1768 all over again

As memories of the recent Winter Olympics are slowly subordinated to the ongoing spectacle of war on the Crimean peninsula, it’s easy to think about Russian President Vladimir Putin as a singular bad actor. Even the slightest familiarity with the history of the Crimea shows this to be far from the case.

Perhaps the most notable Russian incursion came at the hands of Empress Catherine II (Catherine the Great) during the Russo-Turkish War of the late 1760s. The war was at odds with Catherine’s well-crafted presentation of herself as a thoroughly modern European monarch of the Enlightenment. At the same time she hosted luminaries such as Diderot and collected treasures for the Hermitage, she sent troops to gain full control of the Black Sea.

At the outbreak of war, the Tatars, who lived on the Crimea, were ruled by a semi-autonomous Khanate. The largely Muslim population resulted from centuries of intermarriage between Mongols and native Turkic people. They had poor relations with the surrounding Russian and Polish-Lithuanian Empires because they continued the traditional barbarian custom of raiding nearby cultures.

The 1774 Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca temporarily ended the Russo-Turkish War, leaving the Crimea with a nominal independence but leaving Russia in control of key sea ports. Catherine refused all mediation offers from Prussia, Austria and France — essentially forcing European and Asian monarchs to accept Crimea’s fate with its formal Russian accession in 1783.

In addition to military strategies for Crimean submission, Catherine embarked on a legislative campaign to further ensconce certain entitlements. The exemplar of this was the 1785 Charter of the Nobility. This act affirmed the rights of nobles to own peasants and to dispense justice on their estates. For the newly conquered Ukrainian peasants, this only served to reassert their powerlessness.

In many respects we see a modern replication of the feudal order and the power of the oprichnina (the nobility or sovereigns loyal to the tsar) with Putin’s post-KGB policies. As Russian expert Anna Arutunyan explains in her book, The Putin Mystique: Inside Russia’s Power Cult, “When (Putin) became president in 2000 he integrated himself into the quasi-feudal relationships that were already forming between business and power, and tried to make the best of them.”

Arutunyan further explains that Putin was in many respects the ideal candidate for this kind of undertaking because he is someone that the economic elite could trust, while at the same time he is quite able to manipulate them as suits his own interests.

As in Russia of old, Putin’s invitation of old KGB associates to top positions within the Kremlin is not unlike Ivan the Terrible’s secret police, the Oprichnik. While little more than a well-backed death squad, the Oprichniks, waged a campaign of terror against all who Ivan deemed a threat. In many historian’s eyes, they are regarded as the forerunners of the modern KGB — with all the peril and permissiveness that implies.

Short of arguing that this is just another cycle of a familiar history, it certainly appears to be a case of old wine in new bottles. Unfortunately, the modern era also brings with it a threat to the whole of world politics that is much greater than a mere peninsula on the Black Sea.