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Crimea Is A 'Sacred' Land. But For Whom?

Russian President Vladimir Putin and former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych during a 2013 ceremony in Kyiv marking the 1,025th anniversary of Christianity of Kievan Rus.

Russian President Vladimir Putin defended Moscow’s annexation of Crimea on December 4 by invoking Kievan Rus leader Vladimir the Great, who is said to have been baptized on the peninsula in the 10th century and converted the medieval Slavic state to Orthodox Christianity.

Ukrainians, however, could deploy the same logic to justify Crimea’s inclusion in the modern Ukrainian state, historians and religious experts say.

“From the Ukrainian perspective, Crimea is more relevant to Kyiv because Volodymyr was the ruler of Kyiv,” said Cyril Hovorun, a former senior spokesman for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the Moscow Patriarchate, using the Ukrainian rendition of the sovereign’s name.

This interpretive impasse is among several competing historical, religious, ethnic and political claims to Crimea, a Black Sea peninsula that was home to Greek colonies some 2,500 years ago and controlled by various kingdoms and empires until Russia annexed it from the Ottoman Empire in 1783.

According to legend, in 988 Vladimir the Great converted to Orthodox Christianity on the peninsula in the city of Khersones, also known as Korsun, near modern-day Sevastopol, after which he returned to Kyiv and ordered the baptism Kievan Rus.

In his December 4 state-of-the-nation speech, Putin compared the site of Vladimir the Great’s baptism to holy sites for Jews and Muslims in Jerusalem.

"Crimea, ancient Korsun, Khersones, Sevastopol -- all of them bear an enormous civilizational and sacral meaning for Russia, just as the Temple Mount of Jerusalem does for those who profess Islam and Judaism," Putin said.

Given that the conversion of Kievan Rus established the Orthodox foundations for future Russian and Ukrainian states, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko could take the same message to his electorate, said Karl Qualls, a professor of Russian and modern European history at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania.

“It’s the same conversion, the same person and the same place,” Qualls told RFE/RL. “You could see the Ukrainians standing up and saying, ‘Well, yeah, this is our Temple Mount, too.’ … If Poroshenko said the same thing, it would resonate with Ukrainians as well.”

Tatars And Greeks

The Crimean Tatars also have a strong historical claim to the peninsula, with their ancestors having lived there as far back as the 13th century, Qualls noted.

The mainly Muslim Tatars administered their own khanate there in the 15th century and became an Ottoman vassal state until Crimea’s annexation into the Russian empire by Catherine the Great in 1783.

“I think the Tatars certainly have much more of a claim than Russians or Ukrainians, due to being the oldest settled population on that peninsula since the Greeks up and left,” Qualls said.

According to the 1897 census taken in the Russian Empire, Crimean Tatars constituted more than one-third of the population on the peninsula.

In May 1944, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin ordered the deportation of the entire Crimean Tatar population to Central Asia and Siberia for alleged collaboration with the Nazis during World War II. (Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, transferred Crimea to from the Russian to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1954.)

Crimean Tatars began returning to the peninsula in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and currently constitute around 13 percent of Crimea’s 2 million population.

Crimean Tatar leaders have accused Moscow-backed authorities on the peninsula of targeting their community for criticizing Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March.

After Russia seized the peninsula following Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s ouster in February, Ukraine’s parliament recognized the Crimean Tatars as “both Crimea’s indigenous population and an official national minority.”

Qualls said the word “indigenous” is a misnomer when describing any single population in Crimea.

“This territory was so overrun for thousands of years by different nomadic groups, that I don’t think we can talk about an indigenous group,” he told RFE/RL.

Greeks, who constitute a tiny minority in Ukraine according to its most recent census in 2001, could make a solid argument for recognition as an indigenous people of Crimea given that Khersones, mentioned by Putin in his state-of-the-union speech, was an ancient Greek city-state, Qualls added.

“I don’t see Athens making claims on Crimea, although I think they could,” he said.

Arcane Reference

During a meeting with Russian historians last month, Putin made a similar reference to the Crimea’s central importance to Russia as the site of Vladimir the Great’s baptism.

Putin is employing religious themes to “give more legitimacy to the illegal annexation of Crimea, at least in the eyes of the Russians,” said Hovorun, research director at the Institute of Theological Studies at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy.

Qualls said the religious motifs selected by Putin show that “he’s a clever politician, whatever we think about his politics.”

“He knows how to use words for dramatic effect,” he said.

One poll conducted last year, however, suggests Putin’s religious reference may be somewhat arcane for most Russians.

According to the poll conducted by the Public Opinion Foundation, just 25 percent of Russians surveyed were able to recall that the conversion of Kievan Rus to Christianity took place under Vladimir the Great.

With reporting by Reuters
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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.