Political and legal status of Crimea in the visions of socio-political forces in 1917-1920

Political and legal status of Crimea in the visions of socio-political forces in 1917-1920


During the wars and revolutions of 1917–1920, the Crimean question arose in interethnic and interstate relations, which, in particular, included the problems of Crimea’s affiliation and status. In 1917–1920, the Crimean Tatar, Russian, Bolshevik, and Ukrainian political camps had the greatest influence on its decision – their views on the desired status of Crimea.

Crimean Tatar bodies of national self-government initially advocated national and cultural autonomy, in late 1917 for the formation of the Crimean Democratic Republic as part of federal Russia, and in May 1918 even attempted to form an independent state. Some leaders of the Crimean Tatars in 1918 put forward a project to form an independent neutral Crimean Khanate under the protectorate of Germany and Turkey. The Crimean Tatar parliament and pro-Russian politicians have condemned the initiative. In 1919, the leaders of the Crimean Tatars also hoped for the creation of an independent Crimean Democratic Republic, but this project failed to materialize. In 1920, one of the Crimean Tatar leaders put forward a project to give the Polish League of Nations a mandate for Crimea.

Representatives of the Russian political camp mostly advocated the status of Crimea as part of the Tavriya province, although in the summer of 1918-April 1919 due to the emergence of the UPR, the Ukrainian state and the activities of the Crimean Tatar government, some of them put forward and implemented projects temporarily or autonomously Crimea.

The Bolshevik camp was able to experiment the most with the status of the disputed region, as it exercised power through both state and party structures. Its representatives twice declared quasi-independent “buffer” state formations, which were in fact subordinated to the RSFSR – the Taurida SSR (March-April 1918) and the Crimean SSR (April-June 1919). In 1920, the Central Committee of the RCP (B) adopted and revoked the decision on the status of “independence” of the Crimean SSR, when Crimea was still in the hands of whites.

The authorities of the newly formed UPR in late 1917, in agreement with the Crimean Tatar leaders, viewed Crimea as one of the subjects of the formation of a federal Russia, but after the aggression of the Bolshevik state and the proclamation of independence, the UPR sought ways to include it in its orbit. In 1918, the Hetman’s Ukrainian State sought to include Crimea in its borders by granting it autonomous status. The UPR of the Directory period, after some fluctuations at the initial stage in 1919–1920, defended similar views.


Russia’s temporary occupation of the Ukrainian Autonomous Republic of Crimea and Sevastopol in 2014 was the first attempt in post-Hitler’s Europe on the continent where the two world wars began to annex part of the territory of a sovereign state. Unfortunately, the reaction of the world community to the breaking of the world order by the aggressor state was clearly insufficient. Ukraine’s territorial integrity has not yet been restored, and in June 2020, the President of the Russian Federation essentially put forward new territorial claims to the neighboring states of the former Soviet republics in the form of a quasi-historical digression. In the new speech of the Kremlin leader, a new term “gifts of the Russian people” appeared in relation to the lands of neighboring countries that he did not clearly define.It is easy to see a parallel with the Crimean case, as Russian propaganda transfers the Crimean region from the RSFSR to the USSR, carried out in strict accordance with the legislation of the USSR, for more than two decades it was often branded as “Khrushchev’s gift to Ukraine “. For many reasons, this is a strange terminology, in part because taking away gifts in a relationship between people is clearly an unacceptable type of behavior. But the attempt to annex Crimea has clearly shown that the metaphor of the “gift” in the language of Russian politicians hides aggressive intentions and territorial claims to neighbors.

After the capture of Crimea by Russia and illegal measures to incorporate it, the Crimean issue became one of the key nodes of controversy in Ukrainian-Russian relations. Among the many aspects of this issue, which largely determines the future of Europe, the issue of the status of the Crimean peninsula is being discussed in Ukraine. There are political forces convinced that for the period of deoccupation and reintegration of the region the status of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea provided by the Constitution of Ukraine should be preserved. Other socio-political forces, including the national self-government bodies of the Crimean Tatar people, are convinced of the need to change the status of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea from territorial to national-territorial. Although this position has not yet become a state policy,the fifth President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko has taken some steps to support it.Finally, part of the politicum announces the idea of ​​turning the Autonomous Republic of Crimea back into the Crimean region.

