Zaborona is launching a series of articles on Crimea and (de)colonial politics. In these materials, the editors will explain why we can confidently say that the annexation of the peninsula is colonization, what we need to know about the Crimean Tatar language, and what the policy of reintegrating the region into Ukraine will look like. In this text, we talk about the main Russian propaganda myths surrounding the topic of Crimea and explain what Serbs in Kosovo, the defense of Germans in Czechoslovakia, and the partition of Poland by the Soviet Union have to do with it. Spoiler alert: all of these myths have been used repeatedly in the twentieth century concerning other countries (and we show how Russia uses them in the present).
“The Crimean Tatars have no historical evidence that they appeared in Crimea before the Slavs”
Let us explain what this thesis is based on. In his book “#CrimeaIsOur. History of the Russian Myth” publicist and Ph.D. in historical sciences Serhii Hromenko explains that propaganda about the peninsula’s originally belonging to Russia began during the Crimean War (and continues to this day), primarily through the erasure of the indigenous peoples of the Krymchaks, Karaites, and Crimean Tatars from the history.
The erasure of individuals, social or ethnic groups, and even entire regions is an act of memorial politics that can be found in colonial or expansionist practices around the world. Thus, in her essay “Venus in Two Acts,” the American postcolonial scholar Saidiya Hartman introduces the concept of “silence of the archives” — it consists either in the intentional erasure of references to a colonized people by the colonizer or in the absence of history unrecorded by the people themselves due to an underdeveloped written culture.
The constraint of material about the historical connection of a specific people with a certain territory plays into the hands of the colonizer, as history that is not recorded on material carriers (and, in turn, the collective memory that is based on it) is easier to modify. By applying the concept of the “silence of the archives” to Russia’s colonial history, we can see how it rebuilt the myth that the central figures in the peninsula were Russians. At the same time, the Russian Empire engaged in historical denialism, which is the denial of facts accepted by most historians, and pseudo-historicism.
Historical denialism does not rely on complex, well-developed hypotheses; it is enough to systematically say that something or someone did not exist, even if dozens of facts testify to this, as, for example, pseudo-historians do when they claim that the Holocaust did not exist. It works in the same way with the history of Crimea: the indigenous peoples of the peninsula turned into invaders, and the territory was allegedly first settled by Slavs.
Of course, this thesis does not stand up to criticism. As Hromenko writes, the Slavic population appeared on the peninsula only in the XIII century, and before the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Empire in 1783, the share of Slavs living on the peninsula was insignificant — 95% of the population was Crimean Tatars.
“Even if Tatars or Karaites were the first to settle Crimea, Russia brought civilization there”
Let us explain what this thesis is based on. One of the first Russian myths about Crimea was formed in the late eighteenth century, after the liquidation of the Crimean Khanate and the annexation of the peninsula by the Russian Empire.
A popular narrative accompanying the seizure of Crimea is that the conquest of the peninsula was a victory of civilization over barbarism and ignorance of indigenous peoples. This is a colonial thesis that was inherent in the transatlantic empires and colonizers — the British, French, Portuguese, Belgians, and Dutch — who, due to their higher level of education and technology, allegedly had the moral right to conquer other countries and spread European values.
According to some historians, the later colonial campaigns of Britain and France did indeed bring technology, medicine, and democratic mechanisms to Africa and Indochina (although this does not negate the genocides, violence, and slave trade they initiated). The task of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union was not to bring the benefits of civilization but to expand and settle the region. The most famous proofs of this are the deportations of the indigenous peoples of Crimea in 1897 (after which the share of Russians on the peninsula equaled that of Crimean Tatars) and in 1944.
“‘The people of Crimea’ want to join the Russian Federation because of the repressions of the ‘Kyiv regime'”
Let us explain what this thesis is based on. To legitimize the results of the referendum in Crimea and to counter the criticism of the global community, the Russian political establishment often referred to the so-called secession, the internationally recognized right of certain territory to secede from the state due to the threat to the very existence of the ethnic group living there, as well as due to human rights violations and repression.
According to Russian propaganda, the Ukrainian government opposed the self-determination of the “people of Crimea,” and according to Russian lawyer Vladislav Tolstykh, the lack of rights of the peninsula’s residents resembled the situation in Kosovo, where Albanians allegedly violated the rights of Serbs (which, incidentally, led to the invasion of Kosovo by the armies of Serbia and Republika Srpska, which are considered the main countries involved in the former Yugoslavia tribunal). According to Russian propaganda, it was the referendum that became the realization of secession, the autonomous Crimea chose to join Russia, while Russian troops did not participate in the occupation of the region.
The fictitious violation of the rights of ethnic Russians living in Crimea became the pretext for the occupation of the peninsula, and this is not the first propaganda thesis in history that has led to wars. In addition to the already mentioned partially Serb-occupied Kosovo, “violation of rights” was the pretext for Nazi Germany’s attack on Czechoslovakia (“oppression of Germans” in the Sudetenland), Poland (the same in Danzig), Lithuania (again, violation of German rights in Klaipeda), and the Anschluss of Austria (where everyone allegedly dreamed of joining the Third Reich).
