The Crimea, forger of legacies

David Coughlan

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The Crimean peninsula sits on the northern coast of the Black Sea, a jutting outcrop, tenuously connected to the mainland.

Crimea, The Black Sea Katsiveli (2008). Courtesy of onebigalex (Flickr)
Crimea, The Black Sea Katsiveli (2008). Courtesy of onebigalex (Flickr)

As the Ottoman Empire fell into decline during the first half of the 19th Century, Russia saw this piece of land as a potential trade conduit, allowing her access to the riches of India, which at that point were being primarily harvested by the British Empire. October 1853 marked the beginning of a conflict between Russia and an alliance of Britain, France, The Ottoman Empire and Sardinia. The official reason for the conflict was Russia’s desire to protect Orthodox Christians living in the area but the Ottoman Empire’s gradual collapse was perhaps a more important reason. By this point, the Ottoman Empire had begun to be known as ‘The Sick Man of Europe’, its 16th Century heyday, long since consigned to history.

The Sultan Ahmed Mosque, Turkey. Built by the Ottoman Empire. Courtesy of al.madinah (Flickr)
The Sultan Ahmed Mosque, Turkey. Built by the Ottoman Empire. Courtesy of al.madinah (Flickr)

Russia and the Ottoman Empire went to war in October 1853 and Russia quickly gained the upper -hand. France and Britain entered the war in March 1854, France with the stated aim of protecting the region’s Catholics whilst the British were perhaps more interested in protecting their strangle hold on India and convenient trade routes to the Middle East. This conflict is often described as the first media war, with the invention of the telegraph allowing reporters to quickly pass information back to their home offices. This invention also meant that the Crimean War was the first such conflict in which commanders in their home countries could quickly communicate with their soldiers on the front line. The combination of these two factors meant that this was a new type of war. This resulted in some strange decisions from commanders given new cause to doubt their own actions. Perhaps the most famous example of this is The Charge of the Light Brigade, which occurred on 25th October 1854.

The scene of the 'Last Charge of the Light Brigade'. Courtesy of Shnuggy (Flickr)
The scene of the ‘Last Charge of the Light Brigade’. Courtesy of Shnuggy (Flickr)

This was a charge of British Light Cavalry led by Lord Cardigan. The Light Brigade was intended to pursue a retreating Russian Artillery Battery but, due to a series of miscommunications, was instead ordered to charge on a different, stationary, well-prepared artillery battery. The assault resulted in 118 men dead, 127 wounded and about 60 taken captive. The Charge was said to highlight the bravery of the British Calvary. It also highlighted the incompetence of their commanders, however, dispatching so many men to suffer for so little gain. As French Marshal Pierre Bosquet stated at the time, ‘it is magnificent but it is not war. It’s madness’.

Florence Nightingale. Courtesy of Elf Productions (Flickr)
Florence Nightingale. Courtesy of Elf Productions (Flickr)

It was also during the Crimean War that Florence Nightingale established herself as part of modern culture. Florence was born on 12th May 1820, to a wealthy family. She was an intelligent, driven woman and was not impressed by the lack of opportunities available to women of the era. Florence began to visit hospitals around London in 1844 but it wasn’t until the summer of 1850 when a visit to the Institute of Protestant Deaconesses at Kaiserswerth, Germany, convinced her that nursing could be a suitable vocation for women.

Statue of Florence Nightingale, Waterloo Place, Regent Street, London. Courtesy of Mike Smyth (Flickr)
Statue of Florence Nightingale, Waterloo Place, Regent Street, London. Courtesy of Mike Smyth (Flickr)

On 21st October, 1854, Nightingale set out for the Crimea with 38 nurses, amidst tales that the French were providing far superior care for their wounded than were the British. The scenes facing Florence on her arrival were horrendous. ‘There were no vessels for water or utensils of any kind; no soap, towels, or clothes, no hospital clothes; the men lying in their uniforms, stiff with gore and covered with filth to a degree and of a kind no one could write about; their persons covered with vermin.’ Florence went on to improve these conditions beyond recognition and became affectionately known as ‘The Lady of the Lamp’ by the wounded men. She would later campaign for better medical facilities in India as well as offering medical advice during several other conflicts which Britain became involved in. She died of natural causes in 1910 having become a famous woman. Even today, many people know the name Florence Nightingale even if they don’t know anything about the Crimean War.

