Crimean Tatars (Crimean Tatar: Qırımtatarlar or qırımlar) are a Turkic ethnic group and nation, who are indigenous people of Crimea and formed in the Crimean Peninsula during the 13th–17th centuries, primarily from Cumans that appeared in Crimea in the 10th century, with strong contributions from all the peoples who ever inhabited Crimea. Since 2014 Crimean Tatars have been officially recognized as an indigenous people of Ukraine. Crimean Tatars are considered as a national minority, not an indigenous people, by the Russian Federation.
Crimean Tatars constituted the majority of Crimea's population from the time of ethnogenesis until the mid-19th century, and the relative largest ethnic population until the end of the 19th century. Almost immediately after the retaking of Crimea from Axis forces, in May 1944, the USSR State Defense Committee ordered the deportation of all of the Crimean Tatars from Crimea, including the families of Crimean Tatars serving in the Soviet Army – in trains and boxcars to Central Asia, primarily to Uzbekistan. Starting in 1967, some were allowed to return to Crimea, and in 1989 the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union condemned the removal of Crimean Tatars from their motherland as inhumane and lawless. Today, Crimean Tatars constitute approximately 12% of the population of Crimea. There remains a large diaspora of Crimean Tatars in Turkey and Uzbekistan.
In the latest Ukrainian census, in 2001, 248,200 Ukrainian citizens identified themselves as Crimean Tatars with 98% (or about 243,400) of them living in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea. An additional 1,800 citizens (or about 0.7% of those that identified themselves as Crimean Tatars) live in the city of Sevastopol, also on the Crimean peninsula, but outside the border of the autonomous republic.
About 150,000 remain in exile in Central Asia, mainly in Uzbekistan. The official number of Crimean Tatars in Turkey is 150,000 with some Crimean Tatar activists estimating a figure as high as 6 million. The activists reached this number by taking one million Tatar immigrants to Turkey as a starting point and multiplying this number by the birth rate in the span of the last hundred years. Crimean Tatars in Turkey mostly live in Eskişehir Province, descendants of those who emigrated in the late 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. In the Dobruja region straddling Romania and Bulgaria, there are more than 27,000 Crimean Tatars: 24,000 on the Romanian side, and 3,000 on the Bulgarian side.
The Crimean Tatars are subdivided into three (or sometimes four) sub-ethnic groups:
Historians suggest that inhabitants of the mountainous parts of Crimea lying to the central and southern parts (the Tats), and those of the Southern coast of Crimea (the Yalıboyu) were the direct descendants of the Pontic Greeks, Armenians, Scythians, Ostrogoths (Crimean Goths) and Kipchaks along with the Cumans while the latest inhabitants of the northern steppe represent the descendants of the Nogai Horde of the Black Sea nominally subjects of the Crimean Khan. It is largely assumed that the Tatarization process that mostly took place in the 16th century brought a sense of cultural unity through the blending of the Greeks, Armenians, Italians and Ottoman Turks of the southern coast, Goths of the central mountains, and Turkic-speaking Kipchaks and Cumans of the steppe and forming of the Crimean Tatar ethnic group. However, the Cuman language is considered the direct ancestor of the current language of the Crimean Tatars with possible incorporations of the other languages like Crimean Gothic.
Another theory suggests Crimean Tatars trace their origins to the waves of ancient people, Scythians, Greeks, Goths, Italians and Armenians. When the Golden Horde invaded Crimea in the 1230s, they then mixed with populations which had settled in Eastern Europe, including Crimea since the seventh century: Tatars, but also Mongols and other Turkic groups (Khazars, Pechenegs, Cumans and Kipchaks), as well as the ancient.
The Mongol conquest of the Kipchaks led to a merged society with the Mongol ruling class over a Kipchak speaking population which came to be known as Tatar and which eventually absorbed other ethnicities on the Crimean peninsula like Armenians, Italians, Greeks, and Goths to form the modern day Crimean Tatar people; up to the Soviet deportation, the Crimean Tatars could still differentiate among themselves between Tatar Kipchak Nogays and the "Tat" descendants of Tatarized Goths and other Turkified peoples.
Goths, Gypsies, and Greeks were assumed to be some of the ancestors of the Tatars on the coast of Crimea, while there were "mixed hill Tatars" and finally "Asiatic" steppe Tatars. Italians and Greeks mixed with the coastal Crimean Tatars.
