A short historical and literary view of Crimea

crimea war

In the context of modern European political conflicts and conflict resolutions, the name of Crimea is very much on the surface, resonant not just for the last few years but actually centuries. This short piece takes a brief look at the strategically important peninsula and takes the readers back through its rocky history as well as its beautiful literary and artistic treatment in the past.

Since the thirteenth century, Crimea (also known as Crimean Peninsula) has been through a long and complicated history. Since then, it has changed hands many times. It used to be part of the Mongolian Golden Horde, then an independent Muslim Crimean Khanate, then part of Ottoman empire, then Tsarist Russian empire, then Soviet Union (when the Crimean Tatar Muslims suffered heavily under Joseph Stalin for their support of Hitler), then Ukraine, and now back to Russia again. The sixteenth century founder of the Crimean Tatar Khanate dynasty, Menli I Giray, was a distant descendant of Genghis Khan, Batu Khan and Kubla Khan. Similar to the great fourteenth century Central Asian empire builder Tamerlaine (or Tamburlaine, as the English dramatist Christopher Marlowe called him), who was known as Amir Timur or “Sahib-i-Qirani,” meaning “Lord of the Fortunate Conjunction of the Planets,” Khan Giray also took the imperial title of “Sovereign of Two Continents and Khan of Khans of Two Seas.”

In 1764, another Khan, Qirim Giray commissioned the Persian master Omer to construct a fountain in the Islamic Bakhchisaray Palace of the Crimean Tatar Khanate. Inscribed in gold above the fountain are a number of verses, mostly secular, in praise of the Khan. One of the verses, however, was a Quranic verse, similar to dozens of others throughout the Quran describing the paradise complete with rivers, gardens and springs. Verse #18, “A fountain there, called Salsabil” in Surah #76 is one such verse expressing the idea of the benefits that the righteous will enjoy in heaven. In any case, the fountain at the palace in the Tatar Khanate was made famous by 18th century Russia’s Catherine the Great and its greatest lyric poet Alexander Pushkin.  Both of them both honored and celebrated the Tatars and their famous Bakhchisaray palace, the “Russian Alhambra” (or the “Russian Taj Mahal” maybe?). Catherine the Great visited the 500-year-old complex and sumptuous Bakhchisaray (meaning “the palace in the garden”) in 1787 when she stayed there three days and even wrote poems commemorating the beauty of the place complete with fountains, mosques and mausoleum. Pushkin, who visited the town in 1820, wrote his 3500-word poem “The Fountain of Bakhchisaray” (1824). The poem is about one of the great Khans and his legendary tragic love affair, set by the actual “Fountain of Tears” above the palace, to be followed by a few other poems by him about the palace and the fountain. One of the more famous works by the poets and artists, from different countries (Poland, Ukraine and Russia), who visited the Crimean Tatar palace, was Boris Asafyev’s 1934 ballet “The Bakhchisaray Fountain,” based on Pushkin’s poem.

A classic piece of children’s literature, English poet Robert Browning wrote “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” (1842), itself a retelling of the medieval version of a legend, as a gift for the ailing son of his friend, actor and benefactor William Macready. The poem catalogues the items of feat and success on the piper’s record of experience, including the freeing of the ethnic South East Asian Muslim Cham people living in the Central Asian Muslim land of Tatarstan (today’s Crimean Peninsula) of “huge swarms of gnats.”

As a Poet Laureate, Browning’s contemporary Alfred Tennyson had to be loyal to the British Crown (Queen Victoria during his time) and was obliged to support and glorify the British Empire. His famous poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade” (1854) is a patriotic but painful tribute to the suicidal charge by a British light cavalry brigade in the Battle of Balaclava (Ukraine) in the Crimean War (1854-56). The war was fought by Russia against Turkey, Britain and France. The war started as Russia sought to control the Dardanelles (formerly known as Hellespont), a long and narrow but highly strategic strait connecting many lands in the region. (It is like the Bosphorus, also known as the Strait of Istanbul, the world’s narrowest strait, used for international navigation connecting Asia, Europe and the Middle East by way of the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara, and, by extension through the Dardanelles, the Aegean and the Mediterranean seas, and, by the Kerch Strait, the sea of Azov.)

The Russian plan, therefore, was not only a threat to the Anglo-French sea-routes but also an incursion into the Ottoman/Turkish empire. Not being heavily armed, nearly two hundred fifty British men out of about six hundred forty were killed or wounded in the charge of the light brigade. Tennyson immediately memorialized the battle as the “Valley” or “Jaws” of Death. It is this poem that contains the oft-quoted lines of duty, loyalty, courage, patriotism and sacrifice: “Theirs not to make reply/Theirs not to reason why/ Theirs but to do and die.”