Artists impression of 'The Lady of The Lamp' at work. Courtesy of Sara Tellez (Flickr)
Artists impression of ‘The Lady of The Lamp’ at work. Courtesy of Sara Tellez (Flickr)

The current situation in the Crimea has similarities to that which brought about the Crimean War. This time Russia is claiming the need to protect Russian speakers in the region as opposed to those of the Orthodox community but it has been suggested that the primary motivation is similar. In the 19th Century, Russia wanted to protect its interests by creating better trade routes and opportunities. Today, many would argue that they wish to create a barrier between potential NATO bases and their own Black Sea bases for military operations.

The Black Sea in Balaklava(Balaclava), Crimea, Ukraine. Courtesy of Andrew Sevastopol (Flickr)
The Black Sea in Balaklava(Balaclava), Crimea, Ukraine. Courtesy of Andrew
Sevastopol (Flickr)

Much of the western world seems unsure how to react to this aggressive military action. Hilary Clinton has described the actions of Vladimir Putin as ‘familiar, it’s what Hitler did back in the ‘30s’. These comments were made a private charity event and Clinton has since distanced herself from them but one can understand the comparison. Hitler did use ‘protecting German speakers’ as an excuse to invade and annex neighbouring countries.

Putin's actions are dividing opinion. Courtesy of Chris Eisenbahner (Flickr)
Putin’s actions are dividing opinion. Courtesy of Chris Eisenbahner (Flickr)

It should be noted that there are a large number of Russian speakers in the south and east of the Ukraine and that many of these may actually support reintegration into Russia, a fact sometimes overlooked by western media agencies. In the current climate, however, other former Soviet Bloc countries, all of which are home to communities of Russian speakers, are undoubtedly becoming nervous. At a nationalist rally in Moscow, an activist of the Velikoe Otechestvo party stated “Kiev is mother of Russian cities, Crimea is just a first step,”, whilst others echoed the sentiment.

Western leaders have promised protection for these countries but one can’t help wondering how much truth there is in this, given the west’s understandable reluctance to be drawn into an escalating conflict with Russia. There will undoubtedly be further sanctions against Russia as well as heightened international tensions but a military response looks unlikely. At home Putin faces challenges too, with his decision to send troops into the Ukraine proving less popular among hard liners than he might have hoped. Even the press, which has in recent years become increasingly pro-Putin and sanitised, has questioned his actions. Only his military advisors are likely to be entirely satisfied as their agenda is perhaps the only one in sync with Russia’s recent behaviour.

Viktor Yanukovych. Courtesy of German Marshall fund. (Flickr)
Viktor Yanukovych. Courtesy of German Marshall fund. (Flickr)

The crisis in the Ukraine has its recent origins in November 2013, when then President Viktor Yanukovych’s government rejected a far-reaching accord with the European Union in favour of closer ties with Russia. Many in the Ukraine saw this as a betrayal of the wishes of the people, a throwback to the bad old days of Soviet Imperialism. Others were more concerned with ousting what they perceived to be a corrupt President than they were in establishing links to Europe. Either way, Yanukovych was in trouble. To begin with, most of the anti-government protests were peaceful but in February 2014 that all changed. Video emerged showing police snipers firing on unarmed demonstrators. Deals between the various factions were made and broken. The President was impeached and former Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko was released from prison to the delight of some and the dismay of others. The streets erupted in chaos and all sides blamed each other.

