“Crimea and Punishment”: Comments on the Media Coverage of the Recent Events in Crimea

Jun 25, 2014 by

[This post was originally published on GeoCurrents in March 2014]


“For a long time now, it’s been possible to foresee that this rabid hatred, being fired up in the West against Russia more and more with each passing year, would some day explode. This moment is upon us… The entire West came to show its denial of Russia and to block her path to the future,” wrote Fyodor Tyutchev, famous Russian poet and a militant Panslavist, in 1854 as the Crimean War was raging. Those words sound like they could have come from any contemporary pro‑Putin propagandist. And as was the case 160 years ago, Crimea has once again become “the tinderbox”, potentially ready to ignite a pan-European conflict. Precipitous events in Crimea once again draws public attention to that often-forgotten triangular peninsula jutting into the Black Sea off the underbelly of Ukraine. While the news reports from Russian, Ukrainian, and Western sources have been generally confusing and conflicting, some interesting analysis has appeared in several media outlets. The New York Times op-ed by Charles King lists “a vital naval base run by another country, a community of patriotic military retirees, a multiethnic patchwork, a weak state and competing national mythologies” as reasons “why a Crimean conflict has long been the nightmare scenario in the former Soviet Union and now represents the gravest crisis in Europe since the end of the Cold War”. This current volatility of Crimea arose as a result of its complex—and often tragic—history.


Crimea’s “complicated history” is reviewed in an article by Adam Taylor in The Washington Post. In antiquity, southern Crimea was an outpost of Greek culture and of the Roman Empire known as Taurica, and from the mid-1400s the peninsula as a whole “existed as the Crimean Khanate, a protectorate of the Ottoman Empire, during which time it became the center of a roaring slave trade”. In 1774, Crimea gained independence as the Ottoman government renounced its right to protect the Crimean Khanate, and less than a decade later it was annexed by Russia.



In 1853-56, the peninsula became the site of a bloody war “between Russia and an alliance of the Ottoman Empire, France, Britain and Sardinia”.* Although Russia kept Crimea, it lost the war, which also revealed the inadequacies of its military and civilian infrastructure and ultimately led to the abolition of serfdom in 1861. The Crimean War also revealed inadequacies  in the British military, as immortalized in Tennyson’s poem, The Charge of the Light Brigade.**

starye_karty_grazhdanskaya_voina_v_Rossii More trials and tribulations awaited Crimea in the first half of the twentieth century. For a short period after the 1917 October Revolution, Crimea functioned as an independent state, but it was quickly dragged into the Russian civil war and became a stronghold for the White Army under General Anton Denikin. Following a quick succession of short-lived governments, Crimea eventually became part of the Soviet Union as the Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic in 1921. In the 1920s, plans were made to create a Jewish autonomous territory in Crimea, but ultimately the much more remote area of Birobidzhan in eastern Siberia was chosen instead. Crimea remained an Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic until 1945, when it became the Crimean Oblast, an administrative region of Russia.


Crimea’s traumatic experience in World War II included occupation by Nazi Germany, the near destruction of the port city of Sevastopol, and the forcible deportation of Crimean Tatars in 1944 to Central Asia as punishment for alleged collaboration with the Nazis. A decade later, Crimea was transferred by Nikita Khruschev to Ukraine in an act that many Russian nationalists still have a hard time accepting.



Recent reporting on the historical background of Crimea has been uneven. An interesting article by Peter Eltsov and Klaus Larres in Foreign Policy considers some of the reasons why “Crimea remains very dear to the Russian nationalist psyche”. Historically, the acquisition of the peninsula in 1783 “provid[ed] access to the Black Sea and new land for development”. The port city of Sevastopol and the two bloody battles that took place there—one during the Crimean War and the other during World War II—“have been glorified in Russian art, literature, and popular culture”. Sevastopol is the home-port of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, a position that it will retain until 2042 according to a 2010 agreement between Moscow and Kiev. Alastair Jamieson’s article in NBCNews.com on Crimea’s twentieth-century history and its special status within Ukraine is less compelling. Here he makes some crucial factual mistakes, such as claiming that Crimea “was transferred into Ukraine following the collapse of the U.S.S.R. in 1991”.

