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Whose is Crimea?

As Russian propagandists have spread many deceptive narratives about Crimea and Crimean Tatars' history, in this post, we highlight the key historical periods and events that, in addition, will help to answer the question «Whose is Crimea?».

The beginning of Crimea's history

Crimean Tatars in national clothes. Painting by Gustav-Feodor Pauli in 1862

Back in ancient times, two and a half thousand years ago, the territory of Crimea was first settled by the Greeks, who founded city-states there. However, over time, the Greek cities weakened, and numerous Turkic-speaking nomadic tribes inhabiting Crimea and the Black Sea coast since the 6th century, due to the commonality of the territory, language, and unifying Islamic religion, mixed and formed into one people - the Crimean Tatars.

Formation of the Crimean Khanate, 1441

İslâm III Giray, khan of the Crimean Khanate in 1644–1654. Engraving of the 17th century:

At the beginning of the XIII century, Crimea was captured by the Mongol state of the Golden Horde, whose rule was burdensome for the peoples inhabiting Crimea but, at the same time, contributed to the completion of the ethnogenesis of the Crimean Tatars. Consequently, in 1441, after the Golden Horde fell apart, the Crimean Tatars established their state on the territory of Crimea - the Crimean Khanate - which existed until 1783.

How Russia established its power in Crimea, 1783

Soon after the Russian Empire was founded in 1721, the Russians began to fight with the Ottoman Empire for access to the Black Sea, aiming to capture the Crimean Peninsula. In 1736-1738, during the war, the Russians destroyed most of the cities in Crimea and caused famine in these lands. Finally, in 1783, Russia forced the Crimean Khan to abdicate, annexing the Khanate territory to the empire. The following year, the Russians added the former Crimean Khanate to Russia's Taurian province, which occupied the lands of modern-day southern Ukraine.

Russian campaigns of 1736 against the Khanate of Crimea.

Crimea as part of the Russian Soviet Republic, 1921-1954

In 1917, against the backdrop of the Russian Empire's collapse and the revolutionary mood of many peoples inhabiting its vast territory, the Crimean Tatars also proclaimed their statehood - the Crimean Democratic Republic. However, in 1921, the Bolsheviks forcibly annexed Crimea to the Russian Soviet Republic. They implemented a policy of terror and genocide there, including famine, persecution, illegal imprisonment, murder, and mass deportations.

Crimean Tatars on Mount Chatyr-Dag in remembrance of the victims of the Crimean Tatar genocide. Photo: Ebazer Pinkhas/ (RFE/RL):

Between May 18 and 20, 1944, NKVD forces deported Crimean Tatars from their homes. The people were forcibly sent to the remote USSR regions without permission to return. The mobilised NKVD forces allowed people several minutes to a maximum of half an hour to pack their belongings before sending them away. Over two days, Crimean Tatars were being transported to train stations in Bakhchysarai, Dzhankoi and Simferopol. From there, they were sent to the East in freight trains. Sixty-seven freight trains were used in total to deport more than 180000 Crimean Tatars.

May 18 is the commemoration day of the forcible deportation of Crimean Tatars from Crimea by the Soviet regime.

The majority of the deported ended up in Uzbekistan and the neighbouring Kazakhstan and Tajikistan regions. They ended up in the so-called “special settlements,” rather resembling labour camps. The Soviet regime used the deported people as cheap labour. According to different estimations, in the first three years after the deportation, between 20 and 46% of all expelled died of starvation, exhaustion and diseases.

As a result of deportation, the Soviet regime appropriated over 80,000 houses, more than 34,000 homesteads, and around 500,000 cattle; it also destroyed the cultural heritage of the Crimean Tatar nation; mosques were closed in Eupatoria, Bakhchysarai, Sevastopol, Feodosia, Chornomorske, and numerous other villages.

The ban on Crimean Tatars from coming back to Crimea was in place up until 1989, although it only became realistically possible to return for the majority after the collapse of the USSR.

