We are at the remains of Panticapaeum, the capital of the Kingdom of Bosphorus, founded in the second quarter of the 6th century BC on both sides of the Kerch Strait.
We start our walk on the hilltop of Mithridates, in the heart of modern Kerch, where “terrible” king Mithridates of Pontus (134 – 64 BC) was killed. Greek geographer Strabo (63 BC – 23 AD) said Panticapaeum was the mother country of “all the Milesian cities of Bosphorus”. It was a big city that boasted a convenient harbor and a shipyard.
As we climb higher, we come across an obelisk celebrating victory in the Great Patriotic War. This is one of the last ridges in eastern Crimea. To the left is Kerch harbor with no warships, only coastguard patrol boats. To the right, the dark blue Sea of Azov, the Kerch strait – now one of the geopolitical hot spots of the young 21st century – and far in the distance is Krimsky Most, the Crimea bridge.
I cross in the direction of Novorossiysk, then turn back from the Russian mainland. There’s a passport control and customs check, even though Crimea is now Russian territory. Cars and buses are carefully examined; a terror attack is always a concern. The guards are polite: “Welcome to Krym”. I say I was already in Krym. They smile.
Bridge over troubled water
Washington officially insists all Crimea-related sanctions will remain until Moscow returns the peninsula to Ukraine. This will never happen. For Moscow, Crimea is already back to where it belongs. After all, Nikita Khrushchev, a sentimental Ukrainian, had transferred Crimea to Ukraine in 1954 in a fit of proletarian brotherhood, while blatantly violating the Constitution of the USSR.
US neocons and assorted Russophobes insist that Washington should further weaponize Kiev’s land, sea and air forces to counter “Russian aggression”, but Crimeans treat this as a bad joke.
Everyone knows Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko needs a diversion from his dismal, corrupt government. Thus the illegal – according to the Minsk agreements – bombing of cities in Donbass and the recent Kerch “incident”.
Poroshenko is polling at a meager 8%. He used the Kerch incident to declare martial law. He wanted three months, but Kiev’s legislature gave him just one. He is bound to lose the next elections. Meanwhile, over two million Ukrainians have already voted with their feet and sought refuge in Russia. Poroshenko can’t afford to launch a full-scale war on Donbass with no weapons, funds and little support from the EU.
For four years, Poroshenko has used a propaganda tsunami to manipulate the Ukrainian far right, which always abhorred Russians, Poles and Jews, to direct their blind hate towards Russians, the country’s largest minority. But that was not enough to “solve” any of the myriad problems of a de facto failed state.
After Washington destroyed any possible detente with Moscow, President Putin’s position remains very clear, as expressed during the 15th anniversary of the Valdai International Discussion Club in Sochi last October:
“Crimea is our land. We are still not going anywhere. Why is it our land? Not because we went there and took it… People came to a referendum in Crimea and voted for independence, first, and then for being part of Russia. Let me remind you for the hundredth time that there was no referendum in Kosovo, only the parliament voted for independence, that was all. Everyone who wanted to support and destroy the former Yugoslavia said: well, thank God, we are fine with that. Here, however, they disagree. Ok then, let’s have a discussion, go over the UN documents, see what the UN Charter is all about, and where it talks about the right of nations to self-determination. This will be an endless discussion. However, we proceed based on the will expressed by the people who live on that territory.”
Traveling from Simferopol to Kerch via Sevastopol, everyone I talked to confirmed they voted to re-join Russia, with no regrets.
For Russia-loving Crimeans, and Russians as a whole, Crimea back with the Motherland is a geopolitical, national security and national pride fait accompli. It also helps that Russia has done more for Crimea in four years than Ukraine did in six decades.
Airport making waves
My first impression, arriving at the brand new Simferopol International Airport, with its elegant design featuring 146 waves, is that any mid-sized city across the West would kill for it.
Marina Borodina, very well educated at the University of Crimea, and a producer at Rossiya Segodnya, shows me around the capital, thriving in a real estate boom, including the area around the airport. Crimea is under sanctions, but businesses adapt. No Visa or Mastercard? Everyone uses the Mir payment system, or rubles. Smartphones with SIMs by Russian providers are only good for local calls. So, there is no 4G network and no international roaming.
There’s a road-building boom as well. The coastal road from Sevastopol to Kerch is being upgraded, but the jewel in the crown is the 240km-long east-to-west Taurida highway, to be completed next year, linking to the Crimea bridge.
Sevastopol – where Christianity, according to a complex mix of legend and fact, entered Russia – was built entirely by Russia along beautiful blue creeks always jammed with ships. It’s indelible in the Russian national psyche especially because of its spirited two-year defense during the Crimean war, as well as repelling the 10-month siege by the Nazis during World War II.
The delicious old-world Hotel Sevastopol still reigns supreme, complete with an attached French brasserie and faint echoes of 19th century Paris that influenced Tsarist times.
Military officers parading their families by the famous promenade embellished with Christmas decorations dismiss the potential for more confrontation in the Sea of Azov. It and the Black Sea are de facto “Russian lakes”.
