“And then came we, the universal heirs, and with us the spirit of destruction”

7 March 2014, 16:47

Fierce propagandists have been trying to hammer the slogan “The Crimea is Russia!” into their own heads and those of others, insisting that Russia lost the lovely peninsula because of “a drunk Khrushchev”. Curiously, why necessarily drunk? Is it a reference to the fact that the Crimea was handed over to the Ukrainian SSR in 1954 when the official Soviet apparatus was boisterously celebrating the 300th anniversary of the “union of Ukraine and Russia”? Still, a political diversionof giving peninsulas as “gifts”, even for a landmark jubilee, would be way too bizarre.

In February 1954, Nikita Khrushchev was in no way a magician revelling in his own tricks. He became Secretary of the CC CPSU in September 1953, only several months before the event. Khrushchev’s “personality cult” was years off; after saying goodbye to Stalinm the Kremlin was, for the time being, cautiously declaring the principle  of “collective governance”.

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As far as the legal aspects of the situation are concerned, we must acknowledge that the Soviet bureaucracy did a good job here. The Crimea was incorporated into Ukraine not by the decision of “a drunk Khrushchev” but by the Presidium of the Soviet Supreme Council which adopted, on 19 February 1954, the Edict “On Transferring Crimea Oblast from the RSFSR to the Ukrainian SSR”. Naturally, the transfer was previously discussed by the Presidium of the CC CPSU, as was the custom in the Soviet Union.

This is how Crimea Oblast appeared on the map of Soviet Ukraine. Bona fide historians admit that the transfer occurred for purely economic reasons. After all, this is what the 1954 document actually emphasizes where it says: “considering the common economy, territorial proximity and close economic and cultural ties between Crimean Oblast and the Ukrainian SSR”.

The Soviet government decided to save the peninsular, ravaged by the war and the deportations of the Crimean Tatars, by putting the burden of its revival on Ukraine, while keeping the military (military industrial sector, the navy and the air force) under Moscow’s direct control. The labour force was also replenished by the Ukrainian SSR: in 40 years, from 1944 to the mid-1980s, over a million people were moved to the Crimea from other oblasts of the republic.

The train of history is long gone, and it is in vain that various “Russian blocs” are now nostalgically shaking their fists. Moreover, the Crimea is not a “native Russian land”, as some Russians would like us to believe. Russia took possession of this “wart on the nose”, to quote from Grigory Potemkin, in the course of long wars against Turkey. On 8 April 1783, the Russian empress issued a manifesto adding the territory of this former khanate to Russia. Even though Catherine II promised to the Tatars that Russia would “sacredly and unwaveringly … support them on part with its natural subjects, as well protect and defend them, their possessions, temples and their natural faith”, part of the Crimean nobility fled to Turkey.

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The last khan abdicated and placed himself at the mercy of the Russian army.

The publication of the manifesto took place after the Crimean nobility swore allegiance to Russia. Potemkin himself swore in mirzas, beys, the clergy and the common people. The festivities included games, horse races, a salute with cannons and, of course, a banquet.

But this state of affairs did not last too long. What the Crimea became after it was subjugated by Russia can be elicited from Alexander Griboyedov’s letter. He came to the peninsula 32 years after the manifesto and related his impressions with bitterness and shame to his friend Stepan Begichev on 12 September 1825: “In the place of these ashes, the Genoese Gothic customs once ruled. They were replaced by the pastoral customs of the Mongols with a tinge of Turkish splendour. And then came we, the universal heirs, and with us the spirit of destruction: not one building survived, not one piece of land in the ancient city was left intact and not dug all over. And so? We ourselves are showing to the future peoples that will come after us, when the Russian tribe disappears, how they should handle the perishable remnants of our being.”

What Griboyedov saw was a picture of great ruination, and the reader should not assume that the sarcasm of his words is caused merely by the hypochondriac sentiments expressed in his letter where he says he is going to face “madness and a gun”.

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In general, those who are nostalgic about the territories Russia has lost should look at Alaska instead. Indeed, another case of a “native Russian land”! Unfortunately, on 30 March 1867 Alexander II sold it to the USA. Perhaps he was drunk? No at all. Russia simply found it impossible to swallow up and digest lands on the other side of the Bering Strait. These lands were dominated by creoles (2,000), Aleutians (5,000) and Indians (40,000). The Russians (600-800) were greatly outnumbered. Russia decided it would be a better idea to take possession of Sakhalin and began to fortify its positions in the Amur River region. At the same time, it collected US $7.2mn from the transaction.

The official transfer ceremony took place on 18 October 1867 which has since been celebrated as Alaska Day in the USA.

Well, Alaska was more fortunate in the 19th century than the Crimea in the 18th century.

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