Why is Ukraine’s Snake Island called Snake Island? The 0.4-mile stretch of land with enormous power in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine has a fascinating backstory.

Russia announced it was withdrawing forces from Ukraine’s Snake Island on Thursday, 30 June, which the Ukrainian army hailed as a victory.

Over the centuries, numerous countries have disputed ownership of the tiny island due to its strategic position in the Black Sea.

Now belonging to Ukraine, why is Snake Island called that and how did it get its name? Where are all the snakes? Let’s explore the island’s sidewinding history.

Why is Snake Island in Ukraine called Snake Island?

There are a few theories as to why Ukraine’s Snake Island is called that. The Greeks used to call the island Leuke and Romans Alba, both words meaning ‘white’, which is believed to refer to the white marble formations found on the island.

But according to Greek author Dionysius Periegetes, who is believed to have lived in the second century CE, the name came from the colour of the snakes found on the island. Apparently, the terrain was so inhospitable only birds and snakes could thrive there.

Many centuries later during the Ottoman Empire, the Greeks renamed the island Fidonisi, which literally translates to its current name, Snake Island. In Ukrainian it’s called Zmiiniy Island from the slavic word for “snake”.

Fidonisi lent its name to the Battle of Fidonisi, fought between Ottoman and Russian fleets in the Russo-Turkish War that was fought from 1787 to 1792.

Snake Island’s history is wilder than the name suggests

Greek myth connected Snake Island to Achilles, Patroclus, Helen and the Trojan War. According to ancient writings, the island was home to a temple and secret shrine dedicated to Achilles, where people sometimes sacrificed or freed animals in his honour. Pliny the Elder wrote that the hero was actually buried there.

In the mid-19th century, a Russian naval captain discovered the ruins of what looked like a temple dedicated to Achilles. However, the site was obliterated before it could be confirmed, with a Russian lighthouse built on that very spot.

Lighthouse on Snake Island (Zmiinyi Island), Black Sea, Odessa, Ukraine, Eastern Europe

Artefacts found on the island and in the surrounding waters seem to support the idea it was a well-known place in antiquity with some kind of cultural and religious significance. A fourth century decree calls it a “holy island”, albeit with a bit of a pirate problem.

During the 20th century, Snake Island was hotly disputed between Ukraine, Romania and Russia. When the First World War broke out, the island belonged to Romania, the result of an earlier exchange with the Ottoman Empire.

The tiny patch of land played an important role in both world wars, fighting first alongside Russia then against it as alliances shifted.

During the Cold War the island was home to a Soviet radar post, the historic lighthouse was rebuilt in 1922 and little else.

Finally, Ukraine inherited Snake Island in 1991 after the fall of the Soviet Union. Territorial disputes with Romania continued into the 2000s and, in 2007, the small town of Bile was created to definitively place it under Ukrainian control.

The island’s strategic importance

Lately, Snake Island has been getting a lot of attention in Western media. It was host to a now-famous act of Ukrainian wartime bravery at the start of the Russian invasion, in which 13 soldiers reportedly told an enemy warship to go away using defiantly foul language.

The men, presumed dead and hailed as heroes by President Zelensky, were later confirmed to be alive having been captured by the Russians.

In late March, they were reportedly released but the story had served its purpose in illustrating Ukrainians’ determination to defend every inch of their country.

KYIV, UKRAINE – APRIL 18, 2022 – The Russian Warship, Go Fuck Yourself postage stamps that feature the famous response of Zmiinyi Island defender R…

Snake Island’s strategic position means it can influence maritime comings and goings, conflict and aid shipments for a number of key areas made vulnerable by Russia’s aggression.

Snake Island’s role in the Ukraine vs Russia conflict

Thursday, 30 June, Russia withdrew its troops from Snake Island in what the Kremlin called “a gesture of goodwill”, shortly after Ukraine stepped up its attacks on the outpost.

In a statement, Russia said it wanted to prove it wasn’t obstructing a UN humanitarian corridor for shipping grain into besieged parts of Ukraine by blocking its seaports.

This means shipments of food and supplies into Ukraine’s Black Sea harbours should soon be possible again.

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