Saturday, March 22, 2014

Crimea for the Beginner

Since Crimea has been in the news lately, allow me to step forward here and offer a bit of background concerning this area. Much of my information is based on Tony Richardson’s 1968 Crimean War film, The Charge of the Light Brigade.

That movie is famous for being long and including a satirical cartoon sequence in which Victorian status-seeking and ignorant war-mongering are spoofed. Easy but worthwhile targets.

Since the film condemns militaristic bullying of the type that the U.S. was pursuing in Vietnam at the time, it is generally regarded as an anti-Vietnam War film. The good parts, including the cartoon segment, are worth viewing, but unfortunately they are peppered among other parts that are, as the Russians say, НЕХОРОШО (i.e., sucky).

The Crimean War of the 1850s came down to the British and French telling Russia it was wrong to beat up on the Ottoman Empire and then driving the lesson home by beating up on Russia. Religious differences and access to the Middle East were the real issues. Surprise, surprise.

The war was not at all confined to Crimea but included campaigns in Chechnya, Georgia, Finland, the Balkans, and along Russia’s Pacific Coast. It is famous both for the work of Florence Nightingale in laying the groundwork for modern nursing, and for the “charge of the light brigade,” immortalized in Tennyson’s poem of that name. The charge, well portrayed in the Richardson film, reminds us that in war, the lives of brave men are commonly sacrificed on the altar of official stupidity.

Most Crimeans today are ethnically Russian since Stalin expelled its Turkish-era Tatar population in 1944, only some of whom were able to return after perestroika. Tatars now make up around 10% of Crimea's population, and, with bitter memories of their brutal deportation by Stalin, they are among the most fiercely opposed to Putin's takeover.

In 1954 Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev “gifted” Crimea over to Ukraine, thereby ending its longstanding status as part of Russia. He made this sudden change in the map despite Crimea's historical connections to Turkey and Russia and its predominantly Russian population. Khrushchev was himself a Ukrainian, or at least half Ukrainian, and identified more strongly with Ukraine than with Russia.

By the way, those old enough to remember Khrushchev in his heyday, fondly recall an incident at the UN where, in a fit of anger at a pro-Western speaker, he used his shoe to bang furiously on the table before him. The incident is famous in Cold War lore and, though nobody apparently filmed it, fake photos of it live on.

Khrushchev, in my opinion, had his positive points. He was a better man than Stalin who preceded him and Breshnev who followed.

Russian President Vladimir Putin claims that Khrushchev’s transferring of Crimea to Ukraine was unconstitutional and, if there’s one thing Vlad the Invader insists on, it’s respect for constitutional propriety. That and kicking ass.

Since the Crimeans are mainly Russian and favor belonging to Russia, and, since the transfer of Crimea from Russia to Ukraine was weirdly spontaneous, if not unconstitutional, how upset should the West be toward Putin’s power grab?

This is a question I won’t venture to answer here, but I will say that those who blame President Obama for bringing this about by being “weak,” are chock full of curdled borscht. It’s not Obama’s fault. It’s Bush’s. When he looked into Putin’s soul, he forgot to tell us about the thuggish parts.