Crimean Tatars – tragic past and uncertain present

News coverage of the current dramatic situation in Crimea has so far had little to say about the Tatars. Their history has been one of repression and deportation, but they should not be overlooked.

David Marples David F. Duke
3 March 2014

The Crimean Tatars have sometimes been overlooked during the recent events in Crimea that have resulted from Russia’s decision to send military forces on to the peninsula, allegedly to protect local Russians. While ethnic Russians comprise a majority of the population today, the Tatars’ association with the region is lengthy and complex: they regard it as their ancestral homeland, albeit one with a lengthy and often tragic past.

Early history

The Tatars originated with the Golden Horde, which overran Crimea in the mid-13th century. Settling there, they displaced the mainly Slavic population and ruled through local governors, paying lip service to the Tatar khans based in the city of Saray on the lower reaches of the Volga River.

In 1771 Russian troops arrived in Crimea and the Ottoman governor departed in haste.

By the late 14th century, the Tatar khans were seeking independence, a quest brought to a sudden halt by the arrival of the Ottoman Turks in the 1470s, though the Turks permitted the Tatars some autonomy over the following 300 years. Crimean Tatars took part in an active slave trade, based mainly on Slavic farm communities, one that incensed several Russian rulers.

A Oil painting of a Crimean Tatar engaging Polish cavalry on horseback.

A Crimean Tatar engages Polish cavalry on horseback. 'Taniec Tatarski', painting by Juliusz Kossak The situation changed as a result of the waning power of the Ottoman Empire through the 18th century and the growing strength and assertiveness of the Russian Empire over the same time period. Under Catherine the Great in 1771, Russian troops arrived in Crimea and the Ottoman governor departed in haste. The following year saw Russia’s establishment of an independent Crimean Khanate under its supervision, an arrangement confirmed by the 1774 Treaty of Kuchuk-Kainarji, by which Crimea formally gained independence from the Ottoman Empire. This ‘supervision’ heralded three more Russian invasions over the following decade.

Ultimately in 1783, Russia carried out the complete annexation of Crimea. By 1790, some 300,000 Tatars had left the peninsula and resettled in Turkey. The Russian government forced many of those that remained to leave their coastal homes and move to the interior. After the Crimean War of 1854-56, a further 230,000 Tatars migrated. By the end of the 19th century, the Tatars’ population was reduced to about one-third of what it had been prior to Russian annexation.

Twentieth century

By 1917, at the time of the fall of the tsarist regime in Russia, Tatars made up about a quarter of the population of the Crimea. Beginning in the late 19th century, there had been a significant national awakening among the Tatars in a movement led by Ismail Bey Gaspirali, who combined support for the Russian government with a programme to establish Tatar national identity. Brought to a halt by the reaction that followed the 1905 Russian Revolution, the movement revived with the Young Tatar nationalists, who were considerably more radical in their goals.

In May 1917, with Russia suffering major defeats on the Eastern Front, nationalist exiles returned to their homeland and proclaimed an autonomous state. In October they founded the Crimean Democratic Republic, but within a few months Bolshevik forces eliminated it. Before long Crimea descended into anarchy, with a variety of armies operating on its territory in the developing Russian Civil War. 

In the 1920s the Tatars enjoyed a period of national and cultural revival.

Once the war ended in favour of the Bolsheviks, Lenin introduced a new formulation: the Crimean Autonomous Socialist Republic within the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, allowing significant rights for the Tatars. Though the first years of this state were catastrophic, marked by starvation and mass deaths, in the 1920s the Tatars enjoyed a period of national and cultural revival.

That situation changed after Stalin took control over the USSR and began to Russify the peninsula. The Tatars were forced to use the Cyrillic alphabet, Tatar literature was declared to be anti-Soviet, and the NKVD removed Tatar political leaders, writers, and scientists in the purges of 1936-38.

Stalin and Khrushchev

When the German-Soviet war began, at which time the Tatars made up around 20% of the population (Russians comprised almost 50%, Ukrainians 13.7%), some Tatar leaders were not averse to the German-Romanian occupation. But the collaboration should be seen in perspective. One historian has calculated that about 20,000 Tatars served in subunits of the occupation forces— a figure that represented only about 10% of their pre-war population. 

