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Book review: Neil Kent’s “Crimea: a history”

A new history of Crimea argues for the peninsula’s central importance to Europe — via Russia. The result is misleading.


Just over two years have passed since Russia annexed Crimea in March 2014. Since then, the peninsula has remained in international limbo and has become something of an information vacuum for outside observers.

Yet before the Ukrainian crisis began in late 2013, there was a lack of information and deep understanding not just of Crimea, but of Ukraine as a whole.

In the wake of the 2012 UEFA football championship, held across Ukraine and Poland, Rory Finnin, a Cambridge academic and expert on Ukraine, described the country as Europe’s terra malecognita. Finnin emphasised how poorly Ukraine was understood in the continent’s west.

 This lack of understanding is even more pertinent regarding Crimea, as a periphery within a periphery, and a place which is only becoming more isolated since Russian annexation.

Ukraine was a terra maleocognita for western Europe, and Crimea a periphery within it

Neil Kent’s recently published Crimea: a History aims to fill this gap in knowledge by offering a broad history of the peninsula. For Kent, this ignorance of Crimea has created an image of the peninsula somewhere exotic and “Asiatic”. Instead, he argues the reverse: that Crimea is “no wild and alien land”, but somewhere that is distinctly and distinctively European. 

No foreign land 

Neil Kent, based at the University of Cambridge’s Scott Polar Institute, is a scholar better known for his work on Polar and Scandinavian history and culture, including The Sámi Peoples of the North (2014), A Concise History of Sweden, (2008), The Soul of the North: a Social, Cultural and Architectural History of the Nordic Countries (2000).

Crimea: A History therefore diverts from its author’s more usual topics. In its own way, it’s a response — academic, personal and political — to the Ukrainian crisis and the deteriorating relations between Russia and the west. 

A woman carries a Crimean flag past the Kremlin after a rally celebrating the first anniversary of Russia’s annexation of the peninsula. Moscow, March 2015. Photo (c): Denis Tyrin / Press Association Images. All rights reserved.Across ten chapters, Neil Kent speeds through Crimea’s history from the ancient to the present, including an epilogue on Crimea’s annexation. En route, he touches on Crimea’s Middle Age history, Ottoman encroachment and the Russian Empire’s annexation of Crimea in 1783, before exploring Crimea’s shifting position within the Soviet Union and across the post-Soviet space.

Kent does therefore offer a timely and detailed historical perspective on Crimea. However, what he devotes to breadth in discussing Crimea’s “long history”, he sacrifices in depth.

This emphasis on the Crimea’s “Europeanness” serves to chastise Turkey and Crimean Tatars as the region’s “other”

For Kent, understanding more about Crimea’s long and varied history is fundamental for appreciating “what binds and divides Europe”. He emphasises the Europeanness of Crimea, and the location of Crimea at a “crossroads to Eurasia” and “gateway to Europe”, going as far as to say that Crimea was and still is more significant to Russia than St Petersburg, Russia’s imperial capital.

Such an approach taps into a discourse that has long plagued Russia and Europe, concerning whether Russia is part of, or distinct from, Europe. Rather, Kent argues that Crimea is simultaneously European and Russian. By extension, Russia is also European because of the importance of Crimea to Russia’s national imaginary.

Eternally Russian (since 1783)

In this account, Crimea is a keystone that can help to bring cohesion and solidarity at a time “when ancient divisions threaten the very fabric of a common European civilization”. Kent distinguishes between Crimea and Russia, which are part of a “common European civilization”, and the threatening “external alien forces”. However, he is neither explicit in identifying who these “alien” others are, nor in unpacking what it means to be European.

The implication here serves to chastise Turkey and Crimean Tatars as the “other” in Crimea, as medieval anti-Slavic “slave raiders”. This offers a very different account to scholars of Crimean Tatars, such as Brian Glyn Williams, whose recent book emphasises Crimean Tatars as a nation constructed out of trauma, deportation and contemporary discrimination.

