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

The Sunday Telegraph - - BOOKS - by Mungo Melvin

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

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