Occupied paradise: sea, mountains, cave cities, and the amazing people of Crimea

Over the past decade, the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea has often appeared in the news next to the words “annexation” or “occupation”. In 2014, the Russian Federation seized the peninsula and held a pseudo-referendum on it at gunpoint. After that, Crimea turned into a military base, where indigenous peoples and those who disagreed with the totalitarian regime are repressed.

The entire free world supports the territorial integrity of Ukraine and is waiting for the de-occupation of the peninsula. After all, for the sake of turning Crimea into an outpost of the empire, Russia is consistently destroying its history, culture, and nature.

So it’s time to remember the wonders of this unique peninsula: the sea, mountains, cave cities, amazing palaces, close ties with half the world, and, of course, the main treasure — the people of Crimea. People who will definitely wait to return to the motherland.

Crimean Peninsula

Crimea has long been inhabited by various tribes and peoples: Huns, Tauri, Scythians, Polovtsians, Sarmatians, Greeks, Italians, Ukrainians, Russians, Armenians, Bulgarians, Germans, as well as three indigenous peoples: Crimean Tatars, Karaites and Krymchaks. For more than 300 years, the Crimean Khanate flourished here, which ruled not only the peninsula but also the territories of the Dnipro region and the Azov region.

After the capture of Crimea by the Russian empress Catherine II and the destruction of the Crimean Khanate, the peninsula and the South of Ukraine became part of the Russian Empire as a single province — Tavriiska.

Crimea is dependent on the supply of gas, electricity, products, and especially water from the Dnipro. All this is easier to get from the north, from Ukraine. In 1954, this became the main reason why administrative control was transferred to Ukraine, when the peninsula was destroyed after the Second World War and devastated by the deportations of indigenous peoples, which led to the genocide of the Crimean Tatar people in 1944.


However, in 2014, Russia attempted to annex Crimea. On February 20, the Russian military began to move actively on the peninsula, and a pseudo-referendum on the “joining” of Crimea to the Russian Federation was held in two weeks under the muzzles of Russian military machine guns. On March 18, Putin will sign the “agreement” on this. At the end of the same month, the UN General Assembly supports the territorial integrity of Ukraine.

In Crimea, the Ukrainian fight continues to this day — despite the serious risk to life, local residents join the “Yellow Ribbon”, a resistance movement in the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine, secretly distribute leaflets on the peninsula reminding that Crimea is Ukraine, and hang blue-yellow flags in public places.

For the Russian Federation, control over the peninsula is, in particular, a position for dominance in the Black Sea, a method of military and economic pressure on Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria, and Turkey, and a threat to the Mediterranean Sea and beyond.

But the wild appetites of the aggressor did not weaken — in 2022, the Russian army attacked Ukraine from three sides, including the South.

From a pearl peninsula to a totalitarian camp

Under the Ukrainian authorities, there were no armed conflicts, either in Crimea or anywhere else on the territory of Ukraine. Every year, the peninsula attracted more and more tourists, blossomed, and developed peacefully. For example, in 2011, the “Perove” photovoltaic solar power plant — at that time the most powerful in the world — went into operation in the center of Crimea.

Cultural initiatives also grew rapidly. Since the mid-90s, the large-scale festival “Kazantip” has been held in Crimea, which combined rave, the sea, sports, and an ironic attitude to life. However, after the annexation attempt, the event was no longer held in Crimea. Another big Koktebel Jazz Festival was also forced to move from the peninsula, at which in different years Parov Stelar, Red Snapper, Kadebostany, De-Phazz, Bonobo, GusGus, Jamala, and other world music stars performed.

And already-legendary boxer Oleksandr Usyk, who was born and grew up in Crimea, said that he will return there only with Ukrainian flags. By the way, director and Sakharov Prize laureate Oleh Sentsov, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison by Russia in 2014 for speaking out against the annexation attempt, is also from Crimea. People all over the planet fought for his release, but this happened only in 2019.

