“The separation of the Crimea from the Russian empire . . . is equivalent to cutting one of her arteries.”
Karl Koch, The Crimea and Odessa (1855)
The Russo-Ukrainian war is being fought over what was once called Little Tartary. Until the end of the eighteenth century, the north shore of the Black Sea, from the mouth of the Danube to the Caucasus, was a barren steppe inhabited by nomadic Tartars. These Tartars were organized into hordes that generally acknowledged the supremacy of the Tartars of Crimea, who themselves generally acknowledged the supremacy of the Ottomans in Constantinople. The primacy of the Crimean Tartars was largely owing to a range of low mountains that wring rain from the atmosphere, and to the streams that run down from these mountains to sustain a more settled population.
The Russian Empire took possession of the steppes of Little Tartary at about the same time as we Americans were winning our independence and ratifying our Constitution. This was the result of the decay of Ottoman power and Russia’s desire to export its agricultural surplus through ports on the Black Sea. About twenty years after the Russian Empire took possession of Little Tartary, we Americans took possession of the Louisiana Purchase, thereby acquiring our own steppe in the Great Plains, our own nomads in the tribes of Sioux, Cheyenne and Comanche, and our own port to export agricultural surplus at New Orleans.
The steppes of Little Tartary were at that time similar to what Stephen Long would soon call The Great American Desert, although the Tartars fed on domesticated flocks and herds rather than wild game, and travelled in wagons rather than on foot (or more recently horseback). It was to hide the fact that Little Tartary was a desert that Grigory Potemkin built his ersatz and eponymous “Potemkin villages” to reassure the Empress, Catherine the Great, when she inspected her new southern domain in 1787.
For some years after, Little Tartary was known to the world as New Russia. The name of Ukraine (which means “border”) was at that time confined to a region farther north on the Dnieper River, in the vicinity to Kiev. on this 1840 map, Ukraine is bordered with blue and New Russia with brown,
All of this is in the way of an introduction to some interesting excerpts from the travel diary* of Karl Koch, a German botanist who made a tour of what had been Little Tartary, and then later New Russia, in 1844. This was about sixty years after the Russian occupation, so these excerpts can be compared with descriptions of the American Great Plains in the 1880s.
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The first excerpt notes the disappearance of of the native Tartars, who were like the American Indians unwilling to give up a nomadic life, and who therefore withdrew into what were still then desolate regions.
“Most of the Tartars, however, quitted the country after the occupation of the land by the Russians in the year 1783, and sought refuge partly among the Circassians . . . and partly among their countrymen in Bessarabia. Scarcely one third of the inhabitants remained, and, in spite of the efforts on the part of Russia, they have only partly relinquished their wandering lives. If the advantages which accrue to husbandry are pointed out to these people, they usually answer, ‘My father led a nomadic life and was happy; I will therefore do the same;’ or, ‘As God has given understanding to the Franks [Europeans], and the plow to the Russians, and the chequer to the Armenians, he has given us the wagon.’” (pp. 50-51)
As on the Great Plains of North America, a large and heterogeneous immigration followed this depopulation.
“The Russian government has done all in its power, since the territory has been included within its jurisdiction, to repopulate the deserted district, and the Emperor presented the land to different nobles of his kingdom, on condition that they should plant colonies upon their new possessions. The members of various sects were settled on the barren districts of the Taurian continent [Crimean Peninsula] and some Germans, chiefly Anabaptists and Roman Catholics, took possession of the better part of the land: Greeks and Armenians also found a ready reception, and latterly the Jews have been settled here, though not to the advantage of the country. By this means Little Tartary has once more obtained a population which might in some degree approach in numbers that of the second half of the last century.”
The new society of New Russia was composed of Russian officials, Levantine merchants, German craftsmen and farmers, Russian and Polish serfs, and Tartar vagabonds.
“In each of the towns, and consequently here also, all the officials, with few exceptions, are Russians; but the wealthy merchants are Greeks and Armenians, sometimes Italians: the poorer, on the other hand, are Jews, and the tradesmen are generally Germans; here and there some gypsies may also be seen. The Tartars, the original inhabitants of the Crimea . . . with few exceptions . . . wander about as long as they are able with their flocks of sheep and cattle, and pass the winter in wretched villages” (pp. 39-40)
As Koch said, Jews were generally merchants in a small way, and so dealt more directly with the peasants. Owing to Jewish particularism, these dealings were often sharp and unscrupulous, and there was everywhere an intense dislike and mistrust of the Jews.
“Though the complaints against the Jews in Prussia and Germany are frequently unjust, it is unfortunately true that the descendants of Abraham are the curse of Russian Poland and the southern provinces of the empire. Until this injurious element of society is effectually rooted out, all the efforts of government to raise these provinces will be fruitless . . . . It is the rarest instance when Jewish families there support themselves by the work of their hands and by industrious habits; for, with few praiseworthy exceptions, they shun labor as they would fire, and fix themselves like bloodsuckers upon the remaining better portion of the inhabitants, in order, by the industry of these last, to maintain themselves in an easier manner. They generally carry on a profitable trade with all kinds of small ware, and serve as intermediate agents to the common people, who, in Poland and Russia, as almost everywhere else, are still in a most miserable condition. The traffic, however, with the poor and ignorant peasantry is not maintained on an honorable footing, for every means is employed by the Jews to derive as much advantage as possible, and cheating is not uncommon. As the Jew alone has ready money, it is to him that the peasantry apply whenever they require it, and they must then either pay an increasing rate of interest, which at length becomes exorbitant, or sacrifice the revenue they derive from their corn or cattle for several years to come. In addition to this the Jews generally keep the brandy-shops, thereby directly contributing to the demoralization of the people.” (pp. 57-59)
By 1844 Odessa might well have been called Russia’s New Orleans. Both cities were established in the late eighteenth century and both served as the outlet of a vast agricultural hinterland. Both cities were also much more cosmopolitan than empires they served
“Odessa is a Russian trading city, but it has so little of the Russian stamp about it, that it might be supposed to belong to any other nation. The number of actual Russian inhabitants bears no comparison with the Greeks, Italians, and Germans. The only Russians are the military population and host of officials; but even among these last many are not Russians, but principally French and Germans . . . . Odessa is in possession of something from all parts of Europe. Externally, both in public life and in the opera and public buildings, it resembles a city in the south of Europe, and has a marked Italian character. The better kind of shops are in imitation of the French, but with less refinement and elegance, although their owners are Frenchmen, who chiefly deal in articles of luxury. The artisans, as almost everywhere in Russia, are Germans, and the markets are supplied principally with vegetables by the German gardeners from the neighboring colonies . . . .” (pp. 255-256).
*Karl Koch (1809-1879), The Crimea and Odessa: Journal of a Tour (London: J. Murray, 1855)