Crimean Tatars are a Turkic ethnic group that formed in the Crimean Peninsula during the 13th–17th centuries, primarily from the Turkic tribes that moved to the land now known as Crimea in Eastern Europe from the Asian steppes beginning in the 10th century, with contributions from the pre-Cuman population of Crimea. Since 2014 Crimean Tatars were officially recognized as indigenous peoples of Ukraine. Following the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea, the occupational Russian authorities recognized Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People as an extremist organization and liquidated it.
Crimean Tatars constituted the majority of Crimea’s population from the time of its ethnogenesis until the mid-19th century, and the relative largest ethnic population until the end of the 19th century. Almost immediately after the liberation of Crimea, in May 1944, the USSR State Defense Committee ordered the removal of all of the Tatar population from Crimea, including the families of Crimean Tatars serving in the Soviet Army – in trains and boxcars to Central Asia, primarily to Uzbekistan. Starting in 1967, some were allowed to return to Crimea, and in 1989 the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union condemned the removal of Crimean Tatars from their motherland as inhumane and lawless. Today, Crimean Tatars constitute approximately 12% of the population of Crimea. There remains a large diaspora of Crimean Tatars in Turkey and Uzbekistan.
In the latest Ukrainian census, 248,200 Ukrainian citizens identified themselves as Crimean Tatars with 98% (or about 243,400) of them living in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea. An additional 1,800 citizens (or about 0.7% of those that identified themselves as Crimean Tatars) live in the city of Sevastopol, also on the Crimean peninsula, but outside the border of the autonomous republic.
About 150,000 remain in exile in Central Asia, mainly in Uzbekistan. The official number of Crimean Tatars in Turkey is 150,000 with some Crimean Tatar activists estimating a figure as high as 6 million. The activists reached this number by taking one million Tatar immigrants to Turkey as a starting point and multiplying this number by the birth rate in the span of the last hundred years. Crimean Tatars in Turkey mostly live in Eskişehir Province, descendants of those who emigrated in the late 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. In the Dobruja region straddling Romania and Bulgaria, there are more than 27,000 Crimean Tatars: 24,000 on the Romanian side, and 3,000 on the Bulgarian side.
The Crimean Tatars are subdivided into three (or sometimes four) sub-ethnic groups:
- the Tats (not to be confused with Tat people, living in the Caucasus region) who used to inhabit the mountainous Crimea before 1944 (about 55%) predominantly a tatarized Greeks, Goths and other people, as Tats in Crimea also were called Hellenic Urum people (Crimean Greeks) who were deported by the Imperial Russia to the area around Mariupol;
- the Yalıboyu who lived on the southern coast of the peninsula (about 30%) partially also the Crimean Turks,
- the Noğay or Mangit (not to be confused with Nogai people, living now in Southern Russia) – former inhabitants of the Crimean steppe (about 15%).
- the Ortayulak (central Crimean).
Historians suggest that inhabitants of the mountainous parts of Crimea lying to the central and southern parts (the Tats), and those of the Southern coast of Crimea (the Yalıboyu) were the direct descendants of the Pontic Greeks, Armenians, Scythians, Ostrogoths(Crimean Goths) and Kipchaks along with the Cumans while the latest inhabitants of the northern steppe represent the descendants of the Nogai Horde of the Black Sea nominally subjects of the Crimean Khan. It is largely assumed that the Tatarization process that mostly took place in the 16th century brought a sense of cultural unity through the blending of the Greeks, Armenians, Italians and Ottoman Turks of the southern coast, Goths of the central mountains, and Turkic-speaking Kipchaks and Cumans of the steppe and forming of the Crimean Tatar ethnic group. However, the Cuman language is considered the direct ancestor of the current language of the Crimean Tatars with possible incorporations of the other languages like Crimean Gothic.
Another theory suggests Crimean Tatars trace their origins to the waves of ancient people Scythians, Greeks, Goths, Italians and Armenians. When the Golden Horde invaded Crimea in the 1230s, they then mixed with populations which had settled in Eastern Europe, including Crimea since the seventh century: Tatars, but also Mongols and other Turkic groups (Khazars, Pechenegs, Cumans, and Kipchaks), as well as the ancient.
The Mongol conquest of the Kipchaks led to a merged society with the Mongol ruling class over a Kipchak speaking population which came to be known as Tatar and which eventually absorbed other ethnicities on the Crimean peninsula like Armenians, Italians, Greeks, and Goths to form the modern day Crimean Tatar people- up to the Soviet deportation, the Crimean Tatars could still differentiate among themselves between Tatar Kipchak Nogays and the “Tat” descendants of Tatarized Goths and other Turkified peoples.
Goths, Gypsies, and Greeks were assumed to be some of the ancestors of the Tatars on the coast of Crimea, while there were “mixed hill Tatars” and finally “Asiatic” steppe Tatars. Italians and Greeks mixed with the coastal Crimean Tatars.