Given the complexity of the Crimean issue, the policy of the Ukrainian authorities on the status of Crimea should be as balanced as possible, based on the need to restore Ukrainian jurisdiction within internationally recognized borders. In order to develop and implement such a policy, it is necessary, in particular, to take into account historical experience. One of the most interesting moments in this sense is the period of wars and revolutions in the Crimea at the beginning XX century.

Political and legal status of Crimea as a component of the Crimean question in 1917–1920

Crimea at the beginning 1917 was one of the most unique regions and countries that were part of the Romanov empire. It was distinguished primarily by its military and geopolitical significance, specific ethno-demographic composition and a high level of urbanization.

During the wars and revolutions, the era of expansion at the beginning XX century The geographical location of the Crimean peninsula and the presence of convenient bays and ports on its territory became especially important – mastering this region made it possible to control the Black Sea-Azov basin and adjacent territories. Sevastopol Bay was perhaps the best on the Black Sea coast, so Sevastopol became the main base of the Black Sea Fleet, whose units and ships were located from the Danube to the Caucasus.

As of 1917, Crimea was an agro-industrial region with a recreational industry, transport infrastructure (railways, ports, etc.) and a number of important military facilities. It was distinguished by almost the highest level of urbanization in the empire: approximately 45% of Crimean people lived in cities, which is approximately three times higher than the average imperial figure. It should be noted: the Crimean peninsula was not economically self-sufficient, was closely integrated with the mainland and, above all, the lands adjacent to it. In particular, in the pre-revolutionary period, he received coal and a significant part of food, seasonal workers for agriculture from the predominantly Ukrainian-populated provinces and parts of the Tavriya province, and grain and other goods were exported from these lands through Crimean ports.

According to the head of the statistical bureau of the Tavriya provincial zemstvo M. Benenson,  in 1917 in the Crimea lived 808.9 thousand people of 35 nationalities. The colonization policy of the Russian Empire, which, contrary to its international obligations in 1783, annexed the Crimean Khanate, led to the indigenous Crimean Tatar people becoming a minority in Crimea – at the beginning of the February Revolution, the Crimean Tatars were the second largest ethnic community. with a relatively small number of Turks) 26.8% of the Crimean people and numbered 217 thousand people. By the second half of the XIX century. this indigenous people made up the absolute majority of the population of the Crimea, as a result of several waves of migration of the Crimean Tatars and the colonization of the Crimea by a non-ethnic population in the late nineteenth century. turned into a relative majority, and at the beginning. XX century lost the quantitative advantage.In the first place in terms of numbers on the Crimean peninsula came ethnic Russians (Great Russians) – in 1917 they amounted to approximately 300 thousand people (approximately 37%). It is problematic to determine their number more precisely, because the statistics of the time archaically combined the name “Russians” – “Great Russians and Ukrainians”. Together they amounted to 399.8 thousand people or 49.4% of the total population. Accordingly, Ukrainians in the Crimea numbered about 100 thousand people (12%) and were the third largest ethnic community. It is known that, according to the All-Russian census of 1897, 77.5 thousand Ukrainians lived in the Crimea. Since the beginning. XX century Ukrainians had a high birth rate and continued to migrate to the Crimea,it is logical to assume that their number should have been higher than this figure. Other notable ethnic communities of Crimea (accounted for more than 1% of the population) were: Jews – 68.2 thousand people (8.4%), Germans – 41.4 thousand people (5.1%), Greeks – 20.1 thousand. people (2.5%), Armenians – 16.9 thousand people (2.1%), Bulgarians – 13.2 thousand people (1.6%), Poles – 11.8 thousand people (1.5%), Karaites (indigenous people) – 9 thousand people (1.1%).

It should be noted that Crimea was not a separate administrative-territorial unit, but was part of the Tavriya province for more than a century, where the relative majority of the population were Ukrainians. In 1917, the province occupied a larger territorial and numerical mainland (Dnieper, Melitopol and Berdyansk counties accounted for 55.5% of its area) and the peninsula – 5 counties (Simferopol, Perekop, Evpatoria, Feodosia and Yalta counties) and 3 townships Kerch- Yenikal and Yalta, which was liquidated immediately after the February Revolution). The provincial center was Simferopol.

