Nikita Khrushchev spoke the Ukrainian language


Wilfried Jilge

About the author

Wilfried Jilge is an Eastern European historian and lecturer at the University of Leipzig. He currently lives in Vienna.

Notes on the historical legitimation of the annexation of Crimea in Russia

In school books and historical-political accounts, Russia seeks to delegitimize Ukraine as a state and, in particular, to deny it its claim to Crimea. On closer inspection, however, both the Russian histories and the arguments used by Russia to justify military intervention in Crimea prove to be unsustainable.

A woman casts her ballot in the traditionally transparent ballot box in the referendum in Crimea in 2014. (& copy picture-alliance / dpa, ITAR-TASS)


The Russian Federation justifies the annexation of Crimea, among other things, with reference to the referendum carried out by the pro-Russian rulers on March 16, 2014, in which over 96% of voters are said to have voted for the annexation of Crimea to Russia. But in fact the referendum was illegal because the Russian leadership violated the general prohibition of violence enshrined in the UN Charter, the referendum and the previous takeover of power by the pro-Russian separatists were carried out under the intimidating presence of unmarked Russian soldiers and by a free one Expression of will therefore cannot be spoken. Since February 22nd at the latest - that is, during the change of power that was taking place in Kiev - Russia had been moving troops to Crimea, which, with the support of soldiers from the Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol, were supposed to bring the peninsula under control. A little later, in the early hours of the morning, Russian units sealed off the parliament of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea (ARK) in order - shielded from protests and closed to the public - to carry out a further Crimean campaign that was closely coordinated with Russia and the pro-Russian forces to take power in a coup-like manner to secure important extraordinary session of the Crimean Parliament. At the meeting, a referendum was held on the status of Crimea, the incumbent Prime Minister Anatoly Mohilev ("Party of Regions", PdR) was dismissed, and Sergei Aksjonow, who belonged to Moscow, was elected from the pro-Russian party, which until then had hardly been politically significant in the Crimea "Russkoye Jedinstvo" ("Russian Unity") decided. At the end of January of this year, the former self-proclaimed "Defense Minister" of the unrecognized Donetsk People's Republic, according to his own account until March 2013 reservist of the Russian secret service FSB (according to other sources member of the intelligence service GRU of the Russian armed forces) frankly revealed the nutritional circumstances of the meeting on January 27th : "The Landwehr fighters brought the members of parliament together to drive them into the hall so that they could vote. I was one of the commanders of this Landwehr." President Putin himself admitted during a TV question time on April 16 that Russian units had supported the forces of self-defense in Crimea in order to secure the implementation of the referendum. The Russian protagonists of the Crimean campaign hardly bothered to conceal the circumstances that prove that the annexation of Crimea was illegal under international law. Obviously, the Kremlin is aware of its weak position in international law. For this reason alone, historical-political arguments have increasingly come to the fore since April in order to strengthen his position and, not least in the context of school history lessons, to legitimize the incorporation of Crimea, at least in front of the own population. One aspect of this article is dealing with the history of Crimea in the Soviet era.

De-legitimization of the territorial integrity of Ukraine

The annexation of Crimea was not only an end in itself, but also served as a lever to secure Russia's political influence throughout Ukraine. On the eve of the planned signing in Vilnius of the Association Agreement between Ukraine and the EU and of the trade war unleashed by Russia due to the threat of Ukraine finally turning to the European Union, Russian President Putin questioned the existence of a Ukrainian nation, raising doubts about the existence of a sovereign nation To nourish the nation-state of Ukraine and to justify historically the Ukraine as a core element of the zone of influence of the "Russian world" propagated by him and ideologues close to the Kremlin. At the final plenary meeting of the international discussion club "Valday" on September 19, 2013, Putin initially half-heartedly acknowledged the independence of the neighboring country, but shortly afterwards pointed out that the roots of the statehood of Russia lay on the Dnieper and the medieval Kievan Rus as the starting point "for the tremendous future of the Russian state": "We have common traditions, a common mentality, a common history and culture [...] In this respect, I would like to repeat that, we are one people." In this sense, in his Crimean speech on March 18, 2014, he placed the annexation of Crimea in direct connection with the situation in the "southeast" of Ukraine, where, according to Moscow, the "compatriots" of the Russian Federation, i.e. Russian-speaking or Russian residents formed the majority and their political and linguistic rights are threatened after the change of power in Kiev. In this sense, Putin questioned the legitimacy of the Bolsheviks' inclusion of "significant parts of the historic south of Russia in the existence of the Ukrainian Soviet Republic" after 1917, after announcing a few days earlier that Ukraine's 1991 declaration of independence would not fully complied with Soviet standards. On April 7th, he made it clear that these areas were actually not parts of Ukraine but "New Russia" and thus implicitly justified the goals of the pro-Russian separatists to unite the pseudo-republics in Donbass into a state "New Russia" .

