This post was edited by dostoevskydr at 2014-3-7 23:19|
Published: March 5, 2014, 1:53 pm
SEVASTOPOL, Ukraine — Vladimir Putin’s current military gambit in Crimea has caused consternation in Kyiv and outrage in the West.
For Irina Niverova, Russia’s occupation of the Crimean peninsula last week is simple to understand and totally justified.
The Crimea has been and will always be Russian,” the henna-haired guide said as she led a small group of Russian tourists and two foreigners around Sevastopol’s Panorama museum, which was built more than a century ago on a hill with a sweeping view of the storied city.
The building’s masterpiece is a magnificent 360-degree mural depicting the 349-day Siege of Sevastopol, when about 33,000 Russian troops were trapped by 62,000 British and French troops during the winter of 1854-55.
" Putin had many motivations for sending troops to secure the peninsula and to cut it off from the Ukrainian mainland last week after a coup in Kyiv installed a western-oriented government. There was wounded Russian pride at what Russians perceive as a lack of international respect and influence since the end of the Cold War, NATO’s expansion into Poland and the Baltic states, and the fear that the new government in Kyiv intended to join the western military alliance. There was also the Russian idea that the Kremlin must safeguard the Russian diaspora in what they call the “near abroad,” including the Crimea’s large Russian community.
As Russians see it, these were all compelling reasons for Putin to defy the international community by intervening in Ukraine. But perhaps the biggest reason that he ordered troops into Crimea is the intense hold that the peninsula has on the Russian psyche. This powerful sentiment exists because of the first siege of Sevastopol, in which the czar’s troops withstood a brutal artillery bombardment for nearly a year, and a second siege in 1942, when the Red Army held out for eight months against even more intense fire from the Nazis during what Russians call the Great Patriotic War.
Only 12 years later, a drunken — or so the story goes — Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev ended two centuries of Russian rule by giving the territory as a gift to Ukraine.
“It is now considered to have been a great mistake, but juridically it is a fact and impossible to correct,” said Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of Moscow’s independent Centre for Political Technologies. “But rulers and the public do not always think in juridical terms.
“Yes, Crimea is part of Ukraine, but psychologically Russians do not accept that. So much Russian history took place there. From society’s point of view, Russia was correct to defend its right to this territory.”
Noting that Hitler had called the Crimea an “unsinkable aircraft carrier,” Sergey Kiselev of Tavrichesky National University in Simferopol said that Russians have not forgotten that one of every 10 soldiers in the Red Army who died during the Second World War was killed on this neck of hilly land that is half the size of Nova Scotia.
“The Crimea is the cradle of the Russian Orthodox religion, and the Russian empire came into existence as a result of the struggle for the Crimea and adjacent areas,” the geography professor said. “Having affirmed its position in the Crimea and having built the Black Sea fleet, it could expand to the Balkans, the Caucasus and Central Asia.”
Although it has slowly become a strategic backwater, the Crimea has transfixed the world many times before. It lies on a direct path between Europe and Asia. To the south are the chokepoints of the Dardanelles and the Bosphorus. Just to the east of Sevastopol is Yalta, where Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt carved up postwar Europe. Closer yet is the port of Balaklava, where it’s still possible to see stones laid when it was briefly a British possession.
It was in 1854 at the Battle of Balaklava that Britain’s lame-brained commander, Lord Cardigan, led the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade. Queen Victoria’s poet laureate at the time, Lord Tennyson, immortalized the massacre with the words, “Into the valley of Death Rode the six hundred … Boldly they rode and well, into the jaws of Death, into the mouth of Hell.”
Leo Tolstoy’s magnum opus, War and Peace, drew heavily on his experiences as a fiercely patriotic young officer in the Russian army during the siege of Sevastopol. It was in his Sevastopol Sketches that Tolstoy first made his reputation by chronicling the horrors of battlefield medicine, the ghastly plight of foot soldiers and the futility of war.
The Crimean War was also where Florence Nightingale gained renown for the heroic care of the nursing sisters that she led and for her advocacy for Britain’s wounded.
It is curious how history often repeats itself. During the Crimean War the Russians scuttled their fleet to prevent the British and French navies from entering Sevastopol Harbour. Russian ships blocked the exit to the harbour at the same spot this week to prevent Ukraine’s tiny fleet from making a getaway.
The West’s position on Crimea is based on a firm legal principle. It is part of a sovereign Ukraine and must not be hived off through military adventurism and opportunism. It is a concept that finds virtually no traction here.
“The Siege of Sevastopol taught us is that all wars are useless, but what this city endured is a symbol of courage to the entire world,” Niverova said.
“Every stone and every tree here is covered with the blood of brave Russians, and that is what is in our hearts.”