Alexander William Kinglake was a famed English travel writer. His Eothen; or Traces of Travel Brought Home from the East (1844) was instantly successful. The work (with “Eothen” in Greek meaning “the East” or “from the East”) was/is a travel book as part of the larger Western colonial enterprise. Kinglake apparently did toward the Arabs of the Middle East what his two great contemporaries James Mill in his 1818 3-vol. History of British India) and the social and art critic John Ruskin did in their treatment of India – negative, bellicose and authoritarian, both of them mercilessly hitting at the Hindus and Hindu institutions in India. However, Kinglake’s Eothen is considered to be the first modern travel memoir in the nonfiction genre. One of Winston Churchill’s favorite books, Eothen was described by Elliot Warburton (author of The Crescent and the Cross; or, Romance and Realities of Eastern Travel, 1844) as a book that evoked “the East itself in vital actual reality.” Kinglake is, of course, better known as a historian for his masterpiece Invasion of the Crimea: Its Origin and an Account of Its Progress Down to the Death of [British Commander] Lord Raglan (in 9 volumes, 1863) about the complex history of the Crimean Peninsula that saw its stormy existence through centuries, especially the mid-nineteenth century Crimean War.

The Crimean War was also the origin of the Russian novelist Mikhail Sholokhov’s late-1920s epic And Quiet Flows the Don. It was also the origin of modern nursing and hospital system and the International Red Cross reforms pioneered by “the lady with the lamp” Florence Nightingale during that war. The religious (Catholic-Orthodox schism) and political conflicts that lay in the immediate background of the war included the forces of Russian expansionism, Western prevention, Ottoman/Turkish outreach, Greek/Eastern Orthodox Church, Catholicism, Protestantism, and Islam). While Muslim Tatars saw themselves expelled and near-exterminated by the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and are now a small minority in Moscow and the nearby Kazan perhaps still afraid of Russian Orthodox Christian (formerly, Communist) majority rule, their original homeland Crimea was ceded to Ukraine by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1954. Ukraine, on its part, a large East European country, used to be part of the Soviet Union (USSR) until the Union itself collapsed in 1991. Just as Crimea is recently back on the world stage with its being annexed by Russia since 2014, Ukraine also has recently been invaded, on 24 February 2022, by Russia which wants it back in its fold or sphere of influence.

The Muslim Tatars in the Crimea suffered immensely under Stalin for their alleged support of Nazi Germany. His forced deportation of the entire Muslim Tatar population (nearly 230,000) from the Crimea in just two days in May,1944, caused about 100,000 casualties on the way to Uzbekistan. He made them die and suffer the way (1) Hitler made the Jews, and (2) Vladimir Putin made the Muslims of Chechnya (250,000 civilians killed in 1999 alone, not to speak of the first Russian War against Chechnya, 1994-1996, under President Boris Yeltsin, who had to settle for a ceasefire over a decisive victory), and (3) Bashar Al-Assad has recently done or may still be doing to his own Syrians. Ironically, both Asafyev’s ballet and Pushkin’s quite long lyric poem (mentioned above) were very favorite with Stalin, who, again, caused immense suffering to the Crimean Tatars in 1944. Similarly, ironically, anti-LGBT Putin nodded to have spectacularly grand mosques built in Chechnya three years ago, as he is also on record saying about the same time that insulting Prophet Muhammad does not count as an expression of artistic freedom but is a “violation of religious freedom.” His comment reminds one of Empress Catherine the Great who supported her Muslim population and their practice of religion by saying, in reference to other residents’ opposition to Muslim mosques built with tall minarets, that what went up in the sky was not her business and that her business was to take care of her people and their affairs on the ground.

As history shows, there is no last word in politics or in the formation of political/electoral alliances, which, it goes without saying, make strange bedfellows. Russian Muslims should get along with their government in a balance of understanding, tolerance and acceptance. Otherwise, they may risk being uprooted again. At the same time, the world should be better aware of the beastly Boko-Bashar-Haram killers, who are letting the Muslims down, just as the fanatics and extremists of all other colors and creeds also try to demean other faiths and religions, sometimes including their own. So cruel, devastating, inhuman, dehumanizing, and demoralizing all the fundamentalists of all hues are or might be! (For references, I’m grateful to a number of issues of Saudi Aramco World).

Q M Jalal Khan is Author/Editor of a number of political books on Bangladesh


Support Countercurrents

Countercurrents is answerable only to our readers. Support honest journalism because we have no PLANET B.
Become a Patron at Patreon

Join Our Newsletter


Join our WhatsApp and Telegram Channels

Get CounterCurrents updates on our WhatsApp and Telegram Channels

Related Posts

Join Our Newsletter

Annual Subscription

Join Countercurrents Annual Fund Raising Campaign and help us

Latest News