"It is enough to know the history of Crimea and what Russia and Crimea have always meant for each other." So Vladimir Putin justified the Russian annexation of Crimea in a speech in the Kremlin on Tuesday.
"In the hearts and minds of people," the Russian president continued, "Crimea has always been and remains an inseparable part of Russia." Western leaders should not be surprised by Putin's ruthlessness in this land-grab. They would not be if they knew their Russian history.
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As Putin made a point of saying in his speech, the Crimea is the place from which Russia took its Christianity. According to medieval chronicles, it was in Chersonesus, the ancient Greek colonial city on the southwestern coast of the Crimea, just outside Sevastopol, that another Vladimir, the Grand Prince of Kiev, was baptized in 988, thereby bringing Christianity to Kievan Rus', the loose confederation of Slavic principalities from which Russia derives its religious and national identity.
The Crimea was ruled by the Turks and Tatar tribes for 500 years. But after its annexation by the Russian Empress Catherine the Great, in 1783, it was re-Christianized by the Russians. Most of the Tatars were forced out and replaced by Russian settlers and other Eastern Christians: Greeks, Armenians, Bulgarians. Ancient Tatar towns like Bakhchisarai were downgraded, while new towns like Sevastopol, the Black Sea naval base, were built in the neoclassical style. Russian churches replaced mosques. And there was an intense focus on the discovery of ancient Christian archaeological remains — Byzantine ruins, ascetic cave-churches and monasteries — to make a claim for the Crimea as a sacred site, the cradle of Russian Christianity.
Catherine envisaged the Crimea as Russia's southern paradise, a pleasure-garden where the fruits of her enlightened Christian rule could be enjoyed and exhibited to the world beyond the Black Sea. She liked to call the peninsula by its Greek name, Taurida, in preference to Crimea (Krym), its Tatar name: She thought it linked Russia to the Hellenic civilization of Byzantium.
The empress gave land to Russia's nobles to establish magnificent estates along the mountainous southern coast, a coastline to rival the Amalfi in beauty; their classical buildings, Mediterranean gardens and vineyards were supposed to be the carriers of a new Christian civilization in this previously heathen land. It was from this time that the Crimea became firmly established as the Russian elite's favorite holiday resort — a preference continued by millions of Soviet tourists in the 20th century.
The Crimea was the fault line separating Russia from the Muslim world, the religious division on which the Russian Empire grew. From Sevastopol the Black Sea Fleet could impose the czar's will on the Ottoman Empire, ensuring Russia's control of the straits into the Mediterranean. Controlling the Black Sea was strategically critical to the Russians' domination of Ukraine and the Caucasus.
Russia's bullying of its weak Turkish neighbors led to its entanglement in the Crimean War against all the Western states in 1854 — just as its bullying of the Ukrainians has brought it to the brink of a new Crimean War 160 years later. There are obvious parallels between the situation then and now.
The Czar Nicholas I had ruled autocratically for almost 30 years. No one dared to question him. Opposition views had been silenced through censorship and police repression — particularly after the democratic European revolutions of 1848, which the czar feared might spread into Russia. Fourteen years of authoritarian rule have had much the same effect on Putin, who is clearly very nervous about the possibility that the Ukrainian revolution might give new life to the democratic opposition in Russia.
The czar's long-held plan was to partition the Ottoman Empire to keep it weak and subordinate to Russia — and to keep the Western powers out of it. Putin's plans with Ukraine are probably the same.
Nicholas I defined Russia's mission as the defense of the Orthodox Christians under Turkish rule. He saw Russia as a Christian empire that included Russia's co-religionists in other lands. This was how he justified the Russian invasion of the Turkish-controlled Balkans — the first stage of the Crimean War — to liberate the Serbs and Bulgarians from Ottoman rule and take Constantinople, the center of Byzantium.
The British and the French came to the defense of the Ottoman Empire — ostensibly to stand up for the principles of liberty and territorial sovereignty, although in reality they were driven by a desire (inflamed by a Russophobic Western press) to end the "Russian Menace" to Europe. But Nicholas would not back down, preferring to fight alone against all the great powers than to sacrifice what he believed to be his "sacred mission" to defend Russia's interests.
Putin likewise defines Russia's interests in terms of the defense of Russians living in Ukraine. As he made clear on Tuesday, the reason he sees the break-up of the Soviet Union as a catastrophe is because it left so many Russians orphaned from their motherland. "Millions of Russians went to sleep in one country and woke up living (in another one)," he said. This is how he justifies the invasion of Crimea: to liberate the Russians from the Ukrainian "fascists" (as his propaganda machine insists on calling the interim Ukrainian government, which does contain some far-right elements, to stoke up Russian fears and memories from the Great Patriotic War of 1941-45).
Nicholas I was angry when he went to war. None of his advisers could hold him back from taking on the Turks, the British and the French. The czar was fed up with the West, accusing it of double-standards and hypocrisy. This is shown by his marginalia on a memorandum by the Russian nationalist Mikhail Pogodin in 1853, which Nicholas received with enthusiasm as a justification for his military offensive.
The French, Pogodin argued, could take Algeria from the Ottomans (which they did in 1830), or occupy Rome with their troops (from 1848), and every year the British annexed another Indian principality, and these were deemed to be lawful actions; but when the Russians came to the defense of their co-religionists in the Balkans, they were condemned as aggressors contravening the "balance of power."
Putin's speech after the annexation was filled with grievances against the West. Its politicians "call something white today and black tomorrow," he argued angrily. Kremlin propaganda, which serves as news on the TV channel RT (formerly Russia Today), accuses Western leaders of double standards and hyprocrisy for supporting referenda in Kosovo and South Sudan — where it claims that regime change served their interests — but opposing the Crimean referendum — which does not.
And the Russians have a point. After their invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, it is hard for Western leaders to occupy the high moral ground and deliver lectures to the Russians on respecting international law.
One could hardly overestimate the Russians' deep resentment of the West. They are quick to point out Western Russophobia, which does still exist to some extent as legacy of 19th-century attitudes and the Cold War. Recent polls suggest that Russian hostility toward the West has soared in recent weeks. Putin's stand against the West has increased his popularity at home. Like Nicholas I, whose portrait hangs in the antechamber of Putin's Kremlin office, he is prepared to lead his country into isolation from the West and perhaps to fight alone against it for Russia's interests in the world.
But here the parallels with Nicholas begin to take a different course. In 1854, the West was strong, and Russia weak. With their industrial might, the French and the British were able to inflict a humiliating defeat on the Russians, even though they had to ship their soldiers and materiel all the way to the Crimea.
Today the West is weak. There is not much it is prepared to do in military terms, and little it can do effectively by way of economic sanctions, to discourage Putin from his likely long-term plans to partition the Ukraine or use the threat of Crimea-like scenarios in the Russian-speaking parts of east Ukraine to negotiate the country's federalization on terms acceptable to Russia.
Is there anything the West can do? It can start by looking at this region from the Russian point of view — not to condone the Russians' actions or weaken for a moment in the defense of international principles, but to better understand the strength of Russian feeling on this complex issue — because one thing is certain: Without the Russians, there is no solution to the crisis of Ukraine.
Orlando Figes is the author of "The Crimean War: A History" as well as several other books. His latest, "Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991: A History," is due out in April from Metropolitan. Read more at orlandofiges.co.uk or on Twitter @orlandofiges.
"The Crimean War"
By Orlando Figes, Metropolitan, 608 pages, $22Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun