The Russian-Ukrainian Crimean Narrative

In 1954, a year after Stalin’s death, the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet gave Crimea to Ukraine as a sign of the „brotherly love of the Russian people.“ This was one of Khrushchev’s first official acts after establishing himself in the Politburo as Stalin’s successor. He had personal ties to Ukraine. By origin, he was Russian, but he grew up in Donetsk, where he worked as a machinist in the same mine as his father. After the end of the war, he first became head of government in Ukraine and bore political responsibility for reconstruction. As Stalin’s successor at the head of the party, he finally fulfilled a promise he had previously made to the Ukrainians for their war effort: the rounding off of their territory by the Crimean peninsula.

A russian myth

Crimea is a Russian myth founded by Catherine the Great. After Prince Potemkin conquered southern Russia for her and defeated the Crimean Tatars, the tsarina annexed the peninsula in 1783 and ordered the construction of what would become the Black Sea Fleet at the Kherson shipyards. Catherine’s vision was the expulsion of Islam from the Black Sea region. She wanted to defeat the Turks and bring the Black Sea under Russian control. Her model was Greek colonization, which she wanted to replace with Christian Orthodox colonization. This is already indicated by the antiquated names she chose for newly founded cities or those taken from the Tatars: Odessa, Kherson, Feodosiya, Simferopol.

Bachcisaraj

In 1787, at the end of her famous „Taurian Voyage“ down the Dnieper (passing the „Potemkin villages“, which consisted only of facades), Catherine was able to take in the parade of 25 fully equipped warships in Sevastopol Bay. The purpose of staging the fleet parade was to present Russia as a future naval power to Catherine’s guests, especially the Austrian ruler, Emperor Joseph II, who participated in the voyage incognito as a Count of Falkenstein, but also to the ambassadors of England and France. The highlight of the Crimean trip was to be a stay at Bachcisaraj, the garden palace of the defeated Tartar Khans, which Potemkin had painstakingly restored for Catherine after his troops had previously destroyed it. It is situated in a lovely high valley, surrounded by fruit trees and vines; a scenario from „1001 Nights“: projecting wooden roofs topped by small minaret chimneys, mud walls with ornamental reliefs, wooden galleries above marble porticoes, ornately carved window grilles. The imperial rulers, i.e. Catherine and Joseph II, stayed in the rooms of the Chan. Catherine thanked the host, her former lover Potemkin, with a poem:

Bakhchisaray auf der Krim
Bakhchisaray – The city in 1856, by Carlo Bossoli.

I lay in the evening in the arbor of the Chan /
In the midst of the Muslims and the Muslim faith/
Opposite this arbor stands a mosque/
There the imam calls the people together five times a day.
I was about to sleep, and just then my eyes closed,/
when, with clogged ears, he shouted at the top of his lungs.../
Oh miracle of God! Who of my ancestors/
Slept peacefully thinking of the hordes and their chans?/
And I am disturbed by sleep in the middle of the Bachcisaraj /
only tobacco smoke and shouting... Isn't this paradise? 
  

 
  

Translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator (free version)

[Quelle: Jobst, Kerstin S., Die Perle des Imperiums, Konstanz 2007, S. 114]

It is a political poem. Catherine sums up her triumph. The Golden Horde, which had not allowed the Russian Empire to rest since the 13th century, had degenerated into a tame settler nation that submitted to the new masters without resistance. The fact that the tsarina spent the night in the Khan’s palace meant an unheard-of humiliation for the defeated. Catherine was wise enough to turn out the magnanimous ruler, she endowed two mosques and allowed the Tatars to continue practicing their religion and educating their children in their own language.

Translated with DeepL

Gehört die Krim zu Russland?

Die Frage, ob die Krim zu Russland gehöre, würden die meisten Russen mit Ja beantworten. Schuld daran sind die Dichter, sie haben die Krim für die Literatur vereinnahmt, die der direkteste Weg zu den Herzen der Russen ist. 

