Immediately following Russia’s forcible annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in February–March 2014, proposals surfaced to return to an old Imperial Russian tradition of referring to this land as “Taurida.” Last month (September 16), during a “Crimean Hellas” symposium in the republican capital of Simferopol, this notion again rose to the fore, with an initiative to rename the Republic of Crimea the Republic of Crimea–Tavrida. Importantly, one of the symposium’s high-level attendees, Georgy Muradov—the deputy prime minister of the occupying government in Crimea and permanent representative of the republic under the president of the Russian Federation—openly voiced his support for the name change (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, September 16).
The initiative to adopt the name Republic of Crimea–Tavrida for the peninsula dates back to 2018, a brainchild of Ivan Shonus, who heads the National and Cultural Autonomy of Greeks “Tavrida” (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, September 16). Shonus believes the amended label will strengthen the Russian status of the peninsula and undermine any Western objections to the Republic of Crimea as a Russian administrative entity (RIA Novosti, April 19). However, the logic behind the adoption of the historical Taurida moniker goes even deeper.
In fact, for years, the Kremlin has sought to promote a “Greek agenda” in Crimea as an additional tool against the Crimean Tatar minority, which claims the peninsula as its motherland. Soon after the 2014 “referendum” on Crimea’s accession to the Russian Federation, a delegation of pro-Russian Crimean Tatars traveled to Sochi to meet with President Vladimir Putin. They called on the Russian head of state to recognize their nation as the indigenous population of Crimea. But Putin demurred, declaring, “[O]f course, we can think about this. But [in] solving this problem, you cannot generate another.” Instead, he suggested that the true indigenous peoples of Crimea included other nationalities, including Greeks: “They were there before you and me,” Putin told his Crimean Tatar guests (Korrespondent.net, May 16, 2014). Months later, the Kremlin-friendly populist-nationalist Russian politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky echoed this notion of the peninsula’s Greek heritage overshadowing the local history of the Crimean Tatars. “Tavrida is a Greek name. [Local Crimean cities] Feodosia, Sevastopol, Yevpatoriya, [and] Kerch are all from the Greeks. Crimea is a Crimean Tatar name,” he asserted (Primechaniya.ru, January 6, 2015). In 2016, he again declared, “Crimea is a native Russian land that needs to return to its historical name: Tavrida” (RBC, March 18, 2016). Meanwhile, in early 2015, the Russian Federation Council (upper chamber of parliament) openly discussed the option of renaming Crimea (Primechaniya.ru, January 21, 2015).
At the same time as Simferopol hosted the “Crimean Hellas” symposium this past September, a mid-level “Track II” Greek delegation arrived to film a documentary, together with Crimean colleagues, about the long history of relations between Crimea and Greece in order “to open [the world’s] eyes to events on the peninsula” and “to break the shackles of Western sanctions” (Crimea.gov.ru, September 16). The group consisted of former deputy defense minister and former Greek lawmaker Konstantinos-Iraklis Isychos, director and film producer Christos Rallis, and historian Nikolaos Alexandros Hesychos. The third man had previously been a member of the Greek SYRIZA party, but he resigned in 2015 over the then-ruling party’s acceptance of the third economic adjustment program for Greece (Taxydromos.gr, August 13, 2015). The same year, he, together with several other SYRIZA dissenters, created the left-wing political faction Popular Unity. He now holds the fourth position in this party (Laiki-enotita.gr, Makthes.gr, June23, 2019). The party itself supports Greek withdrawal from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) (Jacobinmag.com, August 21, 2015).
Isychos, Rallis and Hesychos are all members of the Greek Friends Club of Crimea, established in January 2019, in Filadelfeia-Chalkidona, Greece. The goals of the club include “breaking Crimean isolation,” “opposition to illegal sanctions,” “recognition of Greek minority rights in Crimea” and the “use of public diplomacy to bring Hellenic Crimea closer to Greece.” The aforementioned documentary was supposed to be an element of this public diplomacy effort (Sputniknews.gr, January 29).
Another notable member of the Greek Friends Club of Crimea is Nadia Valavani, who was the alternate minister of finance within the Cabinet of Alexis Tsipras; however, she resigned and subsequently joined Popular Unity. Valavani, together with Isychos and lawyer Rachiotis Yiannis (the latter was identified as a threat to the Ukrainian state by the controversial independent Ukrainian website Myrotvorets) visited Crimea in April 2019 to take part in the Fifth International Yalta Economic Forum (myrotvorets.center, May 3).
Moscow persistently tries to convince Athens that the 7,000 Crimean Greeks who cannot easily obtain visas to visit their “motherland” are “suffering” in Crimea under the current European sanctions regime. According to Russia, this situation is complicating the social and cultural lives of the local Greek community (Sputniknews.gr, March 18, 2019). In reality, however, the Greek language is taught in 13 Crimean secondary schools to around 700 pupils. Moreover, the local government plans to further increase the number of Greek-language schools on the peninsula (Crimea.ria.ru, April 25, 2018).
The latest Kremlin-backed initiative to further “Greekify” the annexed peninsula has deeply divided local Russian elites. Crimean “Prime Minister” Sergey Aksenov and “State Council Chairperson” Vladimir Konstantinov immediately rejected adopting the name Taurida. And pro-Russian Crimean Tatar groups also expressed objections (Svpressa.ru, September 23, 2019).
Although the return to the peninsula’s (Imperial Russian–era) Greek name may assist Moscow in further undermining the largely pro-Ukrainian Crimean Tatar minority as well as provide a propaganda argument to attract Athens, the idea comes with several possible risks. First of all, it may irritate Ankara, since Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan would presumably oppose Moscow’s latest attempt to suppress Crimea’s Turkic (i.e., Crimean Tatar) history. Second, Russia has offered few opportunities for the Crimean Tatars to assimilate into the Russian political and social spheres. Thus, such explicit symbolic aggression against their local historical legacy could give rise to further anti-Russian sentiments among this community.
But while the above factors could compel the Kremlin to postpone the initiative, in fact the process has started. Already, three major sites or events in Crimea have received the name Taurida: the newly constructed Taurida Highway, the International Youth Forum “Tavrida,” and the Thermal Power Station “Taurian” in Simferopol. Thus, Russia is gradually moving ahead with erasing Crimean history.