March 17, 2009 (the date of publication in Russian)

Yegor Kholmogorov


Sevastopol as the mirror of the Russian national myth


Russia's return to Crimea after a lengthy and dark night of the rule of khans, who used to capture thousands of Russians during their frequent forays, started in the late XVIII century. In 1783, Count Potemkin and Marshal Suvorov, fulfilling the order of Empress Catherine II, overtook the peninsula. Since that time, its territory had been populated by Russians who built new factories, shipyards, and cities.

Control over Crimea was more than an economic or military priority. This land was a symbol of paradise. In Russian odes of that time, Crimea was named "the kingdom exuding milk and honey". Prince Potemkin dreamed of building up the new capital city of Russia. He was convinced that Emperor Peter the Great's idea to build the capital city at the northern sea was motivated just by circumstances of his time. "Petersburg is the northern capital, Moscow is the central capital, and the austral Capital of my Mistress let be Kherson of Akhtiyar", he wrote. "Let the world see who of the Sovereigns has made the best choice".

Kherson of Akhtyar is not Kherson in the moth of Dnieper, founded in 1778, but the ancient Chersonese in the Akhtiyar Bay that was believed by that time's sailors to be the best in the world. On the place of the ancient Greek city, Potemkin decided to build the new capital, naming it Sevastopol – the City of the Sovereign.

In case the Empress and the Count lived longer or had better successors, fascinated with the priority of southern expansion, Russia's XIX-century history would be greatly different, and the geopolitical axis would shift southward. Longing for sunlight is typical for Russian psychology. The loss of Crimea, the ideal south of Russia, arouses almost physical pain Ц or, in fact, yearning for over the Russian paradise.

Prince Potemkin's efforts for integration of Crimea into Russia and its subsequent development aroused fury among Russia's adversaries. This fury gave birth to the slanderous rumor about decorative "Potemkin villages" which the Prince allegedly demonstrated to the Empress during her trip to Taurida. This defamation was followed with France's geopolitical intrigue. Instigated by Paris, Turkey launched a war against Russia that lasted over four years Ц and brought glory to the new-built city at the Black Sea.


The Russian Navy performed its first glorious deeds in the times of Peter the Great in the Baltic Sea. But in the next century, the fame of the "city of Admirals" was deserved by Sevastopol, the place where the greatest Russian admirals succeeded one after another. Their glorious list was started by Fyodor Ushakov, later esteemed by the Church as Saint Theodore. The great strategist and tactician, who did not lose a single ship in his battles, was one of the founding fathers of the Black Sea Fleet. He inculcated the taste of victory to the Navy, making Peter's principle "the impossible happens" a rule and a principle for the Russian Navy.

Ushakov’s victories at Fidonisi, Tendra, Kaliakra and the subsequent overtake of Corfu elevated him to the pedestal of most glorious admirals of the world. Slanderers tried to smear his glory as well. Some authors identified him as "Nelson's disciple", though by the time of the battle of Fidonisi, where Ushakov displayed the whole splendor of his tactic, Nelson was yet a captain of a frigate, performing his first naval victory only in 1797. Comparing the battles led by the two admirals Ц i.e. Ushakov's storm of the Corfu fortress from the sea, and Nelson's two-year siege of Malta, we see that the talents of the two are in fact incomparable.

The tragedy of Fyodor Ushakov, as well as the Navy itself, emerged from the disastrous neglect of the naval forces from Empress Catherine II successors. Paul I renamed Sevastopol into Akhtiyar, the glorious name being returned only in 1826. Alexander I, who ruled Russia with assistance from British spies, sometimes replaced by French and Polish agents, cynically confessed that his competence in naval affairs was not higher than a blind man's feeling of colors. In the times of Alexander, Ushakov was exiled. The same happened to his comrade-in-arms and rival, Dmitry Senyavin, who protected the Ionic isles and won the battle of Athos. The Ionic isles were conceded to Napoleon, and when Russia acquired the possibility to regain them after his defeat, Alexander instead attacked Warsaw, imposing the constitution that was hated by Russians. His appointees to the Black Sea Fleet were disastrous: first, General Chichagov, who believed that Russia did not need any Navy at all, and later Marquis de Traversay, who did not quite need Russia itself. Eventually, the Navy shrunk to the very "miserable condition" from which Alexander had sworn to save it.

Ushakov's heritage was kept alive by enthusiasts like Admiral Greig who had fought for the Ionic isles side by side with Senyavin; he revitalized the ports, built naval batteries and barracks. In 1832, when the Admiral "grew old and indifferent to everything", he was replaced by Mikhail P. Lazarev, the founder of Sevastopol in its new shape, an outstanding researcher, one of the discoverers of the Antarctic, and the hero of the battle of Navarin.