Crimean Tatar women meet after a collective prayer for victims of the 1944 deportation at the Kebir-Jami mosque in Simferopol, Crimea. (c) Artem Kreminsky / VisualRIAN. All rights reserved.Too often, Kent’s analysis is saturated with essentialist and civilisational overtones that overlook political context. Kent’s portrayal of the ongoing conflict between Ukraine and Russia as a “fratricidal war” and the Middle East as “always” a “powder keg” of conflict between different religions is reductionist. This emphasis downplays the significance of local and international political actors — not to mention economic factors — as key mobilisers within these various conflicts, not least the incursion of Russian special forces into Ukraine.

Kent portrays the West, notably NATO, as ignoring, if not misunderstanding, Crimea’s “historical context, ethnic make-up and popular will”, as though this somehow explains or legitimises Russia’s incursion and annexation of Crimea.

The real picture is rather more complex. Rather, in my research in Crimea, conducted before annexation (in 2012 and 2013), I found that the idea of what it mean to be Russian in the region was contested and fractured. Instead of adhering to neat census categories, those I interviewed gave different meanings to being Russian, with many challenging the idea that identifying as ethnically Russian was analogous to being pro-Russian, much less pro-Putin.

Kent’s analysis is saturated with essentialist and civilisational overtones that overlook political context

Secondly, I found that even the most vociferous supporters of Russia in 2012 and 2013 did not support joining Russia. Instead, they preferred a peaceful status quo to an uncertain territorial change. Crimea’s annexation by Russia — and the relative lack of bottom-up protest — is therefore a puzzle to be explored, rather than explained away by reductionist accounts of Crimea’s complicated territorial and ethnic history.

Empirically, Kent should have offered more detail of the sources he relied on in forming this account. He offers some potentially fascinating insights into Crimea’s transfer to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1954, such as the limited role and power of Khrushchev in making this transfer (in contrast to popular understanding of the event).

Nikita Khrushchev was first secretary of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party when Crimea was transferred to the Ukrainian SSR in 1954. Photo CC: Wikimedia Commons.

Kent alludes to primary Soviet newspaper sources as the evidence confirming this interpretation, but fails to cite these directly. The usefulness of this book, therefore, as an introduction to Crimea is limited for readers who might wish to follow up with the primary source materials that Kent might have used in producing this book.

The trouble with “truthiness”

More worryingly, there are also factual mistakes in the text. For example, in the introduction, Kent cites “the last official census” taken by Ukrainian census results in Crimea. Assuming he is citing Ukraine’s 2001 census, as post-Soviet Ukraine’s first and last official census, Kent claims that 63% are reported as ethnic Russian. In fact, it was 58%.

More alarmingly, Kent confuses Russia’s ruling political party United Russia (Yedinaya Rossiya), with the Crimean party (before 2014) Russian Unity (Russkoye Yedinstvo). He argues that United Russia (as opposed to Russian Unity) was present and significant in helping Crimea’s annexation from within in February 2014. In detailing the circumstances of Crimea’s annexation, it is fundamental to distinguish between local Crimean and international (i.e. Russia) actors and organisations which promoted Crimea’s annexation.

Overall, Kent overlooks the subjectivity of his account of Crimea. By portraying his evidence as incontrovertible facts, the author ignores what remain contested interpretations of history, identities, and legacies. Kent argues he could see the “storm clouds” looming over Crimea as early as 2006. Certainly, relations within Crimea, and between Kyiv and Crimea, were contentious before 2014.

Yet Kent’s history of Crimea’s storm clouds do not get us closer to understanding how the peninsula came to be in international no-man’s land, nor why Russia became willing to risk everything to put it there. Such an explanation would require a more nuanced and less primordial account of Crimea’s history, whether European or Russian.

Neil Kent’s Crimea: A History is published by Hurst Books this April. 

About the author

Eleanor Knott recently completed her PhD in Political Science at the London School of Economics. Her research compares the politics of cross-border ethnicity and citizenship in Crimea and Moldova from a bottom-up perspective. She tweets at @ellie_knott.

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