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The past is a powerful source for legitimization. It is not surprising that from the very beginning of the annexation of Crimea, Russia uses it as an instrument for its political struggle, trying to prove the legality of its claims to the peninsula. In his notorious “Crimean speech,” Russian President Volodymyr Putin mostly appealed to the past and to the results of the illegitimate referendum:
"A referendum took place in the Crimea on March 16. It was held in full accordance with democratic procedures and international legal norms; more than 82% of voters took part in the voting, more than 96% supported reunification with Russia. The figures are extremely convincing. If you know the history of the Crimea and what Russia meant for the Crimea and Crimea for Russia, you will understand this choice."
Within the framework of this article, we will analyze how this legitimation through history is manifested in the media. As a case-study, we will examine the publications of the RIA Novosti news agency, an exemplary pro-Kremlin resource. Here we view history as a purely ideological construct of the Russian government, which is why it is coming close to the political myth.
So, according to the quoted fragments from the Crimean speech, it is enough to know the history of the Crimea in order to understand what "Russia for Crimea and Crimea for Russia" is. Probably history helps to "understand" the annexation too. Actually, all those who want to underline the illegality of the Kremlin's actions are often accused of their ignorance. And vice versa, the views of Western experts and politicians about the "historically Russian" Crimea always appear in the center of attention.
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Putin's speech in Crimea has set the agenda for Russian media for the forthcoming years, as well as provided a fertile ground for the creation and reactivation of various political myths:
"Everything in Crimea speaks of our shared history and pride. This is the location of ancient Chersonesus, where Prince Volodymyr was baptized. His spiritual feat of adopting Orthodoxy predetermined the overall basis of the culture, civilization and human values that unite the peoples of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. The graves of Russian soldiers whose bravery brought Crimea into the Russian empire are also in Crimea. This is also Sevastopol – a legendary city with an outstanding history, a fortress that serves as the birthplace of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Crimea is Balaklava and Kerch, Malakhov Kurgan and Sapun Ridge. Each one of these places is dear to our hearts, symbolizing Russian military glory and outstanding valor."
Thus, already at this moment, it is possible to trace the two main vectors, the directions of legitimizing annexation with the help of history. Firstly, it is legitimation through the myth of Sevastopol as a "city of Russian military glory," without which it is impossible to imagine the existence of Russia. Sevastopol might even claim to be Russia’s "third capital" in the new realities, because without it, it is impossible to imagine the Russian Black Sea Fleet, and without the fleet - Russia itself.
Secondly, it is legitimization through the Orthodox aspect, because in the eyes of Volodymyr Putin the Crimea is a “historical spiritual font,” for access to which "the Russian people have been fighting for many centuries," because it was in Chersonesus, where Prince Volodymyr was baptized.
A director of the Institute of Ukrainian Studies and the Mykhailo Hrushevsky professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard University, Serhiy Plokhiy, in his work "The City of Glory: Sevastopol in Russian Historical Mythology," claims that independent Ukraine "took" a number of "imperial" holy places, "clearly marked on the Russian cultural map," and the former empire has difficulties with accepting this. Plokhiy associates these phantom pains with "territorialization of memory".
According to the expert, among these imperial "holy places" are meaningful for Orthodoxy things, for example, St. Sophia Cathedral, Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, as well as the cities associated with the imperial history - Poltava and Sevastopol.
According to Plokhiy, the issue of Crimea, Sevastopol, and the Russian Black Sea Fleet has almost always been at the top of Ukrainian-Russian relations, partly because of the myth that Sevastopol is a "city of Russian glory, a symbol of the Russian fleet and Russian glorious past."
Admiral Igor Kasatonov, the former head of the Black Sea Fleet of the Russian Navy, said that "depriving Russia of the Black Sea Fleet and its naval bases in Crimea and the Black Sea would mean throwing it back three centuries before the time of Peter the Great."
Sensitivity of the formation of the myth of Sevastopol as a "city of Russian glory" during the Crimean War of 1853-1856, with its monuments to admirals Kornilov, Nakhimov, Istomin, Sevastopol tales of Leo Tolstoy and others, remains beyond our attention, but this can be read in detail in the above-mentioned Plokhiy’s article.