After the February Revolution, the fall of the Romanov dynasty, the beginning of the “spring of nations” in the post-imperial space, Crimea was at the crossroads of several national projects – primarily Crimean Tatar, Russian and Ukrainian, and later in the focus of several countries – Russia, Ukraine, Germany, Turkey and Poland. Thus, in 1917, the Crimean question arose in international relations, which the following year turned into an international one – a sphere of conflicts of interest between different states.

The Crimean question will be understood as a set of problems that arose and were solved during the wars and revolutions of 1917–1920, concerning the then situation and the future of the Crimean peninsula and its polyethnic population. These are first of all problems: 1) state affiliation of the Crimean peninsula (main alternatives: Ukraine, Russia, Turkey, Germany, Poland); 2) the status of the Crimea (options: part of the Tavriya province, a separate administrative-territorial unit without autonomy, autonomy, colony, protectorate, temporary state formation, independent state formation); 3) self-organization, self-determination and orientation of the Crimean Tatar people, the largest ethnic groups of Crimean people, the Crimean population in general;4) the attitude of the regimes that have emerged or established in the Crimea to the states of Europe and Turkey.

Between the fall of the Romanov dynasty in March 1917 and the final establishment of the communist regime in November 1920, eight political regimes in Crimea changed: n.st.); 2) democratically oriented temporary provincial coalition government of the Council of People’s Representatives of the Tavriya province and the bodies of national self-government of the Crimean Tatar people (December 1917 – mid-January 1918); 3) the authoritarian Bolshevik-Left Socialist regime in the Tavriya province and the ephemeral SSR Tavrida (January – second half of April 1918); 4) the German occupation regime in the Crimea (late April – November 1918) and the authoritarian regime of the Crimean regional government of S. Sulkevich, who at the end of its existence made an attempt to democratize (June – November 1918);5) the liberal-democratically oriented regime of the Crimean regional government of S. Crimea, which at the end of its existence began to apply undemocratic practices (November 1918 – April 1919); 6) the authoritarian military-communist regime of the Crimean SSR (May-June 1919); 7) the authoritarian regime of the white military dictatorship of A. Denikin in the Tavriya province (June 1919 – April 1920) and P. Wrangel in the Crimea and adjacent territories (April – November 1920); 8) the regime of the communist dictatorship in the Crimea (since November 1920) .

Such a frequent change of government in Crimea led to attempts to implement various forms of resolving the Crimean issue, and even under one regime there could be competition among the ruling forces over the status of the region. For example, in the Crimean regional government of Sulkevich there were supporters of the status of an independent neutral Crimean Khanate and an autonomous Crimea within Russia. The Crimean SSR of 1919 also had a dual status: in the public declarations of the Bolsheviks, it spoke on an equal footing with Soviet Russia and Ukraine, and secret documents emphasized its provincial powers as part of the RSFSR.

Historiography often states that the main actors during the wars and revolutions in the Crimea were four socio-political camps:

  • 1) bodies of national self-government and political forces of the Crimean Tatar people;
  • 2) Russian (Russian left, liberals, “White Guards” and their allies);
  • 3) Ukrainian (activists of the Ukrainian revolution and supporters of the regime of Hetman P. Skoropadsky);
  • 4) Bolshevik (Bolshevik Communists and their companions).

Each of these camps had projects to resolve the Crimean issue and, accordingly, offered their approaches to determining the desired status of Crimea. In general, this is true, but it should be borne in mind that in trying to resolve the Crimean question in this period took with varying degrees of success and some other actors – for example, Germany (in its establishment in 1918 had different views on the desired status of Crimea) Reich before its transfer to Ukraine) or the Revolutionary Insurgent Army named after Makhno’s father (in 1920 its leadership considered the possibility of making Crimea the territory of an anarchist experiment).

Continuation here .

The project was implemented with the support of the Ukrainian Cultural Foundation

Andrey Ivanets

Candidate of Historical Sciences, Senior Researcher at Ukrainian National Research Institute

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