Crimean Tatars are at the organised protest with demands to return to Crimea. The banner says, "Crimean Tatars have no other home but Crimea."

How Crimea became Ukrainian, 1954

Construction of the North Crimean Canal in the 1960s. Photo:

After World War II and the mass deportation of Crimean Tatars in 1944, Crimea was depopulated and its infrastructure destroyed. In addition, one of the biggest problems was the lack of fresh water, which made the peninsula's economic development impossible. To solve the demographic problem, the Soviet authorities resettled ethnic Russians and Ukrainians in Crimea. Furthermore, to solve the freshwater issue, they planned to build the North Crimean Canal, which would supply water from Ukrainian Kherson Oblast to Crimea. Ultimately, on February 1954, the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union issued a decree transferring the "depressed" Crimean region from the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic to the Ukrainian SSR, justifying the decision by "the commonality of the economy and the territorial proximity of Crimea to Ukraine.”

The Autonomous Republic of Crimea as part of independent Ukraine since 1991

In 1991, a referendum on Ukraine's independence was held in Ukraine. 54.19% of the Crimean population also voted for Ukraine to become an independent state, consisting of 24 oblasts and the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, which had its own parliament and prime minister.

Traditional gathering on May 18, the Remembrance Day for the Victims of the Deportation of the Crimean Tatars, Simferopol, Crimea, 2006. Photo: RFE/RL

After the collapse of the USSR, Russia and Ukraine agreed on the 50:50 division of the Soviet Black Sea Fleet, based in the city of Sevastopol, Crimea. However, in the end, Russia, using natural gas blackmail as one of its strategies, grabbed 81.7% of the fleet. As a result, Sevastopol and Crimea became the principal base of Russia's naval forces, which, in fact, enabled the quick annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

Annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014

Russian military during the seizure of Crimea in 2014. Photo: Wikipedia/Anton Holoborodko

At the end of February 2014, during the Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine, armed Russian troops appeared in Crimea and quickly seized the building of the Verkhovna Rada of Crimea, the Simferopol airport, the Kerch ferry crossing, and other strategic targets. In addition, they blocked the bases of Ukrainian troops stationed in Crimea. A few weeks later, on March 16, 2014, Russia organized an illegal referendum in Crimea. As a result, on March 18, Vladimir Putin announced the "joining" of Crimea to Russia. Russia calls the peninsula's annexation a "restoration of historical justice," while most democratic states recognize the "referendum" as invalid and Crimea as Ukrainian.

How Russia turned Crimea into a military bridgehead for an offensive against Ukraine in 2022

Immediately after the seizure of Crimea, Russia restored Soviet military bases there, strengthened the Black Sea Fleet, and increased the number of soldiers and police. In total, as of 2020, the military contingent in Crimea included 30,000 Russian troops and dozens of submarines capable of launching long-range Caliber missiles. Russia practically isolated the Sea of Azov. To connect Crimea with mainland Russia, the Russians built the Kerch Bridge, which later became the primary connection for the transfer of Russian troops to Crimea. Thus, Crimea became one of the bridgeheads for the offensive against Ukraine, leading to the rapid occupation of parts of Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, and Donetsk oblasts of Ukraine.

Russian repression of the Crimean Tatars, 2014-present days

Since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, about 30,000 Crimean Tatars have been forced to leave the temporarily occupied Crimea. Moreover, according to only official data, 136 Crimean Tatars are currently being held as political prisoners, 22 activists have been kidnapped or have disappeared, and at least 18 were tortured. Also, according to various data, Crimean Tatars in Crimea receive 50 to 90% of all summonses from the occupation authorities to fight in the current war.

In 2021, the Russian authorities arrested and sentenced to 17 years the deputy chairman of the Mejlis, the highest representative assembly of the Crimean Tatar people, Nariman Celâl. This year, President Zelenskyy opened the Crimean Platform, citing the letter from Nariman Celâl: "It, the Russian war, began with Crimea, and it will end with Crimea."

Nariman Celâl at the rally. Photo from open sources

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