The idea of annexing the Crimea in 2014 was overwhelmingly supported by the Russian population, whereas that of the Donbas was largely not. What explains this anomaly?
In terms of nationalism or imperialism, one could suppose that, in case of a perceived threat lurking to ethnic Russians beyond the borders, the Russian popular opinion would react similarly and be in favor of the annexation of both territories. The narrative of protecting disenfranchised Russian minorities in Ukraine would logically mean to defend and support both territories’ Russians approximately equally. This, however, was not the case.
According to the polls of the Levada Center conducted throughout the duration of 2014, it was observed that an overwhelming majority of Russians supported the annexation of the Crimea, and the rate of those opposing it never exceeded 11% in the examined period. Contrary to this, the survey of the Levada Centre from August 2014 shows, out of the possible scenarios concerning the Donbas region’s future, only 21% of the residents of Russia supported the option of the region becoming a part of the Russian Federation.
Not having the poll’s results regarding the support for the Donbas’ annexation from the first half of the year, the sympathy towards the idea might be influenced by the news of the conflict’s escalation as well. However, one can assume that had it garnered a comparably strong and unanimous initial support to that of the Crimea’s, it could not have decreased to this level so fast. That is to say, the different approach from the Russian popular opinion’s side was presumably present earlier than the war news of Eastern Ukraine could have influenced it, thus deterring people from thinking the annexation would be desirable.
This article argues that the cultural-historical differences of the two territories should be taken into consideration in order to understand this contrast. Historically, the Crimea has had a considerably more distinguished place on the Russian mental map, becoming deeply embedded in it which fosters a multi-layered symbolic meaning, whereas the Donbas was nearly entirely lacking it.
The Crimea’s first annexation goes back to the 18th century, marking the first step for the country to become an empire according to many. This means, that besides its seaside charm, it did not only have enough time to become an organic part of Russia but it also holds a peculiar, symbolic value. The key to this strong connection to the peninsula, according to Austin Charron is, that it offers points to connect on three different layers: on a sacral one, on a nostalgic one towards the Empire’s and the USSR’s holiday resort coupled with being a citizen of a great power, and on a nationalist one related to the Sevastopol myth.
The Crimea has a major importance on the religious level, highly accentuated by the politically active Orthodox church. With the degrading Russian-Ukrainian connections, the debate over who can claim the legacy of the Kievan Rus their own became even more heated. Its ruler, Vladimir the Great, who Christianized the state and is remembered as a highly prominent leader, was baptized in 988 on the peninsula. The Moscow Patriarchate treats the annexation as ‘divine right’, the homecoming of the sacred territory.
What could induce a sweeter nostalgy than remembering the ‘good old days,’ than thinking back to the lovely times at the seaside? Starting from the 1800’s, Yalta and the surrounding resorts have turned into the most prestigious domestic riviera of the Empire. It first became a status symbol for the aristocracy of Saint Petersburg and Moscow to own a mansion or to be able to spend the summer there, far from the hustle and bustle of the cities.
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This is well traceable in Nabokov’s novels. In The Seaport, the main character desires to get back his social prestige as it meant he could go to the Crimea on holiday again: “He dreamt he was an officer again, walking along a Crimean slope overgrown with milkweed and oak shrubs, mowing off the downy heads of thistles as he went.” In The Circle having a weekend house in the Crimea is pictured as a normal and desirable thing for a noble family who did not intend to spend the warmer months in Saint Petersburg: Meanwhile his family summered in the south, apparently preferring their Crimean country place to their Petropolitan one. Their winters were spent in the capital.” Later, the Empire has fallen, the Soviet Union has risen, but the peninsula’s main characteristic stayed the same: the Crimea counted as the number one place of holiday for the whole USSR as well. For instance, in Alexander Grin’s Scarlet sails it is pictured as the venue of a seaside romance.
Party functionaries spent their holidays there, camps for housing massive numbers of workers and children camps were established on the ‘Communist Cote d’Azur’. Especially for citizens living in the most inhospitable parts of the country with harsh weather most part of the year, the memories of those weeks at the sea are dear. In addition, it holds great significance in songs, books, movies and advertisements. Moreover, this wistfulness is strongly intertwined with nostalgy towards the Soviet Union as a whole, and being the citizen of a great power. After the chaotic decade of the 90’s with wild privatization, depression, constitutional and economic crisis and financial collapse in Russia, the nostalgy towards the USSR is not to be underestimated as it is permanently longed for by over 60% of responders according to the Levada Center’s poll.
