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To appear in: Encyclopedia of the Minorities, Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn (forthcoming 2002). Reproduced here with the permission of the publisher.

The Crimean Tatars

Greta Lynn Uehling *

Capsule Summary:

Location: Crimean Peninsula (Ukraine) and Uzbekistan
Population in the territories of the former Soviet Union: 400,000
Language: Crimean Tatar (a Kipchak Turkic language) and Russian
Religion: (Sunni) Muslim


The Crimean Tatars are a Turkic-speaking, Sunni Muslim people who trace their origins to the Crimean peninsula (now southern Ukraine). While the Crimean Tatars have traditionally been described as descendents of the Golden Horde, their formation as an ethnic group is much more complicated. The Crimean Tatars have pre-Mongol origins in the ancient peoples of the Crimean peninsula. The Crimean Tatars therefore consider themselves one of the three indigenous peoples of the peninsula, along with the Karaim and Krymchaki. In addition to residing in the historic homeland of Crimea (where a population of 270,000 comprises 11.9 percent of the total population) and places of former exile such as Uzbekistan, there are large populations of Crimean Tatars in Turkey where they number over five million, Bulgaria (10,000), Romania (40,000), the United States (6,000) and Germany (unknown).

Ethnogenesis. Geography played a formative role in the ethnogenesis of the Crimean Tatars. By offering three very different ecosystems of the steppe, mountain, and coast, the physical geography of the Crimean region clearly shaped not only the means of subsistence of the peoples, but also the interaction between them. The northern two-thirds of the Crimean peninsula is an extension of the Eurasian steppe and nomadic groups migrating from the east such as the Scythians, Sarmatians, Huns, Khazars, Pechenegs, Kipchaks, and Mongols were attracted to the excellent pasture it offered their herds. This land is far from limitless, however, and many of these nomadic tribes were forced to seek refuge in the Crimean mountains by the stronger nomadic groups that arrived after them. There was both assimilation and adaptation as the groups pushed southward and westward in successive waves.

On the other side of the Crimean mountains, the coastal region experienced a similar dynamic with a different ethnic composition. Primarily European peoples arrived from the Black Sea via the Bosporus, including Greeks, Genoese, Venetians, Armenians, and Turks. Highlighting this pattern, Kudusov suggests that by the fifth century, the steppe, mountain, and coast were already three distinctive territorial-economic zones. He stresses that the mountains were not just a shelter from invaders of the steppe, but a unique cradle for the formation of the indigenous peoples, including the Crimean Tatars.

History. The Tatar-Mongol invasion of Crimea in the thirteenth century represents a turning point in this dynamic. When the clans within the Horde began pulling apart in the fifteenth century, independent khanates established themselves in the peripheral regions. The Crimean Khanate was one such khanate, and possessed all the characteristics of a fully developed, pre-modern state. It claimed descent from Chingis Khan, but these "Tatars" as they were called, assimilated with the indigenous and European groups already living in Crimea. As a result of the assimilation, a Crimean version of the Tatar ethnic group developed that was quite distinct from the Kazan, Astrakhan, and other Tatars. The region is far from homogenous, however, and subethnic differences between the Tatars of different regions have persisted. Today, Crimean Tatars divide themselves into three subgroups based on the territorial-economic zones.

It was under the Khanate that all three geographic regions came under one rule for the first time. Haci Giray established an independent khanate in the 1440s. The Crimean Khanate is noted for its legal system based on a combination of Islamic law, traditional Tatar law and Ottoman law, as well as the unique system of power sharing that meant it was not an autocracy. Although the Crimean Khanate was under Ottoman influence for much of its history, it was an important state from the early sixteenth to the end of the seventeenth centuries.

The Crimean khanate remained an important power in eastern Europe until 1783 when Crimea was annexed to Russia by Empress Catherine II. The Crimean peninsula offered the tsarist regime warm water ports that could enhance the economic, political, and cultural ties of Russia with Europe; fertile soils capable of growing products for export as well as feeding Russians in the interior; and a secured southern border that would magnify Russia's military potential vis a vis Turkey. Command of the region would also bring Russia one step closer to realizing the dream of becoming the "Third Rome" after Constantinopol. All of this depended on controlling, removing, or eliminating the Crimean Tatar people, who as Muslim Turks were believed to be potentially disloyal subjects. The tsars considered a proposal for their removal but it was not carried out.

