In reminding Americans the crucial historical role of Crimea to Russia, and Russia to Crimea, an American professor teaches us all the importance of history.
Among many things, Professor Lyle J.Goldstein said that:
Russia first acquired Crimea in the same year, 1783, that marked the end of the American Revolution. To put it bluntly, Russians have controlled Crimea for quite a long while now and are extremely unlikely to give it up, so let’s neither hold our breath, nor premise our strategy on absurdly ahistorical, neo-liberal premises. European security specialists have much more pressing issues to address obviously, including primarily the refugee crisis and terrorism. A more thorough knowledge of history could help American policymakers draft more responsible policies to stop the “free fall” in U.S.-Russian relations that now imperils Ukraine, Europe and the entire world.
You can read the Professor’s entire speech here. It’s very important to listen carefully to his advice. A deeper knowledge of history is truly key. While it is unlikely this will change the mind of top American policymakers, it may help the average citizen understand the historical role of Crimea in Russia.
Let’s start at the beginning of Russian history, and take a walk through geography, in order to understand the realities of Ukraine and Russia today. If people better understood this, they would be more equipt to discuss what is really happening.
Russia first emerged as a state called Rus’ or Kievan Rus’ in 862. At that time, Rus’ existed on a shared territory around northwestern Russia, Belarus, and Central and Western Ukraine. Rus’ existed long before the modern borders of the states located there today. Take a look at this map.
You can make out the modern borders of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia if you look closely. What you will also notice is that Crimea was not part of Rus’. Even if Ukraine wishes to claim to be the only successor of Kievan Rus’, one can see Crimea has NOTHING to do with so-called “Ancient Ukraine”.
By the 1240 century, Kiev would fall to the Mongols, and around 1362, Kiev, along with most of modern Ukraine would be ruled by the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. In the picture below, one can see clearly how Lithuania occupied even parts of modern Russia, for example, Smolensk.
By the 15th century, Lithuania will have joined with Poland into a single commonwealth, ruling most of Ukraine. At that same time, the eastern half of Rus’ survived, and Moscow managed to reuinte almost all of the old territories of Rus’, save for that in the west until later.
In the mid 17th century, Cossacks under the leadership of Bogdan Khmelnitsky, wishing to unite with their Orthodox and Rus(ian) brothers and sisters, accepted the help of the Russian Czar, and with him, restored freedom in the left-bank of the River Dnipro. Contrary to what it would sound like, left bank Ukraine is the right side of the River Dnipro when you look at a map.
The lands in purple above, constituted the heartland of the Cossacks, who liberated the dark green region of Malorossia (little Russia) just above. With the help of Russia, they liberated the upstream territories, however, the lavender lands below, including Crimea were sparsely inhabited still.
Eventually, the Russian Empire continued it’s advance westward liberating the rest of Ukraine. The regions it liberated in the west were called “Little Russia” and constituted many ancient lost parts of Rus’
In the south, they liberated the “Wild Fields”, and under Catherine the Great in the 18th century, they overthrew the Crimean Khanate. Under Catherine, Russia built the great cities of southern Ukraine: Odessa, Mikolaiv, Kherson, and yes, Sevastopol, Yalta, and Simferopol. This land, formerly an empty wild field, filled with Tatar raiders, was called now “New Russia”.
New Russia (Novorossia) was aptly named, because it was…well…new. It was settled by Cossacks, but also by many Russians from the territory of the modern Russian Federation. While cities above such as Kiev, Chernigov, Lviv, Lutsk, Poltava, etc. were built in a time when no one could define what was Russian vs Ukrainian, the southern cities were clearly built by Russia.
Unlike the upper territories, “Little Russia”, where the ancestors of Modern Ukrainians lived for almost 300 years separated from Russians, Novorossia was a new frontier, settled by mostly Russians. Its cities were not ancient principalities of Rus’, they were built in the Early Modern Period by the Russian Empress. There was no civilization there prior to Russia building it, so they belong as much to Russian culture as to Ukrainian. Just because they are located in modern Ukraine, does not make them any less Russian than Siberia or Kuban. Russia literally built them up from empty fields.
Ukraine is a mostly artificial invention. The land is of course, ancient, as are the people, but the name and current borders are contrived. As a matter of fact, many parts of modern Ukraine were added to the nation by Russia throughout history. Some parts of Western Ukraine were part of Poland or the Austro-Hungarian Empire until the 20th century, and they were simply stitched onto Ukraine.
This was the case with Crimea, which was a part of Russia simply added to Ukraine by Khrushchev, in as much as all of Ukraine was a part of Russia. Crimea is also crucially important to Russia because it is the site where Saint Vladimir Equal-to-the-Apostles of Kiev was baptised Orthodox. Saint Vladimir baptised all Russia into the Orthodox faith in 988, and was considered her greatest King. The place of his baptism is not far from modern Sevastopol, in a Greek colony, so one must understand this land is sacred to Russia. It is not simply a strategic place, it has more meaning than a foreigner could possibly understand.
If someone really wishes to understand Ukraine, which means “Borderland” in the old Slavic language, one must see it less as a united nation or ethnic group, and more like a territory with legal sovereignty and statehood. According to international law, Ukraine, has the right to sovereignty, but it is factually wrong to see this as a separate nation-state with internal ethnic unity. You don’t have to hate Ukraine, or oppose the right of modern Ukraine to exist as a state in order to understand the land and people itself are not homogenous.
The reality is, Ukraine like two different countries split down the centre, and even within that division, there are subdivisions. Every region practically has its own foreign policy, and one is better served talking about Kharkov people, or Lviv people, or Odessa people, or Poltava people, than grouping them together as Ukrainians. Russia and Ukraine began together, and dividing them artificially is not a permanent solution, but it will breed permanent conflict.
The sooner westerners understand this historical and cultural fact, regardless how they feel about the Ukraine crisis, the sooner they can better understand what is really happening in Ukraine.