Rezori: Revisiting the Crimean Peninsula

The fight over Crimea has not yet involved a bullet, which may explain why we understand so little about Russia's obsession with it, writes Azzo Rezori.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has drawn international condemnation for Russia's move to take over the Crimean Peninsula. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/Reuters)

It's been the big international puzzler these last few weeks.

Why would Russian president Vladimir Putin put so much on the line just to get his hands on the Crimean Peninsula — wherever it is and whatever we care about it.

Well, Crimea has been Russia's Riviera for centuries, playground of tsars and proletarians alike. It has stunning shorelines studded with palaces and seaside resorts plus spectacular mountains towering over it all. It's also been Russia's naval base in the Black Sea for more than 200 years.

Crimea, with its craggy hills, jagged coast and mild climate, has been the Russian empire's answer to the Mediterranean Riviera since the 19th century. (Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters)
No wonder Putin, Russia's self-appointed godfather, wants it back, and to hell with the Tatars who claim it as their homeland.

The first time I heard of the Crimean Peninsula was as a 15-year-old when we got to the middle of the 19th century in history class.

The lesson or two we spent on the Crimean War (1853-1856) left me with the impression of an unforgiving place where men in tin-soldier gear were being fed, by the thousands, to cannons for the vanity, stupidity, and greed of empires.

The battles had names as if pulled out of a linguistic grab bag: Alma. Balaclava. Inkerman. Sebastopol.

The Light Brigade charged into glorious infamy. Florence Nightingale drifted through the horror like a reluctantly acknowledged angel.

It was a twilight zone, closer to darkness than to light.

A remarkable letter

My neighbour Heather McMaster seems to have nurtured similar associations. A few weeks ago she called to say she had something interesting to show me.

This is not an argument for war, but if there is no war to mark this robbery the way other wars have marked other robberies in the past, chances are the whole thing will soon be forgotten.

I popped by her house, and she handed me a hand-written letter by an ancestor of hers, signed Richard Yeabsley, Sergeant, 47th Regiment, and dated Sept. 22, 1854, two days after the Battle of Alma.

Dear Parents, he writes. Thanks to the Almighty I am spared to write to you again, after our terrible conflict with the enemy...

Sgt. Yeabsley and his regiment were part of the Franco-British forces advancing on the Russian port and stronghold Sebastopol on the southern tip of the peninsula. Compared to what was to follow, the first skirmish had been a cakewalk.

...I think three men lost their legs, Yeabsley writes as if talking about a few branches down after a storm.

Their next mission was to reach the River Alma while facing 4,000 Russian infantry and more than 100 pieces of cannon safely stationed atop a bluff on the other side. And that's where the letter explodes into action.

...A man on my right, a shot came and took off his leg in a minute. A cannonball came and struck the second Sergeant from me in the breast. It went through his body and knapsack and killed both him and a Corporal in rear of him.

So much war

No wonder we're so fascinated with war. It's so deliciously gruesome, and there's been so much of it.

I counted 232 wars for the 19th century alone. In a proverbial year, that's almost one a day. You can hop from one to the other without ever getting your feet wet with the day-to-day life of the century.

Russian officers gesticulate to the driver of Russian tank T-72B at the Ostryakovo railway station not far from Simferopol, Crimea, in this photo from last week. (The Associated Press)
Much the same applies to the rest of history, as I was taught it in school. It amounted to an endless war annal, illuminated with the names of heroes like Alexander, Caesar, Attila, Genghis Khan, and Napoleon while written with the blood of millions of soldiers and civilians.

Wars tend to steal the limelight, and sometimes they do it at great cost to our knowledge and understanding of the rest of history. The reason we know so much about the genocide of American Indians is because they fought back and gave war.

There was no recent war involving the Crimean Tatars, which explains why I knew so little about their persecution under tsarist Russia, the Soviet Union, and now modern Russia again.

A selective lens

Canada is only beginning to come to grips with what it's done to its own native peoples because there was never any war to shed light on what happened, except for the brief rebellion of Louis Riel.

War is an effective but very selective lens.

Here's more of it as seen through Sgt. Yeabsley's letter. His regiment had crossed the River Alma under fire and taken the heights above it after three and a half hours of bloody fighting. Yeabsley surveyed the carnage the morning after. The British had lost about 1,500 men, the French about the same, the Russians many times more.

...I walked over it and it is truly horrible ... It is far more affecting than the battle itself, for then you have no time for reflection. There lie men and horses some with their heads blown to pieces, others cut nearly in two by cannon balls. Some with one leg and many with both legs blown off and left to bleed to death, and scores of poor Russians lying wounded where they had been all night, with no one to assist them.

...I got a few men to go with me round about our regiment and buried as many as we could of the poor Russians. Where there was four or five together we dug a hole and buried them on the spot, a mournful task. Still, better to be burying them than they (burying) you.

In 1944, Josef Stalin decided to bury the Crimean Tatars once and for all by deporting them in bulk to other parts of the Soviet Union.

More than 250,000 have returned since the Crimea became part of newly independent Ukraine following the dismantlement of the Soviet Union.

Putin may just get away with stealing their homeland back again.

This is not an argument for war, but if there is no war to mark this robbery the way other wars have marked other robberies in the past, chances are the whole thing will soon be forgotten, like so much else that happens unnoticed on the flatlands of peacetime.


Azzo Rezori


Azzo Rezori is a retired journalist who worked with CBC News in St. John's.