From Soviet Genocide to Putin’s Conquest: The Crimean Tatars

18 May is the anniversary of the 1944 mass deportations of Crimean Tatars. Brian Glyn Williams, in ‘The Crimean Tatars’ explains their history and plight.

On the distant edge of Europe, where East meets West, Islam meets Christianity, and the world of the steppe nomad meets that of settled man lies the Crimean Peninsula. Since even before the classical era, when intrepid sailors from Greece arrived on its shores and interacted with the mysterious horseriding peoples of the vast European plains who migrated to the Crimea’s interior, this borderland has been an outpost of the nomads from the east. It has also been a preserve of nations, an ethnic time capsule and palimpsest of lost Eurasian races.

Located on the Black Sea shore of the Ukraine (whose name translates to “the Frontier” of the steppe in Russian), the Crimea has seen more than its share of conquering and migrating races. These races have, like waves coursing across the open steppes from the north and east, lapped up on its plains and cast their ethnic residue on the Crimea’s genetic makeup. It was here that the ancient Greek traders encountered the Scythian nomads, whose skill as horse-mounted archers gave birth to the legend of the half-horse, half-man Centaurs. After the Scythians came the nomadic Sarmatians, the Goths and Attila’s Huns, followed by the Turkic Kipchaks (or Polovtsians, the “Men of the Plains” as they were known in Russian). But no nomadic race left as great an impact on the Crimea as the world-conquering Mongols. Storming across the Eurasian steppe from their home in distant Mongolia, the Mongols of Batu Khan (grandson of Genghis Khan) shattered the divided Russian principalities in the forests to the north and absorbed the vast hordes of Kipchak Turks of the south Ukrainian plains into their armies in the 1240s. The amalgam of pagan Mongols and Turkic Kipchaks then gradually converted to Islam and became known as “Tatars”.

It was these horse-riding Turko-Mongol-Muslim Tatars that were to call the Crimea home until the present day. As the transcontinental Mongol world empire fractured and collapsed in the mid to late 1300s, the Tatars of the Crimea and surrounding steppes continued to dominate much of Eastern Europe. While the Mongols were ultimately expelled from China and the Middle East in the mid fourteenth century, in the southern Ukraine the Tatars were an anachronism that continued their horse riding ways for centuries.

Not even the liberation of Russia to the north from the Tatar Golden Horde in 1480 ended the power of the Crimean Tatars. By this time Khans (Genghisid rulers) of the Tatar Giray dynasty had established an independent Khanate in the Crimea and surrounding lands. The Tatar Khans of the Crimea, ruling from the fabled town of Bahcesaray (“Garden Palace”) in the southern Crimean mountains, saw the rising power of Russia and made a far-sighted alliance with another up-and-coming power, the Muslim Ottoman Empire. This alliance helped the Crimean Tatars maintain their independence even as Ivan the Terrible’s Russia inexorably expanded eastward across the vast forests of Siberia and down to the Caspian Sea, conquering the other Tatar remnants of the Mongol Golden Horde. Long after the Tatars of the Volga River region and plains north of the Caspian Sea had been absorbed into sixteenth-century Russia, the Crimean Tatars maintained their independence.

As the memory of the Medieval Mongols faded in other parts of the world, the Crimean Tatars continued to roam freely on the plains on the edge of a modernizing Europe. Riding on their rugged steppe steeds with their fur rimmed, spiked helmets on chambuls (raids for cattle and slaves), the Tatars of the Crimea continued their ancient ways and kept the Russians off the open plains of southern Ukraine for centuries. The Tatars of the Crimea were able to burn Moscow as late as 1571. Every year the Tatars would sally forth from their bastion in the Kirim (“the Fortress”, the Turko-Mongol name which gives us the English word Crimea) to carry out vast slave raids into Poland, Russia and the Ukraine. Not even the modernizing Tsar Peter the Great could conquer the horse-riding Crimean heirs of Genghis Khan. In fact, the Crimean Tatars played a major role in the Turkish defeat of Tsar Peter’s invasion of Ottoman Eastern Europe in 1711.

The incomparable Tatar horsemen also assisted the Ottoman sultans of Istanbul in their endless wars with the Christian West. The arrival of the Ottoman army in Eastern Europe was usually preceded by waves of mysterious Tatar horsemen, whom the Germans fearfully called “sackmen” and the Ottoman Turks admiringly called akinjis (literally “those who flow” over others’ lands). The only sign Christian villagers had that the fast riding Tatars were coming was the urgent ringing of the Turkenglocken (Turk Bells) warning them of their impending arrival. While the main Ottoman army had to build bridges to cross rivers, the Tatar cavalry swam them. The hardy Tatars did not need cumbersome wagon trains to carry their provisions, they lived off the land and on bits of raw meat warmed beneath their saddle (hence the term “steak tartar” today). Covering vast distances at speeds that could not be believed, the Tatar outriders and skirmishers overwhelmed Austrian Habsburg positions and swarmed beyond Vienna, looting, enslaving Christians, and destroying small concentrations of troops. The arrival of the Tatar Khan for an Ottoman campaign was an occasion of much rejoicing for the Turks who considered his horsemen to be invincible.