The colonial period witnessed one of the most dramatic out-migrations in European history. The Crimean Tatar population left in a series of waves, culminating in a mass migration after the Crimean War of 1853-56. According to some sources, this wave may have reached 200,000 of the 300,000 Tatars then living in Crimea. The Russian appropriation of the Tatars' land, together the oppressive conditions of the new regime, are two of the factors that made the Tatars willing to leave. The presence of linguistic, religious, and cultural kin across the Bosporus in Turkey provided added incentive.

As destructive as it was for Tatar society as a whole, the Russian colonial period created conditions in which a new Crimean Tatar intelligentsia arose that was capable of formulating a nationalist project. Ismail Bey Gaspirali or Gasprinski (1851-1914), who founded and edited the newspaper Terjuman, was among the influential thinkers along these lines. The early twentieth century was a tumultuous time in which the nationalist ideas began to spread. In December 1917, the nationalist party Milli Firka gained ascendancy in a self-proclaimed independent Tatar state under the leadership of Çelebi Cihan. However, it was quickly extinguished by the Bolsheviks in January, 1918.

Having installed Bela Kun, the Soviet regime called upon Ibrahimov for advice on how to quell rising dissent. His recommendation was to make Crimea into an autonomous republic. This was not what the Communist government in Crimea wanted, but central authorities nevertheless pushed for changes. Lenin recognized that if he was to win the loyalty of minority groups, concessions would be needed and he instituted a Soviet nationalities policy that, on paper at least, allowed for the right of succession of national minorities. The Soviet Committee of Nationalities announced the formation of the Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic on October 18, 1921. It was led by Veli Ibrahimov.

The Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic represents a fleeting Golden Age before this status was revoked and Crimea, along with the rest of the USSR, was plunged into mass repression of intellectuals and clergy, state-sanctioned famine, and forced collectivization of agriculture. Because the traditional Arabic script of the Crimean Tatars was changed to Latin script from 1926-1927 and then from Latin to Cyrillic in 1936, it became increasingly difficult for Crimean Tatars to learn their language and history or perpetuate cultural traditions.

The Crimean Tatars experienced Russianization followed by Sovietization, leaving them with ravaged cultural institutions and as much as fifty percent of the population eliminated by World War II. So it is not surprising the Crimean Tatars initially viewed the Nazi invasion as a sign of hope. Once the Germans established their administration in Crimea, however, it became apparent that although they had been allowed some religious freedoms during the occupation, the Nazis could be as oppressive in their rule as the Soviets.

Tatar collaboration with the German regime is one of the most controversial topics in Soviet history. The Crimean Tatars were charged with engaging in punitive expeditions against the Soviet partisans; participating in the German self-defense battalions; and providing intelligence services for the German and Romanian occupation. However, it has since been recognized that Crimean Tatar participation in the German battalions was not necessarily voluntary, often being secured at gunpoint. It must also be added that severe hunger and disease in the Soviet ranks led people of all nationalities to desert and join the Germans. According to Pohl, the total number of Tatars assisting the Germans reached 20,000 or 10 percent of the population. Regardless of the role they played, the Tatars were slated for German removal because they stood in the way of the plan to establish a German Riviera. In the wake of the Allied victory, it would be left to a victorious Stalin to carry out the act.

While the Soviet regime ostensibly deported the Tatars for their activities during the war, other nationalities collaborated on an equal or greater scale and it has become increasingly clear that it was not the real reason for Stalin's order. Rather, Stalin's domestic policy with regard to the Tatars was derived from his foreign policy and macroeconomic concerns. Stalin wanted complete control of Crimea because it formed an important part of the Soviet military strategy. Specifically, the Soviet Union planned to gain access to the Dardanelles and acquire territory in Turkey. The Crimean Tatars, who had ethnic kin in Turkey, were once again viewed as potentially disloyal. The Soviet authorities also wanted to continue to develop Crimea as a health resort area for the Soviet Union, particularly for the benefit of party officials.

