The Crimean Tatars

Updated: Aug 28, 2019

By: David Serpa

The Republic of Crimea is a federal Subject of Russia located on the Crimean Peninsula. With its capital in Simferopol, it also comprises the major city and federal subject of Sevastopol.

The Crimean Tatars, who have historically populated the region, have their own language, Crimean Tatar, which is thought to be a descendant of Cuman. The language was spoken by the Cuman people, a Turkic nomadic group of people which inhabited an area north of the Black Sea and along the Volga River.

Given most Tatars originally settled in Crimea, part of Ukraine until 2014, and now part of Russia, many of these people also speak Russian and Ukrainian. Their population in the Republic of Crimea is about 230,000, from a population of almost 2.1 million people (Khotin, Khalilov, Coalson, 2018).

There is also a significant presence of Crimean Tatars in Uzbekistan, other parts of Ukraine, and Turkey, while the United States has the largest diaspora of Crimean Tatars in the Western hemisphere (Altan, 2001). The largest diaspora and potentially largest number of Crimean Tatars in any country is found in Turkey, where estimates are very wide; they go from 150,000 to 6 million (Altan).

Crimean Tatars are distinguished by their religion; they adopted Sunni Islam when their leader Ozbeg Khan converted in the 14th century. They are also subdivided into three ethnic groups; the Southern Coast (Yalıboyu) Crimean Tatars, a Turkic ethnic subgroup of Oghuz origin, the Mountain (Tats or Tatlar) Crimean Tatars, a mix of the subgroups of Oghuz and Kipchak origin, and the Steppe (Noğay) Crimean Tatars, formed by the Turkic tribes of Kipchak origin (Dashkevich, 2008).

The Birth of the Crimean Tatars

In the 1240s, the Mongols, led by Batu Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, invaded parts of what today is Russia, including Crimea. He took the Kipchaks of the southern Ukrainian plains into his forces. Mongol and Kipchkak peoples mixed and were settled in Crimea, gradually converting to Islam, then becoming known as "Tatars".

This happened as the Khan of the Golden Horde, Ozbeg adopted Islam as his religion in the early 14th century. The Tatars inhabited the Golden Horde, a Khanate part of the Mongol empire for a while, until it separated in the 14th century (Crimean Tatar Resource Centre) (Conant, 2014). Khanates are a form of political entity defined by the rulership of a Khan, which mostly occurred in the Eurasian steppe.

The Tatars became local Khans in the region under Mongol rule, until the Ottomans conquered the region in the late 15th century. They allowed the Tatars some degree of autonomy, and the Crimean Khanate was born, founded by the House of Giray. Hacı I Giray became the first Khan.

The Crimean Khan was a distant descendant of Genghis Khan; all the Khans were part of the Giray clan and the Ottomans held veto power over the selection of the Khans until a crisis in the 16th century, after which the Khan was appointed by the Ottoman Sultan.

The Crimean Khanate and the Ottoman Empire

As a protectorate of the Ottoman Empire, the Crimeans collaborated with them in the slave trade, providing slaves from Southern Russia and parts of Ukraine. Crimea even became an important center during the slave trade due to its convenient location and proximity to Turkey; they traded with the Ottoman Empire as well as other parts of the Middle East.

It is estimated that between the 16th and 18th centuries over 2 million slaves were exported from Crimea (Kizilov, 2007). The Crimean economy was mostly based on trade, agriculture and artisanry, producing goods such as rugs, wine, silk, and honey (Inalcik, 1979).

Crimean cavalry was very important for some of the Ottoman’s campaigns. At its peak, the Khanate comprised most of the Crimean Peninsula, parts of Russia, Ukraine, and Moldova. Under Devlet I Giray, the Tatars led a successful campaign against the Grand Duchy of Muscovy, burning down the capital Moscow in the late 16th century, in the context of the Russo-Crimean Wars (Egorov, 2018).

One of the best-preserved remnants of the times of the Crimean Khanate is the Khan’s Palace in Bakhchisaray, which was the capital of Crimea during medieval times.

The Dark Century in Crimea

The raids by Russian Cossacks from Azak severely devastated the Crimean Khanate. Russians and Ukrainians constantly attacked and weakened the Khanate in the 17th and 18th centuries. During the Russo-Turkish war of the 1730s, Russia was able to enter Crimea, causing much destruction.

The latter war of the same name in the 1760s and 1770s led by Catherine the Great in Russia, eventually ended the affiliation of the Khanate with the Ottoman Empire through the treaty of Kuchuk-Kainarji. The Khanate became a Russian ally.

