How Crimea's Complex History With Russia Dates Back to the 19th Century | HISTORY (2024)

When Russia signed the Treaty of Paris in 1856, accepting defeat in the Crimean War—which had decimated its military and ruined its economy—it agreed to dismantle its naval base in the port city of Sevastopol. These were the terms demanded by Britain, France and their allies, who sought to eliminate Russia as a military threat in the Black Sea.

But the concession didn’t last long.

Russia began to rebuild Sevastopol during the Franco-Prussian War, in 1870. And throughout history, Russian leaders would return to Crimea again and again. After Germany’s bombing of Crimea during World War II, much of Sevastopol was in ruins. But Joseph Stalin declared the port a “hero city” and ordered it restored to its former neoclassical beauty.

Indeed, the Crimean peninsula has loomed large for Russian leaders ever since Russian Tsarina Catherine the Great annexed it from the Ottoman Empire in 1783. The strategically located peninsula, which is officially part of Ukraine, has given Russia military leverage not only in the Black Sea, but the greater Mediterranean region. After the fall of the Soviet Union, a 1997 treaty with Ukraine allowed Russia to keep its Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol, under a lease that has been extended until 2042.

How Crimea's Complex History With Russia Dates Back to the 19th Century | HISTORY (1)How Crimea's Complex History With Russia Dates Back to the 19th Century | HISTORY (2)

But in 2014, Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine in an illegal move that violated the territorial integrity of the former Soviet republic, and sparked a war that has displaced nearly 2 million people and destroyed the country’s infrastructure. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s justified the aggression, in part, by asserting that Crimea is mostly comprised of ethnic Russians.

For hundreds of years, Crimea has been the home of Tatars, a group of Turkic speakers who lived under the Ottoman Empire until Catherine the Great annexed the region. In 1944, Stalin deported about 200,000 Tatars to Siberia and Central Asia, calling the ethnic Muslims traitors to the USSR and bringing in ethnic Russians to replenish the workforce. After Stalin’s death, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev transferred Crimea to Ukraine in a move hailed as a “noble act on behalf of the Russian people.” The transfer was praised at the 1954 meeting of the Presidium of the USSR Soviet Supreme, the Soviet Union’s highest legislative body.

“Comrades…The transfer of the Crimean Oblast (or region) to the Ukrainian SSR is occurring in remarkable days,” said Soviet politician Sharof Rashidov. “This is possible only in our country, where there is no ethnic strife and there are no national differences, where the lives of all the Soviet peoples pass in an atmosphere of peaceful constructive work in the name of the peace and happiness of all humanity…”

“Comrades!…Only in our country is it possible that such a great people as the Russian people magnanimously transferred one of the valuable oblasts to another fraternal people without any hesitation,” said Otto Wille Kuusinen, another Communist Party leader.

But for all the talk about unity and cooperation, recent documents suggest Khrushchev’s move was motivated more by political calculation than goodwill. It was designed to appease Ukrainian leadership and solidify his position in the power struggle that emerged after Stalin’s death in 1953.

How Crimea's Complex History With Russia Dates Back to the 19th Century | HISTORY (3)How Crimea's Complex History With Russia Dates Back to the 19th Century | HISTORY (4)

Some argue that Putin’s annexation of Crimea is an attempt to return Russia to the glory of its pre-Soviet days, “as one of the world’s greatest civilizations.” Although Ukrainian nationalism remains strong, particularly in the eastern part of the country, Ukrainian officials and analysts report to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that significant demographic transformation is underway, with a huge influx of ethnic Russians.

“We can say with certainty that we are talking about hundreds of thousands of people,” Ukrainian official Borys Babin, told the news service, including many from Siberia. “An enormous number of bureaucrats are moving in with their families, and those family members are looking for work. In addition, there is a large number of guest workers—people who come to Crimea for major construction projects that are being carried out in the military sphere.”

Vladimir Putin

Meanwhile, thousands of Crimean Tatars left the peninsula since the annexation in 2014. The Tatars, many of whom had returned to their ancestral homeland in the 1980s and 1990s, were driven out by an increasingly aggressive Russian presence.

Of those who remain, many are subject to harassment, arrest and imprisonment by Russian authorities, particularly on charges of extremism and political activity, according to a 2017 Human Rights Watch report.

How Crimea's Complex History With Russia Dates Back to the 19th Century | HISTORY (5)

The Iron Curtain parts for a portrait of Joseph Stalin, the Russian dictator who ruled supreme over the Soviet Union from 1929-1953. Through methods of fear and intimidation, as well as death, millions of his own citizens died under his regime.

How Crimea's Complex History With Russia Dates Back to the 19th Century | HISTORY (2024)

FAQs

What was happening in Russia in the 19th century? ›

This was a period of population growth and significant industrialization, though Russia remained a largely rural country. Political movements of the time included the Populists (Narodniki), anarchists and Marxists. A revolutionary organization called People's Will (Narodnaya Volya) assassinated Alexander II.

