Some facts about the Crimea

Crimea was part of Russia from 1783, when the Tsarist Empire annexed it a decade after defeating Ottoman forces in the Battle of Kozludzha, until 1954, when the Soviet government transferred Crimea from the Russian Soviet Federation of Socialist Republics (RSFSR) to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (UkrSSR). The transfer was announced in the Soviet press in late February 1954, eight days after the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet adopted a resolution authorizing the move on 19 February. The text of the resolution and some anodyne excerpts from the proceedings of the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet meeting on 19 February were published along with the very brief announcement.[1] Nothing else about the transfer was disclosed at the time, and no further information was made available during the remainder of the Soviet era.

Not until 1992, just after the Soviet Union was dissolved, did additional material about this episode emerge. A historical-archival journal, Istoricheskii arkhiv (Historical Archive), which had been published in the USSR from 1955 until 1962, began appearing again in 1992 with transcriptions of declassified documents from the former Soviet archives. The first issue of the revived Istoricheskii arkhiv in 1992 contained a section about the transfer of Crimea that featured documents from the Russian Presidential Archive and from a few other archives whose collections are now housed at the State Archive of the Russian Federation (GARF). Unfortunately, these documents do not add anything of substance to what was published in the Soviet press 38 years earlier; indeed, they are mostly identical to what was published in 1954. (Apparently, the editors of Istoricheskii arkhiv were unaware that the scripted proceedings of the USSR Supreme Soviet Presidium meeting had already been published in 1954.) The documents do confirm that the move was originally approved by the Presidium of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) on 25 January 1954, paving the way for the authorizing resolution of the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet three weeks later. But the declassified files reveal nothing more about the motives for the transfer, leaving us with just the two official rationales that were published in 1954:

(1) the cession of Crimea was a “noble act on the part of the Russian people” to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the “reunification of Ukraine with Russia” (a reference to the Treaty of Pereyaslav signed in 1654 by representatives of the Ukrainian Cossack Hetmanate and Tsar Aleksei I of Muscovy) and to “evince the boundless trust and love the Russian people feel toward the Ukrainian people”; and

(2) the transfer was a natural outgrowth of the “territorial proximity of Crimea to Ukraine, the commonalities of their economies, and the close agricultural and cultural ties between the Crimean oblast and the UkrSSS.”

Neither of these ostensible justifications holds up to scrutiny. Even though 1954 was the 300th anniversary of the Treaty of Pereyaslav, there is no connection between that treaty and the Crimean peninsula. Pereyaslav, in central Ukraine not far from Kyiv, is nowhere near Crimea, and the treaty had nothing to do with the peninsula, which did not come under Russian control until 130 years later. Moreover, the description of the treaty as having produced the “unification of Russia and Ukraine” is hyperbolic. The treaty did provide an important step in that direction, but years of further struggling and warfare had to take place before full unification occurred. In retrospect the Treaty of Pereyaslav is often associated (inaccurately) with Russian-Ukrainian unity, but it is hard to see why anyone in the USSR would have proposed celebrating the 300th anniversary of the document by transferring Crimea from the RSFSR to the UkrSSR.

The notion that the transfer was justified solely by Crimea’s cultural and economic affinities with Ukraine is also far-fetched. In the 1950s, the population of Crimea — approximately 1.1 million — was roughly 75 percent ethnic Russian and 25 percent Ukrainian. A sizable population of Tatars had lived in Crimea for centuries until May 1944, when they were deported en masse by the Stalinist regime to barren sites in Central Asia, where they were compelled to live for more than four decades and were prohibited from returning to their homeland. Stalin also forcibly deported smaller populations of Armenians, Bulgarians, and Greeks from Crimea, completing the ethnic cleansing of the peninsula. Hence, in 1954, Crimea was more “Russian” than it had been for centuries. Although Crimea is briefly contiguous with southern Ukraine via the Isthmus of Perekop, the large eastern Kerch region of Crimea is very close to Russia. The peninsula did have important economic and infrastructural ties with Ukraine, but cultural ties were much stronger overall with Russia than with Ukraine, and Crimea was the site of major military bases from Tsarist times on, having become a symbol of Imperial Russian military power against the Ottoman Turks.

