The status of Crimea is one of Europe's most sensitive issues these days. There was a time when Lviv was firm on the minds of Polish hotheads, while Germans had claims for Gdańsk and Kaliningrad. But those times have gone and those claims will likely never again reemerge on the agenda.
In the meantime, Russia's annexation of the Crimean peninsula birthed quite a tsunami of political and history-related debate, and the reasoning in it is capable of confounding even the most studied of scholars. Great many American and European periodicals came out with articles "explaining" to whom Crimea really belongs and whether seizing the territory of a neighboring state can be seen as "restoring historical justice". Without comprehensive and well-founded analysis of all the pros and cons Ukraine has little hope for empathy of the Western societies. The conventional partisan divide goes between the patriotic, and legally correct "Crimea is Ukrainian" standpoint, and "Crimea is Russian" because of the myth that Sevastopol is "the city of Russian navy glory" (and, not least because of punishment for calls for separatism in Russia that urge people to take the latter stand). The article below looks at it from the position of a regular European citizen and tries to show sine ira et studio how and, most importantly, why Crimea got transferred by Russia to Ukraine in 1954.
For thousands of years Crimea was inhabited by hundreds of peoples, from Cimmerians to Krymchaks; its territory belonged to hundreds of empires, from the Roman to the Ottoman, and it wasn't until 1783 that the Russian double-headed eagle began its reign over the peninsula. A number of local and occupying governments came and went during the revolution of 1917-1920, but Crimean independence was short-lived.
The peninsula was finally conquered by the Bolsheviks in November 1920 and became part of Russia as just another governorate. On October 18, 1921 as part of the "nativization" policy (or Crimean-Tatarization as it was locally referred to), as well as to promote the Soviet order among the "workers of the Muslim East", the governorate was given the status of Crimean Autonomous Socialist Soviet Republic. In 1946 the peninsula once again became a regular region (oblast) of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic and in 1954 it was transferred to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. On January 20, 1991 Crimea conducted the first of USSR's independence referendums, upon which it regained autonomy within Ukraine on February 12.
How: Per the law or per justice?
Find yourself two lawyers and you'll get three opinions. This saying is especially true if those lawyers represent two different hostile countries, therefore it applies to the Crimean issue. The Russian side of the argument is that the Presidium of the Soviet Union’s Supreme Council had no authority to alter the borders of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic by passing a resolution, as it was not on the list of powers determined for it by Article 33 of the Constitution. Similarly the borders of the USSR according to the Constitution could only be altered by the Supreme Council itself, but not its Presidium, which did so with its decree on February 19 (art. 14 and 31). Therefore the grounds of Crimea's transfer are of questionable legality to say the least, if not outright illegitimate.
The Ukrainian side will argue that the change of peninsula's status was later reinforced by the USSR law passed by the Supreme Council on April 26. And given that the law has a superior legal power to that of a decree, the transfer of Crimea was thus legitimized. Even if the Presidium's violation of procedure resulted in a legitimate law being passed to approve an illegitimate decree, the subsequent constitutional process removes all possible contradictions.
READ ALSO: The Unfree Peninsula
First of all, by passing the very law in question the Supreme Council of the USSR amended Articles 22 and 23 of the then 1936 Constitution, which determined the territorial structure of the Russian SFSR and the Ukrainian SSR. Secondly, the Russian SFSR Supreme Council amended its own Constitution removing Crimean Oblast from the list of its territories. Thirdly, the new Constitution of the USSR (1977), as well as the new Constitutions of the Russian SFSR and the Ukrainian SSR (1978) explicitly define Crimea as the territory of Ukraine.
Given that the Constitution possesses the highest legal power and cannot be overruled, all other documents must be brought to compliance with it. And thus, all the talk questioning the legitimacy of the procedure of Crimea's transfer to Ukraine becomes null and void. What is in the Constitution is by definition absolutely legitimate.
