“The uninvited guest is worse than a Tatar!” This is how Alexander Pushkin begins Tsar Saltan, a fable in verse he composed in 1830.
The founder of Russian literature, Pushkin came to know the Tatars when he spent two years in Crimea in the 1820s. He must have heard of the Crimean counter-adage, according to which “the bear comes to your house uninvited.” That Tatar saying came to my mind the other day as Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev paid a blitz visit to newly annexed Crimea. The “son of a bear”—the meaning of Medvedev’s name in English—was going to the Tatars’ ancestral home uninvited.
Next Tuesday, April 8, marks the 230th anniversary of the Russian annexation of the Crimean Khanate, then a client state of the Ottoman Empire. There are reports, unconfirmed at the time of writing, that President Vladimir Putin intends to visit Crimea to mark the occasion. If he does, Putin would be highlighting Russia’s historic obsession with the Black Sea peninsula. That obsession is fed by at least three elements. The first is nationalism. In a sense, Russians defined their nationhood against Tatars of different tribes and khanates, who ruled over them for centuries in an empire stretching from the Volga to the Pacific Ocean. In the 10th century, travelogues by Ibn Fadlan, an emissary of Abbasid Caliph Al-Muqtadir, and Ahmad Rusta, a Persian merchant from Isfahan, depict a people surrounded by hostile tribes and in search of an identity.
One might suggest that Russian history has been the story of eliminating one Tatar state after another. There is also an element of historic revenge in Russia’s obsession with Crimea for, in 1571, it was the Crimean Khan, Devlet Giray, who attacked and burned Moscow to the ground, destroying the nascent Russian state. The spectacular victory won the khan the much-coveted title of “Takht-Algan,” a Persian–Tatar phrase meaning “the throne-winner.”
Today, some Tatar ethnic groups, still part of the Russian federation, could be regarded as endangered species. A few, like the Kalmouks and the Charkess-Qarachai, survive as pale shadows of their past. In Crimea, Tatars now account for just 18 percent of the population, compared to more than 90 percent in 1930. Stalin had a majority of Tatars transported from their Crimean homes to concentration camps 3,728 miles (6,000 kilometers) to the east.
The second element in the Russian obsession stems from Crimea’s strategic importance. The peninsula allows Russia, a country lacking warm-water ports, access to the Mediterranean, and thus the open seas. Sebastopol is the principal base of the Russian Navy. The Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, writing as a young reporter covering the Crimean War of 1854, depicted Crimea as a fortress, a Russian glacis. In that war, Russia beat off the combined forces of Turkish, French and British invaders at a cost of more than a million dead. Even today, many important points in Paris are named after Crimean battles such as Sebastopol and Malakov. A statue honoring the 25,000 Englishmen who died in the Crimean War stands in Waterloo Place in central London. The charge of the Light Brigade in the battle of Balaklava, immortalized in Tennyson’s poem, has entered British mythology as one of the kingdom’s greatest tales of bravery.
The third and possibly the most potent element in the Russian obsession is the romantic image of Crimea in the psychological landscape of most Russians.
Tsarina Catherine II was the first Russian ruler to visit Crimea and be seduced by its romantic lure. In a letter to her chief minister, Potemkin, she claimed she had found Baghcheh Serai, the fallen Tatar capital, an image of paradise on earth. She loved the beautiful Persian garden designed and created by Ostad Omar Beylaqani, a master gardener from Tabriz, for the Tatar Giray Khan in the 15th century. The tsarina’s only complaint was that she was woken up by the muezzin calling Muslims to prayer five times a day, forcing her to get up at dawn and give up her postprandial siesta.
Pushkin played a key role in promoting Crimea’s romantic image. His verse narrative The Fountain of Baghcheh Serai, published in 1824, tells the story of Maria Potocka, a Slav princess captured by the Tatar khan who loves her beyond measure—a love she cannot reciprocate for religious and ethnic reasons. According to legend, it was for that princess that the khan built the palace and garden of Baghcheh Serai, then capital of the Tatar Khanate. (Bagh-cheh-Serai is a Persian phrase meaning “the villa in the little garden.) The fountain is supposed to symbolize the tears the princess shed. In the original Tatar tale that inspired Pushkin, the princess is Georgian, not Slav, with a Persian name: Delaram Bighash. (Delaram means “soother of the heart” and bighash means “flawless.”) By changing the ethnicity of the princess, Pushkin may have wished to symbolize centuries of Russian captivity under Tatar rule.
Crimea is everything that Russia is not. It is warm, while Russia, much of it located above the 50th parallel, is cold. Crimea is temperate, its climate sunny, whereas Russia is bleak. It is open to the outside world, but Russia is boxed in by immense steppes and frozen tundra. Russian poets praised Crimea’s fruits: “Ah! Those apricots, apples, peaches and persimmons,” Mikhail Lermontov remembered. Crimea is a land of plenty where Russia has always dreaded scarcity. Crimea is as old as history, while Russia is a newcomer to human annals.
Twenty-five centuries ago, Darius the Great chased Scythian guerrillas there with little success. For centuries, Crimea was an outpost of the Roman Empire. The Roman poet Ovid, exiled by Emperor Augustus to Tomis, now part of neighboring Romania, was a visitor to that “earthly paradise.” The peninsula and its hinterland also experienced several centuries of domination by the Ottomans, followed by 180 years of Russian rule and half a century of attachment to Ukraine.
Crimea’s history also includes centuries of rule by descendants of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane (Timur the Lame) and sequences of religious conversion—from crude versions of Buddhism to various brands of Christianity and eventually Islam, not to mention almost 80 years of Communism.
Can Russia swallow up Crimea that easily? No one knows. However, when Putin visits Baghcheh Serai, he would do well to read these lines from Pushkin’s poem:
There I found a cemetery
Of conquering chiefs the last abode,
Columns with marble turbans crowned,
Their resting-place the traveller showed.
And seemed to speak fate’s stern decree:
“As they are now, such all shall be.”