Even though the publicly enunciated rationales for the transfer of Crimea to the UkrSSR were of little credibility, some of the comments published in 1954 and other information that has come to light since then do allow us to gauge why the Soviet authorities decided on this action. Of particular importance were the role of Nikita Khrushchev, the recent traumas inflicted on Ukraine, and the ongoing power struggle in the USSR.

Khrushchev had been elevated to the post of CPSU First Secretary in September 1953 but was still consolidating his leading position in early 1954. He had earlier served as the head of the Communist Party of Ukraine from the late 1930s through the end of 1949 (apart from a year-and-a-half during World War II when he was assigned as a political commissar to the front). During the last several years of Khrushchev’s tenure in the UkrSSR, he had overseen the Soviet government’s side of a fierce civil war in the newly annexed western regions of Ukraine, especially Volynia and Galicia. The civil war was marked by high levels of casualties and gruesome atrocities on both sides. Despite Khrushchev’s later role in denouncing Stalinism and implementing reforms in the USSR, he had relied on ruthless, unstinting violence to establish and enforce Soviet control over western Ukraine. Occasional armed clashes were still occurring in the mid-1950s, but the war was over by the time Crimea was transferred in February 1954. The repeated references at the meeting of the USSR Supreme Soviet Presidium on 19 February to the “unity of Russians and Ukrainians” and to the “great and indissoluble friendship” between the two peoples, and the affirmation that the transfer would demonstrate how wise it was to have Ukraine “under the leadership of the Communist Party and the Soviet government,” indicate that Khrushchev saw the transfer as a way of fortifying and perpetuating Soviet control over Ukraine now that the civil war had finally been won. Some 860,000 ethnic Russians would be joining the already large Russian minority in Ukraine.

A somewhat similar approach was used in the three newly annexed Baltic republics, especially Latvia and Estonia, both of which had had very few Russian inhabitants prior to the 1940s.  The Stalinist regime encouraged ethnic Russians to settle in those republics from the late 1940s on, and this policy continued under Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev. Proportionally, the transfer of Russians to the Baltic republics was greater than in Ukraine, but in absolute numbers the transfer of Crimea brought into Ukraine much larger numbers of Russians and a region closely identified with Russia, bolstering Soviet control.

The transfer of Crimea to the UkrSSR also was politically useful for Khrushchev as he sought to firm up the support he needed in his ongoing power struggle with Soviet Prime Minister Georgii Malenkov, who had initially emerged as the preeminent leader in the USSR in 1953 after Joseph Stalin’s death. Having been at a disadvantage right after Stalin’s death, Khrushchev had steadily whittled away at Malenkov’s position and had gained a major edge with his elevation to the post of CPSU First Secretary in September 1953. Nevertheless, the post-Stalin power struggle was by no means over in early 1954, and Khrushchev was trying to line up as much support as he could on the CPSU Presidium for a bid to remove Malenkov from the prime minister’s spot (a feat he accomplished in January 1955). Among those whose support Khrushchev was hoping to enlist was Oleksiy Kyrychenko, who had become first secretary of the Communist Party of Ukraine in early June 1953 (displacing Leonid Mel’nykov, who had succeeded Khrushchev in that post in December 1949) and soon thereafter had been appointed a full member of the CPSU Presidium. In 1944, when Khrushchev himself was still the Communist Party leader in Ukraine, he reportedly had suggested to Stalin that transferring Crimea to the UkrSSR would be a useful way of winning support from local Ukrainian elites.[2] Regardless of whether Khrushchev actually did bring up this matter with Stalin (the veracity of the secondhand retrospective account is uncertain), it most likely reflects Khrushchev’s own sense as early as 1944 that expanding Ukraine’s territory was a way of gaining elite support in the republic. In particular, Khrushchev almost certainly regarded the transfer of Crimea as a means of securing Kyrychenko’s backing. Khrushchev knew that he could not automatically count on Kyrychenko’s support because the two of them had been sharply at odds as recently as June 1953, when Kyrychenko endorsed Lavrentii Beria’s strong criticism of the situation in western Ukraine — criticism that implicitly attacked a good deal of what Khrushchev had done when he was the leader of the republic in the 1940s. Khrushchev hoped that the transfer of Crimea to Ukraine would dispel the lingering tensions from this episode and thereby help to solidify Kyrychenko’s support in the forthcoming showdown with Malenkov.