Moscow is acting in Crimea using its usual methods. Educational institutions and organizations of Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars, the indigenous people, were banned, free media were destroyed, and potentially disloyal people were persecuted. Instead, these lands are massively populated by people from the Russian hinterland – according to the estimates of various Ukrainian experts, they were brought from 600,000 to 1 million.

Russia treats Crimea’s ecology and cultural heritage in a consumerist way. Along with ecocide against the unique Crimean nature, historical values are being exported, and monuments are being destroyed. Unique wines of the 18th century from Crimean wineries are uncorked and drunk.

Crimea has been declared an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” by Moscow. It is a fortress armed to the teeth, an outpost of the empire. For Russia, the peninsula is another faceless province populated by the army, police, colonial officials, and Russian pensioners who use Crimea’s natural resources as trophies.

From a hub of civilizations and a recreational pearl to a fenced-in military base where there are even carriers of nuclear weapons, this is where Russia is leading Crimea.

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Crimean Tatars

People of a unique culture, called Crimean Tatars or qırımlı, have been living in Crimea for centuries. In their genealogical tree are the nomadic peoples of the Black Sea, the Germanic tribe of the Goths, as well as the Greeks and Genoese who had colonies in Crimea.

All of this combined to form an unusual culture, which the Crimean Tatars carried through all of their trials, which were unfortunately numerous. For example, as many as three hundred thousand native inhabitants of the peninsula were forced to leave their homes due to occupations and deportations carried out by the authorities of Ukraine’s eastern neighbor.

It first happened at the end of the 18th century, when the Russian Empire attacked the peninsula. The second time was in 1944 when Stalin ordered the deportation of Crimean Tatars to remote areas of the USSR, and about half of the people died. They could only return after several decades to independent and democratic Ukraine. And for the third time since Russia occupied the peninsula in 2014.

Despite everything, the Crimean Tatars have not forgotten their roots and definitely have something to tell and show the world. For example, the first democratic republic in the Muslim world was proclaimed in Crimea in 1917 after the collapse of the Russian Empire. It happened during the national assembly or Kurultai. However, the Bolsheviks later seized Crimea and suppressed the movement for independence.

The Kurultai was able to meet the next time only in 1991 when the USSR was living out its last months. After the occupation of the peninsula by Russia in 2014, the democratic bodies of the Crimean Tatars were again destroyed in Crimea itself but survived in the free world. The Mejlis, the representative body of the Crimean Tatar people, continues to operate in Ukraine. Public organizations, media, and political platforms are also developing — everything to preserve Crimea and its culture, as it is known and loved by its inhabitants.

Among the cultural features, it is worth mentioning the unique outfit, in which different traditions were intertwined and created something new and original. Take at least the fes headdress, which was worn even by small children, or the nalyny, an unusual wooden shoe most similar to Japanese geta sandals.

Shoes, clothes, ceramics, dishes, and furniture are often decorated with ornek, a national Crimean Tatar ornament. It is so unique that it was added to the list of UNESCO World Intangible Heritage. 

And the kitchen! The menu of the Crimean Tatars stands out, for example, with yufakhash, a local relative of Italian ravioli, or fultu, a traditional dessert made of puff pastry with apple and nuts. It is traditionally drunk from huhum — exquisite Crimean Tatar jugs.

It is worth saying thanks for lunch in the Crimean Tatar language: “Sağ ol”. And ideally, also say the phrase that the Crimean Tatars, once again forced to leave their homeland, repeat most often: “Qırım – Ukrainadır!” — “Crimea is Ukraine!”.

Half a millennium of the greatness of the Khan’s palace and events of historical scale

Bakhchysarai, an ancient city, is located in the peninsula’s south. Its name is translated from the Crimean Tatar language as “garden-palace”, and this is a wonderful characteristic of the picturesque residence of the khan located here. At the beginning of the 16th century, it was started to be built by the rulers of the Crimean Khanate from the Gerai dynasty, descendants of Genghis Khan. Inside the palace and park ensemble is the main building, a park, a mosque, a library, a harem, and many other buildings.