The Crimean Tatar contribution to the Soviet war effort has been minimized by Soviet historians, although Tatars joined both the Soviet partisans fighting in the Crimean forests and the Red Army sent to the front. Whereas official sources suggest 20,000 Crimean Tatars fought in the Red Army, unofficial Tatar sources suggest the figure is over 50,000. As a result of their exceptional patriotism, eight Crimean Tatars received the order of Hero of the Soviet Union. The extent of the Tatars' anti-Soviet behavior is a topic of ongoing dispute.

Deportation. In the early morning hours of May 18, 1944 armed NKVD officers knocked on the doors of the Crimean Tatars and told them to get ready. They were taken by car and truck to central collection points where they were loaded onto trains used for livestock. Since most of the able-bodied men were still at the front, the majority of deportees consisted of women, children, and the elderly. In all, 191,044 were loaded onto the cattle cars bound for the Ural Mountains and Soviet Central Asia, primarily Uzbekistan. They traveled for several weeks in extreme conditions. Not only were they deprived of food and sanitation, the Crimean Tatars were not allowed to give the dead a Muslim burial and they were thrown out of the trains. When they arrived, the Tatars were interned under forced-labor conditions in what is referred to as the "special settlement" system. In the first three years, according to conservative NKVD estimates, approximately 22 percent of the population perished from infectious diseases, malnutrition, and dehydration. According to Crimean Tatar accounts, however, the losses are much higher, consisting of 46 percent or approximately half the population.

Following their departure from Crimea, place names were changed, graves were desecrated, and books in the Tatar language and architecture destroyed to eradicate indications of their presence. The first public announcement of the event did not come until two years later when Izvestiia published a decree explaining the abolition of the Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic and its reconstitution as an entity of lower political status. It labeled the Crimean Tatars as "traitors" to the Soviet Union. This became part of the ascribed identity of the group and a representation against which ethnic self-consciousness and identity formed.

In 1956, the special settlement system was dismantled and many of the Crimean Tatars in the Urals relocated to Central Asia to be closer to Crimean Tatar kin and other Muslims. In the same year, Khrushchev delivered his famous XX Party Congress address denouncing Stalin. All the deported groups were rehabilitated at this time except for the Crimean Tatars, Meskhetian Turks, and Volga Germans.

A decree absolving the Tatars of mass treason was not issued until 1967. This sparked many Tatar families to try to return to Crimea, but authorities in Moscow had stipulated that while they were free to move about, they should not be allowed to obtain a propiska (residence permit) or become employed in Crimea. Most of the families who tried to settle in Crimea at this time were re-deported. The decree also failed to acknowledge the Tatars as a bona fide nationality, referring to them only as "Tatars formerly residing in Crimea." They were not successful in returning on a mass scale until the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Crimean Tatar National Movement. The exiled people's efforts were initially devoted to physical survival, but in the mid-1950s, veterans and elders began to write letters to the authorities asking to be returned. They believed that the issue of return could be resolved only if the central leadership were convinced of their loyalty to the Soviet State. By the 1960s, however, a growing number of activists were discouraged by the lack of results of the letter writing campaign. This ushered in a phase in which movement organizers began to channel the goals and strategies of the movement along more radical democratic lines. They were especially inspired by the Crimean history they discovered. Their research not only suggested they had been wrongfully deported, but reminded them of their history as a politically powerful and culturally developed state.

Beginning in the summer of 1965, there was an almost uninterrupted presence of Crimean Tatar delegates in Moscow. Among other activities, they produced leaflets now known as samizdat literature. The information bulletins were part of the movement organization that Crimean Tatars developed. One of its most important characteristics was that it was decentralized, composed of "initiative groups" with activists willing to go to Moscow, and supporters who participated more quietly from home by donating money to support the delegation, signing and circulating petitions, and supporting the families of imprisoned activists. While the leadership role in formulating the movement's position was taken primarily by activists, they drew on sentiment pools that were already in existence: the Crimean Tatars actively remembered the homeland and dreamed of return.