However, in 1783 Catherine the Great broke the treaty and annexed Crimea to the Russian empire, hence ending the 300-year long Crimean Khanate.

Under the control of Imperial Russia, things went very badly for the Crimean Tatars, so much so that the period after Crimea fell into Russia’s hands is called the ‘Dark Century’.

The Crimean Tatars largely lost autonomy over their own matters. Russians turned many Crimean Tatars into serfs and seized their lands, while also destroying cities and cultural sites.

Large numbers of Crimean Tatars fled and were expelled from the region, many of them resettling in Turkey. The exodus continued with subsequent battles in the 19th century such as the Crimean War of the 1850s and another Russo-Turkish War i the 1870s.

It is estimated that more than 200,000 Crimean fled after these wars, whereas about 300,000 had already left the region shortly after it was conquered by Russia (Crimean Tatar Resource Centre).

Despite this, there was some resistance and patriotic movements by some Crimean Tatars. The Crimean Tatar Revival was a movement led by intellectuals, who advocated for pride in Crimean Tatar culture and identity and in improving their conditions.

Most notable is Ismail Gasprinsky, who created the first newspaper in the Crimean Tatar language, Terciman, and urged his people to stay in Crimea.

He believed in secular democracy and worked as a politician, promoting education through various schools across the region (Crimean Tatar Resource Centre).

Crimea During The Soviet Union

As the Bolshevik Revolution and subsequent civil war unfolded in Russia, Crimea was one of the last regions where the White Army withstood the attacks.

In 1917, with the Civil War weakening much of Russia, the Crimean Tatars declared the Crimean Democratic Republic, the first democracy in the Islamic World.

Noman Çelebicihan, one of the most renowned Crimean intellectuals, participated in drafting the Crimean Constitution and was elected president and Justice Minister.

Unfortunately, the Republic of Crimea was very short-lived; once the Bolsheviks entered the region, they dissolved it. Noman Çelebicihan was captured and later executed (Duke, Marples, 2014).

The harshness endured by Crimean Tatars is comparable to that of the Dark Century. Early on, the famine between 1921 and 1923 killed about 15% of the Crimean population.

The Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was formed in 1921, belonging to Russia. Thus, in the 1920s, under Lenin, Crimean Tatars were given some rights and experienced a national, cultural revival.

However, when Stalin came to power, he tackled them precisely because of their cultural revival, sending the intelligentsia to labour camps. He began a process of “Russifying” the region; Tatars were forced to use the Cyrillic alphabet, Tatar literature was declared anti-Soviet, and Tatar political leaders were removed.

By 1940, only 20% of the peninsula’s population was Crimean Tatar (Conant, 2014). In 1944, Stalin restarted a punishment which still lived in the minds of many Crimean Tatars.

The deportation of Crimean Tatars, known as Surgun, began after the NKVD (secret police) order "On Measures to Clean the Territory of the Crimean Autonomous Republic of Anti-Soviet Elements".

A number of Crimean Tatars collaborated with the Nazis, so Stalin accused the whole of Crimean Tatars of being traitors. There was a Tatar Legion in the Nazi army and the Crimean Tatar religious and political leaders collaborated with Hitler during the German occupation of Crimea, which Stalin used to justify accusing the entire Crimean Tatar population of being Nazi collaborators.

Most were sent to Central Asia, especially to Uzbekistan. About 200,000 Crimean Tatars were deported in May 1944, and more than 40,000 died shortly after or on the process.

In 1954, after Stalin was gone and Khrushchev gave Crimea to Ukraine to commemorate the 300-year anniversary of Ukraine’s merger with the Russian Empire.

In 1967, the return of the exiled slowly began as the USSR Supreme Soviet issued a law that acknowledged the deportations were unjust in that they extended to the entire population rather than being restricted only to the alleged collaborators. Mustafa Dzhemilev, Crimean exile and Soviet dissident was released from prison in 1986 after 15 years.

In 1989, the Supreme Soviet of the USSR created a special commission on the problems of the Crimean Tatars. In November 1989, it adopted the declaration "On recognition of illegal and criminal repressive acts against the peoples who were forcibly displaced, and on ensuring of their rights" and the decree "On the problems of Soviet Germans and Crimean Tatars."

In July 1990, the USSR Council of Ministers adopted the decree "On urgent measures to address the issues related to the return of the Crimean Tatars to the Crimean region." After that, many more Crimean Tatars returned their homeland (Aurelie, 2008) (Crimean Tatar Resource Centre).

