Historians' Watch

Land Acknowledgement of Crimea

The 58th Annual International Congress on Medieval Studies opened this year with a land acknowledgement statement. While this is becoming more common among American universities, and is law in Canada for public universities, it made me think about the area which I study – Rus, the medieval kingdom which was the historical progenitor for modern Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, and which is now the subject of a contested war in Europe.

After reading a fascinating piece about how “Crimea was never Russian,” I wondered what it might be like to try to conceive of a similar structure for Crimea. The author of “Crimea was never Russian” discusses the 1944 expulsion of the Crimean Tatars from Crimea at the orders of Joseph Stalin who viewed them as a disloyal population. Her conclusion is that this land, the land of her people, was Crimean Tatar land and thus not Russian, nor, one might imagine, Ukrainian.

However, as a medievalist, I could not help but go back still further and think about who was there before the Crimean Tatars, and from whom the Tatars took the land.

Crimean Tatars and a mullah c. 1862. Public domain.

One could go back to prehistory, well covered by generations of Russian and Ukrainian archaeologists of the Scythians who occupied large parts of this region, and were referred to by the Greek historian Herodotus (c. 484 BC – c. 425 BC). There were also Greeks who explored the Black Sea and set up colonies on the coasts, including of Crimea. One of the longest lasting of those cities, in fact still in existence today, is the city of Chersonesos (modern Cherson). Cherson was a Greek city, eventually a Roman city, and maintained as a Roman city during the medieval Roman Empire, typically called Byzantium. The label for Crimea in Greek, Taurica, came to define the population of the region in Greek language sources through the Middle Ages as they concatenated them with the Scyths to create Tauroscythians.

Who were these Tauroscythians who were the medieval inhabitants of Crimea? That is a question with no easy answer. The medieval Roman Empire is well known for its use of archaizing language to describe neighbouring populations. If one reads medieval Roman sources like Prokopios, Michael Attaliates or Anna Komnena, we see Scythians and Tauroscythians in their pages, but they do not necessarily describe the same inhabitants.

Chersonesos in modern Sevastopol. CC BY-SA 3.0.

In approximately 988/989, Volodimer Sviatoslavich (also known as ‘Vladimir the Great’), the ruler of Rus, besieged and took the medieval Roman city of Cherson. He gave it back to the empire in exchange for a marriage with the sister of Emperors Basil II and Constantine VIII, Anna Porphyrogenita. Despite the return of Cherson to Roman control, however, one of the peoples meant by the label of Tauroscythian became the Rusians, newly Christianized under Volodimer and Anna.

While Volodimer and Anna ruled Rus, their rule did not reliably stretch across the steppe which divided their capital at Kyiv from the Crimean peninsula. The steppe itself was typically occupied by nomadic groups, such as the Pechenegs and the Polovtsy (also known Qipchaks or Cumans). These were two other populations who were also referred to in Greek sources as Tauroscythians. Thus, for the late tenth, eleventh, and twelfth centuries, any of those three populations – not to mention the local inhabitants of Cherson – could all be considered the locals of the region.

The arrival of the Mongols in the middle of the thirteenth century changed this situation, as it did so many others. The Polovtsy were driven out of the steppe and into Hungary, and the Mongols (with, of course, their numerically superior tributary groups) occupied the steppe from north of the Black Sea back to Mongolia. And yet, the Crimea had a new set of inhabitants from the south, the Genoese. The Genoese occupied the Crimean coast and had been given exclusive trading rights on the Black Sea from the Empire of Nicaea. They were based at the city of Caffa, now Feodosia. For the next two hundred years, it would be safe to say that Crimea was divided between these two populations, and thus they were the local people.

The demise of the Mongol World Empire in the early fourteenth century led to its division into numerous separate polities. One of those was the Khanate of Crimea occupying, as you would expect, Crimea and the south part of the Black Sea steppe. This khanate was the longest lasting of the former Mongol territories. It interacted in complex relations with the Ukrainian hetmanate, Ottoman Empire (to whom they were often subordinate), and Muscovite (later Russian) empire, all of whom had a strong interest in claiming territory from them. With intermittent, but particularly slow and steady, loss of territory, the Crimean Khanate lasted until the middle of the eighteenth century. They then were the local people for this particular moment of Crimean history.

The last quarter of the eighteenth century saw this region absorbed into the Russian Empire. After the annexation, the new governor was the famous Russian nobleman Grigorii Potemkin who was tasked with bringing Russians into the region of Crimea to prevent the local population from remaining loyal to the Ottoman Empire. This was also the context for the creation of the term “Potemkin villages” which Potemkin supposedly created to impress upon the visiting Empress Catherine II the beauty and peacefulness of the wider Crimean region.

In the next century, the eyes of the world turned to Crimea as it became the focal point of a world war between Russia on one side and the Ottoman Empire, France, and England on the other. This brief war in the middle of the nineteenth century saw such famous incidents as the Siege of Sevastopol and the Charge of the Light Brigade (commemorated in an 1854 narrative poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson), but for our purposes we can make the claim that the occupants of the Crimea at this time were Russians, people fighting on behalf of the Russian Empire, against the Ottomans, French, and English.

County Map of Evpatoriya Tauride province, 1903. Public domain.

Of course, how they created their own identities is much more complex than this gross generalization, largely due to the nineteenth century creation of the sense of nations and national identity. For Mikhailo Hrushevsky, a famous late nineteenth and early twentieth century Ukrainian historian, this region and many of its inhabitants were in fact Ukrainian and related to the expansion of Ukrainian territory over the last two hundred years. His Russian contemporary Vasily Kliuchevskii would similarly argue that the population was Russian, tracing the inhabitants back to the immigration under Catherine II. Finally, Elmaz Asan (the author of “Crimea was never Russian” cited above) has said that during this time, Crimea was still firmly Tatar. Which is it?

The story gets even more complicated though, as with the fall of the Russian Empire in 1917, control of Crimea ended up in the hands of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic. The Soviet Union was divided into Soviet Socialist Republics, organized on national lines. Crimea was part of the Russian republic, at least until 1954 when Nikita Khrushchev transferred it to the control of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR). Khrushchev did this to pay homage to the 1654 Treaty of Pereiaslav signed by the Muscovite Tsar Alexei and the Cossack Hetman Bohdan Khmelnitsky. The purpose of the treaty, disputed by both sides, was either the annexation of Ukrainian territory to Muscovy, or a treaty of assistance for the Ukrainians by their Orthodox Muscovite brethren. Neither of them, in the mid-seventeenth century, actually controlled Crimea, though that was the chosen territory to transfer in the mid-twentieth century.

This last transfer of Crimea to the territory of the Ukrainian SSR led to it being part of an independent Ukraine in 1991 when the Soviet Union dissolved. Khrushchev’s 1954 repartition itself provided the rationale for Vladimir Putin to declare that Crimea was really Russian and thus authorize an invasion in 2014 to take control of the peninsula and utilize sham elections to annex it to Russia. Putin’s 2021 “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” offers a wholesale explanation not just for the annexation of Crimea, but for why Ukraine itself doesn’t particularly exist as anything other than the “Little Russia” it was so often called during imperial Russian times.

Where does this brief history of Crimea and its occupants leave us? It’s hard to say. But I do know that I would not even know where to begin writing a land acknowledgement for Crimea. However, understanding that it would be an immensely complex process, and examining the history just sketched in here, is an essential task to better understand the realities of the current war in eastern Europe, and European politics more broadly.

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