Updated: Aug 28, 2019
By: Hena Matthias
The Crimean Peninsula has been fought over for centuries. Due to its location on the Black Sea and fertile soil, the region is seen as a strategic stronghold, located south of the Ukraine and Russia. This piece of land has been controlled by numerous powers including the Ancient Greeks, Romans, Ottoman Empire, and most recently Russia.
Catherine the Great of Russia annexed the land from the Ottoman Empire in 1783. With ports on the Black Sea providing routes to the Mediterranean, Balkans and the Middle East, the Russians recognized the strategic value of the land.
Additionally, Crimea offered economic value to the Russians with several natural gas fields and two oil fields, offshore and onshore (History.co.uk). These factors undoubtedly explain the importance of the peninsula and the recent tensions that started in 2014 as a result of the Russian takeover of Crimea from Ukraine.
Crimea During The Bolshevik Revolution
Beginning with the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, Crimea entered a period of rare sovereignty. Crimean Tatars, a Turkic ethnic group indigenously from Crimea, were the majority population through the end of the 19th century. After the Revolution, the Tatars declared Crimea an “independent democratic republic” (Britannica, 2018).
This victory was very short lived. During the Russian Civil War from 1918-1920, the Tatars fought against the Bolsheviks with the White Army, fighting for values of capitalism and alternative forms of socialism than the Red Army, led by Vladimir Lenin (Taylor, 2014). Following the defeat of the White Army, the region was officially labeled the Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic in 1921 (Britannica, 2018). From this point on, Crimea was part of the Soviet Union.
Crimean Tatar Population
Once the Soviet Union had regained control of the region, they began the process of collectivisation, transforming private farms into communal and collective farms. Workers in these rural areas received no salary and only enough food to meet the needs of themselves and their families.
This process was especially harsh on Crimea and the native Tatars. Many uprisings occurred as the government forcibly confiscated meat, bread and other luxuries (Britannica, 2018). A wide-spread famine occurring during the early 1930s as rations on food were small.
After World War II ended in 1945, Tatars were expelled from Crimea for allegedly assisting the Nazi’s during the war. Many estimates put the number of Tatars expelled around 200,000 people, consisting of a little under 50,000 families (Britannica, 2018). Groups were mostly sent to Uzbekistan and Central Asia in cattle trains, to towns where most local authorities had little knowledge about the wave of migrants coming their way.
Some experts have estimated between 20 to 46 percent of the Tatar population died in transit or in the first year in their new home, mostly due to illness or malnutrition (Peisakhin, L, 2017). To support the lack of workers, Stalin imported ethnic Russians to the peninsula.
Control of Crimea
1945 saw the transition of Crimea from an autonomous republic to a region within the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (Taylor, 2014). Just a short 9 years later, the Soviet Union Premier Nikita Khrushchev transferred Crimea to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. This switch commemorated the 300th anniversary of Pereyaslav Agreement, a treaty that submitted Ukraine to Russian rule. It is unclear the exact motivation why Khrushchev released control on the Crimean Peninsula.
For one, some speculate it was a gift to Ukraine, who suffered during World War II. Additionally, during the days of the Soviet Union, there was not a big difference between Russia and Ukraine, so the transfer of power may not have fully accounted for potential future conflicts that might occur based on this shift. Finally, although ethnically Russian, Khrushchev rose through the ranks of the Ukrainian Communist Party and likely felt an attachment to the region (Britannica, 2018).
Crimea During the Fall of the Soviet Union
Legally, Crimean Tatars could return to their homeland starting in 1967. However, most did not begin to return until the break up of the Soviet Union in the early to mid 1990s. Surprisingly, the first president of the Russian Federation, Boris Yeltsin did not try to regain Crimea for Russia.
Instead, Crimea agreed to be part of the Ukraine, but with large autonomy measures such as its own legislature and constitution (Taylor, 2014). The events that transpired during the collapse of the Soviet Union are what have prompted the current conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Additionally, although numerous Crimean Tatars have returned after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russians still constitute the majority population in Crimea (Britannica, 2018).
Britannica, T. E. (2018, November 27). Crimea. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/place/Crimea
History.co.uk: 10 facts about Russia's history with Crimea. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.history.co.uk/article/10-facts-about-russias-history-with-crimea
Peisakhin, L., & Lupu, N. (2017, September 05). Why are Crimean Tatars so hostile to Russia? Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/09/05/what-shapes-political-activism-for-crimean-tatars-the-familys-experience-under-soviet-rule-is-a-huge-factor/?utm_term=.4ac6e41800a8
Taylor, A. (2014, February 27). To understand Crimea, take a look back at its complicated history. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2014/02/27/to-understand-crimea-take-a-look-back-at-its-complicated-history/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.e3fcdf0000bc