Workers Vanguard No. 1050

8 August 2014


Yes, Crimea Is Russian


23 June 2014

This is a relatively minor point, and I don’t request it be published.

In Workers Vanguard you state that Crimea was “historically part of Russia” (13 June) or “long part of Russia” (16 May). I think this is historically inaccurate.

Prior to the Revolution, Crimea was part of the Russian Empire, that is true, but so was Ukraine. Ukraine, in fact, has historically a closer association with Russia, Kiev being the birthplace of the Russian “nation”. Crimea, on the other hand, was dominated by the Tatars until Russia took over in the late 18th century—the same time they took over Ukraine.

After the Revolution, Crimea became the Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic within the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (not merely “part of Russia”). In 1945 it was downgraded to the Crimean Oblast within the RSFSR and the Crimean Tatars were deported. In 1954 it was transferred to Ukraine. So, for the past 60 years Crimea has been part of the Ukrainian Republic. This is more significant than the 30 odd years when it was part of the RSFSR.

To the best of my knowledge Crimea has been viewed as a distinct entity throughout its long and complicated history.

This does not detract from the fact that present population is ethnically Russian and appears to favour Russian annexation, but there is no need to falsify history to improve their case.

Niall C.

WV replies: We thank Niall C. for his letter, which he gave permission to print.

We Marxists upheld the right of self-determination for the Crimean people, who are ethnically Russian in their majority. This included supporting the intervention of Russian troops, which allowed the exercise of that right, with the population overwhelmingly voting to reunite with Russia. Our position does not entail the slightest political support to Vladimir Putin’s regime, a capitalist government based on Great Russian chauvinism.

By all appearances, Niall agrees with us that the decisive consideration is what the majority of the population wants. But he disagrees with our historical understanding of how and when Crimea became predominantly Russian.

Russia wrested control of Crimea from the Ottoman Empire and annexed the peninsula in 1783. Subsequently, the tsars pursued a policy of Russification of the region, with Russian settlers and their fellow Orthodox Christians from Turkish-ruled territories—Greeks, Armenians and Slavs—moving in. On the heels of Russia’s annexation, Tatars, a Muslim people who had inhabited Crimea since the 13th century, fled in droves to the Ottoman Empire for fear of reprisals and religious persecution. By 1802, more than 100,000 Tatars—more than a third of the total Crimean population at the time—had moved to Ottoman lands. An even more massive Tatar exodus took place after the 1854-56 Crimean War pitting Russia against the Ottomans, British and French.

Having a foothold in the Black Sea was militarily vital for the Russians. The area around Sevastopol (where the first Kievan Rus prince to convert is said to have been baptized) was also viewed as the birthplace of Russian Christianity, to be defended against the Muslim Ottomans. Crimea quickly obtained a place in Russian culture and identity that it never lost: Pushkin immortalized it in verse, while Tolstoy chronicled the famous Siege of Sevastopol in 1854-55. Russian aristocrats and later Stalinist bureaucrats built palaces along the cliffs and beaches, in what became the Riviera of Russia.

During the civil war that broke out after the October 1917 proletarian revolution in Russia, many Tatar nationalist leaders sided with the counterrevolutionary White forces against the Red Army. But in 1921 the Bolsheviks finally prevailed in Crimea. At the time, the population was not only half Russian but also highly multinational and multiethnic. Tatars represented some 20 percent of the total in addition to large numbers of Armenians, Bulgars, Jews and Greeks.

The early Bolshevik regime, whose tradition we stand in, assiduously defended the rights of oppressed nationalities and peoples. The Crimean Tatar language was accorded official status alongside Russian, Tatar schools were created and Tatars were encouraged to participate in the political life of the peninsula, which became an autonomous republic, part of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic. Since a myriad of peoples throughout Russia were at different levels of national consolidation, the Bolsheviks established various autonomous republics, oblasts and okrugs across the Russian territory to provide for the special needs of these peoples.

After the Red Army liberated Crimea from the Nazis in 1944 at the end of World War II, Stalin collectively accused all non-Russian peoples there (Tatars, Greeks, Bulgars and Armenians) of collaborating with the German occupiers and deported them to Central Asia. Crimea was thus literally emptied of Tatars. They were rehabilitated by the Soviet authorities in 1967 but were not allowed to return en masse to Crimea until the dismantling of the Soviet Union in 1991.

In 1954, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev ceded Crimea to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. This purely administrative measure did not make any difference in the ethnic composition and identity of Crimea, or its main language, which remained Russian. Khrushchev’s stupid move only took on significance with the collapse of the Soviet Union, as the fate of Crimea was the subject of heated disputes between the now bourgeois states of Russia and Ukraine. From that time, Crimean residents repeatedly attempted to break away from Ukraine, especially through referendums, only succeeding this year with the Russian intervention.