The one shall be taken, and the other left
The Russian people overwhelmingly supported annexing the Crimea to Russia in 2014, but not the Donbas. What explains this anomaly?
We might think that in a case of perceived threat to ethnic Russians beyond Russian borders, popular opinion would react similarly, and, in accordance with nationalist and imperialist tendencies, be in favour of the annexation of both territories. The narrative of protecting disenfranchised Russian minorities in Ukraine would logically mean defending and supporting Russians on both territories equally. But Russians perceived the two areas of conflict in quite different ways.
According to the polls of Levada-Center conducted throughout 2014, it was observed that an overwhelming majority of Russians supported the annexation of the Crimea, with the rate of those opposing it at no point exceeding 11 per cent. In contrast, the research center’s data from August 2014 show that when presented with various scenarios concerning the future of the Donbas region, only 21 per cent of the Russian public supported the option of incorporating it into the Russian Federation.
We do not have the poll’s results regarding the support for the Donbas annexation from the first half of 2014, and the drop in sympathy towards the idea might have been influenced by unsettling news of the conflict’s escalation. However, if at first support for annexing Donbas was as strong and unanimous as for the Crimea, it is highly unlikely that it would have dropped to this level so fast. The different attitudes expressed by Russians were presumably present before the news of war in Eastern Ukraine could have discouraged them.
This article argues that specific cultural and historical conditions of the two territories are essential factors in explaining this contrast. The Crimea occupies a far more distinguished place in Russian history and geopolitics, with a deeper and more multi-layered relationship to Russian identity. The Donbas carries no such symbolic importance.
The Crimea was first annexed by Russia in 18th century. Many see this event as marking the emergence of Russia as a true great power, giving it vital access to the Mediterranean. Through the centuries it has had time to become an organic part of Russia as a political and cultural entity, with a particular symbolic value. The attachment Russians feel for the peninsula, according to Austin Charron, is a result of three layers of connection: religious (the site of Vladimir the Great’s baptism), nostalgic (a popular holiday resort and a symbol of Russia as a great power), and nationalist (the Sevastopol myth.)
The Crimea has a powerful religious resonance for Russians, the vitality of which is which is maintained by the politically active Orthodox church. As Russian-Ukrainian relations soured, the debate over who could claim the legacy of Kievan Rus as their own became ever more fierce. Vladimir the Great, who Christianised Rus and is remembered today as an iconic leader, was baptised in 988 on the peninsula. The Moscow Patriarchate thus treats the annexation as a divine right, allowing Russia to reunite with this sacred territory.
Crimea also inspires great nostalgia. What could induce sweeter memories than the good old days of lovely holidays spent by the seaside? From the 1800s, Yalta and the surrounding resorts became the most prestigious domestic riviera of the Russian empire. It became a status symbol for the aristocracy of St Petersburg and Moscow to own a mansion in Crimea, or even just to spend the summer there, far from the hustle and bustle of the cities. Later, with the Empire transformed into the Soviet Union, this primary characteristic remained: the Crimea was the ultimate holiday destination the whole Soviet Union too. Party functionaries spent their holidays there, and camps for housing massive numbers of workers and children were established on the ‘Communist Cote d’Azur’. Especially for citizens living in the most inhospitable parts of the country, with harsh weather for most of the year, the memories of those weeks at the seaside are precious. The resort was the subject of many songs, books, movies and advertisements fondly remembered by former Soviet citizens. This wistfulness is strongly intertwined with nostalgia for the Soviet Union as a whole, when Russians felt pride in being citizens of a Superpower. After the chaotic decade of the 1990s, with wild privatisation, depression, constitutional and economic crisis and financial collapse in Russia, nostalgia for the USSR is not to be underestimated; it is still longed for by over 60 per cent of Russians polled by the Levada-Center.
The third level of connection is the ‘Sevastopol myth’. It stems from the Crimean War, documented by Tolstoy in the widely known book Sevastopol Sketches, in which he lays the foundation of a myth based on the city’s heroic resistance during the Crimean war. This glory was reinforced by the siege of the city during WW2, for which it received the title of ‘Hero City of the Soviet Union’. The myth appeals to patriotic sentiments, national pride and the cult of heroic suffering. In popular opinion, Sevastopol is the Defender with a capital D, showcased by the ever popular song, and official anthem of the city since 1954, Legendary Sevastopol.
“The legendary Sevastopol, Unapproachable for enemies. Sevastopol, Sevastopol – The pride of Russian sailors! (…) Here we are in battle, holy and right – They went for their homeland, And your former glory, We multiplied in battle. (…) The whole country [Russia] knows, that ships do not sleep, and reliably protect shores of the native land (…)”
The song expresses pride, the holiness and righteousness of the battle, the glory embracing the defenders of the Motherland. The fact that the anthem of the city did not change when it became part of an independent Ukraine shows the strength of the relationship between Russia and the city. When new Ukrainian lyrics for the song appeared on the internet, it caused a major outrage among Russians, who called it an attempt to expropriate a vital part of their history. Singing it in Ukrainian was even banned by law later in 2015, such is the depth of attachment felt to the song. The phrase ‘never sleeping ships’ refers to the Russian fleet that had its naval base in Sevastopol, maintained by Russia after the dismemberment of the Soviet Union in agreement with Ukraine. The presence of the fleet on the territory certainly contributed to the city’s overall sense of belonging to Russia.
Unlike the Crimea, the Donbas presents few opportunities to Russians for emotional or spiritual connection. It is rather difficult to find any prominent source that mentions the territory. Being that much more difficult to locate and define, it simply does not come naturally to Russians to feel passionate or emotional about the Donbas.
The Donbas’s historically low profile (especially compared to the Crimea) could be explained by a number of factors. As Russian territory, it has a much shorter history. The majority of the Russian population arrived there after the era of the classic writers of Russian literature like Tolstoy and Chekhov, so they couldn’t document it. And it has simply had less time to become rooted in Russian consciousness. According to the Russian Imperial Census of 1897, in that year only 28.7 per cent of the population was Russian. Ukrainians made up 54 per cent of the population. The Ukrainian presence was drastically reduced by the Holodomor and Stalin’s Russification policies, and the proportion of Russians in the territory rapidly grew in the first half of the 20th century.
The character of the region is also very different. As an industrial centre, it can hardly compete with the romance of the Crimea. On the rare occasions that it has shown up in literature, such as in Alexander Kuprin’s Moloch, it is pictured as a gloomy, colourless place, organised around hard, demanding work. In a nutshell, there was absolutely nothing tempting to fantasise about. Although in the Soviet Union industrialisation and work itself were praised, most people wanted to read about something different to their normal lives, something they could long for. The Donbas was not such a place. In this it was no worse than most other parts of the country, but neither was it better.
Since the onset of Russian aggression in Ukraine, we tend to lump together the Crimea and the Donbas. These territories have been the main targets of that aggression and they both have high densities of ethnic Russians in their local populations. Yet as this article has discussed, they differ in fundamental ways. These differences go a long way in explaining the sharp contrast in how they are perceived by the Russian public, evident since 2014. The tropes mentioned characterising the Crimea were widely used in the Russian domestic media coverage of the 2014 events, reinforcing existing beliefs and increasing their impact on popular opinion. When it came to the Donbas, the lack of engaging tropes in Russian history and culture hindered the creation of such a stable, richly layered narrative.
Dorka Takácsy is a foreign policy analyst specialised in Russia and Eastern Europe. She has a MA in International Relations from the Central European University Budapest. Currently a Szell Kalman Public Policy Fellow in Washington DC.