Today, Crimean Tatars are often considered as the indigenous peoples of the Crimean peninsula.
Crimea has experienced many migratory and conquering races in its history. The Turkic Kipchaks had followed the Taurians, Greeks, Goths, Huns, Sarmatians and Scythians in Crimea. The Mongols who invaded the Russian principalities under Batu Khan, conducted the Kipchaks of south Ukrainian plains into their forces in 1240s. This amalgam of Mongols and Kipchkaks which gradually converted to Islam became known as "Tatars". The Tatars of Crimea and the neighboring steppes continued their domination even with the decline of Mongol rule in 1300s. The liberation of Russia from the Golden Horde in 1480 too could not end their power and by this time the Tatar Giray dynasty had already established an independent khanate in Crimea and neighboring territory.
The Crimean Tatars emerged as a nation at the time of the Crimean Khanate, an Ottoman vassal state during the 15th to 18th centuries and one of the great centers of slave trade to the Ottoman Empire. The Turkic-speaking population of Crimea had mostly adopted Islam already in the 14th century, following the conversion of Ozbeg Khan of the Golden Horde. By the time of the first Russian invasion of Crimea in 1736, the Khan's archives and libraries were famous throughout the Islamic world, and under Khan Krym-Girei the city of Aqmescit was endowed with piped water, sewerage and a theatre where Molière was performed in French, while the port of Gözleve stood comparison with Rotterdam and Bakhchysarai, the capital, was described as Europe's cleanest and greenest city.
The main population of the Crimean khanate were Crimean Tatars, along with them in the Crimean khanate lived significant communities of Karaites, Italians, Armenians, Greeks, Circassians and Gypsies. In the early 16th century under the rule of the Crimean khans passed part of Nogays (Mangyts), who roamed outside the Crimean Peninsula, moving there during periods of drought and starvation. The majority of the population professed Islam of the Hanafi stream; part of the population – Orthodox, monotheletism, Judaism; in the 16th century. There were small Catholic communities. The Crimean Tatar population of the Crimean Peninsula was partially exempt from taxes. The Greeks paid dzhyziya, the Italians were in a privileged position due to the partial tax relief made during the reign of Meñli Geray I. By 18 century the population of the Crimean khanate was about 500 thousand people. The territory of the Crimean khanate was divided into kinakanta (governorship), which consisted of kadylyk, covering a number of settlements. Borders large beyliks, as a rule, do not coincide with the boundaries of kimcest and kadylyk.
Until the beginning of the 18th century, Crimean Tatars were known for frequent, at some periods almost annual, devastating raids into Ukraine and Russia. For a long time, until the late 18th century, the Crimean Khanate maintained a massive slave trade with the Ottoman Empire and the Middle East which was the most important basis of its economy. One of the most important trading ports and slave markets was Kefe. But in fact, there were always small raids committed by both Tatars and Cossacks, in both directions. Slaves and freedmen formed approximately 75% of the Crimean population. The 17th century Ottoman writer and traveller Evliya Çelebi estimated that there were about 400,000 slaves in the Crimea but only 187,000 free Muslims. Nevertheless, according to more reliable modern sources, slaves never constituted a significant part of the Crimean population. Russian professor Glagolev writes that there were 1.800.000 free Crimean Tatars in the Crimean Khanate in 1666, it also should be mentioned that a huge part of Ukraine was part of the Crimean Khanate, that is why Ukrainians were taken into account in the general population of the Khanate (see Khan Ukraine).
Some researchers estimate that more than 2 million people were captured and enslaved during the time of the Crimean Khanate. Polish historian Bohdan Baranowski assumed that in the 17th century century Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth (present-day Poland, Ukraine and Belarus) lost an average of 20,000 yearly and as many as one million in all years combined from 1500 to 1644. In retaliation, the lands of Crimean Tatars were being raided by Zaporozhian Cossacks, armed Ukrainian horsemen, who defended the steppe frontier – Wild Fields – against Tatar slave raids and often attacked and plundered the lands of Ottoman Turks and Crimean Tatars. The Don Cossacks and Kalmyk Mongols also managed to raid Crimean Tatars' land. The last recorded major Crimean raid, before those in the Russo-Turkish War (1768–74) took place during the reign of Peter the Great (1682–1725). However, Cossack raids continued after that time; Ottoman Grand Vizier complained to the Russian consul about raids to Crimea and Özi in 1761. In 1769 one last major Tatar raid, which took place during the Russo-Turkish War, saw the capture of 20,000 slaves.
