Crimean Tatars

views updated May 21 2018

Crimean Tatars

ETHNONYMS: Krymskie Tatary, K'rymtatarlar, Tavricheskie Tatary


Identification. The Crimea had been settled by diverse Asian and European peoples for 2,500 years before becoming the ancestral homeland of the Crimean Tatars in the fourteenth century. Since then the ethnic mix has continued to be notable. From the early fifteenth century, the Crimea was dominated by a Tatar Khanate ruled by the Giray family. Following the region's conquest by Russian armies in 1783, it was incorporated into the Russian Empire, eventually becoming part of Tavricheskaia Province (guberniia ). As the civil war between Bolshevik and anti-Bolshevik forces wound down, the Crimea was designated the Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic on 18 October 1921. Following the forced exile of nearly the entire Tatar population in May 1944, however, that status was abrogated and the region transferred to the administrative control of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (RSFSR) in 1946. In 1954 the Crimea became an oblast within the Ukrainian SSR. Tatar petitions for restoration of autonomous status and transferrai of their homeland to the RSFSR once again were submitted to Communist party and state authorities in the last years of the Soviet Union. With most of the Crimean Tatars dispersed in Central Asia (principally in the Krasnodar region [Kherson Oblast] of Uzbekistan, in and around Tashkent) and still severely limited in their right to return home, their numbers in the Crimea account for less than 1 percent of the population, the bulk of which is made up of Russians and Ukrainians. By 1993, however, about 250,000 Crimean Tatars had returned to the Crimea and about 700,000 were living elsewhere in the former Soviet Union.

Location. The Crimea is a peninsula bounded on the north by the rest of Ukraine, on the east by the Sea of Azov, and on the south and west by the Black Sea. Its location is approximately 44° to 46° N and 32° to 38° E. Topographically the region is divided into three parts: the steppe lowland in the north, constituting little more than 75 percent of the peninsula, a range of foothills and low mountains to the south (about 20 percent), and a narrow coastal lowland along the Black Sea shore. Semiarid and treeless, the steppe lowland has a continental climate, with mild winters (mean January temperature is about 0° C) and hot summers (mean July temperature is about 23° C). Average annual rainfall is between 27 and 40 centimeters. Lower temperatures and higher precipitation distinguish the mountains from the surrounding regions. The southern shore, Mediterranean in climate and flora, has long been famous among tourists and spa seekers.

Demography. Beginning in 1946 the Crimean Tatars ceased to be officially recognized as a distinct ethnic group, instead being subsumed under a broader Tatar rubric. As a consequence, the best current demographic information results largely from informal surveys conducted by the Crimean Tatars themselves and statistical extrapolations yielding gross approximations of between 1.1 and 1.3 million. Better figures were expected from the 1989 census, which restored "Crimean Tatar" to the list of nationalities, but a preliminary total from unpublished data of only 268,739 Crimean Tatars suggests that the demographic situation remains confused.

Linguistic Affiliation. Crimean Tatars speak a language of their own (Crimean Tatar) that survived Soviet political assault for forty-five years. It is part of the Kipchak Branch of the Turkic Family, with significant influences from Anatolian (Ottoman) Turkish, itself belonging to the Oghuz Branch. The Turkic languages are, in turn, part of the larger Uralo-Altaic community of languages. Until 1928 Crimean Tatar was written with the Arabic script; in that year the Arabic script was replaced by the Latin, which was in turn replaced by the Cyrillic in 1938-1939. Today Crimean Tatar intellectuals, in their literary journal Yildiz, are fostering a revival of the Arabic script both as a gesture of ethnic independence and as a vehicle for reading the rich corpus of literary treasures that their culture has produced. Some debate has also ensued over the "purity" of the language (i.e., the appropriateness of inclusion of foreign words) and its orthography in Cyrillic.

