Sacred Crimea

Thursday, April 10th, 2014

Crimea wasn’t always sacred land — but it has been for a while:

Consider the Crimean city of Sevastopol, home to the Russian Black Sea Fleet. Initially this port was just a convenient naval base that allowed Russia to project power into the surrounding region. Because of this geopolitical value, the city played a key role during the Crimean War of 1853-1856, when Russia fought Britain and France for the right to expand into the waning Ottoman Empire. This first ‘heroic defence’ of Sevastopol left a significant imprint on Russia’s collective psyche; not least Leo Tolstoy’s important early work, Sevastopol Sketches (1855).

The second ‘heroic defence’ of the port came in 1941-42, during the war against Nazi Germany. Indeed, the siege of Sevastopol remains only slightly less resonant for Russians than the more famous Siege of Leningrad. But it is climbing the rankings. In the midst of the present conflict, Russia designated Sevastopol a city of federal significance, a status it shares only with Moscow and St Petersburg, the city formerly known as Leningrad. As we watch, Sevastopol is being woven ever more tightly into Russia’s national mythology.

If Crimea is so precious, one might wonder why Russia ever let it go. The simple answer is that it didn’t mean to. In 1954, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred it to Ukraine as an essentially symbolic gesture. Ukraine was then a Soviet imperial possession, so this seemed an innocuous arrangement. Then, when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Russia itself started fragmenting. Chechnya achieved de facto independence. In a more peaceful fashion, Tatarstan was acquiring greater autonomy. There was talk of the Far East seceding. Crimea, in short, was not the priority.

Such periods of disintegration generally end in one of two ways. Russia rallied. During the 1990s and 2000s, it gradually squeezed out its pro-Western liberal elite, though not before they had almost halved GDP, created extreme differentials of wealth, and lost Russia its Great Power status. With the liberals in disgrace, a new, nationalistic cadre seized the moment. Under Vladimir Putin’s leadership, Russia began to claw back its lost lands, beginning, in 1999, with the reconquest of Chechnya. And now here we are.


  1. King Salmon says:

    You can almost hear the Russian national anthem playing in the background. Brings a lump to your throat if you buy into all that. Best not to, though.

    Russia is ruled by high level corrupt insiders, just as it always has been for hundreds of years. National honour doesn’t signify. But they can paint themselves with national honour and make the wankers believe in the empty words and phrases. Or some of them anyway.

    Russia is sinking into third world dictatorship status, ever more dependent on oil & gas, with a balanced and diversified economy only a fading dream.

    The only thing saving Russia right now is the green energy starvationist crusade that hamstrings Europe and slows reliable energy development across the advanced world in favour if intermittent unreliable green energy.

  2. Toddy Cat says:

    I don’t think that Turchin was trying to justify what Russia is doing, I think he was trying to explain how ordinary Russians feel about this, and why Putin’s actions are so popular. We Americans are really bad at getting inside our enemies’ heads, and one of the reasons for this is that any time anyone tries to do it, they are mistaken for enemy sympathizers. I mean, there’s a reason why Putin is doing this, whether we agree with it or not, and it’s important to understand why. Americans have a tendency to just utter the word “evil” whenever anyone crosses us.

  3. Blackburn says:

    Fascinating discussion. Reckon it’s not Americans being crossed here. It’s anybody who’s trying to escape the control of whatever the old USSR is morphing into.

    Russia’d better move quickly while the Yanks still have a weak president. The next one may be able to think for himself and hold a stronger hand.

    And what? Who can say what anybody in Russia thinks? Putin kills outspoken enemies as far away as UK. Broadcast and print media are under state control. Russia’s not a nice place to be these days, unless you’ve got plenty of vodka and crocodile.

  4. Marc Pisco says:

    The trouble with Americans “trying to get inside other people’s heads” is that so few of the ones who claim to try are doing any such thing. Americans on the left just assume everybody on earth but US red-staters is a doctrinaire orthodox Berkeley or Cambridge liberal, and on the right they assume they sell Hate Us for Our Freedom. The halfway serious ones believe crazy bullshit like the “root cause” theory: when something goes wrong, look around until you see an American or an Israeli. It’s all HIS fault! Every thug on Earth was forced to be a thug to defend his colorful native countrymen from American imperialism and we’re crazy not to support him, until we do support him, which instantly transforms him into a horrible dictator that we installed.

    The way people outside the western first word really do think is anathema to either of the two. It’s too horrible to face, because they really aren’t devoted to American domestic politics at all.

  5. Toddy Cat says:

    The way people outside the western first word really do think is anathema to either of the two. It’s too horrible to face, because they really aren’t devoted to American domestic politics at all.

    This is all too true.

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