However, other historians are sure that the role of the slave trade in the economy of the Crimean Khanate is greatly exaggerated by modern historians, and the raiding economy is nothing but a historical myth.
The Russo-Turkish War (1768–74) resulted in the defeat of the Ottomans by the Russians, and according to the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca (1774) signed after the war, Crimea became independent and the Ottomans renounced their political right to protect the Crimean Khanate. After a period of political unrest in Crimea, Russia violated the treaty and annexed the Crimean Khanate in 1783. After the annexation, the wealthier Tatars, who had exported wheat, meat, fish and wine to other parts of the Black Sea, began to be expelled and to move to the Ottoman Empire. Further expulsions followed in 1812 for fear of the reliability of the Tatars in the face of Napoleon's advance. Particularly, the Crimean War of 1853–1856, the laws of 1860–63, the Tsarist policy and the Russo-Turkish War (1877–78) caused an exodus of the Tatars; 12,000 boarded Allied ships in Sevastopol to escape the destruction of shelling, and were branded traitors by the Russian government. Of total Tatar population 300,000 of the Taurida Governorate about 200,000 Crimean Tatars emigrated. Many Crimean Tatars perished in the process of emigration, including those who drowned while crossing the Black Sea. Today the descendants of these Crimeans form the Crimean Tatar diaspora in Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey.
Ismail Gasprali (1851–1914) was a renowned Crimean Tatar intellectual, influenced by the nationalist movements of the period, whose efforts laid the foundation for the modernization of Muslim culture and the emergence of the Crimean Tatar national identity. The bilingual Crimean Tatar-Russian newspaper Terciman-Perevodchik he published in 1883–1914, functioned as an educational tool through which a national consciousness and modern thinking emerged among the entire Turkic-speaking population of the Russian Empire.
After the Russian Revolution of 1917 this new elite, which included Noman Çelebicihan and Cafer Seydamet proclaimed the first democratic republic in the Islamic world, named the Crimean People's Republic on 26 December 1917. However, this republic was short-lived and abolished by the Bolshevik uprising in January 1918.
As a part of the Russian famine of 1921 the Peninsula suffered widespread starvation. More than 100,000 Crimean Tatars starved to death, and tens of thousands of Tatars fled to Turkey or Romania. Thousands more were deported or killed during the collectivization in 1928–29. The Soviet government's "collectivization" policies led to a major nationwide famine in 1931–33. During Stalin's Great Purge, statesmen and intellectuals such as Veli Ibraimov and Bekir Çoban-zade were imprisoned or executed on various charges.
In May 1944, the entire Crimean Tatar population of Crimea was exiled to Central Asia, mainly to Uzbekistan, on the orders of Joseph Stalin, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the Chairman of the USSR State Defense Committee. Although a great number of Crimean Tatar men served in the Red Army and took part in the partisan movement in Crimea during the war, the existence of the Tatar Legion in the Nazi army and the collaboration of Crimean Tatar religious and political leaders with Hitler during the German occupation of Crimea provided the Soviet leadership with justification for accusing the entire Crimean Tatar population of being Nazi collaborators. In actuality, much of this is Soviet denialism as the persecution of "suspect nations" and most of the genocide of the Crimean Tatars preceded the war, while statements justifying it appear after the war – as the threat of war heightened Stalin's perception of marginal and politically suspect populations as the potential source of an uprising in case of invasion. He began to plan for the preventive elimination of such potential recruits for a mythical “fifth column of wreckers, terrorists and spies.” (Hagenloh, 2000; Shearer, 2003). Between 1917 and 1933, 150,000 Tatars—about 50% of the population at the time—either were killed or forced out of Crimea.
Some modern researchers argue that Crimea's geopolitical position fueled Soviet perceptions of Crimean Tatars as a potential threat. This belief is based in part on an analogy with numerous other cases of deportations of non-Russians from boundary territories, as well as the fact that other non-Russian populations, such as Greeks, Armenians and Bulgarians were also removed from Crimea (see Deportation of the peoples inhabiting Crimea).
All 240,000 Crimean Tatars were deported en masse, in a form of collective punishment, on 17–18 May 1944 as "special settlers" to the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic and other distant parts of the Soviet Union. This event is called Sürgün in the Crimean Tatar language; the few who escaped were shot on sight or drowned in scuttled barges, and within months half their number had died of cold, hunger, exhaustion and disease. Many of them were re-located to toil as forced labourers in the Soviet GULAG system.
