“On the way to Sevastopol, not too far from Simferopol,” begins what is probably the most famous Yiddish song from the Soviet Union, “Hey Dzhankoye.” The song, named after a collective farm near the Crimean town of Dzhankoy, celebrates the alleged victories of the Soviet collectivization drive of the 1920s and 1930s, which, according to the song, magically transformed Jewish merchants into farmers. “Who says that Jews can only trade?” asks the final verse of the song, “Just take a look at Dzhan.”
Now, as the new government in Kiev struggles to find its footing after the ouster of Ukraine’s pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, Russian troops areoccupying the Crimea in the name of protecting ethnic Russians and, as Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov suggested at the United Nations, combating anti-Semitic ultra-nationalists—an ironic twist, less than a century after the Kremlin contemplated the peninsula as the site of a potential Jewish homeland.
Jews have been living in the peninsula since ancient times, largely divided into two communities: the Krymchaks, who followed rabbinical Judaism, and the Karaites, who rejected the Oral Torah. Soon after Catherine the Great conquered the region from the Ottoman Empire in 1783, she opened it up to Jewish settlement, hoping that the Jews would serve as a bulwark against the Turks. Although Jews were later barred from living in the major cities, the peninsula promised open spaces and freedom to adventurous Jews seeking new frontiers and willing to take up a spade.
Tens of thousands of mostly young Jews settled in this part of “New Russia” over the next century. The Crimea became so identified with Russia’s Jewish history, in fact, that Jewish activists in St. Petersburg pointed to the long legacy of Crimean Jews as an argument for Jewish emancipation in the empire—after all, they claimed, Jews had been living there longer than Russians. (The 19th-century Karaite historian Avraam Firkovich even tried to argue that Karaites were living in the Crimea before the time of Jesus Christ, and he fabricated tombstone inscriptions to prove it.)