“Ukraine got Crimea illegally”
Let us explain what this thesis is based on. Perhaps one of the most popular propaganda guidelines about Crimea being Russian is the allegedly unconstitutional transfer of the peninsula to Ukraine in 1954. However, this works for Russia’s domestic audience, but not for the global legal community: the annexation of Crimea shook the international security architecture based on the 1976 Helsinki Accords, and to legitimize the occupation, the now infamous propagandists’ meme “Khrushchev gave Crimea to Ukraine without thinking” was hardly enough.
To prove the legitimacy of the annexation, the Russian government launched lawfare, which is the speculation on international laws to discredit its opponent and justify its own violations. First of all, to better understand the root of this propaganda narrative, it is worth turning not to the speeches of pro-government journalists or politicians, but to Russian lawyers.
For example, according to Vladislav Tosminov, “the political and cultural autonomy of Crimea, enshrined in its 1992 Constitution, ensured the preservation of its Russianness,” which allegedly gives the Autonomous Republic the right to join Russia. Indeed, the 1970 Declaration of Principles of International Law states that the right to self-determination should exist, but through “free choice” and “without outside interference.” Of course, the global community doubts the results of the referendum and the absence of Russian military personnel in Crimea who interfered with the process. However, Putin’s well-known “we are not there” plays into the 1970 Declaration — the annexation is supposedly the choice of Crimeans, not military aggression.
“Ukraine has no right to Crimea because after 2014 the country is not an integral state”
Let us explain what this thesis is based on. Another attempt to legitimize the occupation of Crimea is to doubt the existence of Ukraine of 1991 and the illegitimacy of the government after the “illegal coup” and the flight of former President Viktor Yanukovych. For example, Russian lawyer Vladislav Tolstykh argues that “since the collapse of [Ukraine], the configuration of international relations has changed: instead of Russian-Ukrainian relations, there have been relations between Crimea and the new Ukraine, relations between Crimea and Russia, and, finally, relations between Russia and the new Ukraine… since the collapse, Crimea and the new Ukraine have ceased to be parts of one state.” The same legal speculation was used by the USSR during the occupation of Poland in September 1939, as the country was no longer integral after the German attack.
“Ukraine is unable to protect the population of Crimea”
Let us explain what this thesis is based on. One of the main ideas of Russian propaganda, which was used both during the annexation of Crimea and during the full-scale invasion, is the illegitimacy and lack of independence of Ukraine.
According to Russian mythologizing, Ukraine ceased to exist as a legitimate state after (according to softened rhetoric) the “Ukrainian crisis” or (in more radical rhetoric) after the “civil war” and the dismantling of “democracy, which was replaced by the Nazi regime.” The alleged destabilization of democracy, economy, and social mechanisms has led to Ukraine’s inability to protect the interests of the people of Crimea, including the Crimean Tatars. The last part vividly emphasizes the paradoxical nature of Russian propaganda, as the indigenous peoples of the peninsula are considered criminal elements or terrorists according to the Russian official line.
In addition, according to Russian politicians, Ukraine is a vassal state of Europe and the United States. The presence of Western supervisors deprives Ukraine of its independence, especially in defending the interests and rights of its citizens, who will be safer in Russia. According to international lawyer Christopher Borgen, such statements help Russia to consider Ukraine’s borders “ephemeral” — thus, they are no longer subject to international laws.
“Russians living in Crimea are being linguistically oppressed”
Let us explain what this thesis is based on. In recent years, before the annexation of the peninsula, the Russian authorities deepened narratives about the aggressive Ukrainization of Crimea, the prohibition of the Russian language, and Russian identity.
Most of all, the pro-Russian authorities fueled the myth that Crimeans were restricted in their access to the Russian language. Although, according to Article 10 of the Constitution of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, “Russian was recognized as the language of the majority of the population… and acceptable for interethnic communication.” According to Article 11 of the Constitution of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, “passports, labor record books, documents on education, birth, and marriage certificates, etc. shall be issued in Ukrainian and Russian”.
Historian and publicist Serhii Hromenko emphasizes that 77% of the region’s residents considered Russian to be their native language. In everyday conversations and outdoor advertising, Russian was the dominant language. This is confirmed by the media: about 80% of the print media in Crimea were published in Russian, and only 7% of TV programs were broadcast in Crimean Tatar.
The same is true in the educational system: as of 2013, only seven schools were teaching in Ukrainian and 15 in Crimean Tatar. Russian was taught in 414 schools in Crimea (66% of the total). Out of 209,986 pupils (as of September 1, 2013), only 13,688 children (6.5%) were taught in Ukrainian. With this “forced” promotion of the Ukrainian language, the number of Russian-language classes still exceeded the number of Ukrainian-language classes by nine times (7,731 vs. 829).
Also, local Crimean universities — Tavriya National University, Humanitarian University in Yalta, Crimean State Engineering, and Pedagogical University — hardly trained Ukrainian-speaking teachers and continued to teach subjects in Russian. In fact, there were no grounds for the myth of oppression of Russian identity and language.