The earlier published documents, and materials that have emerged more recently, make clear that the transfer of Crimea from the RSFSR to the UkrSSR was carried out in accordance with the 1936 Soviet constitution, which in Article 18 stipulated that “the territory of a Union Republic may not be altered without its consent.” The proceedings of the USSR Supreme Soviet Presidium meeting indicate that both the RSFSR and the UkrSSR had given their consent via their republic parliaments. One of the officials present at the 19 February session, Otto Kuusinen, even boasted that “only in our country [the USSR] is it possible that issues of the utmost importance such as the territorial transfer of individual oblasts to a particular republic can be decided without any difficulties.” One might argue that the process in 1954 would have been a lot better if it had been complicated and difficult, but no matter how one judges the expeditiousness of the territorial reconfiguration, the main point to stress here is that it is incorrect to say (as some Russian commentators and government officials recently have) that Crimea was transferred unconstitutionally or illegally. The legal system in the Soviet Union was mostly a fiction, but the transfer did occur in accordance with the rules in effect at the time. Moreover, regardless of how the transfer was carried out, the Russian Federation expressly accepted Ukraine’s 1991 borders both in the December 1991 Belovezhskaya Pushcha accords (the agreements that precipitated and codified the dissolution of the Soviet Union) and in the December 1994 Budapest Memorandum that finalized Ukraine’s status as a non-nuclear weapons state.

Crimea had originally been an “autonomous republic” (avtonomnaya respublika) in the RSFSR, but its status was changed to that of an “oblast’” (province) in the RSFSR in 1945, ostensibly because the forced removal of the Crimean Tatars had eliminated the need for autonomy. After the Crimean oblast was transferred to the UkSSR in 1954, it retained the status of an oblast’ within Soviet Ukraine for 37 years. In early 1991, after a referendum was held in the UkrSSR and a resolution was adopted a month later by the UkrSSR parliament, the status of Crimea was upgraded to that of an “autonomous republic.” Crimea retained that designation within Ukraine after the Soviet Union broke apart. In the Russian Federation, however, the category of “autonomous republic” does not exist. In the treaty of annexation signed by the Russian and Crimean governments on 18 March 2014, the status of the peninsula was changed to simply a “republic” (Respublika Krym), joining 21 other “republics” of the Russian Federation’s now-85 federal “subjects,” with Crimea and the city of Sevastopol added as separate entities.[[3]

One of the ironies of the transfer of Crimea to Ukraine in 1954 is that when the chairman of the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet, Kliment Voroshilov, offered his closing remarks at the session on 19 February 1954, he declared that “enemies of Russia” had “repeatedly tried to take the Crimean peninsula from Russia and use it to steal and ravage Russian lands.” He praised the “joint battles” waged by “the Russian and Ukrainian peoples” as they inflicted a “severe rebuff against the insolent usurpers.” Voroshilov’s characterization of Russia’s past “enemies” seems eerily appropriate today in describing Russia’s own actions vis-à-vis Ukraine. A further tragic irony of the Crimean transfer is that an action of sixty years ago, taken by Moscow to strengthen its control over Ukraine, has come back to haunt Ukraine today.

© 2021 Wilson Center


  1. I think that both Ukraine’s and RuSSia’s claims are bullshit. Crimea belongs to the tatars, period. I hope it will be a proud UN member one day.

    • Personally I wouldn’t be opposed to an independent Crimea. Nor would the Tatars. But they are not actually asking for that as they see themselves as loyal Ukrainians.
      Krym Tatars “are not a part [and not an ethnic group] of a “big” Tatar nation, they are a different nation using the similar ethnonym.”*
      The Krym Tatars currently in Russia, Turkey, Uzbekistan and elsewhere would then have a homeland, which would be a beacon of moderation in the Muslim world.
      Similarly, another moderate, civilised western-leaning Muslim nation very much deserves to have its independence: Kurdistan.
      A condition of an independent Crimea (or a return to Ukraine for that matter) of course would have to be the return to Russia of all Russians inserted there after the invasion by the invaders, including of course all military occupiers.

      *Quoted from Wiki.

      • There is no easy solution for a peninsula claimed by two nations and three peoples, but the best solution will be one not posing a threat to Ukraine.

    • The Tartars are not the true owners, Mike. They too came as conquerors and took it from others who had conquered it, who in turn had conquered it and so on and so forth. Russia (back then not mafia land) was the last to conquer the Crimea. They, as the last legitimate owners, gave the peninsula to Ukraine. This deal was approved at the dissolving of the Soviet Union and reiterated afterward with the Budapest Memorandum and once more under the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Partnership between Ukraine and the Russian Federation in 1997. No matter how you look at it, Crimea is legally only Ukraine’s property.

      • Absolutely. And wherever the Crimea will be heading to in the future, it will not happen without Kyiv’s approval.

      • Yes they are. Having been there for 600 years, that makes them the indigenous peoples of Crimea. Yes the Genovese and Greeks were there much earlier and for much less time, but that would be like saying that much of southern Ukraine is Greek, just because they were there before the Vangarians; which makes no sense.
        In no way is the Russian occupation of Crimea ‘legitimate’; it was thieved by an empire.
        Do you believe that all former imperial powers have the right to take back previously occupied land whenever they want, or do you reserve that right for Russia only?
        That would be like France deciding that they have the right to take back the Maghreb.
        I agree with your last sentence: legally Crimea belongs to Ukraine. There can be no doubt about that.

        • Neither will the french reclaim Louisiana or Quebec, nor will Britain have any say Downe Under once her majesty did bite the dust. But Ukraine either needs to surrender the Crimea for good OR THE WEST FINALLY COME UP WITH SOME REAL SUPPORT!

          • Ukraine must never surrender. Fascist imperialism must never be allowed to succeed.
            Ukraine must wait until it is powerful enough to retake it, or a US president comes along who has the integrity of Ron Reagan. OR: Russia becomes a civilised country, which is still a (remote) possibility.
            As for Australia, Canada and NZ, that is a purely voluntary arrangement. If/when Republican sentiment becomes the dominant ideology, they will cease to be part of the Kingdom. However, they have the option of remaining in the commonwealth without having a British monarch at the head.
            Currently I assure you that Britain has no say whatsoever in the running of Aus or NZ. It’s a purely ceremonial arrangement. However, there is a very deep friendship between us, NZ and Can that will never be broken.
            I have never experienced such warmth from any nation in the world to a Brit than on my visits to Aus. They love us and we love them. Except when we play them at cricket or Rugby, when it’s war!

            • Ha,ha,ha! Never forget i have british roots myself. But i favor independence + friendship. Your support for Ukraine honors you and surely will never be forgotten. Nevertheless i doubt Ukraine will ever get Crimea back. I wish John McCain would still be out there. I knew him personally, supported Cruz over Trump in 2016, and never betrayed Ukraine since i got involved in 2004.

              • I feel exactly the same way about Ukraine and Georgia as I do about Aus!
                I can’t say the same about Can and NZ because I have never been there, but I imagine they are similar. I visited the US many times and never had even one bad experience. My favourite US states are Louisiana, Texas and California in that order. Although I doubt if I would like Ca much these days.

                • I am so strict because I LOVE Ukraine, in particular the people. The women are the prettiest in the world and many males are very proud and kind. I would pay ANY price to save them from being enslaved by Muscovy. My favorite place in the UK remains London. I really like the atmosphere there. Anyway, your love for Louisiana makes you my brother. Since Katrina we need all the love we can get. But let’s not forget Moldova, a small country invaded by arrogant abusers. It might be them who will bring Putin downe. Georgia and Armenia may also join in. Anyway, our sympathy for great people unites us, details concerning a solution sometimes divide us.

                  • Yes Moldova must be included on the list of people who must be freed from putinazi occupation. As a matter of fact I have a Moldovan friend; a highly cultured guy who speaks five languages, including Ukrainian. He says that Moldovan girls are very pretty but he recently married a Ukrainian girl who he was already with for several years. They just had a baby. Since a new baby can learn three languages simultaneously, they will speak English, Ukrainian and Russian to her. They didn’t want Russian but they live in a Russian speaking area so they have no choice unless they move, which they won’t, because they need the grandparents to help look after the kid.

                • Canada is a great country to visit. The people on Vancouver Island are the most polite people I ever met. They even say thank you to the bus drivers as they get off the bus. Of course Vancouver Island is in the far West of Canada close to the US mainland, so I couldn’t say what the frog half of Canada is like for British visitors.