The defense of Sevastopol in 1941-1942 has reactualized the myth of the heroic city, the work of the Soviet historian Eugene Tarle "The City of Russian Glory: Sevastopol in 1854-1855" gave it an anti-Western character, and the status of the city-hero, appropriated in 1965, shifted the emphasis from the defense of the city in 1854-1855 during the Crimean War to the defense of the city in 1941-1942 during the Second World War.
Russian propaganda constantly emphasizes the heroic status of the city, appeals to its heroic past. Even in such a neutral article as "The sun will rise: the best Crimean places for spending dawns and sunsets," the section "Sevastopol" begins with such a passage: "The main associations with Sevastopol relate to its military glory. "City of Russian Sailors" and "city- hero" are almost the first things that come to mind about Sevastopol."
The sun will rise: the best Crimean places for spending dawns and sunsets
Ovsyannikov views Sevastopol as Russia's third capital
The news that the "governor" of Sevastopol Dmitry Ovsyannikov plans to make the city "the third Russia’s capital" constantly highlight the heroic status of the city. The governor did not forget to mention the glory of his predecessors: "We will develop Sevastopol as the third capital of Russia, the southern capital of Russia, as the center of attraction for the whole country. Together we will achieve high results, we will do all this for the sake of our children and for the glory of our ancestors."
As the Crimean historian Sergei Gromenko notes, the of the myth about the "sacred Korsun" is really unique; it was "born before our eyes", it has its exact creation date, as well as the author – Volodymyr Putin himself.
In his "Crimean speech," Russian president has only delineated this myth, however, during a meeting with young historians in November 2014, he voiced the already completed version:
"Crimea has some sacred significance for Russian Orthodox people. Prince Volodymyr was baptized in Crimea, in Chersonesus, and then he baptized Rus. Initially, the primary font of Russia's baptism is there. Chersonese is Sevastopol. Do you realize the connection between the spiritual source and state component in the context of the struggle for this place, for Crimea as a whole, and for Sevastopol, for Chersonesus. For many centuries, Russian people have been struggling to stand with their historical spiritual font."
As Gromenko notes, the idea of a "historical spiritual font" in Crimea has pleased the president, and he eagerly repeated it in a message to the Federal Assembly (December 2014):
"Crimea ... is a place of a spiritual source for the formation of a multi-faceted but monolithic Russian nation and a centralized Russian state. Here, in Crimea, in ancient Chersonesus (Russian chroniclers called it Korsun), Volodymyr was baptized, and then he baptized the whole Russia..."
Sergei Gromenko debunks this newly created myth, giving a list of reasons why the concept of "sacred Korsun" and "historical spiritual font" is fictitious from a historical point of view.
If you enter “Korsun” in the search line of RIA-Novosti, 31 search results are found, where Korsun is always mentioned in conjunction with Prince Volodymyr, for it is in Korsun “Prince Volodymyr has baptized Rus.” But on the whole, it cannot be asserted that the theme of the "sacred Korsun" or Crimea as the spiritual center of Russia was widely spread on this resource.
Russian president constantly repeats the thesis that Volodymyr was baptized in Crimea, and only after that, Rus was baptized. The symbolic fixation of this concept was only a matter of time.
So, already at the end of April 2014, the initiative proposed to establish a monument to Volodymyr in Moscow, "the great prince of Kyiv, the baptizer of Rus," and this idea was immediately supported by the Russian military-historical society. The result of the initiative was establishing a monument to Volodymyr. November 4, 2016, it was established on the central square of Moscow with the participation of President Putin.
Of course, the initiative to install the monument did not coincide with the annexation of Crimea, which, after the violation of a number of international treaties, had to be urgently legitimized, at least in the symbolic sphere. It is noteworthy that the stone from Chersonesus was laid in the foundation of the monument to Volodymyr in Moscow. The patriarch Kirill of Moscow has personally consecrated the stone. Thus, a very important symbolic link was established between Crimea and Moscow.
As Sergey Plokhiy notes, this is the desire to change the paradigm and show that Russia was baptized not in Kyiv, but in Crimea, so the special status of Kyiv is simply leveled.