The stage is littered with cameo appearances, from 6th-century Greeks who built Chersoneses (now Khersones) to the 15th-century Genoese merchants behind the impressive Sudak fortress, as well as Cimmerians, Scythians, Sarmatians and Jews. However, the central theme of Crimean history revolves around the struggle between the Turkish and Slavic peoples for control of the peninsula.
This began in 1240, when Mongols conquered Kyivan Rus, including Crimea. Two centuries later, control of the peninsula passed to their descendants, the Tatars, who held it for centuries. The Crimean Khanate became an independent political entity under Haci Giray in 1428, and after a 1475 invasion, was a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire.
Although advanced in culture and the arts, its main economic activity was trading in slaves, captured during raids into Russian, Ukrainian or Polish territory. Some commentators even believe this now thoroughly outdated image of the Crimean Tatar as a slave trader contributes towards prejudiced attitudes to today’s population.
While a Turkish vassal state, Crimea enjoyed much autonomy. The same was not true when the Russians arrived in 1783 and began a campaign of ‘revenge’. Most of the peninsula’s four to five million Tatars fled to Turkey, while Russians, Ukrainians, Bulgarians and even some Germans were invited to resettle Crimea.
With close ties to the monarchy, Crimea was one of the last White bastions during the Russian revolution, holding out till November 1920. It was occupied by German troops for three years during WWII and lost nearly half its population. In the war’s aftermath, Stalin deported all remaining Crimean Tatars.
In 1954 Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, a self-styled Ukrainian, created the Autonomous Crimean Soviet Socialist Republic and transferred legislative control to the Ukrainian SSR. Hence, despite the name, the peninsula is really only semi-independent.
When the USSR disintegrated, Russia and Ukraine wrestled over the region. They came to a temporary compromise over Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, allowing it to stay in Crimea until 2017. In 2007 Ukraine told Russia there was no chance of an extension on that lease.
The Crimean parliament is pro-Russian. It has often tried to make Russian the official language and to gain economic independence. It wasn’t particularly chuffed by the Orange Revolution, and joint naval exercises with NATO off the Feodosiyan coast in 2006 brought huge anti-Western protests.
Russian-backed, so-called ‘Cossacks’ (vigilantes) have launched attacks on returned Crimean Tatars in the past few years, too, and tensions remain over land rights.