Why Sevastopol is the soul of Russia
After two sieges, the city came to symbolise Russian courage – so the Crimean annexation was only a matter of time, says Ben Wilson Sevastopol’s Wars
Just over three years ago, President Vladimir Putin annexed the Crimean Peninsula. Sparked by the removal of Ukraine’s proRussian president, anonymous units of “little green men” (in reality, Russian Federation Special Operations Forces) appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, on February 22 2014 to facilitate the takeover of power in Crimea by pro-Russian “self-defence” activists. On March 18, Crimea joined the Russian Federation.
On May 9, Putin was welcomed in Sevastopol by ecstatic crowds celebrating Victory Day. Military bands played and troops marched through the square; in the bay, fighter jets screamed above the Russian Black Sea fleet. “We are proud of your courage and bravery, and we respect the way you have kept your love of the Fatherland through the years and generations,” Putin told the citizens of Sevastopol. “And now, the Fatherland is embracing you once again as family, as daughters and sons.”
To a Briton, Sevastopol will conjure up the Charge of the Light Brigade, Florence Nightingale and the Crimean War (1854-56). But for Russia, as Mungo Melvin shows in this weighty volume, the city means much more.
Putin calls Crimea the “spiritual source” of Russia. In the 10th century, Prince Vladimir converted the Rus to Christianity in the Greek city of Chersonesos, the ruins of which lie on the outskirts of Sevastopol. In 1783, Catherine the Great annexed Crimea, then part of the Ottoman Empire. The first event has come to symbolise the founding of Russian civilisation; the second, Russia’s emergence as a global power, with Sevastopol its naval bastion.
Important as it is strategically, what really binds Russia to Sevastopol is blood, defiance and sacrifice. Melvin, a retired general, is in his element recounting the city’s violent history. During the Crimean War, Sevastopol saw the first great siege of modern industrial warfare. Leo Tolstoy, who served there as an artillery officer, saw the city pulverised by 349 days of siege, but said that the legendary “spirit of Sevastopol” was born in that rubble, and in the hearts of its undaunted citizens and soldiers. Within 20 years of its destruction, the city had been rebuilt, a symbol of Russian courage.
“Sevastopol is not to be surrendered under any circumstances,” decreed Stalin in the Second World War. By June 30 1940, the city had been under near constant German artillery bombardment and aerial attack for almost 250 days. There were scarcely 11 buildings standing; the streets were strewn with twisted girders and blackened bricks. The Red Star proclaimed: “Sevastopol is not merely a city. It is the glory of Russia, the pride of the Soviet Union. We have seen the capitulation of towns, of celebrated fortresses, of states. But Sevastopol is not surrendering.”
This second siege is hardly known outside Russia, but is central to their A detail from The Siege of Sevastopol, 1904, by the Russian painter Franz Roubaud story of the war. Again, the legendary “spirit of Sevastopol” was invoked as its citizens retreated into an underground city. In caverns used to store the region’s famous sparkling wine, children went to school while their parents assembled armaments.
As the situation became more desperate, many people wanted to pour away the champagne and use the bottles for petrol bombs. It was lucky they didn’t. As one girl who survived remembered: “When it became impossible to fetch water because of the firing, champagne was used to cook food, and boiled for tea.” When Sevastopol fell to the Axis powers that July, those few who survived were subject to forced labour, mass executions and deportation. The city was liberated in 1944, and – for the second time – rose from the ashes, its naval facilities expanded and modernised in the Cold War.
So much blood and treasure has been spent on Sevastopol, so many lives lost; the city is thick with monuments to valour and resistance. Even when Khrushchev “gifted” Crimea to Ukraine in 1954, Sevastopol remained a popular place for naval families to retire, a little, proud corner of Russia in a foreign field.
After the break-up of the Soviet Union, Russia retained its vital naval base there by agreement with Ukraine, until the increasingly Westward As the situation worsened, many wanted to pour away the champagne and use the bottles for petrol bombs orientation of Ukraine threatened it. When the crisis came in 2014, the acts of the pro-Russian “self defence” volunteers – though largely bloodless – were praised as the “third defence of Sevastopol”, and immediately placed in the glorious tradition of the Crimean and Second World wars.
All this is fascinating. Unfortunately, the general reader will be put off by the daunting length of this book and the intricacy of the military detail. “To explain is not to accommodate,” writes Melvin. Too true: the West hasn’t done enough to understand what Sevastopol means to Russia. But so focused is Melvin on the city’s military significance that he neglects to explain the domestic context of the 2014 crisis.
By conjuring up nostalgia and the threat of external enemies, Putin was able to consolidate his regime and silence dissent at a time of economic woe. It was a gamble. The Russian flag now flies proudly over Sevastopol once again; but at what price? To order this book from the Telegraph for £25, call 0844 871 1514