A headline at Slate.com reads “Crimea and Punishment” (hence, the title of this post), but the article itself, by Mary Mycio, fails to explore parallels with Fyodor Dostoevsky’s famous novel, to which I return below. Instead, Mycio focuses on the reasons why it would be difficult, if not impossible, for Putin to “control a Crimean mini-state”. The main problem, the author claims, is the peninsula’s geography. Crimea is connected to the Ukrainian mainland by a narrow strip of land called the Perokop Isthmus. Most of the peninsula “is basically a desert, with less annual rainfall than Los Angeles”, she writes. Crimea’s population of 2 million and its economy—particularly agriculture and the substantial tourist industry—are heavily dependent on Ukrainian water. (This is not entirely accurate, however, as the average annual precipitation in Crimea is 400 mm (15.7 in), slightly higher than that of Los Angeles, placing Crimea into a semi-desert category. Mycio is correct, however, in that the water supply has been a major problem in Crimea.) Moreover, “nearly all of [Crimea’s] electricity … and about 70 percent of its food” also come from the mainland. It would be all too easy for the new Ukrainian government to cut off this lifeline, if only to “force a reboot in Putin’s aggressive, misguided, and ultimately doomed scheme”.


The presence of a significant Crimean Tatar minority is another stumbling block in Putin’s expansionist politics with respect to Crimea. Some 300,000 Crimean Tatars have returned from Central Asia, constituting 12 percent of the peninsula’s population in 2001. Their numbers are growing “with continued migration and birth rates higher than either Russians or Ukrainians”. Wary of Moscow, and for a good reason, Crimean Tatars have had some support from Volga Tatars and are now joining forces with ethnic Ukrainians. (It would be interesting to see if the remaining small communities of Crimean Karaim, another ethnic group indigenous to Crimea, would offer at least moral support for the forces opposed to “a Russian-controlled, authoritarian ‘Yanukistan’”, as Mycio calls it.)


In the Foreign Policy article, Eltsov and Larres urge “leaders in Moscow, including President Putin” to reread Lev Tolstoy’s Sevastopol Sketches, describing the horrors of the Crimean War, particularly the last of the three stories, which grimly observes that the triumph of conquest “was marred by the disgrace of imperialism, ironically undercutting the nationalism that had propelled the invasion in the first place”. Western politicians, journalists, and members of the public would benefit more, in my opinion, from reading or rereading another Russian classic, the abovementioned Crime and Punishment. Like Fyodor Dostoevsky’s protagonist Rodion Raskolnikov, Vladimir Putin has long been testing the idea that he is above both the law and ordinary morality, seeming to believe that simply because he can do certain outrageous things (such as ordering the ongoing military intervention in Crimea or the previous intervention in South Ossetia and Abkhazia), he has the right—perhaps even a moral duty—to do them. In Dostoevsky’s novel, Raskolnikov justifies his actions several times by comparing himself with Napoleon Bonaparte. Also like the “Little Corsican”, Putin has been aggrandizing himself by “building [his] authority, dignity and influence through [a] powerful state” (in the words of Thomas L. Friedman). Despite the appearance of “rebooting relations” with the US and other Western states, Russia under Putin has continued “playing an old, traditional game of power politics to dominate [the] region” (to quote Friedman again). Thus, the nineteenth-century propaganda map depicting Russia as an octopus extending its tentacles into neighboring countries seems to many to be as apt today as it was in 1870s. Like Raskolnikov, Putin apparently believes that anything, even murder, is permissible in pursuit of a higher purpose, in Putin’s case, of “defy[ing] the global system” and making Russia appear to be a great and powerful—and united—nation. Fifty one billion dollars have been spent on creating an Olympic “smokescreen”. Any voices that dare to suggest that Russia is a “giant with feet of clay”—an empire where corruption, human rights abuses, and deep-rooted xenophobia that have been allowed to flourish—are silenced by whatever means necessary. The American journalist David Satter has recently been declared persona non grata and not allowed to enter Russia. Russian opposition writers like Viktor Shenderovich have been bullied by official state-run propaganda machine. Activists have been arrested and jailed. Anna Politkovskaya, a staunch critic of Putin and his war in Chechnya, was murdered in October 2006; evidence leading to the FSB (Federal Security Service) has been subsequently uncovered, but the crime remains unsolved to this day. Alexander Litvinenko, who accused Putin of ordering the murder of Politkovskaya, was poisoned by radioactive polonium in London shortly thereafter.

What Putin and his supporters seem to forget is that Dostoevsky’s goal was to shed light on the disastrous consequences of entrusting the hopes of the future to a select group of extraordinary men placed above the law and morality. In the novel, Raskolnikov’s sense of guilt overwhelms him to the point of psychological and somatic illness. As a result he is ultimately persuaded to confess and is then sentenced to eight years of penal servitude in Siberia, where his redemption and moral regeneration begin under his beloved Sonya’s influence. There is a lesson in that for Putin and for us all.



* The term “Sardinia” is a little misleading, as the core region of the Kingdom of Sardinia was the Italian region of Piedmont, which was at the time seeking to unify Italy.


** The war also prompted development of battle-field surgery and modern nursing, pioneered on by Nikolai Pirogov and Florence Nightingale.


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