My colleagues and I at Culture on the Edge have argued that historical narratives, labels of identification, and sociological analysis often reflect the interests and assumptions of those producing the assertions rather than simple description. When our assertions focus on furniture advertising, analysis of the Nones or interpretations of frescoes, such assertions may seem benign. How do these analytical approaches operate when facing an international crisis such as recent events in Ukraine?
The conflict in Ukraine, particularly concerning the Crimean peninsula, has generated various claims, drawing on historical narratives and ethnic identifications. While Barack Obama emphasizes a united Ukraine and its “sovereignty and territorial integrity,” he selects a particular point in time, the very recent past, for determining what counts as “territorial integrity.” As several news sources have highlighted, Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula in 1783 (before the United States had annexed much of its current territory), and Stalin only made the peninsula a part of Ukraine’s administrative control in 1954.
A different assertion emphasizes the majority Russian-speaking population of Crimea, many of them Russian citizens, whose interests Moscow says that it wishes to protect. Yet, the ethnicity question raises other claims from the Tatars, who trace their lineage to the people in Crimea before Russia’s annexation in 1783. In part through repression during the Soviet era and their forced removal from Crimea by Stalin in 1944, the Tatars stake a claim to the future of the region as an oppressed indigenous community, despite comprising around twelve percent of the population.
These competing claims emphasize different details and rationales that reflect the interests of the narrators rather than a simple description of historical events. As each narrator justifies a particular position or desired outcome, how can academic analysis adjudicate whose claim to Crimea is strongest when we recognize that all historical claims are constructed narratives? What criteria can we use to judge the various assertions?
Such well-intentioned questions miss the dynamic of geo-politics. These disputes are not resolved based on a final assertion of historical truth or moral claims. Their resolution almost always hinges on power. Those who exert their power most successfully will be the ones who gain control, and whose preferred narrative becomes dominant. Adjudicating the contested claims leaves scholarship in the proverbial ivory tower. Highlighting the interests informing the contested claims, both during the crisis and when the victors work to cement their narrative as historical truth afterwards, enables scholars to use their powers of analysis and communication to challenge the assertions of those in power and complicate the various narratives.
Map by Directorate of Intelligence, CIA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons