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March 31, 2014

Is Putin repeating history in Crimea?

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There’s the old saying that those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it. In light of the current events in Crimea, a peninsula in Europe’s Black Sea that has been annexed by Russia away from Ukraine, historians are seeing parallels to a very similar conflict in the late 19th century.

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 the Crimean Peninsula and the surrounding Black Sea. Russia’s rationale for fighting in Crimea was to protect the local population, a reason that closely echoes words in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent speeches.

“Millions of Russians and Russian-speaking people live in Ukraine and will continue to do so,” Putin said on March 18, after signing a treaty annexing the peninsula. “Russia will always defend their interests using political, diplomatic and legal means.”

Some places have been points of conflict for centuries.

“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,” said Franz-Stefan Gady of the EastWest Institute. “I do think that in the heads of the Russian leadership this always was, in one way or another, Russian territory.”

The fighting in Crimea in the late 1800s was so intense that hundreds of thousands of men lost their lives in three years.

It also inspired great works of art and literature, including Alfred Lord Tennyson’s the “Charge of the Light Brigade,” in which he wrote about British cavalry fighting in Crimea, “Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die.”

The world is watching European and American reactions to 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 if history lessons are learned or repeated once more.


Warm up questions
  1. Where is Crimea? Which bodies of water does it touch?
  2. George Santayana coined the phrase “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” What did he mean by that? Can you think of any examples that support this phrase?
  3. How are wars similar and different to those fought 200 years ago? 100 years ago? 50 years ago?
Discussion questions
  1. Lord Tennyson described soldiers in the Crimean War of 1854, “theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die.” What did he mean by this? What is your response to this line?
  2. Why is access to bodies of water important to governments? Explain your answer.
  3. What are the similarities and differences between the Crimean War of 1854 and the conflict taking place in Crimea today?
Writing prompts

Think about the phrase, “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” First, analyze what it means and then make an argument that it is either true or untrue. Make sure to provide evidence and examples to support your argument. Finally, discuss how this phrase can be applied to what is happening in Crimea, or another conflict.

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