In April 1944, when the Red Army recaptured Crimea, Stalin and his NKVD [secret police] chief L.P. Beria decided that the Tatars must be punished for their collaboration. The NKVD arrested and deported over 150,000 Tatars to Uzbekistan and other regions by 1 July. The final figure may have been as high as 228,500.  Perhaps 20% of the deportees died on the way there. A law issued in June 1946 confirmed that the Crimean Autonomous Republic had been abolished and Crimea’s status reduced to a region of Russia. 

Returned Crimean Tatars occupying a Crimean collective farm in 1989.

Returned Crimean Tatars occupying a Crimean collective farm in 1989. Photo (c) RIA Novosti/Valery ShustovThe current imbroglio dates from 1954, when at the behest of Nikita Khrushchev, Russia presented Crimea to Ukraine (then the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic) as a gift to commemorate 300 years of Russian-Ukrainian friendship, dating back to the 1654 Treaty of Pereyaslav, formed against the Poles. The ‘gift’ had little impact on politics prior to Ukrainian independence in 1991.

In 1986, Tatar leader Mustafa Djemilev was released from a Gulag camp in Magadan.

Over the following decades, the Tatars tried in vain to return. In 1967, 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. But by the end of the following year, only 148 Tatar families had returned. In 1986, Tatar leader Mustafa Djemilev was released from a Gulag camp in Magadan, having served 15 years in camps and internal exile.


In July 1987, former foreign minister Andrey Gromyko headed a commission authorised by Mikhail Gorbachev to investigate Tatar grievances. In June 1988 it rejected demands to restore Crimean autonomy. By now, with the development of glasnost, the protests only grew more raucous. Andrey Sakharov, the scientist and former dissident, was among those who adopted the Tatar cause.

In December 1991, 54.1% of Crimean residents also supported the independence of Ukraine in the national referendum

In January 1991, the Crimean parliament held a referendum on the future status of the region, in which more than 80% voted to restore autonomous status. Ethnic Russians backed the motion because they felt that autonomy was preferable following Ukraine’s declaration of sovereignty six months earlier.

Yet in December 1991, 54.1% of Crimean residents also supported the independence of Ukraine in the national referendum, a figure that suggests general satisfaction with that situation even among ethnic Russians. Russian president Boris Yeltsin stated unequivocally in December 1991 that only Ukraine could decide the question of Crimea.

Under independent Ukraine, the situation reached crisis point as early as April 1992, when the Presidium of the Crimean Parliament resolved to hold a referendum on independence the following August. In mid-May it declared its independence from Ukraine. The Russian Federation also demanded talks, while the Russian parliament and mayor of Moscow both declared that the port of Sevastopol, the base of the Black Sea Fleet, was a Russian city.

Map of Crimea showing percentage of the population that are Tatars in each region. Figures vary but do not exceed 30% in any one

Figures based on 2001 census. CC Image based on map by Riwnodennyk, additions by Daniel Kennedy, The Ukrainian parliament responded quickly to proclaim the declaration of independence invalid. It eliminated a further attempt to inflame the situation after the election of President Yury Meshkov in 1994, the head of the ‘Russian bloc.’  Meshkov had revived the concept of a referendum, but the Kyiv government once again stepped in and eventually abolished the Crimean presidency.

The Tatars are one of three major ethnic groups on the peninsula, making up just over 12% of the population there (Ukrainians 24% and ethnic Russians 59%). 77% of the peninsula population cite Russian as their first language. 

Though the history of Crimea is complex, both the Tatars and Ukraine are significant actors and today they have common interests. About 75% of basic provisions and 85% of electricity there derive from mainland Ukraine. Under Ukrainian rule, Tatars have regained their autonomous status. 

Moreover, the experience and legacy of Russian control remains for many Tatars a bitter one of trampled cultural beliefs and language, deportations, and general lack of recognition of their territorial rights. Tatars have been active in protests in recent years. Most have been concerned with their status on the peninsula rather than in Ukraine. They should not be forgotten or overlooked during the current crisis.

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