History and Cultural Relations

The Crimean Tatars are culturally linked to the western Turkic group that includes the Ottoman Turks and the Azerbaijanis. They entered the historical record as "Tatars" in the aftermath of the Mongol conquest of the Crimean Peninsula and surrounding territory in the mid-thirteenth century. By the 1440s they had succeeded in establishing their own state, the Crimean Khanate, albeit under Ottoman hegemony from 1475. The khanate survived until the Russian conquest and incorporation of its territory in 1783. The reigning Russian monarch, Catherine II, sought to develop the Crimea by providing incentives for thousands of foreign agriculturalists (most of them Germans) and other skilled people to settle the region. Much of the peninsula's farmland, abandoned by Tatars who opted to emigrate in periodic waves that may have eventually totaled 1 million by the end of the nineteenth century, was turned over to European immigrants or distributed to privileged Russians who brought serfs from the empire's inner provinces for labor. Under the czars, economic exploitation, social discrimination, and cultural imperialism weighed heavily on the Tatars who did not emigrate and gave rise by the end of the nineteenth century to nationalist aspirations.

Those sentiments were only partially fulfilled under the Soviet system during the 1920s and were subsequently repressed brutally, along with much of the Tatar intelligentsia, in the 1930s with Stalin's rise to preeminence. The crushing blow occurred in 1944 when, despite the service of large numbers of men in the Red Army and in anti-Nazi partisan units, the entire Crimean Tatar people was falsely accused of collaboration with the Nazis and deported to Central Asia and the southern Ural Mountains. This forced exile may have cost the lives of one-half of the Tatar population. Those who survived not only lost their homeland and much of their property but were subjected to special, and exceedingly restrictive, regulations governing their economic, educational, and cultural opportunities. In effect, they were denied any public identity. Since the mid-1950s the Crimean Tatars have waged a relentless campaign for the restoration of their former rights, including the right to return to the Crimea.

In recent decades the Crimean Tatars have been remarkably active as a dissident minority, although they have carefully avoided taking steps that might antagonize the Central Asian populations among whom they have involuntarily lived for over four decades. Efforts to return to the Crimea in large numbers hold the potential for difficulties with the large Russian and Ukrainian communities that now dominate the region.


Since their forced resettlement in Central Asia and adjacent regions, the Crimean Tatars have been primarily an urban people engaged overwhelmingly in industrial work. In the Crimea, they traditionally had been mainly agriculturalists (and, to a lesser degree, pastoralists), residing in small villages (typically less than thirty households at the beginning of the nineteenth century, dropping to even lower averages as the century progressed). The Crimea today has fifteen cities and over fifty towns, with nearly 70 percent of the population classified as urban.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Under the czars, the Crimean Tatars concentrated their economic activity in animal husbandry, vegetable farming, and orcharding, but some began to plant grain (especially wheat) in the north, whereas others took up viticulture and tobacco growing in the south. Food production remains the main economic activity in the Crimea today, and presumably the Tatars would be quite involved had their recent history been more normal.

Industrial Arts. Some engage in part-time craft work, to a significant degree as part of the larger effort to preserve traditional culture in the face of tremendous official hostility.

Trade. Within the Central Asian environment particularly, some open-air marketing takes place.

Division of Labor. Both Turkic and Islamic traditions have shaped the division of labor along gender lines typical of premodern societies, although restrictions on female activity had something to do with socioeconomic status as well. Thus veiling was largely limited to women of means who did not have to work in public. Emancipation of women was increasingly encouraged by Tatar reformers beginning in the second half of the nineteenth century and was further supported by certain features of Bolshevik ideology and practical policy since 1917, although social practice lags behind in the workplace and, in particular, in family relations.

Land Tenure. Under the czars, Crimean Tatars were one of the few groups not to experience serfdom directly, and, despite difficulties in retaining control of land for economic reasons during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many held land privately or collectively through their villages. With the collectivization of Soviet agriculture by the early 1930s, however, private ownership of land ceased to be possible, and Tatar farmers became employees of the state, as did all other Soviet peasants. The laws regarding land tenure and usage are currently in a state of flux, with the current tendency toward restoring private rights and opportunities.