The Crimean Tatars emerged as a nation at the time of the Crimean Khanate, an Ottoman vassal state during the 15th to 18th centuries and one of the great centers of slave trade to the Ottoman Empire. The Turkic-speaking population of Crimea had mostly adopted Islam already in the 14th century, following the conversion of Ozbeg Khan of the Golden Horde. By the time of the first Russian invasion of Crimea in 1736, the Khan’s archives and libraries were famous throughout the Islamic world, and under Khan Krym-Girei the city of Simferopol was endowed with piped water, sewerage and a theatre where Molière was performed in French, while the port of Gözleve stood comparison with Rotterdam and Bakhchysarai, the capital, was described as Europe’s cleanest and greenest city.
Until the beginning of the 18th century, Crimean Tatars were known for frequent, at some periods almost annual, devastating raids into Ukraine and Russia. For a long time, until the late 18th century, the Crimean Khanate maintained a massive slave trade with the Ottoman Empire and the Middle East which was the most important basis of its economy. One of the most important trading ports and slave markets was Kefe. Slaves and freedmen formed approximately 75% of the Crimean population.
Some researchers estimate that altogether up to 3 million people were captured and enslaved during the time of the Crimean Khanate. In retaliation, the lands of Crimean Tatars were being raided by Zaporozhian Cossacks, armed Slavic horsemen, who defended the steppe frontier – Wild Fields – against Tatar slave raids and often attacked and plundered the lands of Ottoman Turks and Crimean Tatars. The DonCossacks and Kalmyk Mongols also managed to raid Crimean Tatars’ land. The last recorded major Crimean raid, before those in the Russo-Turkish War (1768–74) took place during the reign of Peter the Great (1682–1725). However, Cossack raids continued after that time; Ottoman Grand Vizier complained to the Russian consul about raids to Crimea and Özi in 1761. In 1769 one last major Tatar raid, which took place during the Russo-Turkish War, saw the capture of 20,000 slaves.
In the Russian Empire
The Russo-Turkish War (1768–74) resulted in the defeat of the Ottomans by the Russians, and according to the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca(1774) signed after the war, Crimea became independent and the Ottomans renounced their political right to protect the Crimean Khanate. After a period of political unrest in Crimea, Russia violated the treaty and annexed the Crimean Khanate in 1783. After the annexation, the wealthier Tatars, who had exported wheat, meat, fish and wine to other parts of the Black Sea, began to be expelled and to move to the Ottoman Empire. Further expulsions followed in 1812 for fear of the reliability of the Tatars in the face of Napoleon’s advance. Particularly, the Crimean War of 1853–1856, the laws of 1860–63, the Tsarist policy and the Russo-Turkish War (1877–78) caused an exodus of the Tatars; 12,000 boarded Allied ships in Sevastopol to escape the destruction of shelling, and were branded traitors by the Russian government. Of total Tatar population 300,000 of the Taurida Governorate about 200,000 Crimean Tatars emigrated. Many Crimean Tatars perished in the process of emigration, including those who drowned while crossing the Black Sea. Today the descendants of these Crimeans form the Crimean Tatar diaspora in Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey.
Ismail Gasprali (1851–1914) was a renowned Crimean Tatar intellectual, influenced by the nationalist movements of the period, whose efforts laid the foundation for the modernization of Muslim culture and the emergence of the Crimean Tatar national identity. The bilingual Crimean Tatar-Russian newspaper Terciman-Perevodchik he published in 1883–1914, functioned as an educational tool through which a national consciousness and modern thinking emerged among the entire Turkic-speaking population of the Russian Empire. His New Method (Jadid) schools, numbering 350 across the peninsula, helped create a new Crimean Tatar elite.
The educated “Crimean Tatars” during this period refused the appellation of “Tatars” given to them by the Turks (which however in earlier times had also been used natively). They wished to be known simply as “Turks”, and their language as “Turkish” (the Crimean Tatar language had indeed been substantially influenced by Ottoman Turkish).
After the Russian Revolution of 1917 this new elite, which included Noman Çelebicihan and Cafer Seydamet proclaimed the first democratic republic in the Islamic world, named the Crimean People’s Republic on 26 December 1917. However, this republic was short-lived and abolished by the Bolshevik uprising in January 1918.
In the Soviet Union (1917–1991)
Soviet policies on the peninsula led to widespread starvation in 1921. More than 100,000 Tatars, Russians, Ukrainians and other inhabitants of the peninsula starved to death, and tens of thousands of Tatars fled to Turkey or Romania. Thousands more were deported or slaughtered during the collectivization in 1928–29. The Soviet government’s “collectivization” policies led to a major nationwide famine in 1931–33. During Stalin’s Great Purge, statesmen and intellectuals such as Veli Ibraimov and Bekir Çoban-zade (1893–1937), were imprisoned or executed on various charges.
