Skip to main content Skip to Search Box
Summary Article: Crimea
From The Columbia Encyclopedia

(krīmē'Ә), Rus. and Ukr. Krym, peninsula and republic (1991 est. pop. 2,363,000), c.10,000 sq mi (25,900 sq km), SE Europe, linked with the mainland by the Perekop Isthmus. The peninsula is bounded on the S and W by the Black Sea. The eastern tip of the Crimea is the Kerch peninsula, separated from the Taman peninsula (a projection of the mainland) by the Kerch Strait, which connects the Black Sea with the Sea of Azov. Simferopol is the capital of the Crimea. Other major cities include Sevastopol (politically independent of the rest of Crimea), Kerch, Feodosiya, Yalta, and Yevpatoriya. Part of Ukraine (then the Ukrainian SSR) from 1954, the peninsula was occupied and annexed by Russia in 2014, a move not generally recognized internationally. An autonomous republic in Ukraine, Crimea was made a Russian constituent republic; Sevastopol has been a politically independent city with the status of an oblast under Ukrainian and Russian administration.

Along the Crimea's northeast shore are a series of shallow, stagnant, but mineral-rich lagoons, known collectively as the Sivash or Putrid Sea, which are linked to the Sea of Azov by the Arabatskaya Strelka. The northern part of the Crimea is a semiarid steppe, drained by a few streams; this region supports fine wheat, corn, and barley crops. In the south rises the Crimean or Yaila Range (Yaltinskaya Yaila), with its extensive meadows and forests. The tallest peak rises to c.5,000 ft (1,520 m). In the Crimean Range is a major astronomical observatory. Protected by steep mountain slopes, the Black Sea littoral, once called the “Soviet Riviera,” has a subtropical climate and numerous resorts, including Crimea's Yalta. During the years of Soviet rule, the resorts and dachas of the Crimean coast served as the prime perquisites of the politically loyal. In this region are vineyards and fruit orchards; fishing, mining, and the production of essential oils are also important. Heavy industry in the Crimea includes plants producing machinery, chemicals, and building materials. The peninsula's territorial waters may have underwater petroleum and natural gas fields.

Ethnic Russians now constitute some two thirds of Crimea's population. Ukrainians, once more than a quarter of the inhabitants, now make up about a sixth. After 1989 there was a movement back to the area of native Tatars who had been exiled to Central Asia in the Stalin era, and they grew to form more than a sixth of the population, but they now constitute about a tenth. These population changes have occured mainly since Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea; tens of thousands of Ukrainians and Tatars have left for Ukraine, and a roughly comparable number of Russians have moved to Crimea. There are also smaller minorities of ethnic Armenians, Greeks, Bulgarians, and Germans.


Known in ancient times as Tauris, the peninsula was the home of the Cimmerian people, called the Tauri. Expelled from the steppe by the Scythians in the 7th cent. B.C., they founded (5th cent. B.C.) the kingdom of Cimmerian Bosporus, which later came under Greek influence. Ionian and Dorian Greeks began to colonize the coast in the 6th cent., and the peninsula became the major source of wheat for ancient Greece. In the 1st cent. B.C., the kingdom of Pontus began to rule the Greek part of the peninsula, which became a Roman protectorate in the 1st cent. A.D. During the next millennium the area was overrun by Ostrogoths, Huns, Khazars, Cumans, and in 1239, by the Mongols of the Golden Horde. Meanwhile, the southern shore was mostly under Byzantine control from the 6th to the 12th cent.

Trade relations were established (11th–13th cent.) with Kievan Rus, and in the 13th cent. Genoa founded prosperous coastal commercial settlements. After Timur's destruction of the Golden Horde, the Tatars established (1475) an independent khanate in N and central Crimea. In the late 15th cent. both the khanate and the southern coastal towns were conquered by the Ottoman Empire; the Turks called the peninsula Crimea. Although they became Turkish vassals, the Crimean Tatars were powerful rulers who became the scourge of Ukraine and Poland, exacted tribute from the Russian czars, and raided Moscow as late as 1572.

Russian armies first invaded the Crimea in 1736. Empress Catherine II forced Turkey to recognize the khanate's independence in 1774, and in 1783 she annexed it outright; the annexation was confirmed by the Treaty of Jassy (1792). Many Tatars, with their Muslim religion and Turkic language, emigrated to Turkey, while Russians, Ukrainians, Bulgarians, Germans, Armenians, and Greeks settled in the Crimea. During the Crimean War (1853–56), parts of the remaining Tatar population were resettled in the interior of Russia.

After the Bolshevik Revolution (1917) an independent Crimean republic was proclaimed; but the region was soon occupied by German forces and then became a refuge for the White Army. In 1921 a Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was created; Tatars then constituted about 25% of the population. During World War II, German invaders took the Crimea after an eight-month siege. Accused by the Soviet government of collaborating with the Germans, the Crimean Tatars were forcibly removed from their homeland after the war and resettled in distant parts of the Asian USSR. The republic itself was dissolved (1945) and made into a region of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic; in 1954 it was transferred to Ukraine. In 1989, Tatars began to return from their exile in Siberia and Central Asia.

In 1991, President Mikhail Gorbachev was vacationing in Crimea at the time of the August Coup. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia and Ukraine engaged in negotiations over the possession of Crimea and the disposition of the former Soviet fleet based in the Black Sea. In 1992 there was an abortive attempt by the Russian-dominated Crimean government to declare independence. Elected Crimea's first president in 1994, Yuri Meshkov called for the rejoining of the Crimea with Russia. In 1995, Crimea's government was placed under national control and Meshkov was ousted, but its assembly was retained. An accord the same year between Ukraine and Russia called for the division of the Black Sea fleet, and in 1997 it was agreed that Russia would be allowed to base its portion of the fleet there for 20 years. Tensions between Crimea's ethnic Russians and the Ukrainian national government continued to mark Crimean and Ukrainian politics; demands by repatriated Tatars for land were another source of tension.

In 2014, following the collapse of Ukrainian president Yanukovych's government, pro-Russian forces seized government buildings in Crimea, and in closed-door (and reportedly invalid) votes Crimea's prime minister was replaced and a referendum on joining Russia scheduled. Local “self-defense” forces in conjunction with thinly disguised (and later officially acknowledged) Russian military forces seized key facilities and surrounded Ukrainian bases in Crimea. The March referendum's reported turnout (80%) and result (99% in favor of joining Russia) was implausible given Crimea's political history and ethnic makeup. Russia quickly annexed the region, and the outnumbered Ukrainian military withdrew. Russia's seizure of the territory led to tensions with Crimea's Tatars. An International Criminal Court report in 2016 labeled the situation an “occupation.”

The Columbia Encyclopedia, © Columbia University Press 2018

Related Articles

Full text Article Crimea (Russian name: Krym)
The Macmillan Encyclopedia

A peninsula and autonomous republic in Ukraine, almost totally surrounded by the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov and connected to the...

Full text Article Crimea
Philip's Encyclopedia

(Krym) Peninsula in S Ukraine that extends into the Black Sea, W of the Azov Sea and joined to the mainland by the Perekop Isthmus. Simferopol...

Full text Article Sevastopol
The Columbia Encyclopedia

(sĭvăs'tӘpōl´´), formerly spelled Sebastopol, city (1989 pop. 355,000), on the Crimean peninsula and the Bay of Sevastopol, an inlet of the Black Se

See more from Credo