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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Crimea after 1783

3 June, 2014 - 11:37
Photo from the website NNM.ME

Since the seizure of Crimea (the word “occupation” sounds too respectful for the Kremlin’s bandit-style scenario) began last year, I have always been recalling a film directed by the famous Ingmar Bergman. I do not know the exact title of the film and whether it was shown in the USSR. It was about an obscure bur still cruel war in the suburb of a typical northern town. Some groups of assault-rifle-wielding terrorists, without any insignia of a regular army, attacked local residents and their homes. Yet Bergman must have been not so much interested in showing and explaining the war itself. He focused on its victims – the people who found themselves in a situation when a sensation of fear had overshadowed all the customary principles of existence. He was interested in the human soul of his characters (which he literally turns inside out), when normal, even successful and self-confident, people are ready to commit the meanest misdeeds for the sake of personal survival or benefit. This is why all that was and is going on in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, from the armed “little green men” to typical traitors or ordinary scared people, reminded me of that film. But let us leave Bergman’s genius alone, all the more so that he never dealt with a burning issue as “information war” and its impact on the masses of people.

I think no aggressors have ever resorted to such a massive informational pressure since the world began to exist. Therefore, we are the first on whom these “achievements of civilization” are being tested – perhaps also for the first time, so deceitfully. I will not deny that deceit has always been, to a certain extent, part of the plans of conquerors. However, the incredibly primitive meditations which we hear today from some utterly brazen “powers that be” (above all, on historical topics) cause nothing but terror. First of all, the terror of knowing who rules the world and how many people believe them. There is a colossal number of publications, encyclopedias, etc. Even if you do not believe Ukrainian sources, you can take, say, The Big Soviet Encyclopedia, in which you can find, in spite of the ubiquitous Soviet agitprop, a lot of information about, for example, the history of Crimea. And if you try and read “between the lines,” you will also learn many things about Ukraine as a whole.

Let us speak about Crimea as “a primordial Russian land ceded to Ukraine for no apparent reason.” I am not going to persuade you that Crimea is “primordially” Ukrainian, but all that had been occurring on the peninsula for millennia was, one way or another, close to the mainland, i.e., the land on which (whether Ukrainophobes like it or not) ethnic Ukrainians were formed. Those lands were close by, and convenient waterways had promoted, from times immemorial, contacts with Dnipro and Dniester basins and even some remoter regions of Ukraine. Researchers have more than once drawn parallels between the cultures of the ancient tribes of Crimea and the mainland. This applies, for example, to Paleolithic caves Kiik-Koba in Crimea and the sights upstream of the Dnipro’s rapids, which date back to the same epoch. We can also say the same about the next epochs, when the routes and contacts were considerably enlarged. Crimea developed for centuries under the influence and at times with participation of highly-developed civilizations in the Old World and Asia Minor, with frequent wars for this rather tasty morsel of beautiful land. The Cimmerians, Scythians, Greeks, Romans, Goths, and others tried to settle there and establish at least a little state of their own. As a result, after the invasion of the Huns and a war with the Khazars, Crimea comes under Byzantine domination. It is at that time that Crimea established very active contacts with the early Slavs and, later, with the Kyivan state. Christianity was on the rise. Byzantine historians wrote that some areas of Crimea were populated with those who had come from Rus’ (Ukraine). But those contacts were of a very diverse nature, and they mostly emerged in the sphere of cultural and trade relations.

After the Crusaders had seized Constantinople, the Byzantine Empire lost its Crimean possessions and influence on the peninsula’s further development. Its steppes were populated by land tillers from various European countries, including Ukraine. Besides, Crimea became one of Europe’s largest trade centers. In 1425, the heavy upheavals caused by wars against the Golden Horde, Turkey, and others led to the final formation the Crimean Tatar Khanate with Bakhchysarai as capital. It should be stressed that archeologists associate the origin of Crimean Tartars with one of the most ancient tribes that used to populate the hill-foot lands of Crimea – the creators of the so-called Kizil-Koba culture of the late Bronze Age – early Iron Age (Yaroslav Pasternak, Archeology of Ukraine). Therefore, the Crimean Tatars really belong to some of the most ancient dwellers on the Crimean peninsula.

It is perhaps difficult to deny that the history of the Crimean Khanate and Ukraine was closely intertwined in both peaceful and hard military periods, particularly in the 17th-18th centuries. Russia also made several attempts to take possession of Crimea (with participation of Ukrainian Cossack troops). As a result, in 1783, after fierce battles against Turkey, it managed to do so and the Crimean territory finally became part of the Russian Empire. However, the then Crimea was not alien to Europe and vice versa. It was a home for many well-known people – scientists, military figures, merchant ship owners, etc. For this reason, in spite of a new political situation that considerably reduced ties, European countries (Italy, France, Austria, Germany, et al.) were still interested in preserving their interests, first of all, merchant colonies, in Crimea. Among representatives of these states, who were sent to Crimea on an economic or scientific mission, was a well-known French-born Austrian scientist, Balthasar Hacquet. This extremely interesting figure is, unfortunately, very little known and was not duly appreciated in Ukraine. It is a pity because a considerable part of his works printed in many countries of Europe dealt with Ukraine. There seem to be not a single scientific field that did not interest him: biology, medicine, geology, particularly mineral resources, history, ethnography, etc. He corresponded with many scientists, kings and Caesars, including the Austrian Kaiser Joseph II who he considered quite a wise statist.