Now the Khan’s Palace occupies more than 4 hectares (9.8 acres), although it was once four times larger. The Russians traditionally had a hand in the destruction of the complex after they first annexed Crimea in the 18th century. The English traveler and Cambridge professor Edward-Daniel Clark wrote about it as follows: “In Bakhchysarai, the Russians satisfied their barbaric pleasure of destruction and completely destroyed this capital. In particular, the Khan’s palace.”

Centuries pass, but habits do not change. In 2017, the occupying authorities of the Russian Federation began so-called restoration works on the territory of the palace, which significantly damaged the complex. For example, part of the historical structures of the Great Khan Mosque were lost, and the original tiles were replaced with a modern coating. Due to the temporary occupation of the peninsula, Ukraine is currently unable to protect its heritage. The efforts of world organizations also have no influence on Moscow.

By the way, about world organizations. In February 1945, the fateful Yalta Conference of the USSR, USA, and Great Britain took place in Crimea. The residence of the English delegation headed by Churchill was the Vorontsov Palace in Alupka. And there were meetings of the heads of diplomatic departments. According to some sources, it was in this palace that it was agreed to convene a conference to establish the United Nations. So the main international organization was born in San Francisco, but its conception took place in Crimea.

Medieval castles in the middle of Crimea

Many civilizations crossed in Crimea for thousands of years, and it was not always for the sake of trade or parties — there were also conflicts. Therefore, fortresses were built on the peninsula at all times. The most famous of them is located in the ancient city of Sudak, on the shores of the Black Sea.

Fortifications were built here by everyone who could: Romans, Goths, Byzantines, Venetians, Genoese, and Ottomans. In the process of rebuilding, destruction, reconstruction, restoration, destruction, and reconstruction took place again and again.

The best-preserved fortifications of the Genoese colony, built in the 14th and 15th centuries, have survived to this day. And by the word “preserved”, we mean an area of as much as 30 hectares (74 acres), two defense belts, and the atmosphere of medieval European castles — after all, the Italians built it all.

Moreover, we even know many of their names! The fact is that the consuls of the colony were appointed from Genoa for one year, and during this time each of them had to build some kind of fortification. So now there are many towers on the territory, each of which has a name in honor of the top manager during whose time it was built. For example, the Tower of Jacobo Torselo (1385), the Tower of Pasquale Giudice (1392), or the Tower of Corado Cicalo (1404). Not a bad way to put your autograph on the map.

Mountains above the sea, our own Grand Canyon, and devastating militarization

One of the fiercest disputes in history is whether it is more interesting to go on vacation: to the mountains or to the sea? Well, Crimea has both the first and the second.

The Crimean Mountains are three almost parallel ridges with sloping northern and steep southern slopes. So the visual style of Crimea is mighty rocks above the boundless but gentle Black Sea.

However, you cannot wait for the mountains themselves to be particularly harsh, with deadly avalanches or multi-kilometer peaks. The highest peak in Crimea is Roman-Kosh, with a height of only 1545 meters (5068 feet).

However, these mountains should not be underestimated. It even has its own Grand Canyon! True, it is not as big as the American Grand Canyon, but it is still 3 km (1.8 miles) long, up to 320 m (1050 feet) deep, and with a picturesque river flowing along its bottom.

However, even nature suffers from Russia’s occupation. Ukrainian and international observers emphasize that since 2014, the situation has significantly worsened: rare species of flora and fauna are dying out, trees that were previously protected by Ukrainian law are being felled en masse, sea fishing is growing uncontrollably, and natural lands are being ruthlessly developed. Militarization of the region was also a serious blow: large areas were turned into training grounds, and only five years after the occupation, the Russian Federation conducted about a hundred military exercises in Crimea, according to open data alone.

