Crimea in Context

Life in Russia's Backyard

Men hold Russian national flags in the Crimean city of Sevastopol, March 16, 2014.
Men hold Russian national flags in the Crimean city of Sevastopol, March 16, 2014. (Baz Ratner / Courtesy Reuters)

As surprising as it might have been to Western observers, Russia’s occupation of Crimea did not come out of the blue. Rather, Moscow had considered the peninsula unfinished business since the fall of communism.

In the course of recorded history, scores of empires -- Scythians and Greeks, Goths, Mongols, Genoese, Turks and Tatars -- have gained purchase on Crimea and lost it. The Russians are relative newcomers, having arrived only in the eighteenth century. But from then on, Crimea was fully part of Russia, even after Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev “gave” it to his homeland Ukraine in 1954. It was a fine gesture, of course, but empty. The territory belonged to Russia as long as the Soviet empire lasted.

After the fall of communism, Ukraine became independent, and Crimea went with it. Russia and the Russian-speaking majority in Crimea have never stopped believing that the split was an appalling mistake that had to be corrected. In 1992 and again in 1994, the ethnic Russian­–dominated Crimean Parliament attempted to declare independence from Ukraine. Kiev thwarted both gambits. 

I first traveled to Sevastopol ten years ago to visit old friends of mine, Russians, who had moved there from Siberia in 2000 in order to build a new life for themselves. The experience gave me a glimpse of how difficult it is to get anything done in a place so torn between east and west. The city is home to a naval base, which Ukraine leased to Russia in 1997. The base is run directly by Russia’s Ministry of Defense. Although the town around the base is officially run out of Kiev, in practice control was a constant battle between Kiev and Moscow. The last elected mayor of Sevastopol had died in mysterious circumstances and had not been replaced.

In the vacuum left by the two competing parties, criminal gangs acted with impunity, running protection rackets, drugs and arms deals, and murdering anyone who stood in their way. Journalists like my friends were unable to operate and went underground, issuing an irregular series of samizdat reports. 

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