The Crimea in the USSR

The comprehensive revision of the Soviet nationality policy ultimately serves to de-legitimize the Ukrainian borders and state independence, which was carried out on the basis of the sovereignty of the borders of the Soviet republics. Since this also applies to the Russian Federation and the other post-Soviet states, this argument is associated with considerable explosive security policy. The key event in this historical-political strategy is the change of Crimea from the Russian Federal Soviet Socialist Republic (RSFSR) to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (ukr .: URSR) in 1954. A law is already being prepared in the Russian Federation Council which - based on to a similar initiative of the Russian parliament in 1992 - to recognize the surrender of Crimea to Ukraine from 1954 as illegal in order to restore "historical and legal justice" according to the chairman of the Federation Council Valentina Matvijenko. In the school books on the history of Crimea and today's popular science monographs, the handover is branded as an illegal and voluntaristic act or "tsar gift" from the then Soviet party leader Nikita Khrushchev. In the school book by W. Schestjakow, the event of 1954 in the chapter "The annexation of the Crimea to Russia" forms the starting point of the narrative: Khrushchev had transferred the Crimea from the RSFSR to the URSR for "economic reasons", whereby one "himself was not interested in the opinion of the people of Crimea and broke a number of Soviet laws ". In other school books it is pointed out that - in contrast to 2014 - no referendum was held in Crimea and thus the Soviet constitution was violated.

The exact reasons for the transfer of Crimea to Ukraine in 1954 are controversial, and the motives of the Soviet leadership that have been seriously discussed in research cannot be fully presented here. In fact, international research after 1991 has been able to show that the handover can hardly be viewed as a solitary arbitrary act by Khrushchev and that economic and infrastructural factors were very likely to be decisive in the decision to establish a direct land connection to the Ukrainian hinterland. There are undoubtedly good reasons to assume that Khrushchev "tried to win over the Ukrainians as junior partners for the management of the" Soviet Union Company "" (Andreas Kappeler). The surrender of Crimea was certainly not a lonely decision by Khrushchev: between 1953 and 1956 he was not the undisputed sole leader of the Soviet state. Such a decision therefore had to be made by colleagues. That the opinion of the population was not asked is part of the essence of a totalitarian state. The creation of union republics and the establishment of their borders were always the result of the nationality policy of the leadership of the Bolsheviks. The opinion of the affected population played no role, referendums or surveys were not carried out. This also applies, for example, to the exchange of areas between the still young Soviet republics RSFSR and URSR in the east and north-east of Ukraine in the 1920s, which affected both compact Russians and Ukrainians. Overall, the broad historical-political debate of the "tsarist donation" primarily fulfills the function of concealing historical politics: It is intended to divert attention from the fact that after 1991 the Russian Federation removed the borders of Ukraine, including the Crimean peninsula as part of Ukraine, from Russian in several legally binding treaties - recognized the Ukrainian "great friendship treaty" in 1997 up to the - only renewed in 2010 - agreement on the stationing of the Russian Black Sea Fleet and guaranteed it in the Budapest Memorandum in 1994.

"Crimean Spring" 2014: Russian humanitarian intervention to protect "compatriots"

Immediately after the annexation of Crimea, the Russian Ministry of Education, state-affiliated educational publishers and government-affiliated historical societies as well as nationalist-anti-democratic idea centers affiliated with the Kremlin (such as the "Isborskij Klub", which was founded in 2012 and is well connected to the Kremlin patriotic spectrum) added the history of the "Krimsprühling" to school books , Brochures and monographs on the history of Crimea. They should reject the arguments regarding the illegal annexation of Crimea and legitimize the annexation of Crimea as the "restoration of historical justice". The "Crimean Speech" by President Putin served as a guideline both for the presentation and interpretation of the events from the beginning of the protests on Kiev Independence Square ("Maidan") to the completion of the annexation of Crimea on March 18, 2014, as well as for the reasons under international law the "connection" and the importance of the Crimea as a Russian place of remembrance.