Kinship, Marriage, and Family

The most important kinship group in Tatar history has been the family. Under the khanate the family was extended and patrilocal, with great clans dominating society. The power of the clans was severely diminished following the Russian conquest, but they continued to enjoy social prominence as a reward for service to the Russian government. Although no systematic study has been done of the social and familial consequences of the repeated waves of mass emigration, the evidence indicates that they weakened the extended character of Tatar families. Interestingly, the family has been rendered all the more socially significant since 1944 because of Soviet policies that have done little to support the cultural and social identity of the Crimean Tatars. The family has been the preserver of group memory, cultural legacy, and language. Since the Tatars have not been the subject of statistical or socioanthropological examination for nearly half a century, information relating to the whole range of kinship and familial practices and concerns is unavailable. They are, however, one of the most endogamous peoples in the former USSR, with up to 91 percent of those who marry doing so within the group.

Sociopolitical Organization

The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was divided administratively into sixteen republics, each with a hierarchy of subdivisions, some of which were designated autonomous republics or districts, as the Crimea once was. Being an oblast within the Ukrainian SSR, the Crimea was the responsibility of the republic's party and state apparatus.

Social Organization. During the period of the Crimean Khanate, social organization hinged largely on the preeminence, at first, of five great clansthe Giray, Sirin, Argin, Barin, and Kipcakand, later, two othersMansur Oglans and Sicuvutsthat held virtual hereditary possession of the vast majority of productive lands in the peninsula and economic and political authority over most of the population and the military forces. Below these clans were others that formed the Tatar aristocracy (mirzas ), members of which may have been genealogically linked to the larger clans. Most of the Crimean Tatars were free peasants (protected in their rights by Islamic law) or herdsmen. Members of the traditional aristocracy as well as some other enterprising persons who did not emigrate following the Russian conquest were able to retain or acquire noble status through service within the imperial bureaucracy or military. A classless society in theory, the USSR nevertheless developed a class structure, based largely on access to Communist party and government apparatuses. Typically the Crimean Tatars would have experienced this no differently than other Soviet ethnic groups; however, owing to the dissident stance they have collectively taken for the past several decades, they have not shared in the benefits that the system provided. Though not necessarily anti-Soviet, they were generally indifferent to the social organization around them. For them, status increasingly is associated with contribution to the ethnic cause.

Political Organization. The political organization of the former Soviet Union is in flux, with reforms affecting not only the traditional administrative and controlling institutions but generating new ones and new political procedures at all levels. As part of Tatar efforts to force redress of long-standing grievances and as a reflection of their dissidence, the Tatars have forged their own organizations (commonly called "initiative groups") that, because of their purposes, have functioned in quasi-political ways.

Social Control. Soviet ideology, particularly as institutionalized during the Stalinist era, had been the key in promoting intellectual and social uniformity and, it was assumed, ensuring not only the resolution but the elimination of social conflict. Authorities in the late Soviet era more readily admitted, however, that the apparent social harmony was to a large degree a fiction generated by the extraordinary insistence on conformity. For decades, widespread fear of frequently abused official power virtually stilled public opinion. Challenging this fundamental feature of Soviet society since the late 1950s, the Crimean Tatars struggled to generate and influence public opinion regarding their plight.

Conflict. Interethnic tensions between Tatars and other peoples of the former Soviet Union have been muted but may increase as Tatars if allowed in large numbers to resettle their homeland.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs and Practices. The principal religion of the Crimean Tatars is Islam, and as Muslims they are Sunnis of the Hanafi school. Founded in the eighth century by abu-Hanafa and being one of the four approaches to Islamic jurisprudencediffering by emphasizing secondary principles determining law, after the Quranthe Hanafi school is more liberal than the others in its insistence on the right of juridical speculation, particularly analogical deduction. Almost one-half of all Muslims adhere to this school. Its traditional center was the Ottoman Empire, with which the Crimean Tatars were closely tied. During the history of the khanate, religion and culture were intimately linked, not an atypical relationship within an Islamic society.

