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Why Putin says Crimea is Russia’s ‘Temple Mount’

Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives in St. George's Hall in the Kremlin to deliver a state-of-the-nation speech on Thursday. (Alexey Druginyn/Ria Novosti via European Pressphoto Agency)

Russian President Vladimir Putin has a lot of immediate concerns on his mind. He's coping with an epic economic double whammy: the toll of Western sanctions imposed on Moscow over its power play in Ukraine this year and the precipitous fall of the Russian ruble, hit by a decline in global oil prices.

But, as my colleague Michael Birnbaum writes, that didn't stop Putin from using his annual state-of-the-nation address on Thursday to dredge up "centuries" of resentment and suspicion of the West. The Russian leader inveighed against the "speculators" waging war on his country's currency and decried U.S. meddling in Ukraine ahead of the departure of its pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych in February.

Putin also justified his country's annexation of Ukraine's autonomous Crimean Peninsula as a matter of great historical redemption. The Black Sea region, Putin insisted, was as dear to Russians "as the Temple Mount in Jerusalem" is to Jews and Muslims.

That's a loaded metaphor, not least because tensions over the actual Temple Mount have led to violence and deaths in Jerusalem in recent months.

Crimea is where, in the 10th century, one of the first great Slavic princes is said to have shed his pagan beliefs for the Orthodox Christianity of the Byzantine Empire. This is a moment deeply embedded in Russian nationalism, and Putin spoke of it at length on Thursday. Here is an excerpt from the Kremlin's official English translation:

It was an event of special significance for the country and the people, because Crimea is where our people live, and the peninsula is of strategic importance for Russia as the spiritual source of the development of a multifaceted but solid Russian nation and a centralised Russian state. It was in Crimea, in the ancient city of Chersonesus or Korsun, as ancient Russian chroniclers called it, that Grand Prince Vladimir was baptised before bringing Christianity to Rus.
In addition to ethnic similarity, a common language, common elements of their material culture, a common territory, even though its borders were not marked then, and a nascent common economy and government, Christianity was a powerful spiritual unifying force that helped involve various tribes and tribal unions of the vast Eastern Slavic world in the creation of a Russian nation and Russian state. It was thanks to this spiritual unity that our forefathers for the first time and forevermore saw themselves as a united nation. All of this allows us to say that Crimea, the ancient Korsun or Chersonesus, and Sevastopol have invaluable civilisational and even sacral importance for Russia, like the Temple Mount in Jerusalem for the followers of Islam and Judaism.

And this is hardly the first time Putin has invoked this history. He echoed this language in March, as Russian special forces helped carry out the swift capture of Crimea. "Everything in Crimea speaks of our shared history and pride," said the Russian president at the time. "This is the location of ancient [Khersonesos], where Prince Vladimir was baptized. His spiritual feat of adopting Orthodoxy predetermined the overall basis of the culture, civilization and human values” of all Russians.

The implications of this history lesson, though, are a bit murkier than Putin would have it. According to a poll last year, only a quarter of all Russians had heard of Prince Vladimir's baptism. And the prince's home was Kiev, not Moscow. "This probably only underlines the right of Kiev and not Moscow to Crimea," Andrei Zubov, a Russian historian, told Bloomberg News this week.

The ruins of Khersonesos — the ancient beachhead of Russian Christianity that Putin invokes — are close to the port city of Sevastopol, another site steeped in Russian history and blood, as WorldViews discussed earlier. In May, Putin delivered a speech in Sevastopol marking Russia's victory at the end of World War II. "The example of Sevastopol shows the world that in places where people are ready to fight for their freedom, the enemy will never conquer," he declared.

Putin, though increasingly beset by geopolitical headaches, is never short of nationalist bluster.