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Crimean Tatars

Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World
Author(s):

Brian Glyn Williams

Crimean Tatars. 

The Crimean Tatars are a small Turcic-Muslim nation living on the Crimean Peninsula in what is today Ukraine with small communities scattered in Uzbekistan and the Russian Federation. This ethnic group currently faces numerous difficulties as it attempts to recover from a series of disastrous expulsions and ethnic cleansings that saw them driven close to extinction.

Ancient History.

The Crimean Tatars formed as a distinct ethnic group from the eleventh to the fifteenth centuries. This occurred when Kipchaks, nomadic Turkic horsemen from the vast Eurasian steppe began to amalgamate with older, settled populations living on the Crimeaʾs southern shores. The final process of “ethnogenesis” was completed when the Mongols of Chinggis Khan and Batu Khan conquered the Crimea and surrounding steppe lands and their descendents converted to Sūfī (mystical) Islam.

When the Mongol Golden Horde collapsed in the 1400s, the Muslim Tatars of the Crimea created their own khanate under the Giray dynasty which was to rule the Crimea and neighboring plains of the mainland until 1783. During this period the Crimean khanate forged an alliance with the greatest Muslim state of the time, the Ottoman Empire.

Under the protection of the Ottoman sultans, the Crimean khans engaged in an independent foreign policy that saw them burn Ivan the Terrible 's Moscow in 1571. Although the Crimean Tatars came to be feared as raiders by the Russians and Ukrainian cossacks, their actions were done, in part, to prevent Orthodox-Slavic settlers from encroaching on their lands.

The Crimean khanate 's capital, Bahchesaray, was located in the southern mountains of the Crimean Peninsula. This was a bustling city filled with mosques, bazaars, madrasahs, and artisans. During this period Islam acted as a unifying force as the Russian Empire crept closer and closer to the Crimean khanate.

By 1774 the Russians, using superior numbers and gunpowder technology, crushed the Crimean Tatars and their Ottoman protectors; they annexed the state nine years later.

The Crimean Tatars under Russia.

As Russian-Christian colonists began to settle in their lands, many Crimean Tatars found their Islamic way of life threatened. In this premodern era such modern concepts as nationalism and “fatherland” had not been introduced and most Crimean Tatars saw themselves in premodern tribal or religious terms. For these oppressed Tatar peasants the Crimea had ceased to be dār al-Islām (the land of Islam), it was now dār al-harb (the land of war).

Thus began a mass process of emigration that saw tens of thousands of destitute Tatar peasants migrate to the Ottoman Empire which was defined in their imagination as ak toprak (holy “white soil”). The greatest single migration occurred in the aftermath of the Crimean War of 1853–1856. This war saw dozens of Tatar villages burnt by Cossacks, and as much as two thirds of the Crimean Tatar population fled to the lands of the Ottoman sultan-caliph seeking refuge.

By the late nineteenth century the Crimean Tatars were a group of inwardly looking Muslim peasants with little sense of politicized ethnolinguistic national identity around which to rally their culture. It was at this time that a Crimean Tatar intellectual who had lived in Moscow and the Ottoman Empire named Ismail Gaspralï (Gasprinskii) began a process of enlightenment. This was to begin transforming this conservative peasant people into a modern, politically mobilized nation.

Gaspralī (1851–1914) opened a series of schools in the Crimea known as Nizam-i Cedid (New Order) that introduced Crimean Tatars to new techniques for learning to read and write. From this core of students would emerge a modernist movement known as the Young Tatars that would begin to fight for Crimean Tatar lands. This educational system, which was bolstered by Gaspralï 's widely read newspaper Tercuman (the Translator), also began the process of redefining Crimean Tatar collective identity. In the process Gaspralï 's more nationalist followers came to define the Crimea not as dār al-harb to be abandoned in the name of preserving Islamic identity, but as the inalienable ana vatan (motherland) of the Crimean Tatar nation.

The Soviet Period.

During World War I and the subsequent Russian civil war, the Crimean Tatar nationalists joined with the Communist Bolsheviks in the hopes of having their national rights recognized by Lenin. Finally, in 1921, Lenin recognized the Crimean Tatars as a nation and the Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was established. The Crimea 's korrenoi narod (native people) the Tatars became the recipients of a policy known as korenizatsiia (state-sponsored national identity protection). This period saw the peninsula 's indigenous Tatar people secularized as religion was pushed out of the public sphere by the Communist government. Ironically, this process also led to further identification with the Crimea as a national homeland.

But this development came to an end in World War II when the Nazis invaded the Crimea. Unfairly accused of being traitors, the entire Crimean Tatar nation was brutally deported to the depths of Soviet Central Asia by Stalin in May of 1944. Approximately one in three Crimean Tatars died in the process.

Scattered far from their natal lands and living in impoverished conditions among Uzbeks and others, the Crimean Tatars might have disappeared as a nation in the succeeding decades. Instead, they rallied around the concept of their ata vatan (fatherland) and fought a long battle to return to the romanticized yeshil ada (green island) of the Crimea which had been settled with Russians in their absence. The Crimean Tatars were led by such dissidents as Mustafa Dzhemilev, who heroically refused to back down in his demands for the return of his people to the Crimea even after he was arrested by the KGB and exiled to Siberia.

In 1989 Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev allowed a small group of Tatars to return. When the Soviet Union collapsed two years later this trickle became a flood and today approximately 250,000 Crimean Tatars (more than half their population) are rebuilding their nation in their cherished homeland.

Bibliography

Allworth, Edward, ed.The Tatars of the Crimea: Return to the Homeland, 2nd ed.Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1998.Find this resource:

    Fisher, Alan. The Crimean Tatars. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press. 1978.Find this resource:

      Kirimli, Hakan. National Movements and National Identity among the Crimean Tatars. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1996.Find this resource:

        Williams, Brian Glyn. The Crimean Tatars: The Diaspora Experience and the Forging of a Nation.Leiden and Boston: E. J. Brill, 2001.Find this resource:

          Brian Glyn Williams