It has been 40 years since the publication in the United States of the Russian writer Vasily Aksyonov’s novel ‘The Island of Crimea’. It appeared in the United States the author was considered an anti-Soviet writer and the novel itself was a satire of alternative history, a kind of parody of history. It could be reborn today, because it has two contemporary political hot topics.
Firstly, and very understandably, it is Crimea, geopolitics and status of which are becoming an increasingly valuable card in the political game. Secondly, the author’s ingenuity has transformed Crimea into an island in the Black Sea, an island that the Bolsheviks never managed to occupy, an island where the so-called bourgeois system remains. You were right to think that it was like the Soviet Union’s Taiwan, which remained free and prosperous alongside the failed Bolshevik state, which remained neutral during World War II, and… but let’s leave the end of the plot for the end.
‘Crimea is ours!’… but not finally. Like Taiwan. More seriously, Crimea has always been an important geopolitical accent in the region, and all wars in this part of the world have been fought in one way or another with the question of whose Crimea is, and why. Just look at the map (the real one) and it is easy to see that, even in its shape, the peninsula resembles an island, a fortress or a convenient meeting place for all the people of coast of the Black Sea. It just depends on what kind of sea it is – a war arena or a peaceful lake…
It’s no secret that Crimea can be ‘ours’ for the Greeks, Romans and Byzantines. To their heirs, too. All of them, individually, have ruled Crimea longer than Russia. Not to mention the Crimean Khanate, armies of which reached Moscow and in 1571 really devastated it. Crimea may also be Turkish, as it was for several centuries an Ottoman strategic outpost against a rising Russia. Russia annexed Crimea only in 1783, not so long ago, just before it finally cut up our Republic of the Two Nations. It is true that in the mid-19th century, after the famous Crimean War, Russian influence across the Black Sea was temporarily reduced, so that Crimea did not become ‘Russia forever’. The strategic importance of Crimea in the world wars has been the subject of much and everything, from serious geopolitical and economic analyses and the Yalta Conference (the place was not chosen for nothing) to tragicomic essays, including the work of a famous ‘writer’ of the time, ‘The Little Land’. That fateful year of 1954, when an inexperienced young Soviet leader named Nikita signed over the peninsula from one Soviet republic to another, no one thought that it would ever become a great political… mistake/not a mistake. So, whatever the historians or patriots of one country or the other may say, the historical motive of belonging is of little importance.
As much as we sympathise with the Crimean Tatars, the national motive to say ‘Crimea is ours!’ is not at the top of the list of geopolitical priorities. In all the wars over Crimea, nobody asked the local population what they thought about the status of the peninsula. It is true that the crime of the Soviet system – the collective punishment of the entire nation – requires special respect and support for the Crimean Tatars, but their situation today is, of course, unsatisfactory: they are, as it were, enemies of the state in their own homeland.
Quite frankly, it is not the colourful history, warm weather, sunny beaches and Tatar heritage that make Crimea important to the big powers. It is important because of geography. Without Crimea and Abkhazia, the Black Sea coastline of Russia was the length of the coasts of Romania and Georgia, and now, with Crimea, it is the longest of all the countries along the coast. The West has managed to turn the Baltic Sea into a kind of EU/NATO lake; the Russian fleet in the Baltic Sea is not free to do as it pleases, and even the laying of pipelines requires permits. In the Black Sea Russia with Crimea can still dictate terms, even though there are apparently three NATO countries on its coast. Ukraine, without Crimea, is no longer a true maritime state.
But not everything is so easy for the Russians. Crimea looks like it could be a promising region: it is about one-third the size of Lithuania and has a population slightly smaller than our own. However, Russian Crimea will not prosper, but will suffer the fate of the Karelia region, which will need more and more resources to defend it.
The companionship between Ukraine and Turkey is deepening. Turkish drones, which won the Azerbaijani war against the Armenians, have already been tested in Donbas. And if the West does not want Ukraine and Turkey, why should these countries not integrate on the basis of their local geopolitical interests. The distance from Kharkiv to Moscow is almost the same as from Daugavpils in Latvia.
The status of non-recognition is not so innocent, therefore explanations are required regarding Crimea, and in the end, Russia has never been able to sell the recognition of Crimea even to Chinese, or even to very close allies. Crimea is not exactly Russia…. such an exclave, such an island.
By the way, I don’t suppose there will be many people who want to read Vasily Aksyonov’s ‘The Island of Crimea’. So I will say something that Taiwanese people should take very much to heart today. Minds of the elite on the island of Crimea have been blown by the idea of a ‘common destiny’, whereby they have come to feel very close to continental Russia. So close that they eventually thought of merging with it… Unfortunately, they realised too late what a geopolitical (and also moral) mistake they had made.
It was better when it was … an island.