For most students social studies may never be the most exciting topic in this day and age, but that doesn’t mean we should stop trying to engage them with new material. It seems that most of the content in European and World History classes focuses on broad themes over a significant amount of time. Issues like the French Revolution and imperialism take up large portions of curricula, and there is little time left to look into more specific events that could be just as valuable in affecting the learning experience of students. In my middle and high school experience Russia and the states it governed before and during the Soviet era were rarely ever touched upon. By giving students the opportunity to examine the history of Crimea and its relationship to Russia they could learn about the impact a relatively small area could still have on a nation’s sense of history.
Crimea is a peninsula along the northern coast of the Black Sea in Eastern Europe, roughly 200 miles from where the 2014 Olympic games took place, and is home to a variety of multi-ethnic groups. Currently the area is under Russian authority but the relationship Russia has with Crimea has not always been clear. To put it mildly, Crimea has a rich history and has bounced around in terms of who governs the territory a multitude of times. In 2014, Russia forcibly took back the Crimea under the direction of President Vladimir Putin, an event that sparked widespread criticism in the Western press for a few years. Students normally would have no understanding of an event like this and why Russia would take such swift action. However, by explaining the significance Crimea has in the hearts of Russian people, students gain the ability to make their own observations on the situation and other events down the road.
The Crimean Tatar Khanate, a break off from the Mongol emperor Genghis Khan’s empire was a predominate power for nearly 300 years in European affairs, but even most secondary level students have never heard anything about it. They were vastly successful in trading goods with Italians and raided Russia for years without any consequences. The Khanate existed under the authority of the Ottoman Empire until Russia went to war against the Ottomans in 1768 and subsequently defeated them six years later. The 1774 Treaty of Kuchuk-Kainardzhi did not immediately hand over the Crimean Tatar Khanate to Russia, but rather gave them a chance for independence. The independence would be short lived however.
Catherine II, the Tsarina of the Russian state upon the signing of Kuchuk-Kainardzhi, took the opportunity of the Crimean Tatar Khanate’s independence to place a ruler of her choosing on the throne. It may be confusing for students to see how a state could be independent but still have their ruler chosen from the outside. However, the ruler Catherine II chose was Sahin Giray, a well-educated Muslim man who descended from the Giray dynasty that had ruled over the area for prior centuries. Catherine thought she gave Crimea the best shot it could have at independence by picking Giray, however he could not keep stability among the various groups of people living under his reign. Crimean independence lasted a brief nine years before it was time for big brother Russia to step back in the picture again.
In 1783 Russia officially annexed the territory known as the Crimea. Alan Fisher, a historian from Michigan State University, asserts that “It was only after every possible means of establishing Sahin Giray as an autocratic and independent sovereign had been exhausted that Catherine carried out “the final solution” to the Tatar Problem” (Fisher, 1967). Of course, the “final solution” that Fisher was alluding to is that Russia takes over predominant control and authority of Crimea. It is important for students to have the background on the time that Crimea was not under Russian authority to see that maybe there was a slight chance for independence prior to Catherine the Great’s annexation.
Students should also get to see how important the Crimea was to the Russian state as a whole to further explain their annexation effort. While traveling through the Crimea in 1787 Catherine referred to the area as “Paradise on Earth” (Schonle, 2001). Catherine was enthralled by the beauty of the peninsula and made it an effort to rebuild the war-torn parts of Crimea into Russia’s own personal Garden of Eden. This wasn’t an effort overtly forced on the Crimean people because she enlisted the help of the local nobles and princes in reforming the land.
One major area of study for world history students at the secondary level is the Enlightenment. They could connect that to the Crimean issue as well. Catherine the Great considered herself a significant contributor the Enlightenment and wrote over hundreds of pieces and exchanged correspondence with great minds of the period like Voltaire. The Enlightenment connects with Russia’s annexation of the Crimea in 1783 because it was considered (still is by some) to be an act of enlightened despotism. Was Catherine trying to do what she thought was generally right for the people of the Crimea or was she acting in her own self-interests? These are the kinds of procedural knowledge questions that force students to think critically about issues and come up with their own responses.
Studying a specific area rather than a large general theme allows students the opportunity to examine cultural aspects that are too often overlooked. The Crimea became so enriched in the hearts of Russians for a number of religious and nationalistic claims. Vladimir, a Kyivan Prince was supposedly baptised around Crimea in the area of Chersonesos. This notion was later supported by the touring of the Crimea and respects paid to these sights by Tsar Alexander I (Kozelsky, 2014). Russians also have strong ties to the Crimean peninsula because of Sevastopol, the largest city. In a 2014 address Vladimir Putin stated “This is also Sevastopol-a legendary city with an outstanding history, a fortress that serves as the birthplace of Russia’s black sea fleet” (Putin 2014). Sevastopol is home to Russia’s main fleet along the Black Sea as Putin stated, so they feel a sense of pride in knowing that this area belongs to them.
Knowing how valuable the Crimea is to the people of Russia is important for students to understand because they’ll see the effect losing a meaningful territory can have. In February of 1954 the colorful Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was concerned with the heavy amount of suffering placed on the people of Ukraine by World War II. He took it upon himself to gift the territory of Crimea to the Ukraine as a penance for their sacrifices. Although authority was transferred to Ukraine, Russians still accessed the Black Sea fleet at Sevastopol and most citizens consider themselves part of the Russian state. There was no real need for Russians to get involved until 2014 when massive protests over a corrupt regime under Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovych emerged. In February of 2014 “little green men” or disguised Russian soldiers infiltrated Crimea and forcibly seized the territory back as their own. The swift re-annexation of the Crimea can seem harsh, but referendums were put out that consistently approved of Russian authority in Crimea. These kinds of quick turbulent political events can be hard to grasp without a detailed background.
So where does this leave Crimea today and why is it important for students to have the opportunity to learn about it in a social studies classroom? Russia has split Crimea into two separate entities consisting of the Republic of Crimea and the Federal City of Sevastopol. Investments in schools and hospitals and the creation of the world’s second longest bridge have all been started in the time since re-annexation. The five-year anniversary of the re-annexation will be approaching within the next few months (February 2019). This means that the event will probably pick up speed in the media again and give students background on current events that tie in to history.
Studying the Crimea can be difficult because of the many shifts in leadership that occurred over the past few centuries, however it is worth the effort to take on a difficult task to challenge students to form their own opinions. I would love to have a class and teach them about the rich history of a smaller part of a much broader region because it’s something even most historians could overlook. Teaching students about the Crimea gives them insight into a rich history, geographical issues, culture, and aids in the development of their critical thinking skills.
Address by the President of the Russian Federation. (2014). Retrieved from http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/20603
Fisher, A.W. (1967). “Sahin Giray, the Reformer Khan, and the Russian Annexation of the Crimea.” Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas.
Kozelsky, M. (2014). “Religion and the Crisis in Ukraine.” International Study for the Study of the Christian Church.
Schonle, A. (2001). “Garden of Empire: Catherine’s Appropriation of the Crimea.” Slavic Review.