As for the city of Sevastopol, the situation here is pretty much the story of the peninsula in miniature. In 1948 the city was excluded from Russia's Crimean region and assigned Republican Subordination. It should be noted that the documents regarding the transfer of Crimea to Ukraine have no mention of Sevastopol. Therefore, say the Russians, Sevastopol remained part of the Russian SFSR and must now belong to Russia.
But the answer to this claim is exactly the same as the one regarding the peninsula itself: while there is no legal document reassigning Sevastopol's subordination to Kyiv, according to the Constitutions of the Russian SFSR and the Ukrainian SSR of 1978 the city is part of Ukraine and does not appear on the list of Russia's administrative units. It is written into the two constitutions – end of story.
Why: the multi-layer onion of a question
The vast number of myths surrounding the reasons for Crimea's transfer makes the question something of an onion: too many layers to peel them off without breaking a tear. One should carefully separate one from another. On the top is the official version stated in the resolution of the Presidium of the Russian SSR passed on February 5, 1954, the decree the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Council passed on February 19 and the USSR law as of the April 26: '…taking into consideration the integration of economies, territorial proximity and close business and cultural ties…'. Paradoxically, this failed to satisfy most of the post-Soviet scholars and politicians, and so began the great quest for true reasons "concealed by the powers that be".
Myth #1. It was Nikita Khrushchev's "generous gift" to his "beloved" Ukraine on the 300th anniversary of the Treaty of Pereyaslav and the "unification" ( the 1654 treaty between Cossack Hetmanate and Muscovy was often used by Soviet and post-Soviet Russian leadership as argument in support of the idea of Russia and Ukraine being "brotherly nations" – Ed.). Web of lies! First off, after Stalin's death (1953) and before the personality cult was denounced (1956) Nikita Khrushchev could not run the Soviet Union single-handedly. Sure, he was the First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, but the formal Soviet leader was Kliment Voroshilov, the head of the Presidium of the Supreme Council. Meanwhile the executive branch was headed by the chairman of the Council of Ministers Georgy Malenkov. Both belonged to Stalin's old guard. Such a decision unilaterally taken by Khrushchev would be unthinkable, so it must have been a collective one. On top of that, there is zero evidence in archives to support the idea about "timing" the event to coincide with the Treaty of Pereyaslav anniversary.
Myth #2. If the version presented by Vladimir Putin on May 18, 2014 is to be believed, Khrushchev sought to gain support of the local Ukrainian party ranks in his power struggle or tried to make amends for his part in the mass persecution. As far as the power struggle is concerned, it is clear enough. The decision was collective, therefore any kind of personal allegiance of the comrades from the Ukrainian Communist Party was not to be expected. The same can be said about the persecution: even if Khrushchev had guilty conscience about it, the fact of persecution in Ukraine was not officially recognized by the Soviet Union until the 20th Congress of the Communist Party (in 1956 – Ed.), therefore he had nothing to apologize for.
Myth #3. It made sense economically. Ironically, this is the one favored by most Ukrainian patriots. The gist is that by transferring Crimea to Ukraine Moscow simply handed Kyiv the burden of rebuilding the devastated post-war region. This is only part-myth, because Nikita Khrushchev’s son Sergei confirmed that his father indeed sought to rearrange the economic management of the Ukrainian South and the Crimean peninsula into a single republic. However, 10 years before the construction of the North Crimean Canal began, this was intended as a project of state importance, a Union-wide "Great Construction Project of Communism", i.e. it was developed by the efforts of the entire Soviet Union. Additionally, the peninsula was not that devastated anyway by that time. During the post-war decade most of the facilities would have been rebuilt or created from ground up like the railway station in Simferopol. And, finally, the burden would not have landed exclusively onto the shoulders of the Ukrainian SSR because the republic did not have its own independent budget, thus any additional expenditures would simply have been subsidized from the centre. In 1950 the subsidies made just 0.6% of the republican budget income, in 1955 (after the transfer of Crimea) they made 13.4%. That’s a 22-fold increase! All in all, one should not overestimate Crimea's economic "burden".