In May 2014, the Russian Ministry of Education published an instruction that the government's point of view must be taught in schools when dealing with the curriculum subject "Crimea and Sevastopol: their historical role for Russia". According to the curriculum, the annexation had a "peacekeeping and humanitarian" character and served the purpose of protecting the Crimean population. Nikita Khrushchev's 1954 transfer of Crimea from the RSFSR to the URSR was illegal. Critical voices from the Russian teaching staff criticized the instruction as indoctrination and the obligation of schools to propaganda, since it hindered an open discussion of the events among students.

In some materials, the structure of the narrative is based directly on the central passages in Putin's speech, which have been quoted in detail. The textbook of the publishing house "Russkoje Slovo" with the title "The Crimea in the History of Russia" argues along this line: Through the establishment of an "Autonomous Socialist Soviet Republic of Crimea" in the RSFSR by the Bolsheviks and the promotion of Crimean Tatar culture carried out there As part of the relatively liberal Soviet nationality policy of the 1920s, the Crimea was separated from New Russia by the border with the URSR, of which it was a historical part. The people in New Russia who identified with the Russian language and culture were exposed to a powerful wave of Ukrainization regardless of their opinion. On the basis of these arguments, the annexation of Crimea is celebrated in recently published documentaries and anthologies on the "Russian Spring" as the prelude to the rebirth of "New Russia" and well-known Russian generals such as Alexander Suvorov (1730–1800), who played a key role in the conquest of Crimea were portrayed as the ancestors of prominent separatists from the Donbass.

Eternal pursuit of reunification? Collective identities of the Crimean population

What the Crimea is for many people in Russia, Russia is certainly also for many Crimean Russians or the Russian-speaking Crimean inhabitants. According to the 2001 Ukrainian census, around 2.4 million people lived in Crimea at that time, around 60% of whom were Russians, around 24% Ukrainians and over 10% Crimean Tatars, along with several other numerically small ethnic groups. A clear majority of the population was Russian-speaking (over 78%), with Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar languages ​​each accounting for around 10%. Most of the ethnic Russians and also some of the Russian-speaking Ukrainians in Crimea show great to great sympathy for Russia and feel they belong to the "Russian world".

The aim of the history policy of Russia and the new rulers in Crimea since February / March is to imagine the Russians in the Russian Federation and the Russian-speaking majority of the Crimea as an integral memory community and socio-cultural unit, in order to make the annexation of Crimea as a matter of course Result of the allegedly observable since 1991 efforts of the majority of the Crimean population to join the motherland. Historically, however, the "reunification" of Crimea with Russia, disguised as "natural", is by no means a matter of course: The history of Crimea, which was annexed by Catherine the Great in 1783, is multinational and shaped by the change of different rulers. The Crimean Tatars, who were deported by Stalin in 1944 and returned in large numbers during Perestroika, who founded a politically differentiated and culturally developed multi-ethnic empire in the 15th century (the Crimean Khanate), regard the peninsula as their historical home and the majority see their autonomous rights to best guaranteed within the Ukrainian state. In regions outside Sevastopol, a pragmatic, regional Crimean consciousness has developed over the past few years, which has definitely been reconciled with belonging to the Ukraine.