Eine Büste von Puschkin neben dem Tränenbrunnen im Bachcisaraj-Palast.

Puschkins Gedicht über den Tränenbrunnen soll Stalin veranlasst haben, den Gartenpalast zu verschonen, als er nach Kriegsende die Siedlungen der tatarischen Kollaborateure zerstören ließ. Sein Name rührt von der wie ein Auge geformten Öffnung her, aus der einzelne Wassertropfen fallen, die eine Schale füllen, aus der das Wasser in eine tiefere Schale tropft, aus der es im gleichen Rhythmus weiter tropft …Chan Girai hat ihn 1764 errichten lassen. Eine Legende gehört dazu: Die Favoritin seines Harems ist gestorben, und weil der Chan nicht weinen darf, oder nicht weinen kann, muss der Brunnen das für ihn in alle Ewigkeit tun. Puschkins Gedicht ist eines der populärsten in der russischen Literatur:

„Zwei Rosen hab ich dir gebracht,
Du wunderbarste der Fontänen,
Von Liebe flüsternd Tag und Nacht,
Versiegst du nie gleich Dichtertränen“.

It is a political poem. Catherine sums up her triumph. The Golden Horde, which had not allowed the Russian Empire to rest since the 13th century, had degenerated into a tame settler nation that submitted to the new masters without resistance. The fact that the tsarina spent the night in the Khan’s palace meant an unheard-of humiliation for the defeated. Catherine was wise enough to turn out the magnanimous ruler, she endowed two mosques and allowed the Tatars to continue practicing their religion and educating their children in their own language. But Catherine’s colonial policy was only apparently mild. The Russian colonialists were stalling for time. The religious and intellectual ruling class of the Tatars gradually emigrated to the Ottoman Empire. The vineyards and orchards changed hands. Crimea became the Russian Riviera and for poets the land of longing.

The Bachcisaraj’s fame also protected it from the Germans. Hitler considered the Tatars to be descendants of the Goths who had settled here for a time, i.e. racially related peoples. Captured Crimean Tatars were not liquidated, but were grouped into auxiliary military units that fought on the German side. They had to pay dearly for this. Immediately after the German withdrawal in May 1944, Stalin had 180,000 of them deported, the majority to Uzbekistan. Their houses and mosques were razed to the ground, except for the Garden Palace. If Pushkin had not Russified the Fountain of Tears, there would not be one stone left standing on another.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, Russians have formed the relative majority, and since the deportation of Crimean Tatars to Central Asia the absolute majority among ethnic groups in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea. According to the results of the 2001 census on the distribution of nationalities, they made up 58.5% of the population. 24.4% were Ukrainians, and 12.1% Crimean Tatars. The latter were allowed to return to their old homeland from 1988.

Die kriegerische Vergangenheit der Krim

Die kriegerische Vergangenheit ist in Sevastopol in Hunderten von Denkmälern gegenwärtig. Der Krimkrieg 1854/55 ist zur Legende geworden. Gegen Russland hatte die Türkei sich mit England und Frankreich verbündet. Es war der bisher größte Flottenaufmarsch der Geschichte, aber es kam zu keiner Seeschlacht. Die Kriegsschiffe der Alliierten versuchten, die Festung unter Feuer zu nehmen, doch die Geschosse prallten von den Felsen ab, während die Geschütze der Fortifikationen ihre schwimmenden Ziele recht gut trafen. Schließlich brachten die Alliierten Truppen und Artillerie an Land. Die Belagerung der Stadt dauerte 349 Tage. Obwohl die Krim noch keine hundert Jahre lang zu Russland gehörte, verteidigte das Volk von Sevastopol sich ohne Rücksicht auf Verluste. Die Frauen leisteten ihren Anteil, indem sie die Soldaten versorgten und die Verwundeten pflegten. Die Kinder machten Botengänge und überbrachten Nachrichten. Nachbarn kämpften und starben Seite an Seite. Der Mythos von der Krim als Wiege des Heiligen Russland, der Katharinas Propagandawaffe war, ersetzte die fehlenden regionalen Wurzeln. Nicht adlige Großgrundbesitzer verteidigten hier ihre koloniale Beute, sondern die Bevölkerung einer Stadt schloss sich über alle Standesunterschiede hinweg zusammen. Die Opferbereitschaft aller brachte lange vor der Revolution den Heldenkult des einfachen Soldaten hervor. Leo Tolstoj war unter den Verteidigern Sevastopols. Die drei Novellen ‚Sevastopol im Dezember’, ‚Sevastopol im Mai’, ‚Sevastopol im August’ waren sein literarischer Durchbruch.