As a result of the Tatars' agitation to return, major repressive blows were dealt by the Soviet authorities. Crimean Tatars suspected of disloyalty to the Soviet Union were arrested, tried, and imprisoned. Even as the Soviet regime attempted to portray the activists as petty thieves, and sometimes imprisoned them with regular as opposed to political criminals, the Crimean Tatars built their movement along peaceful, democratic lines as a movement for human and national rights.

A pivotal moment in the National Movement came in 1978 when a Crimean Tatar man named Musa Mamut protested their condition. He had been denied registration at his home and imprisoned for "violation of the passport regime." Upon returning from prison, he was again threatened with imprisonment. Mamut decided he preferred death to losing the freedom to live in his homeland. So when the authorities came to take him for questioning, he immolated himself in front of his home. After his death, Mamut became a martyr and a model.

As agitation for repatriation gained credence in the places of exile, the authorities waged a corresponding battle to dissuade the Tatars. This included a plan to resettle them not in Crimea but in a specially created autonomous region in Central Asia called Mubarek. They were promised housing, jobs, and cultural institutions of their own. The KGB succeeded in recruiting some prominent Tatars, but it failed to gain broad-based support. The complete lack of historical ties to that area, plus a complete void in the collective memory of the people meant that for the Crimean Tatars, Mubarek held little appeal.

In April 1987, the first All-Union conference of representatives of the National Movement's initiative groups was held in Tashkent, and the delegates decided to appeal to Gorbachev. When they failed to get the desired response, another conference was held at which it was decided to send a delegation to Moscow to press their demands. In July 1987, over 2,000 Crimean Tatars, from all parts of the Soviet Union held a series of highly visible demonstrations in Moscow. Their protest registered in the international news and sparked numerous letters on their behalf from other dissidents. In addition to sweeping the Tatars out of Red Square, the authorities published a Soviet News Agency (TASS) announcement stating they had created an official government commission to resolve the Crimean Tatar issue. The TASS announcement also brought up the Tatars' behavior during World War II, and stated they had incinerated fellow citizens in ovens. These allegations provoked outrage among the Crimean Tatars who renewed their commitment to the National Movement. In an increasingly widespread movement, Tatars gave up hope that the Soviet government would facilitate their repatriation.

Changes brought about by glasnost and perestroika also emboldened the Crimean Tatars to formalize their already existing political organization. In the early stages of the movement, there were three factions: the Central Initiative Group with Mustafa Dzhemilev at its head, the Fergana Group lead by Yuri Osmanov, and the Samarkand Group lead by Rolan Kadiev. The three branches coalesced into two social movement organizations beginning with the National Movement of Crimean Tatars (NDKT), created in 1987. The NDKT's conservative approach of advocating on behalf of the Crimean Tatars' return while operating according to the Party protocols was not endorsed by all. Therefore, in 1989, more radical Crimean Tatars organized the Organization of the Crimean Tatar National Movement (OKND) in order to pursue a more aggressive platform. They held that in order to be successful, they would have to internationalize their efforts. The leader of the NDKT, Yuri Osmanov, was assassinated in 1993 and while the organization continues to issue sharp criticism of the OKND, it is far less powerful than the later organization. Also in 1989, a commission under the leadership of Yanaev recommended the full political rehabilitation of the Crimean Tatars and the cancellation of any acts that were of a repressive or discriminatory nature.

In the 1990s the Crimean Tatars became increasingly politically organized. In June, 1991 the Second Kurultai or Congress was convened in Simferopol (named after the first Congress that took place among early nationalists in 1917). The Kurultai elected 33 people by secret ballot to serve in the Mejlis, the authoritative political body or plenipotentiary committee of the Crimean Tatar people. The Mejlis declared the sovereignty of the Crimean Tatar people, adopted a national anthem and a national flag. The Kurultai also elected a chairman or president, Mustafa Dzhemilev.

Repatriation. The Crimean Tatars began repatriating on a massive scale beginning in the late 1980s and continuing into the early 1990s. The population of Crimean Tatars in Crimea rapidly reached 250,000 and leveled off at 270,000 where it remains as of this writing. There are believed to be between 30,000 and 100,000 remaining in places of former exile in Central Asia.