Starting in 1944, Crimean Tatars lived mostly in Central Asia with the designation as "special settlers", meaning that they had few rights. "Special settlers" were forbidden from leaving small designated areas and had to frequently sign in at a commandant's office. Soviet propaganda directed towards Uzbeks depicted Crimean Tatars as threats to their homeland, and as a result there were many documented hate crimes against Crimean-Tatar civilians by Uzbek Communist loyalists. In the 1950s the "special settler" regime ended, but Crimean Tatars were still kept closely tethered to Central Asia; while other deported ethnic groups like the Chechens, Karachays, and Kalmyks were fully allowed to return to their native lands during the Khrushchev thaw, economic and political reasons led to Moscow being reluctant to allow Crimean Tatars the same rights. Moscow's refusal to allow a return was not only based out of a desire to satisfy the new Russian settlers in Crimea, who were very hostile to the idea of a return and had been subject to lots of Tatarophobic propaganda, but for economic reasons: high productivity from Crimean Tatar workers in Central Asia meant that letting the diaspora return would take a toll on Soviet industrialization goals in Central Asia. Historians have long suspected that violent resistance to confinement in exile from Chechens led to further willingness to let them return, while the non-violent Crimean Tatar movement did not lead to any desire for Crimean Tatars to leave Central Asia. In effect, the government was punishing Crimean Tatars for being Stakhanovites while rewarding the deported nations that contributed less to the building of socialism, creating further resentment.
Although a 1967 Soviet decree removed the charges against Crimean Tatars, the Soviet government did nothing to facilitate their resettlement in Crimea and to make reparations for lost lives and confiscated property. Before the mass return in the perestroika era, Crimean Tatars made up only 1.5% of Crimea's population, since government entities at all levels took a variety of measures beyond the already-debilitating residence permit system to keep them in Central Asia.
The abolition of the special settlement regime made it possible for Crimean Tatar rights activists to mobilize. The primary method of raising grievances with the government was petitioning. Many for the right of return gained over 100,000 signatures; although other methods of protest were occasionally used, the movement remained completely non-violent. When only a small percentage of Crimean Tatars were allowed to Crimea, those that were not granted residence permits would return to Crimea and try to live under the radar. However, the lack of a residence permit resulted in a second deportation for them. A last-resort method to avoid a second deportation was self-immolation, famously used by Crimean Tatar national hero Musa Mamut, one of those who moved to Crimea without permission. He doused himself with gasoline and committed self-immolation in front of police trying to deport him on 23 June 1978. Mamut died of severe burns several days later, but expressed no regret for having committed self-immolation. Mamut posthumously became a symbol of Crimean Tatar resistance and nationhood, and remains celebrated by Crimean Tatars. In October 1989 Shavkat Yarullin fatally committed self-immolation in front of a government building in protest of the prolonged exile of Crimean Tatars, and Seidamet Balji attempted self-immolation while being deported from Crimea in December that year but survived. In the later years of the Soviet Union, Crimean Tatar activists held picket protests in Red Square.
After a prolonged effort of lobbying by the Crimean Tatar civil rights movement, the Soviet government established a commission in 1987 to evaluate the request for the right of return, chaired by Andrey Gromyko, aka "Mr. No". Gromyko's condescending attitude and failure to assure them that they would have the right of return ended up concerning members of the Crimean Tatar civil rights movement. In June he rejected the request for re-establishment of a Crimean Tatar autonomy in Crimea and supported only small efforts for return, while agreeing to allow the lower-priority requests of having more publications and school instruction in the Crimean Tatar language at the local level among areas with the deported populations. Gromyko's eventual conclusion that "no basis to renew autonomy and grant Crimean Tatars the right to return" triggered widespread protests. Anatoly Lukyanov from the commission had pointed out that other nations deported in the war were allowed to return, and noted that the case of the Kalmyks, who were deported less than a year before the Crimean Tatars for the same official reason but allowed to return to Kalmykia in the 1950s. Kalmyk collaboration with the Germans in the war was not used as a reason to treat Kalmyk civilians as second-class citizens in the 1980s, since by then they had become effectively rehabilitated, while the treatment of Crimean Tatars as second-class citizens at the time was often justified by reiterating the same official talking points about their alleged actions in World War II. Less than two years after Gromyko's commission had rejected their request for autonomy and return, pogroms against the deported Meskhetian Turks were taking place in Central Asia. During the pogroms, some Crimean Tatars were targeted as well, resulting in changing attitudes towards allowing Crimean Tatars to move back to Crimea. Eventually a second commission was established in 1989 to reevaluate the issue, and it was decided that the deportation was illegal and the Crimean Tatars were granted the full right to return, revoking previous laws intended to make it as difficult as possible for Crimean Tatars to move to Crimea.
