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Putin’s Crimea Mythmaking

The successful retaking of Crimea in 2014 became a watershed moment for a rising Russian nationalism with an imperial consciousness. The lackluster Western response fed into Putin’s belief that he could seize territory from Ukraine and get away with it, eventually leading to the full-scale invasion of February 2022 following eight years of hybrid warfare in the Donbas.

While Putin’s successful incursions into Ukraine from 2014 to 2022 owe in part to a laggardly response from the West amid a general disbelief, the Russian president’s spurious logic for doing so draws from a deep well of history and national imagery.

Early Origins of Mythmaking

The Crimean Peninsula, located on the Black Sea, has been an important strategic area for thousands of years. The peninsula was originally populated by several groups of steppe nomads and mountainous people. It was colonized by the ancient Greeks beginning in the seventh century BCE along with other areas of the northern Black Sea coast. 

For the next millennium and a half, Crimea remained mostly Greek in culture as it was under the control of various Hellenistic states and then the Byzantine Empire. However, at different times, parts of the peninsula were also occupied by the Khazars, the Genoese, and other peoples. The Jews have been settling in Crimea since antiquity and form several distinct communities in the region. 

According to the medieval Primary Chronicle of Kyivan Rus’, in 988 Vladimir the Great, the ancient Prince of Kyiv, seized the city of Chersonesus, which belonged to the Byzantine Empire, prompting a marriage between Vladimir and the Byzantine princess Anna Porphyrogenita. The marital and political union between the empire and Rus’ was contingent on Vladimir’s baptism in the Christian Orthodox faith, which he, together with other members of the Kyivan elite, undertook right there in Chersonesus. While other medieval sources suggest that Vladimir was baptized on his estate near Kyiv a year before his Crimean campaign, the version in the Primary Chronicle became dominant. For several centuries nobody was sure where exactly ancient Chersonesus was located, as the city was eventually abandoned.

With the decline of the Byzantine Empire, Crimea was conquered by the Mongol Golden Horde. Soon, the separatist Crimean Khanate took control of the peninsula and later became a protectorate of the Ottoman Empire. Owing to the peninsula’s convenient geographic location directly bordering Russia’s steppes, the Tatars of the Crimean Khanate used Crimea to invade Russia to capture slaves, prompting the Muscovy czars to turn their colonial expansion to the Black Sea region. Eventually, Catherine the Great succeeded in defeating the Ottomans and annexed Crimea in 1783. The empress then founded Sevastopol, now Crimea’s largest city, which became the home base for the Russian Black Sea Fleet. 

Like Vladimir Putin, Catherine the Great loved history, and, like Putin, she also needed to legitimize Russian claim on the peninsula and other southern borderlands, which she named Novorossiya (New Russia). Catherine commissioned the effort to find Chersonesus, which was eventually located in Crimea, near Sevastopol, thus establishing a historical claim on the peninsula on the basis of the ancient prince’s baptism and military victory. 

Of course, Prince Vladimir was Kyivan, not Muscovite, but at the time, the Russian Empire ruled over Kyiv and represented itself as a successor of Kyivan Rus’. The empress also saw Russia as a successor of the Byzantine Empire, and dreamed of retaking Constantinople from the Turks. Crimea, therefore, had two special meanings in the state myth created during Catherine’s era—as the site of origin of Russian Christianity and as a place connecting the Byzantine and Russian empires via ancient Kyivan Rus’.

The subsequent policy of Russian colonization of Crimea led to its significant Russification as the Russian Empire started building new cities and resettling its Slavic peasants in the newly conquered region. The crown seized land from its previous owners and redistributed it among the Russian nobility. The Crimean Tatars were economically, legally, and politically subjugated.

Nonetheless, through the millennia, the Crimean Peninsula fostered a uniquely diverse ethnic, linguistic, and religious environment. The process of Russification, however, was accelerated during the twentieth century, when Hitler’s genocide and Stalin’s Terror led to the Holocaust of the Crimean Jews and the deportation of the Crimean Tatars, Armenians, Bulgarians, and Greeks to remote regions. 

Post-World War II Developments

In 1954, Stalin’s successor Nikita Khrushchev administratively transferred Crimea to Ukraine for a number of economic and political reasons. Of course, when Khrushchev did so, he did not expect that the Soviet Union would not survive the twentieth century. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Crimea became part of independent Ukraine, while continuing to host the Russian Black Sea fleet. 

