Timothy Snyder, historian at Yale, explains in this post why Crimea does not belong to Russia, except in Putin’s delusional, self-aggrandizing mind. Crimea, he explains, existed long before there was a Russian state. It has gone through many transformations, the most appalling of which was when Stalin deported its entire population, claiming that they were Nazis (sound familiar?).

It is a long and fascinating essay.

In a small excerpt, he writes:

Crimea is a district of Ukraine, as recognized by international law, and by treaties between Ukraine and the Russian Federation. Putin, however, has taken the view, for more than a decade now, that international law must yield to what he calls “civilization,” meaning his eccentric understanding of the past. The annoying features of the world that do not fit his scheme of the past are classified as alien, and illegitimate, and subject to destruction (Ukraine, for example).

The example of Crimea lays bare a problem within Putin’s thinking. The idea that there is some sort of immutable “civilization,” outside of time and human agency, always turns out to be based upon nothing. In the case of Crimea, Putin’s notion that the peninsula was “always” Russia is absurd, in almost more ways than one can count.

The Crimean Peninsula has been around for quite a long time, and Russia is a recent creation. What Putin has in mind when he speaks of eternity and is the baptism of a ruler of Kyiv, Valdimar, in 988. From this moment of purity, we are to understand, arose a timeless reality of Russian Crimea (and a Russian Ukraine). which we all must accept or be subject to violence. Crimea becomes “holy.”

It takes time to recount even a small portion of the ways in which this is nonsensical. First of all, the historical event itself is not at all clear. One source says that Valdimar was baptized in Crimea, as Putin likes to say; others that he was baptized in Kyiv. None of the sources date from the period itself, and so we cannot be certain that it took place at all, let alone of the locale. (If Valdimar was indeed baptized in Crimea, Putin’s logic would seem to suggest that the peninsula belongs to modern Greece, since the presumed site was part of Byzantium at the time.)

Valdimar was, to put it gently, not a Russian. There were no Russians at the time. He was the leader of a clan of Scandinavian warlords who had established a state in Kyiv, having wrenched the city from the control of Khazars. His clan was settling down, and the conversion to Christianity was part of the effort to build a state. It was called “Rus,” apparently from a Finnish word for the slavetrading company that brought the Vikings to Kyiv in the first place. It was not called “Rus” because of anything to do with today’s Russia — nor could it have been, since there was no Russia then, and no state would bear that name for another seven hundred years. Moscow, the city, did not exist at the time.

Baptism, whatever its other merits, does not create some kind of timeless continuum of power over whatever range of territory some later figure chooses to designate. If it did, international relations would certainly look very different. When Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, the Roman Empire controlled what is now Portugal, Spain, France, the Balkans, Israel, Turkey, North Africa… But we would be very surprised to hear an Italian leader (even now) cite Constantine’s baptism to claim all of these countries…