This page gives a very brief summary of a long and complex subject! There's a list of useful books and websites at the end if you want to read more.
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The Ancient World
Crimea was known in ancient times as Tauris (Tavrida in Russian), home to the tribes who took Iphigenia prisoner in Euripides' play Iphigenia in Tauris. The Tauric tribes were absorbed first by Cimmerian and then Scythian invaders, who were later pushed back from the coast by Greek colonists in the 6th century BC.
Eastern Crimea became the centre of the Greek Bosporan kingdom, with Panticapaeum (today the town of Kerch) as its capital, and a major ports at Theodosia (now Feodosia). In the west, Greek colonists from Heracleia founded the cities of Khersoness (outside present-day Sevastopol) and Kerkinitida (now Yevpatoria). The Greeks never succeeded in taking over the whole peninsula, and had to defend themselves against frequent attacks by the Scythians and then by the even more warlike Sarmatians.(also known as the Alans). Nevertheless, the peninsula became the major source of wheat for ancient Greece.
Little remains to link Yalta with the Greeks apart from the town's name. The legend is that Greek sailors were blown off course at night on the Black sea, and completely lost their way in sea mists. At dawn the mist lifted and when the lookout caught sight of the green Crimean coast he shouted `Yalos! Yalos!' (`shore, shore') . They named the place where they landed Yalta.
Many Greeks remained in Crimea after the Bosporan kingdom fell to the Huns and the Goths, and Khersoness became part of the Byzantine Empire. In 965 AD there were 16,000 Crimean Greeks in the joint Byzantine and Kievan Rus army which invaded Bulgaria. Orthodox monasteries continued to function, with strong links with the monasteries on Mount Athos in northern Greece.
The Byzantine Empire
The Romans arrived in Crimea in the 1st century AD and established protectorates and naval bases at Khersoness and in the Bosporan kingdom in the east of the peninsula. Roman legionaries were also stationed at fortresses built in strategic locations along the coast, such as the Ai-Todor promontory near Yalta. They lost their Bosporan acquisitions to the Goths in the 4th century, but Khersoness became part of the Byzantine empire and remained under the control of Constantinople until the 13th century, when it was overrun by part of Chingiz Khan's Golden Horde.
The medieval world
For centuries Crimea had been the subject of a tug of war between the Byzantine and Khazar empires, Kievan Rus (the fore-runner of modern Russia) and nomadic tribes such as the Cumans and the Kypchaks. Then in 1223 a new force appeared on the scene. Chingiz Khan's Golden Horde entered Crimea, sweeping all before it. Originating in current day Mongolia, the Tatars were a collection of nomadic tribes who had united under Chingiz Khan's banner, and gathered Turkic people to swell their army as they rode and marched across Central Asia and into Eastern Europe. Renowned for his ruthlessness, the Great Khan's success also lay in his ability to impose discipline and order in place of old tribal rivalries. He introduced laws forbidding, among other things, blood feuds, theft, the bearing of false witness, sorcery, disobedience of a royal command, and bathing in running water. The last was a reflection of the Tatars' animist belief system. They worshipped Mongke Koko Tengre, `The Eternal Blue Sky', the almighty spirit controlling the forces of good and evil, and believed that powerful spirits lived in fire, running water and the wind.
Crimea became part of the huge Tatar empire, stretching from China in the east to beyond Kyiv and Moscow in the west. Because of its sheer size, it was impossible for Chingiz Khan to govern his empire from Mongolia, and the Crimean Khans enjoyed a considerable amount of autonomy. Their first Crimean capital was at Qirim (now Stary Krym), and remained there until the 15th century when it moved to Bakhchisarai. It is during the Tatar period that the peninsula's old name of Tavrida fell gradually into disuse, to be replaced by the name Krym, derived from the name of the Tatar capital.
The breadth of the Tatar empire, and the power of the great Khan meant that for a while merchants and other travellers under his protection could journey east and west in comparative safety. The Tatars concluded trading agreements with the Genoese and the Venetians and Sudak and Kaffa (Feodosia) prospered in spite of the taxes levied on them. Marco Polo landed at Sudak on his way to the court of Kublai Khan in 1275.
