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Is history repeating itself in Crimea?

March 30, 2014 at 5:54 PM EDT
The Russian Navy agreed to pull out of the Black Sea around Crimea on March 30. Not March 30, 2014, but 158 years ago in 1856. NewsHour's Hari Sreenivasan reflects on the history of the region that is again at the center of a geopolitical crisis.

TRANSCRIPT

HARI SREENIVASAN: Finally tonight, “The Connection.” There’s the old saying that those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it. The Russian Navy agreed to pull out of the Black Sea around Crimea on March 30. Not this March 30, but 158 years ago today.

Into the time machine we go.

During the 1850’s, the Imperial Army of Czarist Russia fought forces from Britain, France, the Ottoman Empire and the Kingdom of Sardinia for control of … wait for it … the Crimean Peninsula and the surrounding Black Sea.

FRANZ-STEFAN GADY: I do think that in the heads of the Russian leadership this always was, in one way or another, Russian territory

HARI SREENIVASAN: Historian Franz-Stefan Gady is a senior fellow at the EastWest Institute. He says back then, Russia’s rationale for fighting in Crimea was to protect the local population. Sound familiar?

FRANZ-STEFAN GADY: I do think that there’s a pattern in history in general that certain states are just sort of unlucky being buffer states between two great empires.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The fighting in Crimea back then was so intense that hundreds of thousands of men lost their lives during the nearly three-year conflict.

The war inspired great writers.

Tennyson wrote the “Charge of the Light Brigade” about British Cavalry fighting in that Crimean conflict, including his now famous verse: their’s not to reason why, their’s but to do and die.

As a young man, Leo Tolstoy served as an artillery officer in the war and later wrote about it.

HARI SREENIVASAN: In “The Sevastopol Sketches,” he described how a Russian soldier coped with the pain after an amputation. The character says, “If you don’t think, it is nothing much. It mostly all comes from thinking.” A variation of that idea could be if you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.

The world is watching whether the Europeans and Americans mind what’s happening in Ukraine, and whether whatever they do, or don’t do in the coming weeks, will matter. And what happens at the negotiating table may determine what lessons from history have been learned or if they will just be repeated once more.