Junge Matrosen der Schwarzmeerflotte, fast noch Kinder, paradieren vor Melanies Reisegesellschaft im Stechschritt auf dem Nachimov-Platz vor einer grauen Granitwand, auf der die Jahreszahlen 1941– 1942 in Hohlform eingemeißelt sind. Darunter Marmortafeln mit den Namen der Gefallenen. Ein Opfer-, kein Siegerdenkmal.  Die Belagerung Sevastopols im Jahr 1942 durch die Deutschen führte zur völligen Zerstörung der Stadt. Man sieht es ihr heute nicht mehr an. Stalin hatte sich der „Heldenstadt“ gegenüber großzügig erwiesen und einen Wiederaufbau in Schönheit ermöglicht. Gebäude aus weißem Kalkstein, Klassizismus ohne Schnörkel, breite Alleen, viel Grün, Blumenbeete entlang der Bürgersteige verbreiten Weltstadtflair zumindest im Zentrum.


The „good old days“ — Zaporizhzhia 2003

What a tender-sounding name for a city that couldn’t be more brittle! Apartment blocks of gray, crumbling concrete along a double-lane taxiway, Lenin Prospekt. Neglected, weed-covered green spaces that are not urban luxury but steppe remnants. Here, on the lower reaches of the Dnieper, the new Russia had begun, ordered by Stalin to catch up in a decade with what Western Europe had had more than a century to achieve – industrialization. For the communist visionaries, the Soviet Republic of Ukraine, with the water power of its rivers and its mineral resources, the manganese ore mines of Nikopol, the iron ore mines of Krivoy-Rog, the coal basins and iron districts of the Donets, became the Promised Land of progress. In Zaporozhye, at the end of the twenties, a miracle of technology was created in the form of a power station. Under the waters of the reservoir disappeared the thirteen rapids, notorious since ancient times, which Catherine’s flotilla had also had to overcome on its way to the Black Sea. (They were described as a chain of rocks, some of which were at the level of the water, the others protruding above it, forming various waterfalls and cascades with a deafening noise. The Prince of Potemkin, who organized the Tsarina’s boat trip to the Black Sea in 1787, had hired as boatmen Zaporozhian Cossacks who knew the river. He originally wanted to send the whole fleet across the rapids, but the tsarina insisted on a test. From the shore, the traveling party watched as three ships of various sizes ventured through. They rocked violently and plunged deep into the water, but took no damage. Catherine had seen enough, she ordered to continue the journey by horse and carriage).

The Cossack Museum

Zaporozhye received the visitor (2003) in a ground-level building, the Cossack Museum, whose special feature were the illuminated, semicircular panoramic paintings. One of them showed the construction site of the power plant as a seething, smoking, steaming witch’s kitchen of technology. The dam wall had been brought forward from the background on the right, where it appeared small and distant, compressed in perspective and set against the sky as a modern Tower of Babel. Staggered scaffolding, half-finished construction sections above yawning depth created the illusion of space. The viewer seems to be standing on a freshly concreted platform, looking into the drained riverbed of the Dnieper, from which billows of steam rise. Tiny people swarm around the cranes and locomotives. Everything seems cheerful and light. The workers, whether they are laying pipes, driving piles, or carrying loads, move with the elegance of dancers. In the center of the picture, women with shovels form a well-composed semicircle into which an iron tub of concrete is being lowered by a crane. They are painted, with short, tight-fitting skirts over their boots, in enticing poses. Work is Eros, was the message. In reality, it was hard labor under grueling conditions. But the goal was achieved: in 1932, the power plant went online.