Like all great empires, the Tatar empire was influenced by the cultures it encountered during its expansion. In 1262 the Egyptian Mamluk Sultan Baybars, who had been born in Qirim, wrote to one of the Tatar Khans suggesting that the Tatars should convert to Islam. The oldest mosque in Crimea still stands in Stary Krim, built in1314 by Tatar Khan Uzbek.
The Ottoman Empire
In 1475 the Ottoman Turks overran Crimea, taking the Crimean Khan Mengli Girei prisoner at Kaffa and releasing him to rule Crimea as their representative. Thereafter the Crimean Khans were appointed by Constantinople, although they still had considerable autonomy in day to day matters. Over the next three hundred years the Tatars remained the dominant force in Crimea, and a thorn in the side of the developing Russian empire. The Tatar Khans began building the great palace which stands at Bakhchisarai in the 15th century.
The 18th and 19th Centuries
In the 18th century there was still a sizeable Greek population in Crimea, but in 1778, only a few years before Catherine the Great finally took Crimea from the Ottoman Empire, 18,000 Crimean Greeks, along with other christians tired of living under Tatar rule successfully petitioned the empress for permission to move to Russia and emigrated to the shores of the sea of Asov, where they founded the city of Mariupol.
Fresh Greek settlers arrived soon afterwards, however, when the empress gave them land in Crimea in recognition of their services in helping Russia against the Ottoman Empire. Known as the `archipelago Greeks' because they came mainly from the Greek islands, they also provided soldiers for the Balaklava battalion which later reinforced Russian authority in the area. Some of the officers of this Greek regiment built substantial estates at Oreanda and Livadia near Yalta.
Catherine the Great took Crimea from the Ottoman Turks in 1783 and also established protectorship over Georgia, giving Russia access to the Black Sea coast from two sides. In 1787 the 58 year old empress travelled from St Petersburg to Crimea, with a retinue of 2,300 people. She was met by 12,000 Tatar horsemen in ceremonial dress who escorted her to the Khan's Palace at Bakhchisarai. A stone plaque was placed there to commemorate the occasion and can still be seen today. From there she travelled to Sevastopol, where she met Prince Potemkin, her governor-general (later rewarded with the title Prince of Tavrida) and saw the Black Sea fleet at anchor. She then travelled on to Akh-Mechet (present-day Simferopol), Stariy Krim and Feodosia. Catherine was too shrewd a politician to be indulging in tourism, although her letters suggest that she enjoyed much of the journey. She was here to make a point - that Crimea was now part of the great Russian empire. From the Khan's Palace she wrote: "This acquisition means an end to fear of the Tatars...This thought gives me great consolation, and I lie down to sleep today, having seen with my own eyes, that far from causing harm, it has been of the greatest advantage to my empire".
But soon afterwards the Ottoman Empire again declared war on Russia, and it took four years before the Turks capitulated after a series of naval defeats at the hands of the Black Sea fleet, and accepted the reality of Crimea's transfer from the Ottoman to the Russian empire.
Catherine then set about consolidating her new acquisition. She realised that the only way that Russia would hold on to Crimea in the long term was to change the population balance in favour of those sympathetic to the Russian cause. Not only Russians, but also substantial numbers of Ukrainians, Bulgarians, Armenians, and Germans were encouraged by Catherine to settle in Crimea, a process which continued into the 19th century. Some Tatars emigrated to Turkey, although most stayed. By 1863, the immigrants outnumbered the Tatar population.
The Crimean War
The decline of the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century led to a complex international power struggle between the major states of europe.
The ostensible cause of the Crimean War was a squabble over custodianship of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, then under Ottoman control. In 1852 the French persuaded the Turks to take the church away from the Greek Orthodox Church and place it in the hands of the Roman Catholic Church. Nikolai I of Russia, officially protector of the Orthodox population under Ottoman rule as a result of a treaty made under Catherine the Great, demanded that the right be restored to the Orthodox. When the Turks refused, he ordered Russian troups into Moldavia, then part of the Ottoman empire.
What led Britain and France to come to the Turkish Sultan's aid was not a pious desire to protect the rights of the Catholic Church, but rather the fear that, left unchecked, the Russians would now have an excuse to destroy the ailing Ottoman empire and gain control of the passage from the Black Sea into the Mediterranean. In 1854 a large British and French expeditionary force landed at Balaklava, near Sevastopol, the home of the Russian Black Sea fleet, which had inflicted a major defeat on the Turkish fleet soon after hostilities began. The Russians scuttled their fleet in the harbour mouth at Sevastopol to block the entrance, and a lengthy siege began. Battles were fought at various points around the western Crimean coast, including Balaklava, scene of the disastrous charge of the Light Brigade, and Inkerman.
