The Czars Return to Crimea

My quest to unearth my Russian roots brings me regularly to Crimea, where my ancestors cultivated a vineyard along the spectacular southern coast for generations until the 1917 Revolution.

This resort was the summer playground of the czar and the aristocracy during the last gilded decades of the empire. In 1954, the Kremlin offered Crimea as a gift to what eventually became an independent Ukraine, and then seized it back in 2014.

Squinting past the Soviet-era concrete excesses, one can sense what drew the elite here: the glittering sea, the mountain air mingling with the perfume of cedar trees and pink mimosa.

On my last visit, I had unexpected company in trying to uncover traces of that bygone era: the Crimean viceroys running the place under President Vladimir V. Putin are now presenting themselves as the heirs to that history.

It is not the first such attempt. Mr. Putin has been tinkering in recent years with restoring the three pillars of czarist rule as the basis for his own: orthodoxy, autocracy and nationalism. More specifically, in trying to destabilize Ukraine, he invoked “Novorossiya,” a czarist name for much of southern Ukraine. Most Ukrainians weren’t interested, and the effort fell flat.

But Crimea is considered more fertile ground. Many locals harbor a deep pride in their historical ties with Russia, citing them to counter Western rejection of the annexation. Breathing life into the czarist past serves “to legalize by historical arguments that Crimea is part of Russia,” said Andrei Zubov, a history professor in Moscow.

Perhaps more surprisingly, the history the rulers are highlighting is a pre-revolutionary era of reformist zeal.

I discovered this recently while visiting the Yalta courthouse. My quarry was Vladimir Karlovich Vinberg, my great-great grandfather, a reformist in the Imperial Duma, or parliament, and an active figure in running both Crimea and Yalta. He once worked in the large white building.

As I was studying a historical exhibition about the courthouse, a tall, blond man in a dark suit swept up the stairs with an entourage. Mikhail Sheremet, the first deputy prime minister of Crimea, had come to see the exhibition, too. A judge abruptly escorted me from the building.

Then I was quickly summoned back. Mr. Sheremet wanted to meet me. With a video camera rolling, he explained that he was running for the Duma and that he was making a short film about my ancestor. “How come?” I asked, astounded.

It seems that Crimea’s leaders are pulling prominent reformers from their graves, each choosing one imperial representative as a kind of election mascot. Mr. Sheremet picked my ancestor. In fact, posters of my great-great grandfather were raised around Yalta that very day, he told me.

And so it was that after a two-year search for signs of my relatives, I found both my great-great grandfather and his son-in-law, Prince Vladimir Andreyevich Obolensky, another Duma deputy, staring at me from posters in Moskovskaya Street, Yalta’s lush central artery. At the bottom was the logo of United Russia, the ruling party, as well as the slogan #Russiaisours, a play on the “Crimea is ours” battle cry during the 2014 annexation.

“Any pages of history linked to Russia are seen as their own,” said Aleksei Makarkin, an analyst at the Center for Political Technologies in Moscow.

As a result, politicians are eager to present themselves as “the successors of Russia’s glorious expansion and Russia’s glorious development in the 19th century,” said Nikolai V. Petrov, a Moscow political analyst.

Still, it seems like an odd fit.

After all, Vinberg and Obolensky worked to modernize the Russian empire by promoting civil liberties and trying to improve the conditions of workers and minorities, particularly the Crimean Tatars.

In Crimea, Vinberg built schools, hospitals and worker housing. He petitioned for representative government in 1881, earning seven years in exile and the pejorative nickname “queen bee” of the liberals from the czar’s secret police, documents show.

Mr. Sheremet’s track record looks rather different. A former apprentice lathe operator, he commanded the so-called self-defense units that helped Russian special forces seize Crimea. This landed him on the European Union’s sanctions list. After the annexation, the units provided the shock troops used to confiscate property and suppress critics of the annexation, including the Tatars.

The historical link promoted by the posters has led to some puzzled discussions. Lyubov Gribkova, a member of the Yalta City Council, applauded the highlighting of Crimea’s Russian heritage, a taboo during her Soviet childhood, saying that Mr. Sheremet was a local hero for his instrumental role in bringing Russian rule. Yet she could not identify a real connection between the two men. “At that time people had more knowledge in human relations than today,” she said.

My Russian family abroad was appalled. “They use the image of very respectable people to pretend that they themselves are very respectable,” said Prince Alexis Obolensky, an artist and grandson of the prince on the posters, in a telephone interview from France.

Mr. Sheremet rejected criticism that old reformers were being exploited for political goals. “For me, it’s not a strategy,” he told me later. “For me it’s just about a historical personality who made a great contribution to the development of our peninsula.”

For my part, when Mr. Sheremet’s office later called to ask me to appear in a Vinberg video, I demurred.

Eva Sohlman is researching a book on her Russian family.

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