When the Mongol Tatars of the Golden Horde first arrived in Crimea, they saw a tower and called it Kerim (“fort”), thus Crimea. Then the Tatars moved inland, to Bakhchisaray, where they built the gracious palace of the independent khanate in a green valley protected by stone hills. That was the apex of the Crimean Tatar khanate; Krym Tartary.
I had time to explore a virtually deserted Bakhchisaray when a bride and groom celebrating their Tatar marriage arrived to pose for the obligatory photos, escorted by a fleet of black Mercedes sporting the light blue Tatar flag with its yellow seal. They were well off and spoke of good business opportunities, saying there were no problems whatsoever with the Russian administration. There are roughly 300,000 Tatars in Crimea out of a population of 2 million.
The ‘civilized’ and the ‘barbarians’
At the Kerch museum, a stone’s throw from Mithridates hill, I was privileged to engage with one of the caretakers, Anna Naumenko – also finely educated at the University of Crimea – on a thrilling historical ride. The museum has a small collection of precious Greek and Byzantine artifacts even though most of the archeological treasures are at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg.
Crimea was the site of a groundbreaking historical encounter. Imagine Greek colonists, essentially urban, who had reached Crimea after navigating at least one month from the Bosphorus to southern Russia, finding themselves face to face with nomads from Central Asia who had crossed a sea of grass; the Scythians – an Indo-Iranian speaking confederation who were already deploying their nomadic skills around the Crimean steppes when the Greeks arrived in the 8th century BC.
Then came Sarmatians, Goths, Huns, Khazars – Turkic-speaking pastoral nomads from Central Asia, the Cuman (other Turkic-speaking nomads), Mongol-Tatars of the Golden Horde, before Byzantium, and the Ottoman empire. Crimean Tatars converted to Islam in the 14th century. The khanate went on until Catherine the Great conquered Crimea in 1783.
This shows how Crimea has always been an unparalleled crossroads intertwining “civilization” with what Athenian Greeks might describe as “barbarism”. The clashes forever permeate the Western self-perception of superiority in relation to an alleged inferior, usually nomad, Other.
The fabled Golden Horde – actually the western arm of the Tatar-Mongol empire – controlled the steppes north of the Black Sea as well as Crimea from the mid-13th Century until at least the mid-15th Century.
This is crucial because they were actually the first unifiers of Eurasia, assuring stability across the steppes from China to Hungary. And that led to trade connectivity; the Ancient Silk Roads, stretching from China all the way to the Black Sea, then sailing towards the Mediterranean. This is impregnated in the collective memory of all Eurasian peoples.
Byzantium was what Russian scholar Mikhail Rostovtzeff, in his fabulous book Iranians and Greeks in South Russia, described as a “very interesting” mixed civilization. So was the Black Sea, and Crimea.
The Ancient Silk Road brought silk, spices, porcelain, bronze and gold from China, Persia and India, while the Greeks exported wine, pottery, jewelry and ornaments first made in Greece and then in the Bosphorus kingdom in Kerch.
Peace in the steppes translated into free passage between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. The Mongol Tatars arrived in the Black Sea when the Byzantine empire was nearly dead. Behind the land armies of the Crusaders were the powerhouses of Venice and Genoa, eager to enhance trade connectivity with the markets of the Black Sea.
After the Crusaders had stormed Constantinople in 1204, they slipped through the Bosphorus to finally reach Crimea. For a while merchants in Tana, an important Venetian colony in the Sea of Azov, were able to monopolize through Venice virtually all the trade with China.
The Europeans could not help but see an opening. Sudak, in southeast Crimea, was a Greek, Byzantine and then Genoese colony. Yet as we know, this all ended when the Turks captured Constantinople in 1453 – and there was no more Byzantine empire around the Black Sea.
The Nazis had designs on Crimea. Two months before Germany invaded the USSR, it was decided that Crimea would be separated from Russia and handed to a puppet Ukraine; that was the Gotland project.
Most of the Nazi collaborators in Crimea during WWII were not Tatars. Still, under Stalin, the Tatars were the first ethnic minority to be entirely deported. When Soviet power was back in Crimea, those who remained were expelled en masse to Central Asia because of “treason to the Fatherland”. Now their sons and grandsons are coming back in droves.
When the USSR dissolved, the 19th-Century Tsarist Russian empire, plus Catherine the Great’s 18th century Novorossiya, across the northern shore of the Black Sea, also dissolved.
Crossing parts of the Crimean steppe, it’s easy to be reminded of Chekhov, who grew up in Taganrog on the Sea of Azov and loved the scent of herbs in the summer steppe.
It’s also fitting terrain to reflect on the collapse of empires. The Russian drive to reach the warm waters of the Mediterranean always clashed with the Turkish drive to hold on to the Ottoman conquests around the Black Sea. This history reverberated through the Crimean War in the 1850s and also through WWI, with Turkey allied with Germany and Austria-Hungary and Russia invading Anatolia. Yet even before WWI was over, both the Tsarist and Ottoman empires were gone.
Now Crimea is back to Russia, virtually for good, the union sealed by Krimsky Most. It is a sobering reality graphically visible from the ruins of Panticapaeum.