A twentieth century Terra Nullius: Crimea, Canards and Confabulations

Aug 3, 2023
Peninsula in Eastern Europe on the northern coast of the Black Sea, with disputed status. Controlled and governed by Russia, internationally recognised as part of Ukraine.

A reading of history, including the genocide and forced exile of the indigenous Crimean Tatars, debunks apologias for the Russian annexation of Crimea based on the support of the local Russian majority.

David Higginbotham’s recent article “Cognitive Dissonance in Crimea” suggested that the public has been hoodwinked into accepting some kind of false narrative about the situation in Crimea. It’s not quite clear what these narratives are, but Higginbotham assures us that on his visit there in 2018 everything looked hunky dory.

The idea that people can only derive their views from the “corporate mainstream media” is puzzling, even slightly offensive. Speaking personally, I first learned about Crimea and the Crimean Tatars in 1980, when researching left-wing dissidents in the Soviet Union. Media interest in Crimea then and in the decades following was precisely zero. And then you have true experts who have studied the region in great depth, such as Gwendolyn Sasse of Oxford, Rory Finnin of Cambridge, and Bryan Glyn Williams of the University of Massachusetts. They likewise weren’t indoctrinated by the media or government propaganda.

Higginbotham unfurls a chronology of events that looks strikingly familiar to observers of Kremlin and Russian nationalist narratives. It makes great play of the fact that Russians have been a majority in Crimea for many years and that, after the 2014 invasion and annexation, some opinion polls claimed a majority of inhabitants in favour of joining with Russia.

Wiping the Crimean Tatars from history?

The Russian majority in Crimea is in large part a legacy of a history of dispossession and expulsion of the Crimea Tatars. Their downward trajectory began with the first Russian annexation of Crimea in 1783 (when hardly any Russians lived there) and culminated in genocide and exile in the 1940s (as recognised by the Russian parliament in 1991). Under the Tsars, the Crimean Tatars’ share of the population fell from nearly 80 percent in 1850 to one-third by 1900. I wrote recently about their history and its relevance today in Inside Story.

After repressions from all sides and mass starvation during the Russian Civil War, in 1921 under Lenin the Crimean Tatars, as the native/indigenous people of the peninsula, were given the leading role with substantial positive discrimination in a newly created Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (under the Russian republic in the USSR). However, Stalin abolished the Crimean ASSR after he deported the entire Crimean Tatar population of 200,000 to Central Asia in 1944 on spurious charges of collective collaboration with the Germans (a fate that befell several other small nationalities). Between forty and eighty thousand Crimean Tartars perished during the deportations and over the next couple of years through starvation, cold, disease and malnutrition.

The Tatars were not allowed back to their homeland in any numbers until 1989 under Mikhail Gorbachev. Their homes were taken over by Russian and Ukrainian newcomers. As many as 90 percent of the current Slavic residents of Crimea come from families who arrived after 1944. After the deportation, some two thousand Tatar place names for settlements and geographical features were wiped from the map and changed to Slavic ones. Stalinist officials explicitly described the goal as making “a new Crimea with its own Russian form”. A twentieth century terra nullius.

It is therefore quite farcical to claim that one region of a country should have an untrammelled right to secession based on a bare majority of the population when that local majority was formed by recent settlers from the coloniser country and built on the blood, bones, and tears of the indigenous people.

I would also note that Soviet General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev did not simply “gift” Crimea to Ukraine from Russia in 1954 for political reasons as Higginbotham and Russian nationalists suggest. As Rory Finnin points out, Khrushchev’s 1954 transfer of Crimea to Ukraine was also a rescue: after visiting a desolate Crimea reeling from the war and the Tatars’ deportation, Khrushchev thought the Kyiv authorities would be better placed to integrate the peninsula’s economic development with southern Ukraine. One fruit of this decision was the North Crimea Canal, which supplied 85 percent of the peninsula’s fresh water before 2014, pumped one hundred kilometres from the (recently destroyed) Kakhovka dam on the Dnipro River.

Referendums and opinion polls

Higginbotham refers to the referendum in Crimea in early 1991 to re-establish a Crimean autonomous republic. He leaves out the fact that this referendum, as Gwendolyn Sasse describes, came at the initiative of the conservative regional Communist Party in Crimea, which opposed the democratic reforms under Mikhail Gorbachev (and colluded in Gorbachev’s virtual abduction from his Crimean vacation by hardliners in the failed August 1991 coup). One of its motives was to control the return of the long exiled Crimean Tatars who had only just gained the right to return from exile. Moreover, the recreated Crimean autonomous republic did not have a right to secede from Ukraine.