While the vast majority of the Tatars remaining in Central Asia still hope to return, political and economic conditions prevent them. A flooded real estate market makes it difficult for Tatars to sell their homes in Central Asia and rampant inflation in Ukraine makes it close to impossible to construct or purchase new ones. New border and customs regulations complicate relocation.

Those who repatriated also faced difficult conditions. Even though the central authorities no longer had any objections, local officials initially opposed their return, fearing it could lead to ethnic unrest and stretch already limited resources. Since all Tatar property had been confiscated and redistributed to others in 1944, the Tatars faced the task of starting over for the second time in a fifty-year time span. Given that their former homes were occupied by new residents, and given the unwillingness of the local authorities to help them find or build housing, the Tatars squatted on vacant land. Tatars occupied unused state land on the outskirts of cities and towns and built temporary shelters or lived in the cargo containers that had brought their belongings. Officials ordered the destruction of the squatters' settlements with bulldozers, but each time, the Crimean Tatars began to rebuild. There were also instances in which the Tatars threatened to immolate themselves in response to the security forces' attempts to remove them. As a result of the Tatars' determination, negotiations took place and the settlements were eventually legalized. Today, the settlements still lack basic infrastructure such as plumbing and paved roads. While some Tatars live in beautifully completed homes, many have been unable to finish construction.

Despite the successful repatriation of over half the population, the Crimean Tatars' struggle for full repatriation and a full restoration of their rights is not complete. Battles for representation in the Crimean legislature as well as disagreements about suffrage and citizenship have characterized the last decade. The present state of affairs represents a deterioration from the situation beginning in the mid-1990s when the Crimean Tatars held a quota of fourteen seats in the Crimean Parliament. In 1998, there was a series of mass demonstrations protesting the Crimean Tatars lack of voting rights (linked to citizenship) in what is now the Autonomous Republic of Crimea (ARC). The citizenship issue has been largely resolved but the issue of representation remains complicated by the Tatars minority status. As of 2001, the Crimean Tatars still comprise only 11-12% of the population. One of the more significant political victories came in 1998 when two prominent Tatar political leaders, Mustafa Dzhemilev and Refat Chubarov, were elected to the Ukrainian Upper Parliament. Complicating the political difficulties has been the increasing criminalization of the Ukrainian economy and the proliferation of criminal groupings.

The Crimean Tatars' primary objectives are government sponsored return of the Crimean Tatar people to Crimea; full restoration of their rights and property; recognition of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis as the official representative body; and representation of the Crimean Tatars in the Crimean Parliament. In addition to a full political rehabilitation and repatriation to the homeland, the Crimean Tatars are engaged in revitalizing their religion, language, and culture. The Crimean Tatars adopted Islam during the tenth through twelfth centuries and it became the state religion under the Crimean Khanate. During the Soviet period, they experienced pressure to become secularized like other peoples. This was especially intense for the Crimean Tatars because of the Soviet regime's fear of Islamic fundamentalism. During the Stalin era, hundreds of mosques were closed, clergy were executed, and marking the Muslim holidays was not permitted. Because the alphabet had been changed, many Tatars lost the ability to read the suras or verses in their Qur'an. Crimean Tatars nevertheless resisted the repression of religion, and at the moment of deportation many Tatar families thought to take their copies of the Qur'an if nothing else.

Once in exile, there was little hope for the outward observance of religion. In spite of the prohibition, elders continued to say prayers in exile and the presence of other Muslim peoples reinforced what Muslim identity was left. Following the break up of the Soviet Union, Islam has experienced tremendous resurgence. The Crimean Tatars are part of this, although they are by no means fundamentalist and their spiritual life is more accurately a synthesis of pre-Islamic and Islamic beliefs and practices. The holidays, for example, are oriented around traditional Muslim holidays, the lunar calendar, seasonal changes, and events in the farming lives of Crimean Tatars. Two of the largest holidays observed by Tatars are Oraza bairam and Kurban bairam (holiday of sacrifice). Tatars also mark the anniversary of the 1944 deportation. Religion is also manifest in rites of passage such as circumcision. An increasing number of couples go to a mullah at the time of marriage in addition to completing the Soviet secularized registry. Wakes or pominki for remembrance of the dead, and fasting during the month of Ramadan are also important spiritual observances.

