Wars and plagues led to the worst cataclysms in European history. Among other things, they caused massive losses of life. The ensuing demographic disasters led to the upheaval of political, economic, and societal orders. Wars might get pride of place in the history books, but plagues were recurring disasters that Europeans feared just as much. Anyone who has traveled in central or eastern Europe cannot help but notice the numerous Baroque plague columns located on the most prominent squares in city centers. These were erected as a reminder of past plagues and in the hope that they would never happen again. With the rise of modern medicine, plagues became less of an agent of change in Europe and more a thing of the past. As for wars, after 1945 they were something to be avoided at all costs, especially large ones. Unfortunately, the most unsavory parts of the past have a way of reoccurring again when least expected.
More than a memory – Genoese fortress of Caffa (Credit: Qypchak)
Dangerous Precedents – Plagued By The Past
Plagues and wars are two of the ugliest aspects of the past that most of Europe managed to sidestep for decades. This was largely by design. Modern medicine was thought to have relegated plagues to the dustbin of history. As for large wars, European nations spent nearly eighty years constructing and/or joining organizations that ensured their collective security. Foremost among these were the European Union and NATO. They have played an outsized role in minimizing conflicts in Europe. Both organizations have been dynamic, flexible, and opportunistic in their expansion. Boosted by the collapse of the Iron Curtain, the European Union and NATO assimilated much of Eastern Europe into their existing structures. This process spread peace and relative prosperity.
Unfortunately, something horrible happened on the way to a bright and shining future for a unified Europe. A modern plague and a large war returned with a vengeance. The return of war happened in a fringe area of Europe that few thought much about a decade ago. Back then, Crimea was an afterthought. For the last eight years it has been at the heart of a conflict between Ukrainian sovereignty and Russian aggression. That conflict threatens to worsen this year with unpredictable consequences for the future of Crimea. There has also been a plague, but not in the usual form. While Crimea’s suffering in the Covid-19 pandemic was no worse than the rest of Europe, its arrival made for a strange historical coincidence. Few realize that Crimea was once the setting for a unique combination of war and pandemic, the likes of which led to an unprecedented human catastrophe, one that is rarely talked about. More about that in a moment.
On the move – The Golden Horde fighting a battle in southern Russia
Under Siege – A Biological Weapon
Another plague arrived in Crimea eight years ago. This one had nothing to do with viruses, instead this plague was caused by Russian aggression. Like other plagues in European history, this one has also spread. First, to the Donbas region where separatists supported by the Russian military did their own land grab and then the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine that began on February 24, 2022. This plague was stopped, but not cured by supplying Ukrainian forces with the military means to defend their nation. The only cure for this plague is a military campaign where the Ukrainian Army manages to expel Russian military forces from Crimea. That is the only suitable result for those who believe in the sanctity of borders and the international rules-based order which has kept Europe largely peaceful since 1945. The plague of Russian aggression has already had major consequences for Europe, if not the world. That is only likely to grow more so in the months ahead.
When it comes to armed conflicts, Crimea is certainly not lacking in memorable moments. Many history buffs are familiar with the Crimean War and the Siege of Sevastopol during World War II. Both resulted in hundreds of thousands of casualties. Yet a battle that occurred in a much earlier conflict turned out to be much worse. It was not just lethal for the combatants involved, but also spread death across a wide swath of Europe as a whole. The Siege of Caffa is not well known in European history circles, or for that matter among regional history specialists. Students will scarcely find a reference to it in history textbooks. That is an unfortunate oversight because one of the most infamous and consequential events in European history occurred during the battle. The Siege of Caffa helped spread the Black Death into Europe and was the setting for one of the first biological weapons attacks in history. Though the battle and where it occurred are rarely mentioned, that does not make it any less consequential. Crimea was the scene for one of history’s fateful turning points, just as it might soon be again.
Balance of power – Crimea in the 15h century (Credit: Amitchell125)
Magnificence & Malevolence – The Golden Horde
The Golden Horde is a magnificent name. One that literally gleams as it materializes in the mind. Imagine hundreds of thousands of men on horseback thundering ever westward across the vast Eurasian steppe. All resistance falls before them. They pillage and plunder across millions of square kilometers before finally settling into what would be a centuries long occupation. Decadent ruling courts with exotic khans decide the fate of their subjects. The population they rule can hope for benevolent despotism at best, barbarism and cruelty at worst. For such an evocative name, the Golden Hordes name was paradoxical. They had a sordid side and were known for being merciless. This served them well in their lust for conquest.
The Golden Horde was the northwest arm of the Mongol Empire. While Mongols were the original force behind its creation, the Golden Horde’s subject populations were mainly Turkic. Their rule over Crimea began in the mid-13th century, but the Golden Horde was not above selling to foreigners the rights to areas if it suited their purposes. This was how the Italian city state of Genoa came to purchase the port city of Feodosia in 1266. They soon built it up into a viable economic entity. The only problem was that relations with the Golden Horde changed over time. When they did, this meant war and all the problems that came with it. In this case, it would be more than either side could have ever imagined.