Crimean Geography Lesson for Liberals and Conservatives
Both “liberals” such as Hillary Clinton who recently compared Putin to Hitler and knee-jerk conservatives who see the crisis in the Ukraine as a Cold War II are in need of a more restrained, nuanced and intelligent view, taking into account both history and geography – two subjects that Americans traditionally disregard. The American press, radio and television have almost been unanimous in their ignorance of history and geography of the Russian-Ukrainian borderlands. The strategic value of the Russian naval base in the Crimea is the equivalent of Pearl Harbor and the Panama Canal combined.
Apart from one brief mention on the Sunday Fox News Report, I have not come across any reference to the simple fact that since Russian ejection of the Ottoman Turks from the Crimean Peninsula by Catherine the Great in 1783, the region has always been part of the Great Russian concept of the motherland and Russian language through Czarist times and including the first thirty-five years of incorporation in the USSR when it was NOT an administrative unit of the Ukrainian SSR but of the RSFSR (Russian Socialist Federated Soviet Republic).
Its transfer by administrative fiat in 1954 by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was an act of cosmetic political farce designed purely to throw Ukrainians a bone and pretend this “generosity” would help erase long memories of the terrible famines of the 1930s (largely caused by Stalin’s policies) and the large degree of collaboration with the German invaders in World War II, thereby solidifying the “brotherhood” of the two peoples. Khrushchev was of mixed Russian and Ukrainian ancestry and was detested in the Ukraine as serving his Russian masters. His “generosity’ was designed to pacify Ukrainian pride and promote his own image.
His 1954 maneuver was even more of a total repudiation of the concept of respecting “territorial integrity” and ”self-determination” than attempted by any Czar and loudly proclaimed today as “inviolate principles of international law.”In 1954, ethnic Russians were the overwhelming majority of the population and had expressed no wish whatsoever to become part of the Ukrainian SSR. Almost nothing changed on the ground as a result of this move and Russian rather than Ukrainian continued for many years to be the major official language of the Crimea.
On February 27, 1954 Pravda published a short announcement on its front page that the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR had decreed on February 19 (no need to tell the people immediately) the transfer of the Crimean “oblast” (region) from the RSFSR to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. The decree ran a mere eight lines stated that this measure “Was being taken because of the economic commonalities, territorial closeness, and communication and cultural links" between Crimea and Ukraine.”
In 1991 with the imminent collapse of the Soviet Union, it was widely expected that President Boris Yeltsin, the new president of the Russian Federation, would restore Crimea to Russia but the mercurial and often inebriated Yeltsin didn’t bring it up during negotiations with Ukraine. Had he insisted on retaining the Crimea then or making it subject to a referendum, it would have been very unlikely to be the source on international tension.
Americans often confuse nationality and language. Many Ukrainians who typically used Russian everyday in work and for official purposes (especially before the 1954 transfer) still regarded themselves as Ukrainians.