KIEV, Ukraine In a Crimean Tatar cafe just off Kievs now-famous Maidan, or Independence Square, Igor Semyvolos looked at his phone Thursday and saw the news hed been dreading.
The Crimean Parliament had just announced that its contested peninsula is now part of Russia. A referendum would be held March 16 to confirm the popularity of the decision, but the move, the Parliament said, was already done. Crimea might still be part of Ukraine in the eyes of the world, but to its regional Parliament, it was now Russian.
This is war, said Semyvolos, the director of Ukraines Association of Middle Eastern Studies. Ukraine will need help from the United States in this.
CRIMEA UNDER RUSSIA
But, according to the view from Moscow, Crimea would be Russian today were it not for a historical accident. The legend is that native Ukrainian and then-Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev reportedly feeling especially proud of his republic to mark his birthday in 1954 transferred responsibility for administering Crimea from Russia to Ukraine.
It was a grand gift. Crimea, taken into Russia by Catherine the Great in 1783, was almost as Russian to many Russians as Moscow, and more beloved than bits such as Siberia.
But it was also a largely symbolic gift. Ukraine and Russia then were both part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and Khrushchevs gift would change nothing: Orders would continue to come from Moscow, the Kremlin still would control the military and Russian would remain an official language.
The political elite would remain Russian or beholden to Russian leadership.
Nothing changed in reality until 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, and the Ukrainian Republic became a freestanding nation, one that included Crimea.
Thats the Russian view.
HISTORY OF CONQUESTS
Crimea has been Russian for all but two decades of the last two centuries.
The Russian view, of course, is not the only one. It may involve 200 years of history, but thats the short version, said Stanislav Kulchytsky, a Crimea specialist at the Ukrainian Institute of History. The longer view of Crimea involves the Mongol Khans, whose reign here began in 1237, and the Ottomans, whose alliance with the Mongol Khans dates to the 1400s.
When the Russians conquered Crimea, it was the Tatars who were conquered. The Tatars were a Muslim group, born of the unification of tribes from the peninsula. Their history had been shaped by centuries of alliance with larger, dominant groups, including the Ottoman Empire and the descendants of Genghis Khan.
Its long been a Russian goal to empty Crimea of its Tatar natives.
Its a tragic history, Kulchytsky said.
The high point for the Tatars under Russian rule may have come, he said, when Lenin ruled after the Bolshevist revolution in the early 20th century. Lenin, in Kulchytskys words, put them into a shop window trying to convince Ataturk to bring his modern Turkey into the Soviet world.
TRAGEDY OF TATARS
But that was a rare moment. For most of the time Russia has ruled Crimea, its goal was to drive the Tatars from their homeland.
The most notable moment in this effort was Soviet Leader Josef Stalins 1944 orders to relocate the entire Tatar population to Uzbekistan or Siberia. Within days, hed moved 250,000 to Uzbekistan, where the Tatar population eventually topped 600,000. Five million are thought to have fled to Turkey.
That, as much as anything, is why Tatars today are just 13 percent of the Crimean population, while Russians make up 60 percent, with other ethnic groups holding the balance.
But that, too, has been changing. Since the Soviet Union collapsed, Tatars have been returning to Crimea from Turkey and Uzbekistan.
Theyve also been having babies at so fast a rate, Kulchytsky said, that the number of Tatars is expected to surpass the number of Russians in Crimea in just 13 years. That surge is helped by the demographic fact that many Russians there are retirees whove picked Crimea as a place to live because its cheap, a place where a pension can go a long way.