How did Crimea become part of Russia? ›

Catherine the Great's incorporation of the Crimea in 1783 from the defeated Ottoman Empire into the Russian Empire increased Russia's power in the Black Sea area. The Crimea was the first Muslim territory to slip from the sultan's suzerainty.

What is the history of the Crimea Peninsula? ›

The Crimean Peninsula, which in antiquity was known as the Tauric Chersonese, was settled by Greek colonists from the 6th century bce onward, and Scythians occupied the interior. Later it came under the kingdom of the Cimmerian Bosporus, which eventually collapsed under the barbarian invasions.

Who does Crimea belong to historically? ›

Crimea was part of Russia from 1783, when the Tsarist Empire annexed it a decade after defeating Ottoman forces in the Battle of Kozludzha, until 1954, when the Soviet government transferred Crimea from the Russian Soviet Federation of Socialist Republics (RSFSR) to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (UkrSSR).

What problems was Russia facing in the late 19th century? ›

A population boom at the end of the 19th century, a harsh growing season due to Russia's northern climate, and a series of costly wars—starting with the Crimean War—created frequent food shortages across the vast empire. Moreover, a famine in 1891-1892 is estimated to have killed up to 400,000 Russians.

What was Russia like in the late 19th and early 20th century? ›

During the 1890s and early 1900s, bad living- and working-conditions, high taxes, and land hunger gave rise to more frequent strikes and agrarian disorders. By 1914, 40% of Russian workers were employed in factories of 1,000 workers or more (32% in 1901).

Why is Crimea important to Russia? ›

Crimea's strategic position led to the 1854 Crimean War and many short lived regimes following the 1917 Russian Revolution. When the Bolsheviks secured Crimea, it became an autonomous soviet republic within the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic. It was occupied by Germany during World War II.

Was Crimea part of Russia in the past? ›

Crimea was part of the Crimean Khanate from 1441 until it was annexed by the Russian Empire in 1783. After the end of the empire in the first stages of the Russian Civil War there were a series of short-lived independent governments (Crimean People's Republic, Crimean Regional Government, Crimean SSR).

When did Crimea separate from Russia? ›

The full text of the decree was: On April 26, 1954 The decree of the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet transferring the Crimea Oblast from the Russian SFSR to the Ukrainian SSR.

What happened to the Crimea? ›

A pro-Russian government was installed and a referendum on Crimea's status was held under occupation. According to the Russian-installed authorities, the result was in favour of joining Russia. It annexed Crimea on 18 March 2014, re-organizing it as a Russian republic and turning Sevastopol into a Russian federal city.

What was the short history of the Crimean War? ›

The Crimean War (1853-1856) was the first modern war. A vicious struggle between imperial Russia and an alliance of the British, French and Ottoman Empires, it was the first conflict to be reported first-hand in newspapers, painted by official war artists, recorded by telegraph and photographed by camera.

When did the Crimean War start? ›

Crimean War, (October 1853–February 1856), war fought mainly on the Crimean Peninsula between the Russians and the British, French, and Ottoman Turkish, with support from January 1855 by the army of Sardinia-Piedmont.

Who lived in Crimea before Russia? ›

The Crimean steppes (and the bigger part of Ukraine's Southern regions) were populated by the nomads: the Cimmerians (from the 9th century BC), the Scythians (from the 7th century BC as nomadic and from the 3rd century as settled people), the Sarmats (from the 1st century AD) and Alani (from the 3rd century AD), the ...

What percent of Crimea is Russian? ›

Russians constitute the majority in Crimea (71.7% in Sevastopol and 58.5% in the Autonomous republic of Crimea).

What religion is Crimea? ›

The majority of the Crimean population adheres to the Russian Orthodox Church, with the Crimean Tatars forming a Sunni Muslim minority, besides smaller Roman Catholic, Ukrainian Greek Catholic, Armenian Apostolic and Jewish minorities.

What was Russia's expansion in the 19th century? ›

This continued for centuries; by the end of the 19th century, the Russian Empire reached from the Baltic Sea, to the Black Sea, to the Pacific Ocean, and for some time included colonies in the Americas (1732–1867) and an unofficial colony in Africa (1889) in present-day Djibouti that lasted only a month.

What were the Russian wars in the 19th century? ›

In the 19th century wars were fought over the Dardanelles and Bosporus straits, the Caucasus, and Crimea. The war of 1828–29 ended in the Treaty of Edirne (1829), which ceded large tracts to Russia. The Crimean War (1853–56), however, was a major diplomatic setback for Russia.

What major issues did Russia have in the early 1900s? ›

During the 1890s and early 1900s, bad living and working conditions, high taxes, and land hunger gave rise to more frequent strikes and agrarian disorders. These activities prompted the bourgeoisie of various nationalities in the Russian Empire to develop a host of parties, both liberal and conservative.

What historical event took place in Russia in 1919? ›

Russian Civil War, (1918–20), conflict in which the Red Army successfully defended the newly formed Bolshevik government led by Vladimir I.

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