At the time of the Russian conquest, a survey revealed 1,542 mosques, 25 madrassas (higher schools of theology), and 35 maktabs (primary schools) scattered about the peninsula. Following the peninsula's incorporation into the Russian Empire, these numbers declined precipitously, along with the reduction of the population resulting from emigration. The Muslim clergy were brought within the Russian bureaucratic structure and granted salaries. Until the early twentieth century, the status of the Islamic religion among Crimean Tatars was low and subject to frequent criticism, although calls for reform were beginning to have their effect. Not long after the October Revolution, the militant atheism of Bolshevik ideology, coupled with Soviet power, virtually eliminated all public practice of the faith (there are no mosques for the Tatar population), but it was never able to root out the sociocultural influences of Islam affecting the private rites of birth, marriage, and death. When out of necessity during World War II Stalin's regime conceded some official organization to Soviet Muslims, Crimean Tatars were placed nominally under the Spiritual Directorate of Central Asia and Kazakhstan. More recently, demands for restoration of religious rights have been made to the authorities, including reestablishment of a separate directorate for Crimean Tatars alone; in addition, appeals for support from Muslims abroad have been issued, suggesting a turn to religion as an alternative to the uninspiring dicta of Marxism-Leninism. The influence of Islam finds current expression in the practice of circumcision as well as in the exercise of religious rites associated with marriage and burial. Fasting during the month of Ramadan is observed, although how widely is not clear; and at least some applications for travel visas to perform the hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) have been made.

Arts. Tatar culture has a rich tradition of oral and written poetry, chronicle prose, music, and visual arts drawn from Turkic roots as well as the Arabo-Persian sources of Islam. In the sixteenth century, for example, a whole school of poetry, much influenced by contemporary Ottoman poetry, evolved around the alim Kefevi Alshayh Abu Bakr Efendi. Although examples of written literature from the pre-1783 centuries do not abound, a number of historical chronicles have survived, including Tarih-i Sahib Giray, Tevarih Dest-i Kipcak, Ucuncu Islam Giray Khan Tarihi, and the most useful for Tatar history and culture, Asseb' o-sseiiar'. Traditional Tatar folk music was typically Turkic in composition and instrumentation, with the most prominent instruments being the zuma (flute), tulup-zurna (a kind of bagpipe), varieties of dumbelek (drums), as well as string devices such as the kemanche (played with a bow), the santyr (struck with hammers), and the saz (plucked).

Tatar literate culture suffered immensely in consequence of the Russian conquest until its revival was inspired by Ismail Bey Gasprinskii, a Tatar social critic and reformer, beginning in the late 1870s. A pioneer of the Turkic-language press in the Russian Empire, Gasprinskii published Terc man, perhaps the most famous and influential newspaper in the Turkic world from 1883 until Gasprinskii's death in 1914. On its pages he articulated a program that advocated secularization of culture, fundamental reform of education, language reform, economic development, emancipation of women, and a transformation of social attitudes, all along modern lines. In the process he fostered literary creativity not only among his own Crimean Tatars but within the larger Turkic world. Among those of his compatriots who rose to prominence writing belles lettres as well as didactic prose and poetry by the turn of the twentieth century were Abd rreshid Mediev, Osman Akchokrakly, Bekir Emek, Ali Bodaninskii, Hasan Sabri Aivazov, Ismail Lemanov, and Husein Shamil Toktargazy. The peak of creativity came in the 1920s just as the Soviet regime began cracking down on independent cultural activity. The easing of such restraints in the late 1980s has produced an outpouring in Crimean Tatar expressive culture, one of the most important vehicles for which is the literary journal Yildiz.

Medicine. Despite limitations on the delivery of health care in the Soviet Union, the country is generally modern in its health facilities, and Tatars have full access to those facilities.

Death and Afterlife. There have been no studies of Tatar attitudes toward death and afterlife, although traditionally their Islamic faith would have instilled in them beliefs in the continued existence of the soul after the death of the body and in the soul enjoying the rewards of heaven for a righteous life or the pains of hell as punishment for sin.


