Crimea – Крим in Ukrainian and Крым in Russian – is a peninsula extending into the Black Sea and attached to the mainland of Ukraine by only a narrow strip of land (the Isthmus of Perekop). This tenuous connection might be a metaphor for the uneasy union between Crimea and the rest of Ukraine that followed independence in 1991.

Although Crimea had been the site of many ancient cultures – Greek, Scythian, Roman, Goth, Hun, Mongol and Karaim – the two lasting influences have been Tatar and Russian. In 1475 the peninsula was overrun by the Ottoman Empire which controlled the area in cooperation with local Tatar princes until a 1777 victory by Russia over the Ottomans. In 1783, Russia formally annexed Crimea and its southern coast became a seaside resort for Russian nobility while the rest remained largely populated by Tatars. After the creation of the Soviet Union, Crimea remained part of the Russian S.S.R. until 1954 when Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev presented it to the Ukrainian S.S.R. in commemoration of 300 years of Russian-Ukrainian unity. This gesture held little meaning until after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and Ukraine's declaration of independence that soon followed.

After several years of negotiations, Crimea became an "Autonomous Republic" within the nation of Ukraine. Crimea has its own constitution, government and legislature and certain other rights that keep it from being just another region (oblast) of Ukraine. Another touchy area of concern was the existence of the Soviet Black Sea naval fleet in the port of Sevastopol. After negotiations, Russia retained the right to maintain a naval fleet in Sevastopol, even though the city is now part of Ukraine. The formerly secret Soviet nuclear submarine base in Balaklava is now open to the public as a museum.

Today, Crimea is primarily ethnic Russian, with a growing population of Tatars. In 1944, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin accused the Tatars of collaborating with the Nazis and deported them en masse to central Asia. After Ukrainian independence in 1991, descendants of the deported Tatars were granted the right to return and approximately 250,000 have, despite lack of adequate housing and resistance from the ethnic Russian population. On a number of occasions, tensions between ethnic Russians and Tatars have erupted in violence. (For more on the Tatars, and the Crimean Karaim, see the Bakhchisaray page.)

Although now part of Ukraine, many people in Crimea still view themselves as Russian and are wary of efforts to further integrate the region into the rest of the country. Most understand some of the Ukrainian language, but many do not speak it, do not want to, and are scornful of government requirements that Ukrainian be taught in all schools and used for most official business. Thus, Crimea faces two major challenges: integrating the returning Tatars into Crimean society and integrating Crimea into the rest of Ukraine.

While the political future of Crimea is uncertain, there is no doubt that the peninsula is one of the most beautiful regions in the world. The rugged Crimean Mountains reach within miles of the Black Sea, creating spectacular landscapes and coastlines. It is no surprise that Crimea – always a favorite of Russian nobility and Soviet leaders – is fast becoming a popular destination for more ordinary tourists as well.

The photos above offer some highlights from Crimea. For more detail on a particular area, select one of the several Crimea pages from the menu above or the drop-down list below.