Putin gets tough. Courtesy of Segnale Orario (Flickr)
Putin gets tough. Courtesy of Segnale Orario (Flickr)

It was against this backdrop that Russia sent troops into the Crimea, supposedly to protect Russian speakers in the region. Putin described events in Kiev as “an anti-constitutional takeover, an armed seizure of power”, whilst at the same time conceding that Yanukovytch has “no political future”. Unmarked military personnel driving Russian registered military vehicles have surrounded Ukrainian troops and forced them to remain in their bases. On March 9th, CBS was reporting that Russia had sent yet more troops into the area, capturing border posts as they went. This would suggest that Putin isn’t overly concerned with angry Western threats.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin (R) and First Deputy Prime Minister and presidential candidate Dmitry Medvedev smile on the grounds of the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow (2007). Courtesy of itrumpet (Flickr)
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin (R) and First Deputy Prime Minister and presidential candidate Dmitry Medvedev smile on the grounds of the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow (2007). Courtesy of itrumpet (Flickr)

Sergey Aksyonov, head of the Russian Unity party, has been installed as the defacto premier of Crimea, under Putin’s approving gaze. A few months ago, Askyonov was a figure on the fringe of Ukrainian politics, even in the Crimea. Over the last month, he has taken advantage of the disarray in the region, assembling his own armed force, now comprising of several thousand people. “All of them answer to me”, he stated confidently.

Riot police come under attack, Kiev. Courtesy of Alex Kozachenko (Flickr)
Riot police come under attack, Kiev. Courtesy of Alex Kozachenko (Flickr)

Right in the middle of all this, one of the most successful heavyweight boxers of all time, claims to fight for his people.

Vitali lands a punch. Courtesy of Oliver Czolbe (Flickr)
Vitali lands a punch. Courtesy of Oliver Czolbe (Flickr)

Vitali Klitschko, known as “Dr. Ironfist” has won 45 of his 47 professional bouts. Whilst never fighting each other as a result of a promise made to their mother, Vitali and his equally dominant brother Wladimir (“Dr. Steelhammer”) have reigned over boxing’s heavyweight division for over ten years. Wladimir is still active in the sport but in 2013, Vitali announced his decision to take a break from boxing in order to focus on politics. Having made two previous and unsuccessful attempts to run for Mayor of Kiev, Vitali must have known that politics would not prove as easy as boxing has for him. He still aimed to run for President in the 2015 elections, however.

These elections have been thrown into doubt by recent events. Analysts in the Ukraine believe that while Vitali may suffer for his political inexperience, a lot of Ukrainians trust Klitschko more than many of his rivals as they know where his wealth came from. The brothers are self-made men and many Ukrainian people seem to respect this, after so many negative experiences with corruption.
President Yanukovych and his allies were ousted during February’s popular uprising. During this period, Vitali and his pro-west colleagues set themselves up as part of the peaceful protests in Kiev. Pictures of him being sprayed with a fire extinguisher during a pro-European Integration rally quickly went viral online.

Vitali Kltschko caught up in riots in Kiev. Courtesy of Alex Kozachenko (Flickr)
Vitali Kltschko caught up in riots in Kiev. Courtesy of Alex Kozachenko (Flickr)

At an impromptu gathering of Ukrainians in Dublin recently, Vitali told assembled reporters that he was grateful for Ireland’s support before going on to state “the main message now is we have to be active…The unity of the Ukraine, the independence of the Ukraine is very important right now.”

Vitali Klitschko delivers a speech to Ukrainian children during his visit at the European village in Kiev, June 17 2012
Vitali Klitschko delivers a speech to Ukrainian children during his visit at the European village in Kiev, June 17 2012

As suggestions mount that the situation in the Ukraine may lead to a new Cold War, the world’s focus once more switches to the small tract of land known as the Crimea. It’s not the first time that blood has been spilled here. The last major incident resulted in the infamy of the Light Brigade and in the effective canonization of Florence Nightingale. It’s too early to say what the end result of the current turmoil may be but it is at times like these that individuals secure their legacies. ‘Dr. Ironfist’ has that opportunity now, a major force in a battle being closely watched by the entire planet. Time will tell whether he charges bravely into the abyss or can stand tall and nurse his beloved Ukraine back to good health.

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David Coughlan