What France knew in March, 2014 and forgets now: “With one simple decree, Khrushchev gave Crimea to Ukraine”

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Mathilde Gérard, in Le Monde, March 15, 2014

Translated from French by Tom Winter, August 18, 2016

Translator note: Europe knew at the time that Kiev’s jurisdiction over Crimea came from the whim of one man, and that the ballot — which had not yet taken place — would erase it. Just to show how the Western line has changed and set.

It was a surprise gift: in 1954, Nikita Khrushchev “gave” Crimea to Ukraine with a simple decree. It barely took fifteen minutes of debate for the decision to be ratified in the Central Committee of the Communist Party, according to the Pravda daily. This handover was a surprise, but the gift was symbolic because Ukraine was part of the USSR. It was not until 1991, when the Soviet Union broke up, the consequences of this decision were felt: Crimea finds itself subject to the authority of a country with which it has little common history .

Today, the reasons for Khrushchev’s gesture remain mysterious. Many Russians believe that the leader should never have given the Crimea, which was under the Russian fold since Catherine II had made the conquest in the late eighteenth century. For nearly two centuries, the peninsula was the bridgehead of Russia into the warm seas: the aristocracy of Moscow and St. Petersburg would stay in the luxurious summer homes of Yalta while the Navy established the headquarters of its fleet in the Black sea in Sevastopol.

In 1954, the “gift” of Khrushchev was supposed to mark the tercentenary of the Treaty of Pereiaslav, whereby the Cossacks of Ukraine proclaimed their allegiance to Moscow. The handover was then presented as a “gift” of thanks from Russia to Ukraine, celebrating the brotherhood between the peoples of the Soviet Union.

Khrushchev had emotional ties with Ukraine, where he had worked in the mine and had his political rise. According to the his granddaughter Nina Khrushcheva, interviewed by American radio NPR, the transfer of Crimea “was to some extent a personal gesture to his favorite republic. He was ethnically Russian, [but] he felt great affinity with Ukraine. “

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A week after the decision, Pravda published the decree formalizing the annexation of the Crimea to Kiev: eight lines justifying this decision by “economic integration, territorial proximity, cultural and linguistic ties” between the peninsula and the Ukraine. 

Unconvincing arguments, because the Crimean economy depends mainly on tourism, and [as for the cultural ties], the peninsula has about three Russian people for any one Ukrainian, being culturally much closer to Moscow than Kiev.

Many analysts and historians believe that demographic and economic challenges motivated this choice: after the Second World War, the peninsula was largely depopulated because Stalin ordered the deportation of Tatars, a Turkish-Mongolian community installed in Crimea in the thirteenth century. They were accused of anti-communism and, for some, of collaboration with the Nazis. In recent years, the Crimea has lost about 300,000 inhabitants, half of whom were deported to Central Asia when the other half perished. 

In administratively transferring the Crimea in Ukraine, Nikita Khrushchev hoped to encourage the Ukrainian peasants to settle in the peninsula and promote the establishment of water and electricity supply infrastructure for Kiev. Politically, this assignment did not seem yet to have consequences.

But following the Soviet Union’s breakup in 1991, the question of the supervisory authority over Crimea became much more serious. In 1991, when Ukraine held a referendum on its independence from Moscow, Crimea gave it the smallest majority of any region of Ukraine [54%]. 

Twenty-three years later, Crimea will ask, in a referendum opposed by pro-Ukrainian minorities, including Tatar (12% of the population of Crimea), to return under the authority of Moscow, erasing by ballot the Krushchevian gesture.

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