In May 1944, the entire Crimean Tatar population of Crimea was exiled to Central Asia, mainly to Uzbekistan, on the orders of Joseph Stalin, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the Chairman of the USSR State Defense Committee. Although a great number of Crimean Tatar men served in the Red Army and took part in the partisan movement in Crimea during the war, the existence of the Tatar Legion in the Nazi army and the collaboration of Crimean Tatar religious and political leaders with Hitler during the German occupation of Crimea provided the Soviet leadership with justification for accusing the entire Crimean Tatar population of being Nazi collaborators. In actuality, much of this is Soviet revisionism as the persecution of “suspect nations” and most of the genocide of the Crimean Tatars preceded the war, while statements justifying it appear after the war – as the threat of war heightened Stalin’s perception of marginal and politically suspect populations as the potential source of an uprising in case of invasion. He began to plan for the preventive elimination of such potential recruits for a mythical “fifth column of wreckers, terrorists and spies.” (Hagenloh, 2000; Shearer, 2003). Tatar historian Alan Fisher has said that between 1917 and 1933, 150,000 Tatars—about 50% of the population at the time—either were killed or forced out of Crimea. According to Yitzhak Arad, “In January 1942 a company of Tatar volunteers was established in Simferopol under the command of Einsatzgruppe 11. This company participated in anti-Jewish manhunts and murder actions in the rural regions.”
Some modern researchers argue that Crimea’s geopolitical position fueled Soviet perceptions of Crimean Tatars as a potential threat. This belief is based in part on an analogy with numerous other cases of deportations of non-Russians from boundary territories, as well as the fact that other non-Russian populations, such as Greeks, Armenians and Bulgarians were also removed from Crimea.
All 240,000 Crimean Tatars were deported en masse, in a form of collective punishment, on 17–18 May 1944 as “special settlers” to the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic and other distant parts of the Soviet Union. This event is called Sürgün in the Crimean Tatar language; the few who escaped were shot on sight or drowned in scuttled barges, and within months half their number had died of cold, hunger, exhaustion and disease. Many of them were re-located to toil as indentured workers in the Soviet GULAG system.
Although a 1967 Soviet decree removed the charges against Crimean Tatars, the Soviet government did nothing to facilitate their resettlement in Crimea and to make reparations for lost lives and confiscated property. Crimean Tatars, having a definite tradition of non-communist political dissent, succeeded in creating a truly independent network of activists, values and political experience. Crimean Tatars, led by the Crimean Tatar National Movement Organization, were not allowed to return to Crimea from exile until the beginning of the Perestroika in the mid-1980s.
After Ukrainian independence
Today, more than 250,000 Crimean Tatars have returned to their homeland, struggling to re-establish their lives and reclaim their national and cultural rights against many social and economic obstacles. In 1991, the Crimean Tatar leadership founded the Kurultai, or Parliament, to act as a representative body for the Crimean Tatars which could address grievances to the Ukrainian central government, the Crimean government, and international bodies. Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People is the executive body of the Kurultai.
Since the 1990s till October 2013, the political leader of the Crimean Tatars and the chairman of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People was former Soviet dissident Mustafa Abdülcemil Qırımoğlu. Since October 2013 the chairman of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People is Refat Chubarov.
2014 Crimean crisis
Following news of Crimea’s independence referendum organized with the help of Russia on 16 March 2014, the Kurultai leadership voiced concerns of renewed persecution, as commented by a U.S. official before the visit of a UN human rights team to the peninsula. At the same time, Rustam Minnikhanov, the president of Tatarstan was dispatched to Crimea to quell Crimean Tatars’ concerns and to point out that “in the 23 years of Ukraine’s independence the Ukrainian leaders have been using Crimean Tatars as pawns in their political games without doing them any tangible favors”. The issue of Crimean Tatar alleged persecution has since been raised regularly on an international level.
On 18 March 2014, the day Crimea was annexed by Russia and Crimean Tatar was declared one of the three official languages of Crimea, it was also announced that Crimean Tatars will be required to relinquish coastal lands on which they squatted since their return to Crimea in early 1990s and be given land elsewhere in Crimea. Crimea stated it needed the relinquished land for “social purposes”, since part of this land is occupied by the Crimean Tatars without legal documents of ownership. The situation was caused by the inability of the USSR (and later Ukraine) to give back to the Tatars the land owned before deportation, once they or their descendants returned from Central Asia (mainly Uzbekistan). As a consequence, Crimean Tatars settled as squatters, occupying land that was and is still not legally registered.
Some Crimean Tatars fled to Mainland Ukraine due to the Crimean crisis – reportedly around 2000 by 23 March. On 29 March 2014, an emergency meeting of the Crimean Tatars representative body, the Kurultai, voted in favor of seeking “ethnic and territorial autonomy” for Crimean Tatars using “political and legal” means. The meeting was attended by the Head of the Republic of Tatarstan and the chair of the Russian Council of Muftis. Decisions as to whether the Tatars will accept Russian passports or whether the autonomy sought would be within the Russian or Ukrainian state have been deferred pending further discussion.
The Mejlis works in emergency mode in Kiev.