Higginbotham also fails to mention that in Ukraine’s referendum on independence from the USSR later in 1991, only a minority of voters in Crimea (46 percent) voted NO, i.e. to remain in the same state with Russia. These figures had hardly shifted by 2014: in successive polls conducted by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology over several years leading up to the annexation, the numbers in Crimea in favour of joining Russia varied between 36 and 46 percent.

There was a good deal of friction between the autonomous Crimean parliament and the Kyiv authorities in the early 1990s. But in the end solutions were found, Crimean autonomy negotiated and enshrined in the Ukrainian constitution in 1998. Active separatism subsided. In 2003 Russia and Ukraine signed a bilateral Treaty on State Borders, which defined their inter-state boundaries in eighty pages of precise detail. Putin himself affirmed on several occasions that Crimea was part of Ukraine, for example in a 2008 interview, and as late as December 2013.

At the latter moment, two months before Ukrainian President Yanukovych fled in February 2014 following the Maidan protests, the Russian Ministry of Defence was already advertising a tender to mint medals honouring “The Return of Crimea”. Now that’s cognitive dissonance.

Higginbotham refers to opinion polls taken after the 2014 invasion showing majority support for the annexation and asserting the fairness of the sham referendum held only three weeks after the invasion, which yielded a 97 percent result in favour of joining Russia. Apart from the implication that seizing territory by force is OK as long as you can swing a favourable opinion poll afterwards, this overlooks a few pertinent points.

Firstly, the nonsense that opinion polls or referendums under military occupation can be taken seriously. Secondly, the fact that Russian-controlled local media bombarded the population with fake news about mythical Nazis in Kyiv. Thirdly, that independent media were shut down and Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar activists arrested or forced to flee. Fourthly, that from 600,000 to one million Russians have moved in to Crimea since 2014, contrary to international law relating to occupied territories. This is consistent with a pattern across other occupied areas of Ukraine where huge numbers of Ukrainians have fled or been forced out and replaced by Russians.

Back to the future

For the Crimean Tatars, Russian occupation from 2014 brought back the bad old days. The UN and others have documented unlawful detentions, torture, killings, expulsions and harassment of Tatar (and ethnic Ukrainian) activists or protesters. Members of the remaining Crimean Tatar population have been pressured to renounce their Ukrainian citizenship, or conscripted into the Russian army illegally. Tatar-language media outlets were denied re-registration. In 2016, Russian occupation authorities outlawed the Crimean Tatars’ representative body or Mejlis, which had been recognised in 1999 as an advisory body (like the Voice) to the President of Ukraine. The International Court of Justice upheld a challenge to this ban in 2017, but Russia has ignored the verdict.

Beyond arguments over historical and demographic claims, there is a more fundamental reason why Russia’s annexation of Crimea and other regions should not be allowed to stand. It violates perhaps the most fundamental principle of the post-World War II United Nations system, banning territorial conquest, which has been upheld fairly robustly. That’s why 141 countries in the UN (with only Russia and six friends voting against) have thrice reaffirmed since February 2022 that “no territorial acquisition resulting from the use of force can be recognised as legal”.

In this respect, the 2014 annexation of Crimea differed little from Hitler’s 1938 takeover of the Sudetenland, arguably the apogee of old patterns of territorial conquest. Although we could note that Hitler at least first negotiated in Munich over absorbing the Sudetenland, rather than sending in troops overnight, as Putin did in 2014 before even claiming Crimea was Russian. And Hitler’s demographic case was much stronger: the Sudetenland was 90 percent German, compared to Crimea having about 55 percent Russian population in 2014. Hitler analogies aren’t fashionable, but thems the facts.

For some reason, Mr Higginbotham’s 2018 visit also brings to mind Catherine the Great’s 1787 royal tour of Crimea four years after its first annexation, organised by her lover Prince Potemkin, Governor of “New Russia”. The Tsarina was suitably impressed by Potemkin’s efforts to spruce up and decorate towns and settlements on her route (if not actually building the fake villages of legend). She was also especially pleased by her encounters with some handpicked newly conquered Crimean Tatars who duly professed loyalty to their new overlord.

Share and Enjoy !

Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter
Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter


Thank you for subscribing!