A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, February 28, 2014

When the Crimea Was a Muslim Power

Most of the reporting of the crisis in the Crimea has focused on ethnic Russians battling ethnic Ukrainians, but there is another ethnicity that ruled Crimea before either country: The Crimean Tartars. Under the pressure of Russification and, during World War II, of mass deportations to Central Asia and ethnic cleansing by Stalin,they are a minority in Crimea today. But from 1441 to 1783 the Crimean Khanate was a major cultural and political player between the expanding Tsarist State and the Ottoman Empire.

Crimean Khanate c. 1600 (Wikipedia)
The Khanate originated as a tribal secessionist movement from the larger Khanate of the Golden Horde. They proclaimed a descendant of Genghis Khan, Haci Giray, as their Khan. Though originating as an offshoot of the old Mongol Empire, the Crimean Tartars spoke three distinct Turkic dialects. In 1441, after a lengthy war, the Crimean Tartars won independence of the Golden Horde, ruling most of Crimea and adjacent areas of the Russian and Ukrainian steppe.

During a succession struggle, the Ottomans intervened and drove out the last Greek and Genoese colonies from the Crimean coast. The Ottomans kept the coast but left the Khanate to rule the rest as an Ottoman protectorate. Over the centuries the Tartars had been Islamized, maintaining an independent policy in loose alliance with the Ottomans.

In the 16th century the Khanate sought to portray itself as the heir of the Golden Horde and claim sovereignty over Kazan and Astrakhan, leading it into a direct rivalry with the rising Russian state. Successive wars drove back the Ottomans and brought the khanate more and more under Russian influence; in 1783, Catherine the Great annexed the Crimea to Russia. At the time, he Tartars are estimated to have constituted 98% of the population.

In the 19th century there was a reawakening of Tartar ethnic identity, and after the Bolshevik Revolution there was a Crimean Autonomous Republic. At that point the Crimean Tartars were still over 20% of the population.

Even before World War II, Stalin's ethnic policies began to repress Tartar nationalism, with widespread arrests and deportations. The language was banned and Russification imposed. Then came the German invasion in 1941, which drove into the Crimea seeking to reach the oilfields of the Caucasus. After Russia rolled back the Nazis, Stalin accused the Crimean Tartars of collaboration with the enemy. On May 18, 1944, the entire surviving population of Crimean Tartars were deported en masse, mostly to Uzbekistan but also to other Soviet regions. Half are said to have died en route. (The Chechens were also accused off collaboration and deported.) It was ethnic cleansing on a vast scale.

Tartar place names were replaced with Russian and the Crimean Autonomous Republic became first, a mere region. Then, in 1954, Crimea, previously part  of the Russian Republic of the USSR, was transferred to Ukraine, which adds to the tensions today.

It was not until 1989, in the waning days of the USSR, that the Soviet Union finally allowed the Crimean Tartars (and the Volga Germans, also deported) to return to their homelands, and only in the 1990s did the return gain momentum. The number back in Crimea is probably below 200,000, a distinct minority (11% or 12% at most) settled on relatively poor lands.

They not only remember their exile (which ended only in the 1990s) but, like the Chechens, are not terribly fond of the Russian populations that replaced them in their homeland. Need I tell you that in the past few days they have been regularly clashing with ethnic Russians in Crimea, which otherwise dominates that region?


David Mack said...

Nice to have this perspective on the Ruisso-Ukrainian crisis. Probably means no support in Turkey for Putin's aims, whatever they are.

Michael Collins Dunn said...

Putin's aims are three: the Black Sea Fleet, the Black Sea Fleet, and the Black Sea Feet, though rarely mentioned by Western commentators... Since Catherine the Great Russia has fought for warm water access. This isn't fully about Ukraine; it's about Sevastopol, Russia's critical southern naval base, now leased from Ukraine.
Their Guantanamo, in a sense.

Anonymous said...

This great reveiw of the Crimea issues leaves out one crucial part of the history: the white slave trade was a major part of the Khanate's economy for centuries, supplying both the slave market in Istanbul and via private Genoese ships markets further south in the Mediterranean. It is estimated that over 2 million Ukrainians and Russians met this fate during this period.