The loss of the peninsula, famous for its fascinating history, natural beauty, and welcoming climate, fostered strong feelings of resentment among many Russians. Still, Crimea was a place of close Russian-Ukrainian cooperation. Russia repeatedly recognized existing Ukrainian borders, including in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum of Security Assurances for Ukraine and the 1997 Treaty on Friendship, Cooperation and Partnership between Ukraine and Russia.

Modern Day: Sacral Symbolism

When Russia seized Crimea in 2014, the Kremlin not only exploited the post-Soviet Russian resentment over losing the beloved peninsula, it also drummed up historical and religious arguments to legitimize the annexation. In his March 18, 2014, speech, Vladimir Putin claimed that the peninsula had “a sacred and civilizational” meaning for Russia, being the alleged location of the baptism of Vladimir the Great, the ancient Prince of Kyiv. 

Crimea, according to Putin, had always been “an integral part of Russia,” and its transfer to Soviet Ukraine was a mistake. Russia, therefore, was simply “robbed” after the dissolution of the Soviet Union when the peninsula stayed a part of Ukraine. The people of Crimea suffered from this injustice, Putin declared, and were especially affected by the attempts of the Ukrainian government to “assimilate them” by stripping them of their “historical memory” and “native language.” 

The Maidan Revolution of February 2014 was the last straw for the people of Crimea, leading them to organize the referendum of March 17, 2014, in which the vast majority voted to be “reunited” with Russia, using their right of self-determination. 

Neoimperialism Needs Myths but Threatens Security and Violates International Law

Putin’s use of the rhetoric developed by Catherine the Great is just one instance of the Kremlin’s habit of recycling and repurposing  propagandistic tropes for its strategic needs. Putin’s reinforcement of the myth of Crimea as possessing a civilizational status for Russia, which represented an attempt to legitimize the annexation, elevated the symbolic status of the strategic peninsula, turning it into one of the cornerstones of Russian neoimperialist ideology. 

For Putin personally, retaking Crimea became his then most important legacy, which he hoped to be remembered by in history textbooks. Indeed, even some of Putin’s staunchest critics, including Alexei Navalny, admitted in 2014 that while what Putin did was illegal, Crimea was to stay with Russia for the foreseeable future (Navalny has since changed his opinion). 

After absorbing Crimea, the Kremlin began recolonizing the peninsula. While tens of thousands of Crimean Tatars and Ukrainians relocated from Crimea after the 2014 annexation, a large influx of Russian citizens replaced them and took up residence on the peninsula. The remaining Crimean Tatars are often persecuted. The policies that caused displacement of the Crimean population and incentivized Russian recolonization of Crimea removed the potentially hostile population from the crucial militarized region and further reinforced the myth of Crimean inherent Russianness.

The successful legitimization of Crimean annexation through appeal to a historical claim opened a can of worms. Putin’s instrumentalization of history and religion for his political needs became even more brazen: if Russia is entitled to Crimea because of the Kyivan prince’s baptism there, then Russia is entitled to decide the fate of Kyiv and the entirety of Ukraine. With this logic, which Putin has repeatedly voiced in a number of articles and speeches, Russians and Ukrainians are the same people, only Russia is better and stronger. 

By annexing Crimea, Putin rejected international law and presented Russians with a national idea dominated by distorted historical claims and brute power. Crimea has a central role in the Russian imperialist ideology and propaganda that continues erasing the peninsula’s diverse history, presenting Russians as its indigenous population.

For the West, Russia’s land grab of Crimea and invasion of the Donbas region posed a fundamental challenge, to which the West responded with a series of condemnations, some ineffective sanctions, and a slap on Putin’s wrist. The Western policy of appeasement, continuation of trade, and reliance on Russian fossil fuels enabled Putin to launch a war of a scale unseen in Europe since 1945. The return of Crimea to Ukraine, whenever it may happen, would not only restore the international order. It would also have the potential to deliver a crucial blow to Russia’s neoimperial aspirations, which is essential for achieving security in the region, and would contribute to Russia’s own rebuilding as a democratic and prosperous nation.

The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.

About the Author

Anya Free

Historian of Russian and Soviet History
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more