Oleksii Plotnikov, PhD (International Judiciary)
The ethnic history of Crimean Tatars is complex and to a great degree underinvestigated. It is certain, that for millennia the Crimean Peninsula was a melting pot, where countless tribal and ethnic groups came into contact. Almost mythical Tauri met Cimmerian and Scythian nomads, while parts of Crimea were colonized by Greeks. Ostrogoths arrived in the Dark Ages as part of the great Barbarian migrations. The mountainous South of the Peninsula was a Byzantine and Genovese outpost, while the Northern steppes were invaded by new waves of nomads, including Khazars, Cumans, and Mongols. A Crimean Khanate emerged in the XV century, to become one of the mightiest and most important vassals of the Ottoman Empire. For the next three centuries, Crimea and Ukraine witnessed long periods of wars, interrupted by alliances of convenience. This was a time when both Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar identities came into being. Although related by blood as a result of long-lasting hostile and peaceful contacts, Ukraine and Crimea were different by language, religion, and culture. Crimean Tatars were and remain Sunni Muslims, speaking a language of Turkic origin, and their culture was shaped by Oriental and Mediterranean influences, as opposed to Ukraine, that is mostly Orthodox, speaking a Slavic language, and sharing a culture of Eastern Europe.
The origins and the national identity of the Crimean Tatars were described by Kırımlı , Fisher , Williams , and for the purposes of this paper there is no need to address them in detail. An important point is that Crimean Tatars are clearly distinct from the majority of the population of Ukraine and have an individual original identity.
Since XVIII century both Ukraine and Crimea were a part of the Russian Empire and later of the USSR. Between 1922 and 1954, the Crimean Peninsula, which is physically, historically, and economically connected to the Ukrainian mainland, was a part of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic. The Crimean Tatar Population grew slowly (194 thousand in 1897 and 218 thousand in 1939), while the Russian population tripled due to migration (180 thousand in 1897 and 558 thousand in 1939). Ukrainian population increased in a similar way (65 thousand in 1897 to 154 thousand in 1939), so the Crimean Tatars found themselves to be a minority on their own land.
The Second World War was disastrous for the Crimean Tatars. Apart from military and civilian casualties, they became one of the targets for Stalin’s campaign against “traitor-peoples”. On 18-20 May 1944, approximately 228 thousand people of all ages, including families of soldiers of the Soviet Army, were forcibly deported from Crimea to Uzbekistan and other destinations in Central Asia, where they had to start a new life without the right to return, but with the label of “traitors”. According to Pohl [4, p. 10], about 42 000 Crimean Tatars perished as a result of harsh transportation conditions, malnutrition, diseases, and poor living conditions between 1944 and 1951.
Although the Crimean Tatar people were not physically exterminated, efforts were taken to annihilate them as nationality and to erase the memory of their existence. As pointed out by Uehling , the erasure of Crimean Tatars was “holistic in nature”, including change of names of places in Crimea, destruction or transformation of mosques, prohibition to mention the Crimean Tatars in literature and art and attempts to assimilate the survivors.
In 1954, the Crimean Peninsula was transferred from the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. According to the 1959 census, there were only 417 Crimean Tatars left in Crimea, most of whom were women married to men of other nationalities, who were the only exception to the Soviet national deportation policies.
The official “charges” against the Crimean Tatar people were withdrawn in 1967, but the deportees were still not allowed to return, and those who tried to do it illegally, were deported back to their places of previous residence. At that time, Crimean Tatars became a notable part of the Soviet dissident and human rights movement, resulting in persecution and imprisonment of activists. Only in 1989, a commission formed by the Soviet Government decided that the Crimean Tatars might be allowed to return. [6, p. 41-42].
The homecoming of the Crimean Tatars, however, took place after Ukraine declared independence in 1991. Despite insufficient support from the state and ethnic tensions between the returnees and the local Russian and Ukrainian population, by 2001 there were about 248 thousand Crimean Tatars in Ukraine living in Crimea and adjacent areas. They formed bodies of national self-government (Quriltai and Mejlis), and in 1998 Mustafa Dzhemilev, a human rights activist, political dissident, and a recognized moral leader of the Crimean Tatar People, became member to the Ukrainian parliament.
Apart from scarce material assistance and some degree of political recognition, little was done by Ukraine before 2014 to help the Crimean Tatar people in overcoming the consequences of deportation. Measures like property restitution, reopening of places of worship, return of historical names to geographic objects, memorialization of deportation were from time to time discussed, but never implemented. Crimean Tatars were recognized as citizens of Ukraine but did not receive recognition of their suffering, and the question of restoration of their rights did not appear in the Ukrainian political agenda before 2014 when the Crimean Tatar question became an element of Ukraine’s strategy in combatting Russian aggression.
1. Kırımlı, Hakan. National Movements and National Identity among the Crimean Tatars (1905-1916). Leiden: Brill, 1996.
2. Fisher, Alan W. Crimean Tatars. Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 2014.
3. Williams, Brian. “The Ethnogenesis of the Crimean Tatars. An Historical Interpretation”. Journal of Royal Asiatic Society 11, no 3 (2001): 329-348.
4. Pohl, Otto. Ethnic Cleansing in the USSR, 1937-1949. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1999.
5. Uehling, Greta. “Genocides Aftermath: Neostalinism in Contemporary Crimea.” Genocide Studies and Prevention 9, no. 1 (2015): 3–17.
6. Uehling, Greta. Beyond Memory: The Crimean Tatars’ Deportation and Return. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.