Ukrainian Crimea

After the dissolution of the USSR, in 1991 the Qurultay, the national congress of Crimean Tatars was created, and a system of national self-government of the Crimean Tatars was established. Every five years elections are held for a new Qurultay.

The Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People form their executive body, and represent Crimean Tatars with the Ukrainian government. For a long time, former Soviet prisoner Mustafa Dzhemilev was the Head of the Mejlis.

While there was a significant presence of Russian separatists who wanted Crimean independence in the 1990s, most Crimean Tatars wanted to stay with Ukraine.

After a referendum, a declaration by the Crimean Qurultay for Crimea to be independent, the Ukrainian government rendered this invalid.

While many Crimean Tatars returned to their homeland, the population remained low compared to ethnic Russians and Ukrainians, at less than 20% percent.

The Russian Annexation of Crimea in 2014

The period of Crimea as part of Ukraine was short-lived. A number of factors are behind the Russian government’s actions in 2014.

In the midst of the Ukrainian revolution and crisis which resulted in the ousting of president Yanukovych, Crimeans also started demonstrations against the new government, as most had supported Yanukovych. Protests also spread around the peninsula by pro-Russia supporters and groups.

The calls grew for Crimea to return to Ukraine and a referendum to decide whether to join Russia or stay in Ukraine and restore the 1992 Constitution was held in March, both in Sevastopol and the Republic of Crimea, and it involved presence of pro-Russian Security Forces in Crimea during the process.

Only Crimean residents with Ukrainian passports were allowed to vote (Morris, 2014) (Bayrasli, 2019).

96% of the people reportedly voted to join Russia and a new leader, Sergei Aksyonov, was installed. The US and the European Union said the referendum was illegal, but Aksyonov committed to joining Russia and Putin accepted the move.

Western leaders claimed that the presence of pro-Russian security forces coerced many people’s votes. The Crimean parliament was then dissolved and Crimea became part of Russia on March 16.

In April 2014, the Crimean Tatar leader, Mustafa Dzhemilev, the head of the Mejlis, was barred from entering Crimea after being abroad during the referendum. He has been in exile since.

At least about a quarter of a million Russians are said to have relocated to Crimea since the annexation (Khotin et al., 2018).

Crimean Tatars often face problems with unemployment, language problems, access to housing, sanitation and overcrowding due to competition with other ethnic groups. In April 2016, the Russian Supreme Court banned the Mejlis, calling it extremist.

From the Crimean Tatar perspective, the annexation was inadmissible given Russia’s past presence in the country, that still lives in the collective memory. Many Crimean Tatars who live in Turkey are unhappy that Turkish government is not applying more pressure on Russia.

Crimean Tatar Cuisine

Crimean Tatar cuisine is something that every visitor to the region must be familiar with. It has been influenced by those communities surrounding Crimea, hence it is a combination of Russian, Ukrainian, Krymchak, Georgian, Italian and Greek cuisines.

Meats of different types and cooked in various ways are central to the gastronomy of Crimea. Much of the Crimean Tatar cuisine includes savoury pastries and pies of different kinds.

Cheburek is possibly the most easily recognized signature treat of Crimean Tatar cuisine. It translates as “meat pie” yet it has the form of a large turnover. The dough is made of yeast-less flour and usually stuffed with a mix of minced beef or lamb with minced onions and peppers.

Chebureks can also be filled with different types of cheese instead of meat. This is then fried at a very high temperature until its crunchy and golden.

It can be found all throughout Crimea and it is a very popular street food, yet it can be found in restaurants too (Krylov, Gazeta, 2015).

Another popular Crimean food is Tandyr Samsa, also often food in the street. It is a fast food, a savoury pastry, made of bread dough or a layered pastry dough, similar to phyllo pastry.

The filling is often the same as Cheburek, although there are many other varieties including vegetarian (potato or pumpkin) including chicken. Samsas are baked in a clay oven called tandoor (Lysenko, 2016).

Rice pilaf is a common dish for Tatars, made with vegetables such as onions and carrots, seasoned with different spices and often accompanied by pieces of meats such as lamb.

Some of the favourites of Crimean Tatars are lagman and shurpa.

Shurpa is a mutton soup with finely chopped vegetables such as onions, sweet peppers or chickpeas, and the composition varies throughout the region. Lagman is similar to a soup but it has a thicker texture. Its base is a meat broth with long noodles, vegetables and aromatic spices (Lysenko, 2016).


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