Crimean Tatars live in the Black Sea region of Russia, Ukraine and Romania. Their homeland in the warm and strategic Crimean peninsula is contested by Russia and Ukraine. Turkic by language and Muslim by faith, Tatars claim descent from the Mongol Horde.
The Mongols invaded Russia in the 13th century, slaughtering hundreds of thousands. The Europeans called them ‘Tatars’ and the name stuck. The Tartars of Crimea descend from those Mongols, the Kipchaks who fought with them, and the Turks, Scythians and Goths who came before. They have been Sunni Muslims since the 1400s and are close cousins of the Volga, Nogai and Siberian Tatars of Russia and the Lipka Tatars of Lithuania.
Crimean Tatars are well integrated in Turkey and a protected minority in Romania. In the Crimea itself, where most live, they are not so lucky.
The Crimean Khanate, founded by a descendant of Genghis Khan, ruled Crimea and the Ukraine from 1478 to 1783 and provided cavalry and slaves for their allies the Ottoman Empire. Russian settlement began after Catherine the Great conquered Crimea in 1783. Since then, the Tatar population has fallen from 83 to 15%.
In 1856 after losing the Crimean War, the Tsars imposed Russian as Crimea’s official language and replaced Tatar place names with Russian ones. Many Tatars emigrated to Turkey and Romania.
The Crimean Tartars suffered under Communism. The White Army made its final stand at Crimea, and the Soviets subsequently deemed the Tatars a ‘suspect nationality’, whose way of life threatened the revolution. The Soviets converted Crimean mosques into cinemas and ‘atheist museums’ and sent 40,000 intellectuals to the Gulag. 75,000 Tatars starved to death in the 1930s.
Such was their hatred for Stalin and the USSR, some Tatars collaborated with the Nazis in WW2. When Stalin retook Crimea in 1944, he held the entire people accountable, even Red Army officers. The Soviets bound all the Crimean Tatars in freight trains and deported them to Central Asia. 20% died on the way and Stalin forbade anyone in Crimea from mentioning its lost inhabitants. The Tatars mourn the event every year on the 18th of May.
Return was not possible until the 1980s, when 280,000 resettled en masse without compensation. When Ukraine gained independence, Crimean Tatars were afforded equal rights for the first time.
Blue – Russia, green – Ukraine, black – Crimea
The honeymoon did not last. In 2014 Crimea voted to leave Ukraine and join Russia. The Tatars were opposed and Russian authorities took note. Upon annexation, although granting it official status, Russia closed Tatar language television stations, newspapers and schools to prompt assimilation. On charges of inciting separatism or Islamist terror, Tatar activists were detained, tortured and imprisoned while skinheads desecrated Tatar graves. Despite the charges, there has been no political violence, only peaceful protest. In 2014 the UN declared the Crimea referendum a sham and Russia’s annexation a breach of international law. No government or body, however, was willing to challenge it.
The Crimean Tatar language is related to Turkish, derived from the language of the Kipchaks, a people who once lived in the region. Before the Russian Revolution, the entire peninsular – Tatars, Russians and Jews alike, spoke it. According to UNESCO, it is now critically endangered.
Sources: Al Jazeera, Crimea Dekoder, Foreign Policy, Human Rights Watch, National Geographic, Open Democracy, UNESCO, United Nations, Washington Post