The war was essentially a stalemate, with terrible casualties on both sides. Many more soldiers died of disease than died in battle. Tsar Nikolai I died in 1855, and his successor, Alexander II realised he could not realistically continue the war in the face of growing social discontent at home. The Treaty of Paris ended the war in 1856.
Development of Yalta
In 1825, the Oreanda Estate near Yalta had been bought by the crown as a summer residence for Alexander I. His successor, Nikolai I built a palace there and approved a development plan for the newly designated district of Yalta. The palace was later destroyed by fire but the park remains. In1860, after the end of the Crimean War the Livadia Estate was bought for Alexander II and construction of the magnificent Livadia Palace began. This period also saw the building of other palaces such as Massandra and Alupka. The presence of the royal families attracted aristocrats and rich merchants, bringing investment and prosperity to Yalta and the surrounding area, and turning it into imperial Russia's most fashionable resort.
The nineteenth century saw the introduction of more modern farming methods, including wine-growing influenced by the presence of small German farming communities, and the building of the first vineyards by Russian Counts Golitsyn and Vorontsov. The latter was also responsible for major road-building schemes, such as the road between Yalta and Simferopol.
The 20th century
The 1st World War was disastrous for the last Tsar Nikolai II. Crimea and part of Ukraine were taken by German forces, and heavy losses on the battlefield, combined with food and ammunition shortages, demoralized the Russian army to the point of mutiny. The October 1917 Revolution was as much a response to the war as to general social conditions. Crimea was the scene of fierce fighting between Bolshevik forces and anti-revolutionary White Russian soldiers.
In 1921 Crimea was established as an autonomous Republic for the Crimean Tatars within the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist republic. However, this did not prevent theTatars from suffering severely during Stalin's purges of the nineteen thirties. Another group to suffer were the Greeks, many of whom lost their farms during collectivisation. Greek schools were closed and Greek literature destroyed, as they were labelled as counter-revolutionary because of their tradition of free enterprise, their links with capitalist Greece, and their independent culture.
The 2nd World War brought the return of German forces, who completely occupied the republic after the fall of Sevastopol in 1942, and held it until the spring of 1944. In 1945 British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Russian Secretary-General Joseph Stalin chose the Livadia Palace near Yalta as the venue for what became known as the Yalta Conference. The "big three" effectively set the stage for the cold war years which followed, but also began the discussions which led to the formation of the United Nations.
After the end of the war Crimea lost its status as an autonomous republic because of collaboration by significant numbers of Crimean Tatars with the occupying German forces, as a result of the previous mistreatment of Tatars by the Soviet regime. In retribution, in spite of the fact that some 50,000 Tatars had fought on all fronts in the Soviet armed forces, Stalin officially abolished the Crimean Tatars as a nation, and organised the mass deportation of the entire Tatar population - some 220,000 people - to Central Asia, along with 70,000 Crimean Greeks. It was not until 1956, when USSR Premier Nikita Khruschev denounced the Tatar deportation in his speech attacking Stalin's legacy, that there was any official recognition of the terrible wrong done to the Tatar people and others. It took until the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, for Tatar families and members of other deported groups to be allowed to return to Crimea in significant numbers.
During the Soviet era Crimea prospered as a tourist destination, and new sanatoria were built for the workers of the growing industrial state. Holiday makers from all over the Soviet Union relaxed on its beaches, and it became a favorite for tourists from East Germany. The infrastructure improved and manufacturing developed around the ports at Kerch and Sevastopol, and also in the capital, Simferopol. The Russian and Ukrainian populations more than doubled during this period: by 1989, there were 1.6 million Russians and 626,000 Ukrainians living in Crimea.
A Ukrainian by birth, Nikita Khruschev had returned Crimea to the Ukrainian SSR in 1954. Thirty-seven years later, in 1991, after the dissolution of the USSR, Ukraine declared its independence . Because of the majority of Russian-speakers in Crimea, there was a move to return the region to Russia, but this was not successful and Crimea is today an Autonomous Republic within Ukraine.