Myth #4. Financial conspiracy. Another legend floating the internet is that in February 1929 Soviet Russia made a deal with an international company called Agro-Joint, which was to provide a multi-million loan secured by land in Crimea. According to the myth, the payout deadline specified in the agreement was coming up in 1954, so the asset was simply offloaded to Ukraine in order to get rid of the liability. Yet the proponents of this version failed to provide any kind of archive evidence or witness testimony to back their story. Instead they are often keen to lump together everything from the actual deals made in the 1920s to the Jewish autonomous settlements on the peninsula, plans to create the "Crimean California" – all generously garnished with the names of the Rockefellers and the Roosevelts. This kind of machination, however, would be more apropos in the world of the early 1990s post-Soviet thug-like businessmen, rather than the one of intergovernmental agreements. The truth is that the 1929 agreement was signed between Agro-Joint and the Land Committee of the Central Executive Committee of the Soviet Union and approved by the Union-wide Council of the People’s Commissars. Therefore the transfer of Crimea would not rid the USSR from the liability. Funnily enough the date "1954" doesn't even feature in the text of the agreement.
READ ALSO: Crimea: The Multitude of Nations
But if it was neither the voluntarism, internal power struggle nor the economy that became the reason for transferring Crimea to Ukraine, what prompted the Soviet authorities to make such a move? The answer is impossible to find looking at local factors alone, instead one has to see the bigger picture and take a look at the Soviet Union in its entirety.
Have you ever wondered why Transnistria – the historically Ukrainian and completely "Slavic-speaking" region – ended up as a part of Moldavian SSR? What was the thinking behind splitting Ossetia between the Russian SFSR and the Georgian SSR and why was the latter handed Abkhazia? How come the Armenian-populated Nagorno-Karabakh ended up under Azerbaijani rule, and the ethnically Uzbek Fergana Valley part of the Kyrgyz Republic? What was the rationale behind carving the republican borders in the North Caucasus and the Volga Region in the way it was done? Why does such a disproportionally large percentage of Russians reside in the North of Kazakhstan and the Baltic states? USSR has done a lot of wrong, but those things were usually done for a reason, especially the things done over and over again. And if all the national suburbs ended up being infested with ethnic enclaves that stood in the way of stabilizing the political borders and constantly incited ethnic conflicts, it must have been by someone's design. The "designer" in question is obvious: none other than the Russian SFSR People’s Commissar on Nationalities, and later the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Joseph Stalin, as well as those that succeeded him.
It all started with Stalin’s famous autumn 1922 disagreement with Lenin regarding the future format of the Soviet Union. Jugashvili ( Stalin’s birth name – Ed.) proposed to play tough with the socialist republics and to simply make them part of Russia as autonomies: “True unification […] into one economic entity with formal power of the Council of Soviet Commissars, the Council of Labor and Defence, the All-Russian Central Executive Committee over the Council of Soviet Commissars and Central Executive Committees and economy councils of the independent republics, which is to say the replacement of the fictitious independence with a true internal autonomy of republics in terms of language and culture, justice and internal affairs, agriculture and so on”, because “the young generation of communists on the periphery no longer treat this game of independence as just an act, and are insistent on taking independence seriously” (memo addressed to Lenin).
Lenin disapproved. Here is a quote of his letter to Kameniev: “Chapter 1 of the "introduction" to the Russian SFSR should read: 'Formal unification together with the Russian SFSR into a Union of Soviets Republics of Europe and Asia'… we recognize ourselves as being on equal terms with the Ukrainian SSR and the rest, and together on equal footing we enter the new union, the new federation, the Union of Soviet Republics of Europe and Asia”.