Allworth, Edward, ed. (1988). The Tatars of the Crimea: Their Struggle for Survival. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

"Crimea" (1984). In Encyclopedia of Ukraine, edited by V. Kubijovyc, 611-617. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Fisher, Alan (1978). The Crimean Tatars. Stanford, Calif.: Hoover Institution Press.


Crimean Tatars

views updated May 23 2018


A Turkic people who settled the Crimean peninsula over the two hundred years after Batu Khan's conquest, the Tatars of the Crimea came from Central Asia and Anatolia. By 1450, almost the whole of the peninsula north of the coastal mountains was Tatar land. The Tartat language was a combination of the Turkish of the Anatolian Seljuks and the Chagatay Turkic of the Tatar rulers of the Volga region, though by the end of the fifteenth century, Crimean Tatar was a dialect different from both.

In the fifteenth century, the Crimean Tatars established a state (khanate) and a ruling dynasty (Giray) with its political center first in Solhat and later in Bahçesaray. This khanate was closely associated with the Ottoman Empire to the south, though it retained its sovereignty. No Ottoman officials exercised authority within the lands of these Tatars. Crimean Tatar authors wrote histories and chronicles that emphasized distinctions between Tatars and other Turkic peoples, including the Ottomans.

As the Crimean Tatar economy depended on the slave trade and raids into Russian and other Slavic lands, it was inevitable that Russia would strive to gain dominance over the peninsula. But it was only in the eighteenth century that Russia had sufficient power to defeat, and, ultimately, annex the peninsula and incorporate the remaining Tatars into their empire. The annexation took place in 1783.

Russian domination put enormous pressures on the Tatarscausing many to emigrate to the Balkans and Ottoman Empire during the nineteenth century. One of the Tatar intellectuals, Is-mail Bey Gaspirali, tried to establish an educational system for the Tatars that would allow them to survive, as Tatars and as Muslims, within the Russian Empire. He had substantial influence over other Turkic Muslims within the empire, an influence that spread also to Turkish intellectuals in Istanbul.

Throughout the nineteenth century the Russian government encouraged Russian and Ukrainian peasants to settle on the peninsula, placing ever greater pressures on the Tatar population. Although the Revolution of 1917 promised some relief to the Tatars, with the emergence of "national communism" in non-Russian lands, the Tatar intellectual and political elites were destroyed during the Stalinist purges.

The German occupation of Crimea after 1941 produced some Crimean Tatar collaboration, though no greater proportion of Tatars fought against the USSR than did Ukrainians or Belorussians. Nevertheless, the entire Crimean Tatar nationality was collectively punished in 1944, and deported en masse to Central Asia, primarily Uzbekistan. In the 1950s, Crimea was assigned to the Ukrainian SSR, at the three hundredth anniversary of Ukraine's annexation to the Russian Empire. Ukrainians and Russians resettled Tatar homes and villages.

Many Tatars fled to Turkey, where they joined descendants of Tatars who had emigrated from Crimea in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In the early 2000s it was estimated that there were more than 5 million Crimean Tatar descendants who were citizens of the Republic of Turkey. They have been thoroughly assimilated as Turks, though they continue Tatar cultural and literary activities.

During the next thirty-five years, Tatars in Central Asian exile continued to maintain their national identity, through cultural and political means. They published, in Tatar, a newspaper in Tashkent, Lenin Bayragï, and united their efforts with various Soviet dissident groups. Some attempted to return to the Crimean peninsula, with modest success.

With the collapse of the USSR, and the new independence of the Ukraine, continued efforts have been made by Tatars to reestablish some of their communities on the peninsula. Crimean Tatars, however, remain one of the many "nationalities" of the former USSR that have not been able to establish a new nation.

See also: deportations; gaspirali, ismail bey; islam; nationalities policies, soviet; nationalities policies, tsarist.


Allworth, Edward A., ed. (1998). The Tatars of Crimea : Return to the Homeland: Studies and Documents. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Fisher, Alan. (1978). Crimean Tatars. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press.

Fisher, Alan. (1998). Between Russians, Ottomans and Turks: Crimea and Crimean Tatars. Istanbul: Isis Press.

Alan Fisher