The brutal, bloody history behind Putin’s Crimea speech

 

On the day that Russia annually commemorates the country's victory in World War II, President Vladimir Putin made an appearance in Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula his government has annexed from Ukraine -- much to the ire of Kiev and the international community. As The Washington Post's Michael Birnbaum explains here, the visit on Friday was the clearest sign yet that Moscow will not give up the territory now that it's back in the Russian fold.

In a speech in Sevastopol, the home of the Russian Black Sea fleet, Putin hailed the heroes of earlier Russian battles fought  by this Crimean port:

The example of Sevastopol shows the world that in places where people are ready to fight for their freedom, the enemy will never conquer. We are sure that 2014 will make it into the history of Sevastopol and the history of our country, because this is the year that the people of Crimea decided firmly to be with Russia, thus proving their loyalty to historical memory and the memory of our predecessors.

In mid-March, after Crimea held a referendum over its secession from Ukraine, Putin delivered a triumphant address in Moscow, justifying Russia's takeover of the peninsula: "Everything in Crimea speaks of our shared history and pride," he said then.

There's a reason why this "historical memory" is so potent, though some may argue it ought not be such a matter of pride. A horrific amount of Russian blood has been spilled at Sevastopol and in Crimea over the past two centuries. And while Putin invokes these sacrifices as noble and patriotic acts, the sheer depth of human misery experienced ought not be forgotten, either.

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The Crimean War (1853-1856) is described now as a chaotic, nightmarish affair for all the European powers involved, with blundering military leaders sending their hapless charges to gruesome ends. The famous phrase that soldiers in combat were "lions led by donkeys" emerged from the trenches and mud-packed redoubts that surrounded Sevastopol, which was besieged for 349 awful days between 1854 and 1855 until the Russians finally surrendered.

In an earlier disastrous engagement, one Polish officer serving in the Russian army described the confusion among the ranks:  "During the five hours that the battle went on we neither saw nor heard of our general of division, or brigadier, or colonel: we did not receive any orders to either advance of retire; and when we retired, nobody knew whether we ought to go to the right or left."

The Russians' stubborn resistance at Sevastopol, amid bombardments and doomed charges, was steeped in blood. Here's a British observer's description of a scene filled with Russian casualties during the siege:

In many cases, men were found alive, lying helpless under a heap of bodies. Dragged from these masses of decaying human flesh, they were handed over to the Russian soldiers... Probably, this charnel-house represented as great an amount of suffering, and comprised within its walls as large an extent of misery, as was ever seen in a single view.

At least a quarter-million Russians were buried in mass graves around Crimea by the war's end, though some estimates suggest that figure is closer to 1 million deaths -- the bulk of which were caused not by battle but by disease and starvation brought on by the neglect and indifference of Russia's military leadership.

Nearly a century later, more horror was visited upon Crimea as Nazi forces steamrolled into the peninsula in 1941 as part of their wider invasion of the Soviet Union. Retreating Russian forces holed up once more in Sevastopol and endured a merciless siege through July 1942.

The Germans used some of the biggest guns on earth -- including a beastly 800mm railroad gun dubbed "Thor" -- to pound away at Soviet defenses, on top of relentless bombardment by the Luftwaffe. When the Soviets recognized that there was no more point in holding out, they beat a hasty and largely doomed retreat: The top commanders escaped by submarine, but nearly 100,000 soldiers were captured, while roughly 20,000 had been killed over the course of the battle. The Nazis captured some 3.5 million Soviet soldiers during the war, sending many to slave labor camps, where the vast majority died.

By the time Soviet forces reclaimed the city in 1944, it was a ghostly ruin. Of a population of 110,000 that existed there before the war, only 3,000 remained. Some 20 million Soviet citizens died in World War II.

It's an astonishing loss of life that Russians are right to commemorate. Putin was not wrong to declare in Sevastopol that "the iron will of the Soviet people, their fearlessness and stamina saved Europe" from fascism. But his nationalist rhetoric comes shadowed with the threat of a new war in a part of the world that has already seen too much.

Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor at TIME, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.
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