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Crimea Realities

Crimea Realities

Florence Nightingale, Mary Seacole, culture wars, and missed stories.

Jeffrey Gedmin

The British and French entered the Black Sea in January 1854. The land war was full on by then. Britain, France, and the Ottoman Empire were fighting to check Russia’s expansion into Europe. The Crimean War lasted from October 1853 to February 1856. 

Florence Nightingale went to the region in October 1854. She took thirty-eight women volunteers to care for wounded British soldiers arriving at a base hospital in Constantinople. By that time, some eighteen thousand British soldiers had been admitted to military medical facilities. Conditions were deplorable. “Beggars in London were living the lives of princes compared to the life of our soldiers in Crimea,” Nightingale, the pioneer of modern nursing, recounted.

Mary Seacole went in March 1855. She set up her British Hotel—an establishment providing food and medicines to British troops—between Sevastopol and Balaklava in Crimea. She, too, assisted the wounded at military hospitals and met casualties from the front. For a long time, Mary Seacole was a missed story.

Over the last decade, Nightingale and Seacole have been in competition with one another through proxies in Britain’s culture wars. In the middle of the controversy—a statue and school textbooks. Who belongs where in British history? Jamaican-born Seacole came to fame later than Nightingale. She started as the daughter of a Creole mother and a Scottish military father stationed in Jamaica, which at the time was part of the British Empire. I’m reading Seacole’s autobiography. She was a remarkable businesswoman, humanitarian, and world traveler.

This month marks the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. It’s also ten years since Vladimir Putin ordered his forces to invade and annex Crimea. 

The telling of Nightingale’s and Creole’s stories usually includes little, if anything at all, on Crimea’s indigenous population. The same applies to our reporting today. Crimea is an important piece on the geostrategic chessboard. Russia maintains its Black Sea fleet headquarters at the Crimean port of Sevastopol.

But Crimea is also home to Ukrainians, Russians—and Muslim Tatars, the indigenous population that, with roughly three hundred thousand citizens today, makes up roughly 14 percent of Crimea’s population. The Tatars of Crimea go back to the 10th century but are often missing from the story. At the time of the Crimean War, they represented more than three-quarters of the population in Crimea.

This May, Tatars in Crimea will mark the eightieth anniversary of Sürgünthe mass deportation of their entire nation to Siberia and Central Asia. This was the work of Joseph Stalin. At the time, some two hundred thousand Tatars were forced into cattle cars and driven into exile. Roughly half perished during deportation. It was only during Mikhail Gorbachev’s liberalization in the 1980s that Tatars were allowed to return home.

“If Crimea remains Russian now,” says Rim Gilfanov, chief editor and director of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s (RFE/RL) Tatar-Bashkir service, “it will become a brutal reality for Crimean Tatars that the measure of freedom they had enjoyed within the Ukrainian state will come properly to an end—and tragic more.” Repression has been steadily increasing. Dissenters disappear in Russian prisons with draconian sentences.

Mr. Putin’s so-called liberation of Russians in Crimea has left Ukrainians vulnerable, too. I know this through the case of Vladyslav Yesypenko, a Ukrainian-Russian journalist with Crimea.Realities, a regional news outlet of RFE/RL’s Ukrainian service. Vlad was detained by the Russian FSB on March 10, 2021. In a closed-door trial, he was sentenced to six years in prison by a Russian judge in occupied Crimea on February 16, 2022.

Watch the Netflix series Occupied. In a fictional near future, Russia uses force, security services, and economic and judicial means to intervene in Norway’s affairs, ostensibly to save Europe from an energy crisis but ultimately to bend the country to Moscow’s will. 

Track the case of Rim Gilfanov’s colleague Alsu Kurmasheva here. Alsu is an RFE/RL correspondent who reports on religion, culture, and ethnicity in the Russian Federation’s Republic of Tatarstan. Among a growing list of American hostages, Vladimir Putin has two U.S. journalists in his clutches. The Wall Street Journal’s Evan Gershkovich is locked up in Moscow’s infamous Lefortovo prison. Alsu is behind bars in Tatarstan’s capital, Kazan, five hundred miles east of Moscow. Tatars in this part of Russia are native to the Volga-Ural region—and under increasing Kremlin pressure to surrender autonomy and identity.

In 1856, there were Russians who saw defeat in Crimea as an opportunity to modernize and liberalize their society. A son of the czar’s, Grand Duke Constantine, contended that Russia was becoming “weaker and poorer than first-class powers . . . not only in material terms but in mental resources.” There’s food for thought in this. A year ago in an essay on the history of Crimea for American Purpose, Fred Starr asked whether a defeat for Mr. Putin in Ukraine might usher in an era of reform. 

The list of reasons why Russian revanchism must be defeated is rather long indeed.

Jeffrey Gedmin is co-founder and editor-in-chief of American Purpose.

Image: "Crimean War: Florence Nightingale and her staff nursing a patient in the military hospital at Scutari," colored lithograph, c. 1855, by Thomas Packer. (Wikimedia Commons: Wellcome Images)

CultureAuthoritarianismDemocracyEastern EuropeUkraineRussiaU.S. Foreign Policy