014, it decided to apply repressive solutions.

Moreover, the Crimean Tatars, unlike Crimean Ukrainians, have remained more of a close-knit and distinct community. They are difficult to assimilate due to their cultural and religious differences. And since most officials and siloviki in Crimea retained their posts after the annexation, the period after 2014 was one for settling private scores as well. This is because the history of interaction between Simferopol and the Crimean Tatars did not start from scratch three years ago, but was founded on long-standing conflicts over land and resources. Such contradictions have been dragging on since the early 1990s’, when the Crimean Tatars began returning from exile to Crimea, where they were met with genuine fear and lack of comprehension.

Three years ago, Russia decided to make Crimea its major symbolic acquisition. The peninsula was ascribed the role of sacred evidence of Russia’s imperial might. In order to achieve this, the Kremlin opted to destroy the entire post-war establishment. Therefore, it will fight to its dying breath with anyone who dares to challenge its symbolic acquisition.

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