But the Tatars’ days as outriders for the Ottoman sultans gradually came to an end, largely due to events bigger than themselves. In the late seventeenth century the Ottoman Empire had begun to weaken and lose its dominant role in Eastern Europe. By 1683, the Ottoman tide had crested at the walls of Vienna and had been repulsed by the Austrian Habsburg Empire. The reasons for the success of the Christians had much to do with their advances in military science, from the invention of bayonets and lighter rifles to more powerful cannons and navies, as the decline of the increasingly conservative and inward looking Ottomans.

To the north of the Crimea, Russia had also made tremendous strides towards modernization under Tsar Peter the Great and Catherine the Great (1729–1796). It was Catherine who was to ultimately defeat the Crimean Khans and their Ottoman allies in battle and conquer and annex this strategic part of the Dar al Islam (Realm of Islam) in 1783 (the year America’s independence was recognized by Great Britain). The Ottoman sultan was said to have been devastated by the loss of his Crimean allies to the Rus kafirs (Russian infidels). As the horsetail standard of the Crimean Khans was replaced with the double head flag of imperial Russia, Europe’s last Tatars lost their independence and became subjects of the “White Tsarina” of St. Petersburg. For the Russians, the conquest of the Crimea was seen as a God-ordained act of a civilizing Christian power, much as the white man’s conquest of the Indians was in North America. It was this historic event that was to lead to the disintegration of the last independent Turko-Mongols of Europe under both the Russian Tsars and their successors, the Soviets. Under the Imperial Russians, the Crimean Tatars, whose ethnic origins went back to the eleventh-century Kipchaks and beyond to earlier south Crimean peoples, such as the Medieval Goths, Greeks and Italians, would begin to disintegrate as hundreds of thousands of the Tsarina’s new Muslim subjects fled Russian repression to the sheltering lands of the Ottoman sultans/caliphs. The majority of the Crimea’s Muslim Tatar peasants would ultimately leave the peninsula to partake in hijra (migration to preserve Islam from oppression by the nonbeliever) to the Ottoman Empire.

Photo of Crimean Tatars doing traditional dance in the terraced Tat mountains a few days before they were deported on 18 May 1944
Photo of Crimean Tatars doing traditional dance in the terraced Tat mountains a few days before they were deported on 18 May 1944.

The Crimean Tatars, whose realm once extended from Romania through the southern Ukraine to the northern Caucasus, were brought to the point of extinction under Soviet leader Josef Stalin’s genocidal policies. As the last of Europe’s Medieval Mongols were ethnically cleansed by the Soviets in 1944 and deported to the deserts of Soviet Central Asia, the very name Crimean Tatar was wiped off the official Soviet map and virtually forgotten in the West. Hundreds of thousands would die under the Romanov Tsars and Soviet commissars in a tragedy that not only saw this people come to the brink of extinction, but presaged the later ethnic cleansing of Muslims in the Balkans by the Serbs in the 1990s.

It was only with the rise of the liberal Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 that the Tatars began to return en masse from their places of exile in Uzbekistan and elsewhere to the shores of the Black Sea to rebuild their community. Today, a small remainder of the the population—perhaps 250,000 in all—is struggling to recreate its identity in a place that was Slavicized and populated with Russians and Ukrainians during the half century of Stalin-imposed exile in Central Asia.

This work will analyze this journey over time and space, whereby the remnants of the Crimean Tatars were scattered across Eurasia, from the Anatolian and Balkan provinces of the collapsing Ottoman Empire after the Crimean War of 1853–56 to the deserts of Soviet Uzbekistan during the maelstrom of World War II. In so doing, it will trace the extraordinary process whereby this people, who had always defined themselves in ancient tribal and folk Islamic terms, gradually came to identify themselves as a modern millet (“nation”) with links to a land they began to define as an ata vatan (“Fatherland”), in contemporary nationalistic terms. A thread that will be traced in this work is how the Tatars came to construct the Crimean Peninsula in the common imagination not as Dar al Kufr (the “Realm of the Infidel”, which good Muslims should abandon to live in the Dar al Islam), but as the unique patrimony and “Motherland” of the Crimean Tatar nation.

It will also shed light on perhaps one of the most interesting, yet understudied, cases of the transformation of a pre-modern tribal-Islamic peasant people into a modern secular nation. It was this process of nationalization, territorialization of collective identity and modernization that saved the last of the Crimean Tatars from complete extinction. This process allowed them to preserve their collective identity in the deportation years and begin a long national struggle to return from their Central Asian exile to the romanticized Kirim Adasi (“Crimean Island”) to reconstruct their shattered community in post-Soviet Ukraine.

Today, as the Crimea undergoes its second conquest and annexation by the Russians following President Vladimir Putin’s controversial seizure of the region in March 2014, the indigenous Tatars face an uncertain future in their natal land. As the most Russophobic population in the Crimea due to their long history of subjugation and displacement, the Crimean Tatars fear the worse. An understanding of their history of forced exile, genocide and revival as a nation puts their current fears in their proper historical context and helps explain their worries.

Brian Glyn Williams is Professor of Islamic History at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth. This is the Prologue of his latest book, The Crimean Tatars: From Soviet Genocide to Putin’s Conquest, which was published by Hurst in 2015.

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