The third level that offers a point easy to connect to is the ‘Sevastopol myth’. It stems from the Crimean War, documented by Tolstoy in the widely known book, Sevastopol sketches, where he lays down the foundation of the Sevastopol myth that is based on the city’s heroic resistance until the withdrawal of Russian forces during the Crimean war. This glory was reinforced by the Second World War’s siege of the city, for which it received the title of the Hero City of the Soviet Union. The myth appeals to patriotic sentiments, national pride and to the cult heroic sufferings. In popular opinion, Sevastopol is the Defender with capital D, showcased by the ever popular song, the official anthem of the city from 1954, the Legendary Sevastopol shows.
“The legendary Sevastopol, Unapproachable for enemies. Sevastopol, Sevastopol – The pride of Russian sailors! (…) Here we are in battle, holy and right, They went for their homeland, And your former glory We multiplied in battle. (…) The whole country [Russia] knows, That ships do not sleep, And reliably protect Shores of the native land (…)”
One can see pride, the position in the battle is “holy and right”, and glory embraces the defenders of the Motherland. The fact that the anthem of the city did not change when it belonged de facto to Ukraine suggests a substantial relation between Russia and the city. Consequently, when rewritten Ukrainian lyrics for the song appeared on the internet, it caused a major outrage among Russians, labeling it as a trial to expropriate a vital part of Russian history. Singing it in Ukrainian was even banned by law later in 2015, which suggests a deep attachment to this song and primarily to its content. The phrase of ‘never sleeping ships’ refers to the Russian fleet that had its naval base in Sevastopol even after the dismemberment of the Soviet Union, due to an agreement with Ukraine. The presence of the fleet on the territory did definately contribute to the city’s overall “sense of belonging” to Russia.
Unlike the Crimea, the Donbas did not offer points that would be so easy to connect to. As for tracing its place on the mental map of Russia, it is rather difficult to find any relevant source mentioning the territory which was not the case in the Crimea that appears in books and songs. If something is ever difficult to find, it is not easy to be enthusiastic about or have vehement emotions towards.
This may be explained by several factors. On one hand, the majority of the Russian population arrived to the territory later than Russian classic writers such as Tolstoy or Chekhov had lived, therefore, they could not document it. The time for being carved into the national feelings was also much shorter than in the Crimea’s case. According to the Russian Imperial Census of 1897, in that year only 28.7% of the population was Russian. As the local Ukrainian population (that at the above mentioned census made up 54% of the population) was strongly affected by the Holodomor and Stalin’s Russification policies, the proportion of Russians in the territory was drastically increased in the first part of the 20th century.
On the other hand, given the utterly different character of the region as an industrial center, it could hardly compete with the popularity of the Crimea. Being a robust industrial center, even when showing up in the literature as in Alexander Kuprin’s Moloch, it is pictured as a gloomy, colorless place, organized around hard, demanding work. In a nutshell, there was absolutely nothing tempting to fantasize about. Though in the Soviet Union industrialization and work itself were praised, probably people wanted to read about something different than their everyday life, something that they could long for. The Donbas was not such a place. That said, the Donbas was not worse than other parts of the country, but neither was it better.
In conclusion, we tend to lump together the Crimea and the Donbas. While this is understandable considering they share many features, it is important to acknowledge that there are at least as many features in which they differ from each other, resulting in a sharp contrast concerning the Russian popular opinion’s approach to them which became strikingly visible in 2014. This contrast is traceable among others in literature. The tropes mentioned characterizing the Crimea were also widely used in the Russian domestic media coverage of the 2014 events, serving as a stock to reach back to, reinforcing the already existing beliefs further and increasing their impact on the popular opinion. The lack of such engaging, already existing tropes hindered the creation of a similarly stable, multi layered narrative concerning the Donbas.
*Dorka Takácsy is a foreign policy analyst specialized in Russia and Eastern Europe. She has a MA in International Relations from the Central European University Budapest. Currently a Széll Kálmán Public Policy Fellow in Washington DC.