KIEV, Ukraine — In a Crimean Tatar cafe just off Kiev’s now-famous Maidan, or Independence Square, Igor Semyvolos looked at his phone Thursday and saw the news he’d been dreading.
The Crimean Parliament had just announced that its contested peninsula is now part of Russia. A referendum would be held March 16 to confirm the popularity of the decision, but the move, the Parliament said, was already done. Crimea might still be part of Ukraine in the eyes of the world, but to its regional Parliament, it was now Russian.
“This is war,” Semyvolos said.
The director of Ukraine’s Association of Middle Eastern Studies, an academic area that here includes Crimea, stared at a thick cup of Turkish coffee as he considered what would come next. Outside, Maidan was still basking in the afterglow after months of rebellion toppled the previous, pro-Russian regime, but the joy of that seeming victory is fading. Semyvolos sees it in the faces of Ukrainians outside — the stress and the growing realization that war is inevitable.
“It’s becoming clear that there will be war in Crimea, and that war will be for the independence of Ukraine,” he said. He paused to consider his statement for a second. He continued: “Ukraine will need help from the United States in this.”
Ukraine’s most recent trouble began last summer, when Russian President Vladimir Putin threatened trade sanctions against Ukraine if it signed a new trade agreement with the European Union. It quickly spiraled after Ukraine’s erstwhile president, Viktor Yanukovych, stepped away from the new ties to Europe in November, protesters crowded into Maidan and then, after months of protests, Yanukovych fled to Russia.
But the roots of the problem are far deeper, dating back centuries, and in that tangle of history is a series of ancient claims that for the people of Crimea, and Ukraine, are about to become very fresh again.
The Russian case is this:
Ukraine’s collapsing government fell into the hands of radical, anti-Russian elements. As such, the ethnic Russian population of Ukraine — in Crimea it represents more than half the population — is at risk. The Crimean government asked Russia to protect the people, and Putin responded — an easy move, since Russia had thousands of troops on Russian bases in Crimea; they’ve since been reinforced by an estimated 16,000 troops flown in in recent days.
After all, this case goes, Crimea would be Russian today were it not for a historical accident: the decision by native Ukrainian and then-Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev — reportedly feeling especially proud of his republic and possibly, legend has it, influenced by too much drink — to mark his birthday in 1954 by transferring responsibility for administering Crimea from Russia to Ukraine.
It was a grand gift. Crimea, taken into Russia by Catherine the Great in 1783, was almost as Russian to many Russians as Moscow, and more beloved than bits such as Siberia. But it was also a largely symbolic gift. Ukraine and Russia then were both part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and Khrushchev’s gift would change nothing: Orders would continue to come from Moscow, the Kremlin still would control the military and Russian would remain an official language. The political elite would remain Russian or beholden to Russian leadership.
Nothing changed in reality — until 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, and the Ukrainian Republic became a freestanding nation, one that included Crimea.
So that’s the Russian view.
Crimea has been Russian for all but two decades of the last two centuries.
“If Crimea wants to return to Russia after 20 and some years of very conditional separation, it has the right to do so,” read an editorial this week in the 1 million circulation Russian paper Moskovski Komsomolets. “Crimea never fought for independence from Russia. And never even asked for it. Two minutes decided the fate of the Crimea. But what about the other centuries?”
The Russian view, of course, is not the only one. It may involve 200 years of history, but that’s the short version, said Stanislav Kulchytsky, a Crimea specialist at the Ukrainian Institute of History. The longer view of Crimea involves the Mongol Khans, whose reign here began in 1237, and the Ottomans, whose alliance with the Mongol Khans dates to the 1400s.
When the Russians conquered Crimea, it was the Tatars who were conquered. The Tatars were a Muslim group, born of the unification of tribes from the peninsula. Their history had been shaped by centuries of alliance with larger, dominant groups, including the Ottoman Empire and the descendants of Genghis Khan.
They originally lived along the southern edge of the Crimea, an area known for fruit trees and grapevines. Their past includes long stretches of conflict with Ukrainian Cossacks, though there were also periods of good will and cooperation.
The Crimea’s sea access brought them riches through trade. But the beauty of the Crimean coast also brought Russian royalty, who built palaces in the most desirable parts of the Crimea, forcing the Tatars inland.
It’s long been a Russian goal to empty Crimea of its Tatar natives.
“It’s a tragic history,” Kulchytsky said.
The high point for the Tatars under Russian rule may have come, he said, when Lenin ruled after the Bolshevist revolution in the early 20th century. Lenin, in Kulchytsky’s words, “put them into a shop window trying to convince Ataturk to bring his modern Turkey into the Soviet world.”
But that was a rare moment. For most of the time Russia has ruled Crimea, its goal was to drive the Tatars from their homeland. The most notable moment in this effort was Soviet Leader Josef Stalin’s 1944 orders to relocate the entire Tatar population to Uzbekistan or Siberia. Within days, he’d moved 250,000 to Uzbekistan, where the Tatar population eventually topped 600,000. Five million are thought to have fled to Turkey.
That, as much as anything, is why Tatars today are just 13 percent of the Crimean population, while Russians make up 60 percent, with other ethnic groups holding the balance.
But that, too, has been changing. Since the Soviet Union collapsed, Tatars have been returning to Crimea from Turkey and Uzbekistan.
They’ve also been having babies — at so fast a rate, Kulchytsky said, that the number of Tatars is expected to surpass the number of Russians in Crimea in just 13 years. That surge is helped by the demographic fact that many Russians there are retirees who’ve picked Crimea as a place to live because it’s cheap, a place where a pension can go a long way.
“And they have been very nervous about what it would mean when the Tatars outnumber them,” Kulchytsky said.
It’s hard to overstate what Crimea means to many Tatars.
Muzdelife Abdulgazieva grew up an exile, in Uzbekistan, hearing tales from her grandmother and father about the beautiful peaches and watermelons of Crimea. She was 25 when she first set foot in her homeland, in 1998. By that time, she was an engineer. She left a cultured urban life. She arrived to find dirt roads and poverty.
“I couldn’t wait to taste these peaches I had grown up hearing so much about,” she recalled. “But they turned out to be ordinary peaches. They were no better than what I could get in Uzbekistan. But walking home with those peaches, I felt the roots I had in this land. It was a peace I did not expect, a sense of belonging. This, I knew, was my place. Crimea is our place.”