Mara Kozelsky reminds us of Crimea’s significance in the history of the Russian Orthodox church:
Crimea sits at the heart of both the Third Rome idea and Nicholas I’s nationality platform, because it was on the peninsula that Byzantium passed the mantle of Orthodoxy to Russia. In the ancient Greek colonial city of Chersonesos, the Byzantine emperor baptized the Kyivan Rus Prince Vladimir. Prince Vladimir’s conversion has been described by an early Russian nationalist as “the most important event in the history of all Russian lands,” because the conversion “began a new period of our existence in every respect: our enlightenment, customs, judiciary and building of our nation, our religious faith and our morality.”
Beyond Prince Vladimir’s conversion, Crimea gave Russia a first century Christian pedigree. Roman Emperor Trajan exiled the first century pope Clement to Crimea, where he founded an early Christian community that hid among neolithic caves. Some biblical scholars also believe St. Andrew the Apostle passed through Crimea en route to his mission field in Scythia. Until the communists imposed an official policy of atheism, Russian archaeologists, historians and biblical scholars combed over the peninsula looking for the exact location of Prince Vladimir’s conversion and evidence supporting the first century legends. The Russian Orthodox Church, meanwhile, established a network of monasteries on the peninsula and promoted pilgrimages to “Russian or Crimean Athos.” Crimea became Russia’s very own holy place.
Boris Barkanov stresses the symbolic value of Ukraine writ large:
Ukraine (Kiev especially) is at the very heart of the origin myth of the Russian nation and civilization. An analogous case is the significance of the Temple Mount and the Dome of the Rock (al-Aqsa Mosque) in Jerusalem to Jews and Muslims respectively. This means that for Russian and Ukrainian nationalists, Ukraine is what UC Berkeley political scientist Ron Hassner has called a “sacred space.” It appears indivisible, but has to be shared to avoid conflict and violence. The same is true for Tatar, Ukrainian, and Russian nationalists regarding Crimea. Defusing such conflicts requires thoughtful, innovative solutions that empower moderate, rather than radical, political forces on all sides.
Pace Kissinger, the Russian religion did not spread from “what was called Kievan-Rus.” What spread was Orthodox Christianity and it spread from Constantinople, thanks in no small measure due to the proselyting efforts of Ss. Cyril and Methodius, both Greeks. True, Ukraine “has been part of Russia for centuries,” but it’s been no less a part of the Mongol empire, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the Polish Commonwealth, the Habsburg Empire, and the Ottoman Empire.
(Illustration of Vladimir I of Kiev via Wikimedia Commons)