The majority of the Russian population and the dominance of the Russian language say little about the state in which the majority of Crimean residents want to live. In recent years, a majority of the Crimean population saw their "fatherland" in Ukraine, although the extent of this approval was subject to considerable fluctuations and was closely related to the general domestic and power-political situation in the country. According to a survey by the Kiev Razumkov Center, this approval rate rose from 40.1% in 2008 to 71.3% in 2011 (2006: 74%). The proportion of those who supported the annexation of Crimea to Russia was particularly high among pensioners. So it is not surprising that the pro-Russian rulers in the Crimea were particularly good at mobilizing this population group, which was still shaped by the Soviet era. The evocation of the fascist danger emanating from the Maidan ("Russia or Fascism") and the social benefits associated with affiliation (adjustment of pensions to the Russian level or their noticeable increase) achieved in the light of the political vacuum triggered by the fall of Yanukovych and the associated political disorientation among the Crimean population had a special effect, which was increased by the shutdown of independent television media and Ukrainian television channels in Crimea by March 5 and thus by the elimination of alternative perspectives. It should not be forgotten that the "Party of Regions" (PdR) has been fueling the publicity against the fascist Maidan in the media close to it since the end of 2013: According to Andrij Klymenko, editor-in-chief of the Internet platform "Blackseanews" and a member of the Expert Council until the beginning of 2014 At the government of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea (ARK), the representatives of the PdR in Crimea immediately after the violent break-up of the student protests in Kiev at the end of November suggested recommendations by experts to enter into a dialogue with the demonstrators and to advocate the violence Punish those responsible.Instead, all manifestations and leading actors of the Maidan should be presented in the Ukrainian media close to the government and the state television channel of Crimea, which is under the control of the PdR, as an expression of fascism or a radical Ukrainian nationalism, in order to avoid the radical change of course in foreign policy away from the European Union or to justify leaning on Russia.

The result of the referendum of March 16 itself is hardly meaningful, since the way it was carried out and the intimidating presence of the Russian military did not even begin to meet the conditions for free will. In a survey carried out by the "Kiev International Institute for Sociology" (KMIS) and the Kiev Foundation "Democratic Initiatives" in mid-February 2014, 41% (end of 2013: approx. 36%), i.e. significantly less than half of the Crimean residents, spoke in favor an union of Ukraine with Russia. In a sample survey conducted by the Razumkov Center in December 2013, only 29% of those polled in Crimea are in favor of separating the peninsula from Ukraine. An important indicator of the realism of these figures is a follow-up survey of experts and citizens in Crimea published on April 21, 2014, which was carried out by the "Council for the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights at the President of the Russian Federation" after the referendum. According to this, an overwhelming majority of Sevastopol's residents, with a turnout of 50–80%, voted for the connection to Russia, but the figures for the Autonomous Republic of Crimea differed significantly: 50–60% with a turnout of only 30–50 % voted for the connection. In the Crimea, it was not so much the Russian identity or fear of linguistic suppression that was decisive, but the rampant corruption of the Donetsk clans ruling the Crimea from the ranks of the PdR, which controlled politics on the peninsula until the beginning of 2014. The investigation by the Russian Human Rights Council demonstrates that a distinction must be made with regard to the political loyalties and collective consciousness of the residents of Sevastopol and the ARC area: In the "hero city" Sevastopol, the seat of the "glorious Russian Black Sea Fleet", the Russian cultural identity is combined with the Soviet one and Russian imperial pride. On the other hand, in the regions outside Sevastopol, a pragmatic, regional Crimean consciousness has developed in recent years, which in large parts has gradually reconciled with belonging to Ukraine. In addition, as early as the Soviet era, and especially after 1991, close cultural and economic ties developed between the Crimea and its southern Ukrainian hinterland, which are important today for many small and medium-sized companies.


The declaration of independence of the "Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol" and the referendum of March 16, 2014 already represented a violation of Ukrainian constitutional and state law A referendum carried out under free and democratic conditions, a result in favor of Russia, even in the phase of the extreme Ukrainian state crisis, would by no means have been expected. In addition, Russia would have had far more cost-effective ways of effectively supporting the Russian minority in the spring of 2014: The then valid constitution of the ARK guaranteed the peninsula some sovereign rights within narrow limits, which is why the autonomy could have been expanded in negotiations without endangering the state's integrity . The political prerequisites were in place: the Ukrainian leadership was ready to negotiate the strengthening of autonomy, while the Russian leadership was in a strong position in the light of the crisis in the Ukrainian state. There are therefore many indications that Putin and his entourage were hardly concerned with the welfare of the Crimean population in the spring of 2014; Rather, Putin's annexation served as a lever to massively destabilize the unruly Ukraine, to secure Russia's influence in the neighboring country, to return "the pearl of the empire" to the Russians in order to achieve his main goal: legitimation and securing of his authoritarian rule.