Lucy Milne made two rather foolhardy bets last night over the sukiyaki and sushi.
She bet 50 bucks that Hillary Clinton will absolutely be the next president of the United States. Not just the Democratic nominee, but President. I took that bet, and have already decided to invest the proceeds in Sarah Happ lip scrub, which is a game changing product if ever there was one.
Then Lucy, clearly under the influence of too much of the mediocre chardonnay they serve at the Blossoming Sakura, bet another 50 bucks that if/when Russia annexed/took over/conquered the Crimean peninsula, money would change hands, i.e. that Russia would pay for the Crimea. In Lucy’s view, this would be a win-win situation: Russia would get its naval bases in Sevastopol back and Ukraine’s tottering economy would get a much-needed injection of cash.
I’m glad Lucy has so much disposable income – the oligarchs are clearly traveling like never than ever. I took that bet too, because you know what?
I’ve lived with a Russian for 20 years and I can tell you this: while ready at the drop of a hat to go out for milk and come back with a Cartier watch, no Russian is prepared to pay money for something they can get for free.
What is the Crimea and is it worth it?
I’ve been to the Crimea and yes, it’s worth it. It is Russia’s Florida: a lush, subtropical, balmy peninsula, washed on three sides by the Black Sea. Sochi was only invented as a copycat of Yalta, the elegant nineteenth century playground of the Romanovs. It was “gifted” to the Ukrainians by Khrushchev in the 1950s, and wound up in their hands after the break up of the Soviet Union. A sizeable Russian-speaking and Russian-centric population lives there today. There are also Russian naval bases there, which, as I say in Lenin Lives Next Door: Marriage, Martinis, and Mayhem in Moscow
is awkward for everyone concerned.
And then there are the Crimean Tatars.
One of my best friends is half Tatar and I’m here to tell you, don’t mess with the Tatars. No one who is Russian will listen to me, though. The hate-hate relationship goes back to Russia’s dark ages.
Here’s what I wrote about the Tatars in the forthcoming companion piece to Lenin Lives Next Door: Marriage, Martinis, and Mayhem in Moscow called Have Personality Disorder, Will Rule Russia:
In 1237 the Tatar Mongols led by Ghengis Khan invaded Rus. In short: foreigners: ever the scourge of what Soviet-era guidebooks call, “The peace-loving Russian people.” The Mongols were nomadic tribesmen, fierce fighters mounted on sturdy horses who swept up from Central Asia through Kievan Rus on their way to conquer the world, and they almost managed it: at its height, the Mongol empire stretched from China to Poland. From his capitals in Mongolia and present day Beijing, the Great Khan ruled over and exacted tribute from over 100 million people including the people of Rus, who remained under Tatar Mongol rule for the next two hundred and fifty years.
When you suffer from general backwardness, it’s nice to be able to blame your lack of achievement on external forces. Sort of like, “I could have gone to Harvard if my ninth grade Geometry teacher hadn’t hated me.” To this day the Tatar Mongols provide the Russians with a very handy excuse as to why their country lags behind Western Europe. Sympathetic historians argue that that Russia missed out on important Western European developments such as the Renaissance and the Reformation because it was effectively cut off from the rest of the world by the Tatar Mongols until well into the fifteenth century. “Cut off” the Russians may have been, but they also learned a lot from the Tatar Mongols. The rather less sympathetic historian Joel Carmichael in Russia: An Illustrated History argues that:
“It must be remembered that of the many peoples the Tatars conquered, the Russians were one of the few they could learn nothing from. Whereas they had borrowed many elements of civilization from others, notably the Chinese, Persians and Muslims, in Russia they found nothing at all to imitate.”
The Tatar Mongols concentrated on two things: military recruitment and tribute collection. In this, they found the majority of Russian princes cooperative to the point of collaboration. Alexander Nevsky, Prince of Novgorod and Vladimir who was later canonized, was a good example, maintaining excellent relations with Khanate while fending off what he perceived as a much more insidious threat from the Catholic aggressors to the West. In 1242, Nevsky won a decisive victory in the famous Battle on the Ice against the Teutonic Knights, which was immortalized in the 1939 film masterpiece, Alexander Nevsky. In the film, director Sergei Eisenstein overtly presents the Teutonic Knights as the Nazis whereas the Mongols are barely hinted at.
Russian Princes acted as tributes or tax collectors amongst their own people, and personally delivered the monies to the Khanate’s capital in Saray.
From the Tatar Mongols, then, the Russians learned the useful skill sets of bribery, extortion, kickbacks, the fine art of menacing tax collection, cronyism, and clan warfare. I would add that they might well have learned about flavor in their very bland food. Tatar words for finance, trade, warfare, housekeeping, and government were absorbed into the Russian language where they remain today, such as the word for “money,” den’gi, which is completely Tatar. It is possible that Russia’s rampant xenophobia dates back to the time of the Golden Horde, but the characteristic chiseled cheekbones and almond eyes of many European Russians attest to extensive intermarriage between the Mongols and the Russians — Carmichael estimates as many as 17% of Moscow’s seventeenth century upper class were of Tatar lineage.
The Crimean Tatars emphatically do not want to be part of Russia, and can you blame them? They would like to be part of the EU, and have issued this flag to drive home the message:
Watching the Russian news, it is clear to me that the Russians seem prepared to fight for the Crimea. This has not always gone well for them. The last time they did, all the good stuff went to the British: cardigan sweaters, balaclava helmets (which have come back to bite Russia recently in the form of Pussy Riot) and Florence Nightingale.
But pay money?
Readers, are you watching events in Ukraine unfold with interest? Where do you think the Crimea will end up? Do you know any Tatars? Weigh in by hitting the comment button below!
For more information on the Crimean War, there is no better guide than Professor Orlando Figes, author of The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia
and Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia. His authoritative book, The Crimean War: A History
is a magnificent study of the conflict. I highly recommend it!
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