Sevastopol owed its new fame to Lazarev's tireless activity. Preparing for a victorious overtake of the Bosporus in case of a new war with the Turks, he played a crucial role in the subdual of the Caucasus, unleashing lodgments at the major directions of warfare with the highlanders. Weaponry and equipment was perfected; first steamships were built. Sevastopol was developing both as a city and a naval base: docks, batteries, fortifications, barracks, hospitals, water-pipes, libraries for officers. The ability of the city to endure a siege that lasted for several months during the Crimean War had been largely predetermined by the infrastructure that Lazarev built. The only risk he could not foresee was the illiteracy of the field commanders that caused a siege not from the sea but from the land.

Still, Lazarev's foremost heroic deed was expressed in selection of a specific kind of admirals, senior officers and soldiers for whom naval service was above all values, who regarded Sevastopol as their motherland and a national sanctity. A stern seaman, Lazarev never admitted any baculine discipline or squarebashing based on humiliation of a serviceman. His men embarrassed the land troops with an extraordinary combination of freedom of expression and exceptional fortitude, self-denial and initiative epitomized the best features of a Russian.


As we mentioned above, Lazarev and his disciples were not to blame for the fact that in 1854, with the onset of the Crimean War, Sevastopol became not a stronghold for a Russian offensive but a bulwark of defense from the greatly exceeding forces of the allied adversaries. In later years, this war was interpreted as a proof of weakness of the empire, "a disgusting failure of Czarism" relieved only by the heroic defense of Sevastopol.

In fact, the war resulted mostly from diplomatic mistakes. Nicholas I failed to prevent the emergence of the European coalition involving Britain, France, Sardinia, and a treacherous Austria that had its own dreams of "crushing Russian hegemony" in Europe.

The build-up of this coalition was hardly preventable, regarding the scale of hate and envy of European powers towards Russia. However, the coalition failed to deliver a serious blow in the Baltic or in the Pacific. The offensive was concentrated in the Black Sea. After the Russian troops defeated the Turks in the Caucasus, the next attack was going to target Sevastopol.

The city was not prepared to the failure of an inapt General Menshikov in the land battle, and did not expect the siege to start. What happened later cannot be described otherwise than a miracle. During September 1854, the city was surrounded with a fortification line that remained impregnable for almost a year. The courage of soldiers and citizens, the technical genius of General Totleben, the organizing talent of Admiral Kornilov and the inspiration of Admiral Nakhimov combined in making the city inexpugnable.

The death of the Emperor, its natural cause doubted until today, turned a nightmare for the defenders of the city. That was not life but survival, as Nikolai Leskov later wrote. Incessant bombarding caused what surgeon Nikolai Pirogov named "an epidemic of injury". Admiral Kornilov, who had saved the city from the unexpected assault, was killed. "Defend Sevastopol" were the last words that left his lips.

Several times, British and French commanders doubted whether to continue or to suspend the siege. However, sophisticated espionage and cozy connections with liberal circles St. Petersburg enabled them to find out that top government officials are inclined for a compromise. In fact, Sevastopol was betrayed by cowards and traitors like general Zhabokritsky who eased the defense of the Malakhov Mound on the decisive day of the new assault on the bleeding fortress. The history could make a different turn if Sevastopol was not forced to surrender. But nevertheless, the city remained undefeated.

Admiral Nakhimov, the symbol of the defenders' courage, Lazarev's disciple and the winner of the battle of Sinop, promised that he will never leave the city alive. He personified the soul of the defense and its banner. When the fall became inevitable, he calmly prepared to die. "You heard of this foul idea Ц to lay a bridge across the bay? Alive or dead, I'll not leave the place", he insisted. Being the only person from the top ranks who demonstratively wore epaulettes, he was hit by a sniper's bullet.

Since this eleven-month siege, Sevastopol has been regarded by Russians not just as a city but as an icon of Russian courage, tenacity and spirit, of the best qualities of the Russian nation, in its universal and historical dimension.

This is the destiny of our people Ц to withstand and not to leave the battlefield, up to the End of the Times, to the last phase of History Ц being aware of the doom, continuing to resist, and to overcome at the time when the History crosses its last bridge to eternity. All the heroes of Sevastopol will enter it, along with their kindred of other times Ц the Nakhimovs, the Kornilovs, the Vasilchikovs, the Khrulevs, as well as engineer Totleben, surgeon Pirogov, ordinary seaman Pyotr Koshka and nurse Daria Mikhailova.

In the siege of Sevastopol, Russia became a witness of its own national myth, of its true essence.

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