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 eighteenthcentury. 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. 

After that first unsettling glimpse into the political tussle in Crimea, I decided to return in 2011 to see just how essential Crimea was to Russian identity. I was surprised by the intensity of what I found. Russia’s national identity is tied up in its geography. Confronted with a sprawling landmass, with few clear borders and a patchwork of different ethnicities, Russian governments have tried to build a coherent national identity using three touchstones: religion, war, and art. Crimea has played a significant part in all three.

Until the revolutions that dismantled the tsarist system in the early 1900s, membership of the Russian Orthodox Church was what linked all Russians. That goes back to the tenth century, when Vladimir the Great, ruler of Kievan Rus, managed to unite warring Slavic tribes by adopting the religion of Byzantium. It was on the coast of Crimea, on the outskirts of Sevastopol, that St. Vladimir (as he became known) was baptized in 988. 

For centuries after that, state and religion have been inextricably connected. That came to a halt during Soviet rule, but when the U.S.S.R. collapsed in 1991, the church regained prominence. Today, the cathedral built in the nineteenth century on the site of St. Vladimir’s baptism still attracts busload after busload of Russian tourists through the summer months. 

When it comes to war, defeat can be as important to a nation’s sense of its identity as victory. Take the first siege of Sevastopol, an event every Russian schoolchild knows about. The siege was one of the great battles of the Crimean War, which was sparked in 1853 by the British and French. They were concerned that the Russian fleet based in the region intended to take advantage of the weak Ottoman Empire to destroy Turkey and capture Constantinople. The siege of Sevastopol lasted 11 months and cost 102,000 Russian lives. The heroism of the battle is so fulsomely celebrated that, when listening to the Russian-speaking guides who show you around the sites, it is hard to remember that they are talking about a humiliating defeat.

The second great siege of Sevastopol took place almost a century later, during World War II. Sevastopol held out against Hitler’s troops for 247 days. The Russian feat of endurance was crucial in delaying the Wehrmacht’s advance on Stalingrad. Sevastopol was awarded the status of gorod-geroi (“hero city” in Russian) for that battle. The title is very much alive today and enthusiastically commemorated with marches, banners, and bands every May 9, Russia’s national Victory Day holiday.

Finally, there are cultural ties that bind Crimea to Russia. It is the backdrop for more great scenes of Russian culture than anywhere outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg. Alexander Pushkin came to Crimea from the bleak north, and the shock of its Byronic landscapes and oriental Tatar culture provoked some of his loveliest poems. For later poets, such as Osip Mandelstam, Marina Tsvetaeva, and Joesph Brodsky, it was the southern shores’ connection to ancient Greece that was most enticing. Young Leo Tolstoy served as army officer during the siege of Sevastopol, and the extraordinary resilience of ordinary Russians defending the city opened his eyes to the virtues of the peasantry. For Anton Chekhov, the balmy Crimean climate was his last comfort as his tubercular condition advanced.

Chekhov’s appreciation was shared by the Russian elite. Every summer, the imperial family, the court, and much of Russia’s intelligentsia would travel down to Crimea’s newly fashionable sea resorts. Maxim Voloshin, the poet and painter, made Crimea his home and set up an artists’ summer retreat there that, unlike most everything else, survived the revolution and continued to attract the cream of the creative set, from Andrei Bely and Maxim Gorky to Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, Alexey Tolstoy, and Ilya Ehrenburg. In the post-Soviet years, the lovely southern Crimean shores quickly became a magnet for a much more modest class of Russian holidaymakers.

Crimea is so deeply embedded in the Russian sense of self that it is unrealistic to expect Russian President Vladimir Putin will cede ground in the short term. Of all Crimea’s population, the worst affected by any change of status would be the Tatars, who make up roughly 12 percent of the population. Russian rule, culminating in deportation of the whole population in 1944, was a catalog of oppression. Rule from Kiev over the last two decades has been fraught with problems for the Tatars. But any shift of power to Moscow would be far worse. The Kremlin keeps Russia’s Muslim minorities on a very short leash. And Crimea’s Russian nationalists, although a small minority of the Russians in Crimea, are vehemently racist and would feel dangerously empowered.

Because it is unlikely that Putin will give up in Crimea, Western efforts should be focused on supporting the rest of Ukraine through its economic collapse and immediate crisis of governance. Until Kiev is stabilized, the alternatives to Russian rule in Crimea are too weak to be persuasive. The good news is that the Ukrainian revolution appears to have lanced the threat of Ukraine’s radical right. Recent opposition polls suggest that Svoboda, the main far-right party, which won 10.4 percent of the vote in the 2012 parliamentary elections, is now supported by a mere 5.6 percent of voters; its leader’s approval rating has fallen too low for him to be a viable presidential candidate.

However, the world cannot take that progress for granted. The civil war that followed World War I and the Russian Revolution in Ukraine a century ago is a terrifying reminder of what happens when a country fragments. The economy collapsed, food shortages turned to famine, violence ruled, and the moderate parties that tried to reintroduce democracy and the rule of law were eliminated from politics. The country is facing the same fate now. Although Ukraine could survive the loss of Crimea, it cannot afford to fragment any further. 

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  • SUSAN RICHARDS is the founding editor of the Web site Open Democracy Russia and author of two books on post-Soviet Russia, Lost and Found in Russia and Epics of Everyday Life.
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