So, while Crimea remains an amazing place with sea, mountains, and its own Grand Canyon, its nature suffers from occupation as well as people.

Caves that turned into a city

What do you associate the phrase “cavemen” with? With some distant ancestors chasing mammoths and taking sleep breaks in dark, unheated rooms? Well, it happened otherwise. In Crimea, people created whole cave cities where there were houses, farm buildings, and everything else necessary for life.

The largest such place was Chufut-Kale. Located on a large mountain plateau, it rose above three deep valleys. People estimated how difficult it would be for enemies to get here through the vertical rocks as early as one and a half thousand years ago, and this is how they have been developing this place since then. Chufut-Kale was so successful that for a time it was the center of the Crimean Khanate, with a mint, a printing house, a school, mosques, a market, and thousands of people living there. 

However, in the middle of the 19th century, water completely disappeared from local sources — and people left. They left, but a unique sight of Crimea remained — an entire cave city with the beautiful name of Chufut-Kale.

People of Crimea

Like any land, Crimea is not only about landscapes, architecture, or climate, even if they are as beautiful as on this peninsula. The first thing is people. And Crimea is represented by many outstanding personalities on the world stage, of whom we should be proud. For example, the famous mariner Ivan Aivazovskyi lived here. For six decades in art, he painted at least 6,000 paintings and participated in more than 120 exhibitions, more than half of which were personal.

Another prominent writer and educator is Ismail Hasprynskyi. So outstanding was his work that in 1910, a French magazine even nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize. By the way, a talented father grew up with an equally talented daughter. Shefika Hasprynska became the ideologist of the Muslim women’s movement 100 years ago.

And how many languages do you know? Because another Crimean, Ahatanhel Krymskyi, as they say, knew 60. And he used them to write more than 500 scientific works in linguistics, literary studies, religious studies, history, cultural studies, etc. True, he did not apply for the Nobel, but in 1970, Krymskyi was included in the list of outstanding figures in the world by UNESCO.

Well, what about modernity? The young director Nariman Aliev made Ukrainian and European film festivals cry over his film “Home”, and Akhtem Seitablayev made “Haytarma”, based on real events about the deportation of Crimean Tatars in 1944 (by the way, Russia tried to disrupt the premiere of this film). Jamala sang about the same events at the winning Eurovision Song Contest in her song “1944”. This is a family story because Jamala learned about the deportation from her grandmother, who lived through the tragedy firsthand. After the full-scale Russian invasion, the lyrics of this song ring especially true:

“When strangers are coming
They come to your house
They kill you all
and say
We’re not guilty
not guilty
Where is your mind?
Humanity cries
You think you are gods
But everyone dies
Don’t swallow my soul
Our souls”.

Therefore, behind the beauty of the landscapes of Crimea, one should not forget about the main treasure of the peninsula — its people. Especially since they are currently under threat. Russia continues its repression. Only in February 2023 did two political prisoners from Crimea — Dzhemil Hafarov and Kostiantyn Shyrinh — die in Russian prisons. And, according to Crimean human rights defenders, there are at least hundred and fifty Ukrainian citizens detained on the peninsula.

Now the people, their cultural heritage, and the whole of Crimea are going through difficult times.

Now the people, their cultural heritage, and the whole of Crimea are going through difficult times. The temporary occupation of the peninsula once again brought totalitarian approaches — the same ones that the Russians have already used on these lands many times. However, Crimea does not surrender. Despite all the oppression, there is an active Ukrainian resistance movement on the peninsula, and forced migrants from Crimea continue to fight for its liberation. Now — and with a weapon in hand. The international community should support this struggle so that the words “annexation” and “occupation” never again ring in any of the world’s countries. 

Everything started here and will end here — Crimea will be deoccupied and will return home because Crimea is Ukraine.

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Last updated 24.02.2023

The article was prepared in partnership with Maksym Maiorov (Centre for Strategic Communication and Information Security)

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