Aside from renewing their religious traditions, the Crimean Tatars have been struggling to restore other cultural traditions. A primary focus of concern and activity is language. Music and dance have also received attention. After over fifty years of exile, programs to renew the arts including embroidery with gold and silver thread, fine jewelry making in the filigreed Tatar style, and the weaving of kilims or carpets, have begun.

As a result of their tumultuous history, the Crimean Tatars are now spread out not only through the former Soviet Union, but Turkey (where there are believed to be 5 million) Bulgaria, Rumania, and the United States.

Further Reading:

Aleksandrov, Grigorii Matveevich. Fakel nad Krymom [Torch Over Crimea]. Bahçesaray: Avdet, 1991.

Allworth, Edward, editor. Tatars of the Crimea. Durham: Duke University Press, 1988.

_____. Tatars of the Crimea, revised edition. Durham: Duke University Press, 1998.

Cemiloglu, (Dzhemilev), Mustafa. "A History of the Crimean Tatar National Liberation Movement: A Sociopolitical Perspective." in Crimea: Dynamics, Challenges, and Prospects, edited by Maria Drohobycky. Lanham MD: Rowman and Littlefield, (1995): 87-105.

Chervonnaia, Svetlana Mikailovna, and Mikhail Guboglo. Krymskotatarskoe Natsional'noe Dvizhenie (1991-1993), Tom 1 [The Crimean Tatar National Movement (1991-1993), Volume 1]. Moskva: Rossiskaia Akademiia Nauk, Tsentr Po Izucheniiu Mezhnatsional'nykh Otnoshenii [Moscow: Russian Academy of Sciences Center for the Study of International Relations] 1992.

Conquest, Robert. The Nation Killers: The Soviet Deportation of Nationalities. New York: Khronika, 1970.

Dzhemilev, Reshat, editor. Zhivoi Fakel [Human Torch]. New York, NY: Crimea Foundation 1986.

Fisher, Alan. The Crimean Tatars. Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 1978.

International Organization for Migration (IOM). Profile and Migration Intentions of Crimean Tatars Living in Uzbekistan. Geneva: Technical Cooperation Centre for Europe and Central Asia, 1997.

Karpat, Kemal H. "The Crimean Emigration of 1856-1862 and the Settlement and Urban Development of Dobruca." in Turco-Tatar Past, Soviet Present, edited by Ch. Lemercier- Quelquejay, G. Veinstein and S.E. Wimbush. Paris: Editions De L'Ecole Des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (1986): 275-306.

Kudusov, Eric. "Etnogenez korenogo naseleniia Kryma" [Ethnogenesis of the Indigenous Populations of the Crimea]. Kasavet 24 (1) (1995): 14-25.

Nekrich, Alexander. Nakazannye Narody [The Punished Peoples]. New York: Khronika, 1978.

Pohl, J. Otto. Ethnic Cleansing in the USSR, 1937-1949. Westport CT: Greenwood Press, 1999.

Poliakov, Vladimir. Krym: sud'by narodov i liudei [Crimea: Fate of Nationalities and Peoples]. Simferopol: International Renaissance Foundation, 1998.

Sevdiar, Memet. Etudy ob etnogeneze Krymskikh Tatar [Studies on the Ethnogenesis of Crimean Tatars]. New York: Crimea Foundation, 1997.

Uehling, Greta. "The Crimean Tatar National Movement: Social Memory and Collective Action." in Globalizations and Social Movements, edited by John Guidry, Michael Kennedy, and Mayer N. Zald. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000.

Zemskov, N. "Spetsposelentsy iz Kryma: 1944-1956" [Special Settlers from Crimea 1944-1956], Krymskie Muzei 1/94, Simferopol: Tavria, (1995): 73-81.

* Greta Lynn Uehling is a lecturer at Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti, and Wayne State University, Detroit. She is currently working on a book on Crimean Tatars, based on her prize-winning dissertation, "Having a Homeland: Recalling the Deportation, Exile, and Repatriation of Crimean Tatars to their Historic Homeland," University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 2000. A review of "Having a Homeland" is available at this Web site.

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