It is perhaps difficult to deny that the history of the Crimean Khanate and Ukraine was closely intertwined in both peaceful and hard military periods, particularly in the 17th-18th centuries. Russia also made several attempts to take possession of Crimea (with participation of Ukrainian Cossack troops). As a result, in 1783, after fierce battles against Turkey, it managed to do so and the Crimean territory finally became part of the Russian Empire.

But, above all, Hacquet was an avid traveler. He hiked across Ukraine twice, before and after Crimea’s accession to Russia. He described his impressions of the travels criticized the state leaders who funded them in his later published letters. Nobody escaped the rap, including the embassy staff for their low intellectual level. In his view, embassies “are to be staffed with highly-cultured educated people with impeccable behavior, who could properly represent their country, spread knowledge about it, and promote establishing beneficial links in the field of political, cultural, and commercial relations.” For he would come across the “diplomats” who knew nothing about not only the state they were stationed in, but also their own home country. (Does this resemble anything?)

Let me quote a line about Crimea in the Ukrainian Soviet Encyclopedia: “The accession of Crimea to Russia was of great progressive importance for its socioeconomic and cultural development” (vol. 7, p. 381). And what did Balthasar Hacquet, an eyewitness to the consequences of this “accession,” write about this? Here are some fragments of his letter to a friend referred to as L. “From Kherson onwards, I saw not a single tree or shrub until I reached the first capital Aqmescit, or Aq Mosque, later renamed as Simferopol by the Russians, I must admit that, by rubberstamping more and more new names, the current conquerors bring nothing but confusion into geography.” “You can come across so few people in this peninsula’s steppes! But they used to be densely populated, the proof of which are numerous graves in the places where there had once been big Tatar villages!” “After staying at Aq Mosque again for a few days, I met the aforesaid Governor General Berdeyev. When I first saw this strong and stubborn Russian hung with medals on both sides of the chest, I was quite astonished to learn that several hundred thousand residents were subject to the tyranny of this uncivilized primitive man. He received the first petition from the Greek commune which asked him to exempt them from the current military billeting introduced by the empress’s decree. The graceful answer sounded as follows: ‘You are canailles, and I will have you receive a hundred lashes if you go on bucking.’” [He did not know that one can also “waste in the outhouse.” – Author] “All the outskirts of today’s Feodosia, known as Little Istanbul, where 10-15 thousand people used to live, are now just a heap of stones and bricks of which houses were once built. In the town itself, surrounded by a superb bypass battlement built by the Genoese, there is nothing but a few ramshackle stone houses, a few small shops, and mosques that serve as military billets or accommodation for miserable Greeks and the like.” “What unhappy residents! The mosques of the ousted or killed Tatars were turned into guardhouses, warehouses, etc. On the northern side, there is only one ship lying at anchor, while, under the previous ruler, there were usually hundreds of ships here.” “In the last Turkish war, a couple of thousand still-remaining peaceful Tatar families, which had done nothing wrong to anybody, were forced to move to the Sea of Azov infertile steppes, where they either died of misfortunes and dire poverty or migrated to alien lands.”

Deeply concerned about the Tatars, Hacquet, who knew history well, still reproached them for the injustices they had done to their closest neighbors – they used to make bandit-style forays and enrich themselves by selling enslaved people. Yet, traveling across the Ukrainian steppe and coming across the large groups of serfs, mostly women and children, who were being driven on with whips, as if they were cattle, he sadly concluded that nothing had changed since then. The Russian despotic regime was enslaving the once free peoples still more cruelly and on a larger scale.

When we constantly hear from TV screens the moaning and lamentation of some of our compatriots for whom the current Russian aggression against Ukraine is, you see, very much unexpected (“Oh my! What’s happened to our ‘big brother’? For we lived as friends” – read “we served him so faithfully”), we can only be surprised. Do these Ukrainians really not know their history? Or they cannot (do not want to?) understand that what is going on in Crimea and eastern Ukraine is continuation of the Kremlin’s imperial policy?

Hacquet wrote in a letter to his friends: “There are so many millions of people in the world, but just fancy how many fools are there among them.” The only consolation is that these words of Hacquet are not only about us in the current situation.


This article is based on the proceedings of a Balthasar Hacquet conference held in Lviv in 2000. Its organizer, as well as the author of two books about him, was Maria Valio, a literature expert and bibliographer extremely devoted to her pursuit (and, in my view, still to be duly appreciated), who has, unfortunately, already departed this life.