The world risks a new cold war thanks to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — of the Crimean Peninsula. The conflict calls for short history of the two nations and of Crimea.
[Originally posted in 2014. I’m reposting because this article has so much to say about today’s news from Russia and Ukraine.]
Russia was born in Ukraine
The first state that historians call “Russian” is Kievan Rus: a medieval realm with its capital at Kyiv, capital of modern Ukraine. (“Kiev” is based on the Russian spelling, but nowadays most people use the Ukrainian-based spelling for the city of Kyiv.) Vikings founded Kievan Rus during the late 800’s C.E. and then gradually blended into the local Slavic population. Kievan Rus eventually covered modern Ukraine, Belarus, and much of Western Russia. Rus is the root for the word Russia. Legend says it meant “red” and referred to the Vikings’ coloration. But most likely Rus actually came from a Nordic term for “men who row,” since the Vikings arrived on the rivers.
The Byzantine Empire quickly cast its cultural net over Kievan Rus. A Kyivan prince adopted Byzantine Orthodox Christianity in 988, laying the foundations of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Kievan Rus fell to the Mongols during the 1230’s and disappeared from history.
Early Nations and Russia’s First Conquest of Ukraine
The Kievan Rus’ descendants began to recover their old power during the late 1200’s, under several small principalities. New cities grew strong in the north, particularly Moscow, which eventually threw off Mongol rule and grew into the giant state we call Russia. The Grand Duchy of Moscow came into its own around 1300, when the Russian Orthodox patriarch moved the Church’s headquarters from Kyiv to Moscow.
Around the same time, a new post-Rus state rose in the south, in modern-day Ukraine. But it never gained real independence. Eventually, the Poles and Lithuanians replaced the Mongols as the country’s foreign rulers. The Ukrainians generally lived under foreign rule from then on, until the late 20th Century. Separated from the other Kievan Rus descendants, the Ukrainians developed their own culture. Today, Ukrainian is an independent language, though Ukrainians and Russians can sometimes understand each other — like Spanish and Italian speakers.
During the late 1600’s, the Russian czar conquered parts of Ukraine and became one of its several foreign monarchs. And Russia’s share grew over the centuries. By the end of World War II, the Russian Empire — by then transformed into the Soviet Union — held all of modern Ukraine. Generally, Russian rule aimed at stamping out or limiting Ukrainian culture, for fear the Ukrainians would seek their own nation.
The Crimean Peninsula
The Crimean Peninsula didn’t become part of Ukraine until 1954. Muslim Tatars dominated it during the 1700’s, under khans who owed loose fealty to the Turkish Ottoman Empire. In 1783, however, Russia’s Catherine the Great conquered the peninsula, giving Russia its first warm water port and a major stake in the Black Sea.
Crimea remained part of Russia until the Soviets transferred it from the Russian Soviet republic to the Ukrainian Soviet republic, in 1954. These republics were just provinces, so the move didn’t mean much. In fact, the Soviets saw it as a symbolic gesture, marking the 300th anniversary of eastern Ukraine’s entry into the Russian Empire.
Russian Autocracy and Troubles over Ukraine and Crimea
The Soviet Union broke up in 1990, and Russia and Ukraine became independent nations (as did the other Soviet republics).
Soon, Russia faced two problems related to its “new” neighbor. First, Crimea had given the former Soviet Union its key naval outlet onto the Black Sea. With Crimea part of independent Ukraine, that outlet lay in foreign hands. Ukraine, however, did eventually lease several Crimean naval bases to Russia. And Crimea became a semi-autonomous republic within Ukraine.
Russia’s second problem relates to democracy. By the 21st Century, Ukrainians seemed determine to adopt a democratic government. And that led them to seek ties with the democratic West: the European Union, the U.S., etc. Russia had flirted with democracy after the fall of the Soviet Union. But then it fell back into a traditional autocratic state, under Vladimir Putin. For an autocrat, a free and prosperous neighbor — with a similar language and culture — presents a real threat. Ukraine’s success could give Russians ideas that an autocrat would rather smother. That problem got a lot worse last month, when the Ukrainian people ousted a corrupt Russian-leaning government in favor of more democracy and closer ties to the West.
Russian Invasion of Crimea
Promptly after Ukraine’s lurch toward democracy and the West last month, Putin invaded the Crimean Peninsula. Thus he solved Russia’s first problem, taking control of the Black Sea naval bases. He solved it, that is, if Russia can keep Crimea.
The invasion may also have helped Putin address the second problem, by weakening democratic Ukraine. But Ukrainian freedom remains a thorn in Russia’s side.
- Map: Kievan Rus, 1220-1240, from SeikoEn (without endorsement), reproduced from Wikimedia Commons
- Painting: The Battle of Kulikovo (1849), Adolph Yvon, 1849
- Painting: cropped version of Catherine II’s portrait, by Fyodor Rokotov (1763)
- Vladimir Putin with Vladimir Bulgakov, from the website of the President of the Russian Federation, provided through Wikimedia Commons and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License
© 2014, 2022 by David W. Tollen