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AT ABOUT the same time as the British Empire laid claim to the Falkland Islands, the Russian Empire claimed Crimea. It was the late 1770s and the time of empires, when a fleet of ships could land on a place and declare it henceforth their territory.
The Falkland Islands, which the Spanish had claimed earlier and named Las Malvinas, are nearly 8,000 miles from London, off the east coast of Argentina. Crimea is nearly 800 miles from Moscow and only a few miles from the border with mainland Russia.
The Crimean peninsula, which had previously been part of the Ottoman Empire, was annexed by the Russian Empire on April 19 1783, during the reign of Catherine the Great.
That same year Russia began construction of a naval base and fortress, Sevastopol. Completed in 1804, it became the home of the Black Sea Fleet and after the 1917 revolution, became home to the Soviet Black Sea Fleet.
After the Russian revolution of 1917, in the ensuing civil war, Crimea was fought over by the Bolsheviks and the Whites (counter-revolutionaries). After the Bolsheviks triumphed, in 1921 the Crimean peninsula became part of the Russian Soviet Federative Republic.
That republic was the biggest of the 15 constituent republics of the USSR. In 1954, Crimea was transferred, in an administrative decision, to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, so that at the time of the 1991 break-up of the Soviet Union, Crimea was part of Ukraine.
So for 134 years, from 1783 till 1954, Crimea had belonged to Russia and for 33 years to Soviet Ukraine, which at the time of the transfer was part of the same nation — the USSR.
Crimea’s population was traditionally mainly Russian (over 60 per cent), with Ukrainians making up 15 per cent and Crimean Tatars 12 per cent. In March 2014, Russia organised a plebiscite among the population of the Crimean peninsula, the overwhelming result of which was for the peninsula to once again become part of Russia.
As Crimea is home to the Russian Navy’s Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol, from the time when Ukraine was part of the USSR, out of strategic and security interests it is not surprising that Russia should want that base to be in a friendly territory, not where Nazi collaborators are feted and where their supporters openly march the streets.
Ukraine’s current government is pursuing a deliberately anti-Russian policy, doing its best, it seems, to undo decades of friendship and good relations between Ukrainians and Russians, whose history is intertwined from as long ago as 10th century Kiev Rus which united the slav peoples of these regions.
As Germany’s navy chief, Kay-Achim Schonbach, said earlier this week, in an off-the-cuff remark of realpolitik, for which he has now been forced by the warmongers of Nato to resign, Crimea should be recognised as belonging to Russia and its President, Vladimir Putin, deserving of more respect.
The following is an extract from my forthcoming book on my years as a Moscow correspondent for this paper:
In June 1985, as the Morning Star’s Moscow correspondent, I had the chance to visit the Crimean peninsula, for centuries a holiday and recuperation favourite for Russian leaders and famous writers like Mikhail Lermontov, Anton Chekhov (whose famous short story the Lady with the Little Dog was set in Yalta), Leo Tolstoy (whose family lived for nearly a year in an old mansion in Gaspra), Fyodor Dostoyevsky and many other prominent Russians of pre-revolutionary times.
Russia’s most famous 19th-century poet, Alexander Pushkin, was exiled from St Petersburg to Crimea for his poems about freedom. And in the 20th century, Marina Tsvetaeva, Maxim Gorky and Alexei Tolstoy all found inspiration in Crimea’s warm air and beautiful scenery.
During the civil war, Crimea was the last foothold of resistance for the White Army. Refugee ships departed from its ports carrying scientists, artists and writers. 1920, the year of the Bolshevik’s final victory, was an important milestone for Russian literature. The play Flight by Mikhail Bulgakov reflects the last days of that old Russia.
“Crimea was a sort of Noah’s Ark in distress. Here White Army soldiers, priests and aristocrats from St Petersburg were trying to understand what happened to Russia and how to find their place in the world,” Aleksandra Guryanova wrote in Rossiyskaya Gazeta.
“Crimea has always attracted creative people who disagree with the actions of the authorities in Moscow.’ Guryanova continues. ‘One of them was the young poet and translator, Joseph Brodsky. In his narrative poem Homage to Yalta, Brodsky talks about the fragility and randomness of earthly life, which is ruled by invisible, ruthless fate.”
We know about the Crimean War, 1853-1856, in which the Russian Empire lost to an alliance of the Ottoman Empire, France, Britain and Sardinia. Lord Alfred Tennyson’s poem Charge of the Light Brigade celebrated Britain’s success at the Battle of Balaclava on October 24, with, one historian writes, relatively light casualties — “only” 118 killed out of 620.
The human cost of the Crimean war was immense: one estimate gives 25,000 British, 100,000 French and up to a million Russians killed, almost all of disease and neglect. Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole became national heroes for their work in improving hospital conditions for the wounded.
Another key battle in the Crimean war was that of Sevastopol, an important historical port on the Black Sea. Founded in 1783 as the base for the Black Sea Russian Navy, it was besieged by the British in the Crimean war. Since the 1917 Revolution it has been the home port of the Soviet Navy’s Black Sea Fleet and as such, of great strategic importance to Russia.
As I write now, in 2021, probably what most British people know about Crimea is that Russia invaded the peninsula in 2014. Yet it was the most peaceful intervention ever, occurring after a referendum showing that the vast majority of Crimeans wanted to be part of Russia. Crimea had been part of the Russian empire since 1783 and its population was primarily Russian and Ukrainian.
This sunny Crimean peninsula in the Black Sea is also famous for hosting the Yalta Conference in February 1945, where the heads of government of the allies — Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin, of the United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union respectively, met to agree on how Europe would be reorganised after the Nazis’ defeat in the second world war.
I visited the Livadia Palace, in pre-revolutionary times one of the tsar’s palaces, now a museum, where I was told of Lenin’s decree, following the 1917 October Revolution, that all such palaces would henceforth belong to the workers and peasants. In the large white hall I could see a big photograph of Winston Churchill.
Soviet partisans had saved the palace from destruction by the Nazis, who had stolen wall decorations, chandeliers and objets d’art. “Nothing was ever returned to us,” our guide told us, “of the 800 or so precious objects they took.”
Another room held documents from the three postwar conferences — Potsdam, Teheran and Yalta. Among the many topics discussed at Livadia was the need to de-Nazify Germany, the Soviet Union being in favour, our guide stressed, of “a strong, democratic and unified Germany.”
Once more on this visit, as in so many others in different parts of the Soviet Union, the dreadful effects of the war were highlighted. It was like a painful scar which never completely healed. It’s estimated that some 388,000 Britons died in WWII, but the USSR lost some 26 million citizens, military and civilian. It is hard to take in the enormity of such loss, the effects caused to the economy of a generation of missing men and the effects on the demography of the country.
Kate Clark is the former Morning Star Moscow correspondent, 1985-90.
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