Today, more than 250,000 Crimean Tatars have returned to their homeland, struggling to re-establish their lives and reclaim their national and cultural rights against many social and economic obstacles. One-third of them are atheists, and over half that consider themselves religious are non-observant.
Following news of Crimea's independence referendum organized with the help of Russia on 16 March 2014, the Kurultai leadership voiced concerns of renewed persecution, as commented by a U.S. official before the visit of a UN human rights team to the peninsula. At the same time, Rustam Minnikhanov, the president of Tatarstan was dispatched to Crimea to quell Crimean Tatars' concerns and to point out that "in the 23 years of Ukraine's independence the Ukrainian leaders have been using Crimean Tatars as pawns in their political games without doing them any tangible favors". The issue of Crimean Tatar persecution by Russia has since been raised regularly on an international level.
On 18 March 2014, the day Crimea was annexed by Russia, and Crimean Tatar was declared one of the three official languages of Crimea. It was also announced that Crimean Tatars will be required to relinquish coastal lands on which they squatted since their return to Crimea in early 1990s and be given land elsewhere in Crimea. Crimea stated it needed the relinquished land for "social purposes", since part of this land is occupied by the Crimean Tatars without legal documents of ownership. The situation was caused by the inability of the USSR (and later Ukraine) to give back to the Tatars the land owned before deportation, once they or their descendants returned from Central Asia (mainly Uzbekistan). As a consequence, Crimean Tatars settled as squatters, occupying land that was and is still not legally registered.
Some Crimean Tatars fled to Mainland Ukraine due to the Crimean crisis - reportedly around 2000 by 23 March. On 29 March 2014, an emergency meeting of the Crimean Tatars representative body, the Kurultai, voted in favor of seeking "ethnic and territorial autonomy" for Crimean Tatars using "political and legal" means. The meeting was attended by the Head of the Republic of Tatarstan and the chair of the Russian Council of Muftis. Decisions as to whether the Tatars will accept Russian passports or whether the autonomy sought would be within the Russian or Ukrainian state have been deferred pending further discussion.
During occupation of Crimea by Russian Federation, Crimean Tatars are reportedly persecuted and discriminated by Russian authorities, including cases of torture, arbitrary detentions, forced disappearances by Russian security forces and courts.
On 12 June 2018, Ukraine lodged a memorandum consisting of 17,500 pages of text in 29 volumes to the UN's International Court of Justice about racial discrimination against Crimean Tatars by Russian authorities in occupied Crimea and state financing of terrorism by Russian Federation in Donbass.
Founded by Crimean Tatar civil rights activist Yuri Osmanov, the National Movement of Crimean Tatars (NDKT) was the major opposition faction to the Dzhemilev faction during the Soviet era. The official goal of the NDKT during the Soviet era was the restoration of the Crimean ASSR under the Leninist principle of national autonomy for titular indigenous peoples in their homeland, conflicting with the desires of an independent Tatar state from the OKND, the predecessor of the Mejilis. Yuri Osmanov, founder of the organization, was highly critical of Dzhemilev, saying that the OKND, the predecessor of the Mejilis, did not sufficiently try to mend ethnic tensions in Crimea. However, the OKND decreased in popularity after Yuri Osmanov was killed.
In 1991, the Crimean Tatar leadership founded the Kurultai, or Parliament, to act as a representative body for the Crimean Tatars which could address grievances to the Ukrainian central government, the Crimean government, and international bodies. Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People is the executive body of the Kurultai.
Since the 1990s till October 2013, the political leader of the Crimean Tatars and the chairman of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People was former Soviet dissident Mustafa Djemilev. Since October 2013 the chairman of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People is Refat Chubarov.
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^ Controlled and administrated by the Russian Federation as Crimean Federal District: Republic of Crimea and federal city of Sevastopol. Recognized as a part of Ukraine by most of the international community as Autonomous Republic of Crimea and city with special status Sevastopol. Northern part of the Arabat Spit is a part of the Kherson Oblast and is not a subject of territorial dispute.
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