Construction site of the power plant. (Foto Sybil Wagener)

The museum with its low, poorly ventilated rooms looked like a former bunker in which window openings had been sawn. On the opposite side of the entrance hall, where children in school uniforms gathered, a kind of loophole led to a second panorama: a night battle; apparently the recapture of Ukraine by the Red Army in 1943. Blue-lit wrecks of German tanks in the foreground, flaklight fingers on the black-blue horizon, black and compact in between a cluster of houses: some city, Kharkov or Kremenchug or Zaporozhye or Dnepropetrovsk or Kiev. All of them had been conquered by the Wehrmacht in 1941 and were recaptured by the Red Army in 1943. White smoke, red smoke, yellow light from explosions. Soldiers with round caps and fluttering coats run as silhouettes behind T-34 tanks away from the viewer towards the center…

Local history, obviously, with a visual preface and epilogue. The museum tour begins with the industrialization of Ukraine through the construction of the power plant and ends with the victory over fascism. In between, visitors are led along showcases with shimmering gold grave goods that come from Scythian princely tombs. Daggers, saddles, fur caps, harem pants are the illustrative material for the history of the Zaporozhian Sec, the legendary Cossack state. Thus, Ukrainian schoolchildren learn that their ancestors were Scythians and Cossacks and that Ukrainian history was not written in Moscow – which was the official doctrine until 1991, and even beyond.

At the beginning of the war in 1941, Stalin had ordered that the industrial plants, Hitler’s first priority war objective, be dismantled as completely as possible. Not a single wagon, not a single locomotive, not a kilo of grain, not a liter of fuel was to fall into the hands of the enemy. Already at the beginning of August 1941, the evacuation of the tube factory in Dnipropetrovsk had begun. Then came the turn of the Zaporozhye steelworks. Unnoticed by German defenses, during the nights between July and November 1941, over a thousand industrial plants rolled eastward and were rebuilt in the Urals, Western Siberia, and Kazakhstan. The workforces were conscripted into service and evacuated as well. Subsequently, destruction battalions of the Red Army and the NKVD set about destroying everything that could not be removed. Instead of intact mines and functioning industrial plants, the Germans found only rubble. Hitler’s plan to decisively weaken Russia by taking away its industrial centers had failed. Just one year later, the Soviet Union, out of reach of the Luftwaffe, was to produce more armaments than the German Reich. – Admittedly, this scorched earth policy also left the Ukrainian civilian population without resources.

October saw the beginning of the long and harsh continental winter, for which the Wehrmacht was not prepared, since Hitler had expected a „blitzkrieg“ like the one in France. The military authorities tried to get industry and trade going again in the army’s rear area, especially to produce winter clothing and boots for the soldiers. Since the craftsmen and workers in the cities had been recruited largely from the Jewish inhabitants, who had made up between one-third and one-half of the population, their systematic extermination meant the disappearance of entire trades. The first protests consequently came from business circles; they were not of a moral nature. The armaments inspector for the Ukraine, Lieutenant General Hans Leykauf, wrote on December 2, 1941: „If we shoot the Jews to death, let the prisoners of war perish, hand over a considerable part of the population of the big cities to starvation, and in the coming year we will also lose a part of the rural population to starvation, the question remains unanswered: Who should actually produce economic values here. “ 1 This was not a humanitarian but an economic argument, which nevertheless did not change the minds of the Reich leadership.

1 Letter from the Ukraine Armaments Inspector, Lieutenant General Hans Leykauf, to the Chief of the Wehrwirtschafts- und Rüstungsamt in the OKW, General der Inf. Thomas, dated 2.12.1941. In: Überschär/Wette, Der deutsche Überfall auf die Sowjetunion, Ffm 1991, pp. 338/39.