Long ago the inland regions of Crimea were inhabited by Scythians and the mountainous south coast by the Taures, an offshoot of the Cimmerians. Greek settlers occupied a number of colonies along the peninsula’s coast. Today’s invaders come from a more northerly place.
The Ukrainian painter Volodymyr Orlovsky (1842-1914) took realist landscape painting to extremes. A gold medallist of the Saint Petersburg Academy of Fine Arts, he depicted the Crimean countryside in a pristine, idealised way, that gave no hint of the region’s tumultuous past. His paintings hung in the houses of wealthy Russians, who never even saw the Revolution coming. Today, Crimea is again reliving its past.
The name Crimea probably originates in a small fortress town now called Staryi Krym, capital of the Golden Horde Mongols when they dominated the region in the 13th century. For more than 1,500 hundred years, Crimea was tossed between rival claims, eventually coming into its own in the 18th century – just before being annexed by Catherine the Great of Russia in 1783. After that:
- 1853: The Crimean War begins, lasting three years. Russia loses to an alliance of the Ottoman Empire, France, Britain and Sardinia. Crimea remains part of Russia, although much of its economic and social infrastructure was devastated.
- 1917: Crimea is briefly a sovereign state before becoming a base for the White Army of anti-Bolshevik forces in the Russian Civil War. They lose and at the end of 1920 some 50,000 prisoners of war and civilians are summarily executed.
- 1921: The peninsula, now called the Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, becomes part of the Soviet Union.
- 1942: Nazi Germany takes control of Crimea.
- 1944: Joseph Stalin forcibly deports all Muslim Tatars, a group of 300,000 who had lived on the peninsula for centuries, because of their alleged collaboration during World War II. Many return to the peninsula in the 1980s and 1990s.
- 1945: After World War II, the autonomous Soviet republic is dissolved and Crimea becomes a province of the Soviet Union called the Crimean Oblast.
- 1954: Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev transfers the Crimean Oblast to Ukraine.
- 1991: Collapse of the Soviet Union. Boris Yeltsin, the new president of the Russian Federation, leaves Crimea to the Ukraine.
- 1997: Ukraine and Russia sign a treaty that allows Russia to keep its fleet in Sevastopol. The agreement has since been extended and the fleet may remain there until at least 2042.
Today, Crimea has 2.3 million people the majority of whom identify themselves as ethnic Russians and speak the language. Ethnic Ukrainians make up 24% of the population, compared with 58% Russians and 12% Tatars.
The name Ukraine means “borderland”, and Russia still sees it and Crimea as Russian. But in 1991, 90% of the Ukrainian population voted for an Act of Independence that saw the formation of a Commonwealth of Independent States. What could Russia do but play a waiting game? More recently, deep financial crises, corruption, electoral fraud, and a dispute with Russia over debts for natural gas, led to a demand by many in the Ukraine for greater integration with the European Union.
If he could, the new tsar, Vladimir Putin, would like to block up Peter the Great’s “window to the west” – looking east and even further afield for new alliances that might see a restoration of Russia’s political and economic power. Crimea is a test case of how far he can overstep the mark.