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Debunking Russia’s Crimean myth

A review of Serhii Hromenko’s “#CrimeaIsOurs. History of the Russian Myth,” Publisher: Himgest, Kyiv 2017.

April 12, 2018 - Kateryna Pryshchepa - Stories and ideas

Image by Emine Dzheppar (Facebook)

#CrimeaIsOurs. History of the Russian Myth was first presented to a wider public in Kyiv on March 12th 2018, that is four years after the Crimean Peninsula was annexed by the Russian Federation. The publication is written in a journalistic style. It analyses and debunks various statements about Crimea which were used to justify its annexation in 2014.

The book is authored by Serhii Hromenko who holds a PhD (candidate of sciences) in history from the Taurida National V.I. Vernadsky University, an institution which was officially transferred from Simferopol to Kyiv after the annexation of Crimea. He currently works for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Crimea Reality programme in Kyiv.  In his work on the publication Hromenko was supported by an informal group of historians called “Likbez. The Historical Front”, which was created in 2014 and is led by the widely known historian Kyrylo Galushko. The mission of the group, as it is stated on its website (http://likbez.org.ua) is to, “conduct all sort of activities aiming at popularising the history of Ukraine, as the very adequate understanding of the past is a basis of the Ukrainian identity and a guaranty of the unity of the country”.

Altogether the group has published over 20 works that mostly focus on popular history yet are written by academic historians. Among these works is the ten volume series History without censorship which covers the history of Ukrainian lands from the pre-Slavic times until the present. There are also many works on the military history of Ukraine. The group also organises public events, such as open lectures and discussions. Matter-of-factly #CrimeaIsOurs is largely based on the lectures which Hromenko delivered within this framework. 

In addition to the intention to draw attention to history, the book shows traces of being influenced by such projects as StopFake – a Ukrainian fact-checking site established in the aftermath of the Euromaidan and the inflow of misinformation regarding its course and consequences. This influence of StpoFake is most noticeable in Hromenko analyses of the popular statements made in regards to Crimean history and their dissemination by Russian state propaganda. Being a journalist by profession the author is clearly aware of the ease with which bold statements can be replicated in the media. As a historian, in turn, Hromenko debunks various myths by showcasing the shortcomings of the “historical justifications” that were used by the Kremlin propaganda machine to annex the peninsula. He concentrates on the 16 most circulated and repeated statements about Crimea, including, “Crimea is an originally Russian land”, “Crimean Tatars are not the indigenous people of Crimea”, “Crimea was transferred to Ukraine as a ‘sack of potatoes’, “Crimean Tatars are ‘a Traitor People’” to just name a few. To debunk these myths Hromenko uses such historical sources as: academic publications, memoirs, documents issued by public institutions documents, decrees, Soviet laws etc.

In the foreword of the book he describes the first ten years after Stalin’s deportation of Crimean Tatars from Crimea. The first of the deportations from Crimea took place in 18th century, shortly after the peninsula was annexed by the Russian empire for the first time. It affected about 30 thousand people. Back then it was Christians (mostly Greeks and Armenians) who were forcibly moved to the territories outside Crimea – on the coastline of the Azov Sea.  According to Hromenko, the Russian authorities were not sure if Crimea will remain under Russian control and were trying to claim as many people under their control as possible. The second wave of deportations form Crimea took place in the 1940s and was administered by Soviet authorities.

According to Hromenko the main reason behind the deportation of the Crimean Tatars, as well as some other Turkic and Muslim groups, was to prepare a war between the USSR and Turkey. One that has, for various reasons, never taken place. The immediate outcome of the deportation was a “recreation” of Crimea. It included the mass removal of Tatar and Turkish names from the peninsula’s maps and their replacement with Russian words. The other way in which Crimea was “recreated” was through the orchestrated efforts by state academic institutions. Their aim was to create a new Russian history of the peninsula. For instance, it was suggested that that Slavs, or simply Russians, were the first people to officially inhabit the peninsula.  Or, in a milder version of that new history the ancient Iranian people, the Scythians, were presented as direct ancestors of the Slavs. In short, Hromenko describes the history of twisting the known facts to fit the political needs of the day or simply inventing new facts when the existing ones cannot serve the authorities.

Admittedly, the book has been published with the assistance of the ministry of information policy of Ukraine. The ministry was created in January 2015 and according to its website it is “the main body of the central executive power system in the field of safeguarding information sovereignty of Ukraine, in particular in terms of distribution of socially important information inside and outside Ukraine, as well as providing functioning of the state information resources.” This fact might cause some readers question the possible influence of state officials on the content of the book. Such concerns can probably be eliminated by the fact that Hromenko provides evidence to all his statements, either by references to specific documents or academic publications on the subject. 

Also, #CrimeaIsOurs is not the first publication that Hromenko prepared in co-operation with a state institution. In 2016 the Institute of National Remembrance of Ukraine published a volume titled  Nash Krym. Nerosiyski istorii ukrainskogo pivostrova (Our Crimea. Non-Russian Stories of the Ukrainian Peninsula) which was authored by a group of historians and edited by Hromenko.  This publication examined the history of Crimea since the 15th century Crimean Khanate until 1991. This book, however, despite being available free of charge on the Institute’s website, was only published in Ukrainian. As a result, it can be read by a restricted group of readers. Such a limitation does not affect #CrimeaIsOurs. Published by the ministry of information, whose mission is to explain Ukrainian matters to a wider global audience, it is available in three languages: Ukrainian, English and Russian. 

Like any piece of academic or journalist work, the book has its shortcomings. The most striking among them is the lack of bibliography. This is indeed quite surprising when we consider the fact that Hromenko bases his analysis on a large number of sources, including official proceedings of Soviet academic debates, official documents, memoirs, and works of other historians. All these references are made directly after the quotations, but no footnotes or reference lists are provided. Also, the English-language edition of the publication does not include information regarding its editor or – even more importantly – translator.

Despite these weakness, #CrimeaIsOurs can be recommended  as a primer for anyone who became interested in the history of Crimea after or as a result of the annexation of the peninsula by Russia. It is also a good book for people who are interested in information warfare and historical myths that have recently been created in the post-Soviet space.

Kataryna Pryshchepa is a PhD student at Graduate School for Social Research, Institute of Philosophy and Sociology of the Polish Academy of Sciences.

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