WE have been here before.
The Crimea, today described as the “flashpoint” of the Ukraine crisis, was a “flashpoint” in the 19th century that claimed 800,000 lives.
When I say “we” I mean we, the Irish. Thirty-thousand Irish men lost their lives in the Crimean War (1853-1856) between Britain and Russia. A victory banquet was held in Dublin in 1856 for 5,000 guests.
When I set out to research the Crimean War all I knew about it was gleaned from my Ladybird book on Florence Nightingale, who is credited with having invented modern nursing there.
But I was writing a story for young people and I had a West Cork general who needed a past. I gave him a grandfather who fought in the Crimea.
Made-up stories are always true. I wasn’t many pages into Orlando Figes’s thumping tome, Crimea: the Last Crusade, when I read an absolutely amazing statistic: in the parishes of Whitegate, Aghada and Farsid, Co Cork, one-third of the male population died in the Crimean War.
We have largely forgotten those men and the war in which they died. All we have left are a few Russian “trophy guns”, as noted by historian, David Murphy: the cannons on the steps of the courthouse in Tralee, on the pier in Dun Laoghaire and on Armaghdown Bridge in Newry.
We should not forget. The “flashpoints” created by imperial ambitions which erupted so spectacularly during the First World War have not gone away. The beautiful, temperate Crimean peninsula, whose coastline has been compared to that of Amalfi, is still strategic territory, giving Russia access to the Black Sea. This is the only way Russia can gain access to Europe by sea, excluding the Baltic, which can easily be blocked by northern powers.
That is why Russia is paying Ukraine to dock her Black Sea naval fleet in Sevastopol, close to where expelled President Viktor Yanukovich is said to be hiding as a wanted man.
We can’t understand today’s crisis in Crimea without understanding her past, which is why we’ve got to teach history and we’ve got to learn it. Crimea is a holy land for Russians. As Figes explains, it was in Kheronesos, the ancient Greek city on the south-western coast of Crimea, where Vladimir, Grand Prince of Kiev, was baptised in 988, bringing Christianity to Russia. Clearly this was a strategic decision in itself, because the Crimea sits on the faultline between Christianity and the Islam, the force which Russia set out to defeat.
When the Ottoman Empire lost Crimea to Russia in 1783 it was their first loss of territory to a Christian power. Catherine the Great’s project was to subjugate the native Tatar Muslims, in what she called “Novorossiia” (new Russia). She granted huge tracts of land to Christian settlers from Germany, Poland, Italy, Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia, and established new cities such as Odessa and Ekaterinoslav, which means “Catherine’s Glory”. She liked to see the Crimea as Russia’s southern paradise, and called it by its Greek name “Taurida” to link Russia to the once-Orthodox city of Constantinople and the empire of Byzantium.
Constantinople had fallen to the Turks in 1453 and it was the founding myth of the Tsarist state that Moscow was the last remaining capital of Orthodoxy, the “Third Rome.” According to this ideology, which imbued every Tsar until the last one was shot in 1917, it was Russia’s divine mission to liberate Orthodox Christians from the Islamic empire of the Ottomans and restore Constantinople as the seat of Eastern Christianity.
One-hundred and thirty thousand lives, 4,000 of them Irish, might not have been lost in the Gallipoli campaign in Turkey in 1915 had Russia still not wanted Constantinople and had Britain not thought it strategic to help her.
Catherine the Great made every effort to get Muslim Tatars to leave Crimea, whether by punitive taxation, land seizures, forced labour or physical intimidation. By 1800, a third of the Crimean Tatar population had left for the Ottoman Empire, over 100,000 people. They were replaced by Russians and other Eastern Christian settlers, some of them refugees from the Ottoman Empire.
This started a trend. As Figes writes, “It was part of a long history of demographic exchange and ethnic conflict between the Ottoman and Orthodox spheres which would last until the Balkan crises of the late twentieth century.”
The spark that lit the fuse of the Crimean War was a dispute between Orthodox Greeks and French Catholics as to who should have a key to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which was under Ottoman control.
Tsar Nicholas I, obsessed with military glory from childhood to the point that he always slept on a military camp bed, set his sights on the crumbling Ottoman Empire. It suited France to build her influence by attempting to form a pan-Catholic front against Orthodox Russia. Britain leapt in with France to defend Turkey to safeguard her interests in the region.
The British public became terrified by the “menace” posed by the fastest growing empire on earth, imagining a Russian takeover of central Asia and even India. So there you had it: a pretext for war.
The pretext is still there. The mid-1800s is not as long ago as we’d like to believe it is. Stalin, whose vision for Russian power was not dissimilar from that of the tsars, expelled the Crimean Tatars. After the Soviet collapse, as many as 300,000 returned.
When you place Crimea in her historic context, it is not at all surprising that she is loyal to Russia and Russia is loyal to her; nor is it surprising that your average Tatar wants the hell out of Mother Russia. And it’s not surprising that Ukrainian nationalists look to Europe.
Nor is it surprising that Russia resents that. Because we in Europe resent Russia. Vladimir Putin seems to be every bit as autocratic as the worst tsar, without even the excuse of religious mania.
But that’s a partisan response on my part, not a rational one. It is wholly understandable that autonomous Crimea should want to stay with Russia, not with Ukraine, even if Ukraine looks to Europe. We may have stronger democracies in the EU, but some of the elements of Ukrainian nationalism are scarily extreme right-wingers. The simplistic idea that Europe is good and Russia is bad is no basis for progress or peace.
As the Crimea crisis deepens, we must remember that we have been here before. Four world powers with imperial ambitions — France, Britain, Russia and Turkey — believed God was on their side and their side only, For which blind folly a third of the men in Whitegate, Aghada and Farsid paid the ultimate price.
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