Back then Lenin's concept of formal equality did win (and was written into the Agreement on the establishment of the USSR of December 30, 1922), but it was Stalin who had the last laugh. Having started his reign with unseen centralization of state power and total replacement of government apparatus with the one of the Communist party, the "father of nations" ended up carving the borders of Soviet republics and even relocating entire nations (Crimea "moved" later, but well within the same rationale; also note the case of Kaliningrad). Of course, such moves were not officially announced or explained, but now it will take a blind person not to see how Stalin brought about his carefully crafted plan, which can be aptly called the enclave doctrine.
So what is this doctrine all about then? Let us return to Stalin's reasoning during the debate regarding the format of the USSR. The future tyrant saw the biggest threat to the new Union in the prospect of independent foreign policy conducted by Soviet republics, further exacerbated by the possibility of their exodus from the Bolshevik empire. The autonomy that he proposed for Ukraine, Belarus and the South Caucasus was supposed to iron out this problem, but since the path of confederation based on formal parity had been selected, Stalin had to find a workaround. If one cannot bar the republics from declaring independence, one can still make the cost of such a process too high to bear. The first safeguard came in the form of the Kremlin-controlled Union-wide punitive apparatus and the army (eventually Moscow attempted to use it in Tbilisi 1989 and Vilnius 1991). The second safeguard emerged in the shape of Moscow-oriented ethnic minorities (something that the former People’s Commissar on Nationalities cut his teeth on). Which is why throughout the entire existence of the USSR Kremlin pursued the policy of adjoining the territories with "alien" population into various Union's republics, and on top of that actively encouraged ethnic Russians' migration to the periphery.
The above resulted in the situation we see today. Pro-Russian enclaves are acting as anchors designed to keep the republics at bay, to prevent the newly formed countries from drifting out of the sphere of Russian influence: Narva in Estonia, Transnistria in Moldova, Crimea and the southern Donbas in Ukraine (Donetsk and Luhansk used to be UNR's border towns), there are also very considerable Russian diasporas in Belarus and Kazakhstan. The Lithuanian SSR has been offered opportunity to take over the Kaliningrad region no less than one three occasions (!!!) in 1945, 1963 and even as recently as in 1987. Vilnius, however, wisely declined, and in doing so saved itself a great deal of headache. "Alien" enclaves and spitefully laid borders in the Caucasus and the Central Asia were designed to create conflicts that would require the resolution seeking authorities to address the "big brother": Fergana Valley, Karabakh, Abkhazia, Ossetia. There are long-standing latent conflicts over the disputed territory between Ossetia and Ingushetia, as well as inside Dagestan. Clashes are bound to spark in Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachaevo-Cherkessia. There a mismatch between administrative borders and ethnic clustering of Tatarstan and Bashkiria. The shrewd handling of the sides of these "orchestrated conflicts" strengthens Russia as an empire, and the fact that ethnic Russians tend to be among the casualties never seemed to cause much concern.
All things considered, the transfer of Crimea was neither motivated by some kind of extraordinary love for Ukraine, nor driven by economic calculation, and neither was it a part of some power struggle. Instead it was the age-old strategy of "mooring" the USSR's republics by Russia's side using "anchor-regions". And while this does not take away the importance of historic ties between Crimea and Ukraine and their integrated infrastructure, admittedly Kremlin has succeeded in its strategy. At the dawn of the '90s the peninsula would routinely destabilize the political situation in Ukraine pulling one stunt after another (like declaring independence or synching its time zone with Moscow), later it would become an electoral stronghold of Party of Regions and the communists, and now it "took off" to a foreign country.
Thinking that the enclave doctrine has been resigned to history along with the USSR would be naive. The Russian Federation of today has dusted off Stalin's manual and is following it meticulously, as it incites separatism in neighboring countries in order to create in its neighborhood a grey beltline of instability made out of unrecognized republics. And by doing so Russia itself does not gain strength per se, it does, however, weaken its neighbors. Trying to counterattack the enclave doctrine head-on would be an inexcusable waste of time and energy. The only adequate response would be using the very same strategy to achieve own objectives, like, for instance, supporting the anti-Russian residents of Crimea and Donbas, and then (you never know), perhaps, anti-imperial underground in Russia itself.