                  • Montreal is beautiful. Probably the coolest place in North America. But the last time i visited was twenty years ago. No idea what it’s like now. But the people were always friendly and not arrogant. They tried to speak english with me whenever they could. The fuckers in France always claimed not to speak any english. And this although we liberated their asses! I felt so lost in France. I will never go there again. Better Belgium or Switzerland, but not the baguettes! 😡

                    • I prefer Holland over any of them, they are friendly to the English, as most speak English anyway.

                    • I was referring to francophone countries. Yeah, my favorite locations in Europe are Holland, Luxembourg, Moldova and Bulgaria. Moldova has some cool bars and restaurants. Except for ruSSian trash the people are very friendly. I lived in Holland and i had a great time. Smoking a joint with my boss at work is one of many things i will always remember. Only in Holland! 😀

                  • I always found Canadians to be very polite also. I got involved in a lengthy drinking session with an Anglo-Canadian and he got very angry once the booze kicked in. Not with me, but with the minority Quebecers, many of whom are aggressive separatists and extreme racists. Anglos living in Quebec are persecuted both openly and in more subtle ways, eg storekeepers can be punished for putting English language on their merchandise. The Quebecers do not volunteer for military service; the Anglos do. Yet the Anglos still vote for the Macronesque Trudeau!

        • I disagree. The Tartars had lost the Crimea to Russia fair and square. That was how things were settled … back then. Now, it is a different matter. Now, we have international laws that regulate such issues. Thus, before Ukraine, Russia was the legal owner of Crimea.

          • I think Scradje has the opinion that was agreed on after WWII, that borders must never be changed again by the use of military force. Neither ruSSian history nor Crimea’s right to belong to whoever they want is disputed. When RuSSian forces left their bases and took control of Crimea they not only broke international law, but also made the following referendum null and void. Crimea’s future can only be decided once all ruSSian military and FSB are out. This is however sadly unlikely. I hope this mess will be solved one day, one way or the other.

            • I don’t get it. WWII and Crimea have nothing to do with each other. The Crimea belonged to Russia before, during and after the war. The border change – Crimea going to Ukraine – was an internal matter (peaceful) in the Soviet Union and agreed upon by both parties.

          • They lost it fair and square? Consider what you are saying. If you follow that logic then you must also believe that Sudetenland was lost fair and also Czechoslovakia and Poland.
            Russia is itself an empire. The only part that is legitimate is the area surrounding Muscovy. All the rest was thieved. The bastards occupied Ukraine for 360 years; longer than they occupied Crimea. Does that make it legitimately theirs?
            Your logic is usually without fault facts. You seem to have gone off the tracks on this one. We British occupied part of France for many years (hence the name Brittany). We did it to stop the fuckers from their nasty habit of invading us, but that doesn’t mean it was ever legitimately ours.

            • Mr. Scradge, I know that it is a difficult thing to comprehend, but you cannot think in modern terms over events that happened in the distant past. In the past, it was a normal thing to conquer other lands and to call these lands your own. Not only Europeans did this, every people in the world did it. The concept of conquests through force being illegal is a modern one. It got a sound foundation only after WWII in the Nuremberg Principles. In short, yes, Russia did own Crimea legally. Yes, Russia did own Ukraine legally. And yes, Britain legally owned parts of France.

              • I am a supporter of your stuff Mr Facts and I agree with a very large percentage of your output. But on this one we’ll have to differ. But at least we agree 100% on the fundamental issue that Crimea is legally part of sovereign Ukraine territory.
                I hope one day to be able to walk along the promenade at Feodosia when it is once again part of a free Crimea under the jurisdiction of a free Ukraine.

                • Okay, Mr. Scradge. I too agree wholeheartedly with your way of thinking almost every time but I was hoping that you would understand my standpoint. Maybe I have it easier since I have been a history buff since my very young days and I am a member of three historical societies. I don’t know.

                  • If i may join in here. The Crimea should be discussed with a ruSSian president who is friendly towards Ukraine/Empire. Putin is a rat, he will never stop his bullshit. So, Crimea’s ruSSian past and population will come into play once RuSSia no longer poses a threat to Ukraine. Until then Ukraine should stay as hard as iron. No rewards for psychos. I sometimes fail to bring the message across, since i’m busy with other things.

Enter comments here: