History is Important
They are a fascinating mix of ethnic groups which include descendants
from the Khazars, the Cumens, the Romanians, the Byzantine Greeks, the
Slavs, the Circassians, even a few Venetians (to name but a few). Weary of nomadic life under the Golden Horde, these clans settled in and colonised Crimea and surrounding area in 1441. From then on, they were known as the Crimean Khanate and were offered protection from the Ottoman Empire. They were an influential population growing steadily more so as the relationship between the Tatars and the Ottomans became one of mutual benefit and understanding: the Tatars skill at cavalry became indispensible in war and in exchange for their services as skilled riders in the frontline, the horsemen got rich from the military campaigns of the Ottomans.
Because of this partnership, it’s been said that the Khanate was one of the strongest powers in Eastern Europe right up until the 18th century. They played a vital role in defending the borders of Islam and were quite well known for their devastating raids in attempts at preventing Slavic settlement in the Steppes. In so doing, they enslaved many Slavic and Romanian peasants, acquiring a considerable booty at each turn. They were also able to maintain a massive slave trade between the Ottoman Empire and the Middle East using Feodosia, a resort and port town in Crimea, as one of their trading posts. It is estimated that more than 3 million people, many of them Ukrainian, were seized and enslaved during their reign of domination.
An Ambiguous Affiliation
During the days of the Khanate, the Ukrainian Cossacks served as guards on borderlands and patrolled Tatar movement. They were also more or less happy to plunder everybody equally and as such, the Cossacks and Tatars shared an adolescent animosity for each other: Cossack raids followed by Tatar retaliation, Tatar raids followed by Cossack retaliation were constant occurrences. It was all a bit of a game. Bohdan Khmelnitsky took advantage of this rivalry and managed to unite the Cossacks and the Crimean Tatars in the middle of the 17th century. Together, they gained several important victories.
The Faithful Departed
The Tatar’s favour fell into decline however, as the Ottoman Empire also began to lose influence – Eastern Europe was shifting allegiances and was becoming more and more interested in Christian kingdoms. They would come back empty handed after military campaigns and without guns to fight off ever-increasing European and Russian armies, the Crimean Tatars didn’t stand a chance. Their raids provided them with major economic sources, but those too could no longer be sustained and the Khanate found itself in serious trouble. Ukraine and Russia took advantage of this opportunity and would combine forces to launch a full-scale invasion (Russo-Turkish War of 1735-1739) of the Crimean peninsula for the first time.
The Russo-Turkish War of 1768-1774 demonstrated however, that the Khanate would not go down without a fight, and yet it resulted in a rather surprising turn of events: the Tatars aligned with Russia. Observance to this latest treaty however, would not last and as civil war ensued, Catherine II took it upon herself to gather the entire peninsula under the great wing of the Russian Empire.
This made little difference however, and on into the 19th century these wars continued. It was at this time the Tatars began to feel the burgeoning pressure of the Slavs. They started to emigrate in waves, finding homes in Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania. But making their way over the Black Sea proved difficult if not deadly, and many would perish in their attempts to cross the unforgiving waters. Only 100,000 would decide to remain in Crimea.
The years before the Bolsheviks took control were productive for the Crimean Tatars. They began to emerge again and prosper in the fields of education bringing about a new Crimean Tatar elite. But this also, was not to last as WWII brought the entire Soviet population under the control of the Soviet police. Tatars would serve in the Red Army but Stalin would exaggerate collaboration between certain religious and political leaders with Hitler and that would be enough to accuse the whole population of being traitors. Some argue that this was more than just retaliation and was in fact an important political chess move, as ethnic minorities living in a geopolitical hotspots, indeed posed a threat.
In May of 1944, the Tatars were removed en masse by Soviet leader Josef Stalin. While politicians say that the move was done as humanely as possible, the participants remember events quite differently: shipped off in cattle cars heading for Central Asia, thousands died along the way or perished from malnutrition and disease not long after arrival. Some would even be forced to work in the Gulag.
Only in 1967 would the government claim, not that they had made a mistake, but that the charges laid on the Tatars as Nazi collaborators, were false.
Another Battle on the Horizon?
Khan’s Palace, the 16 century building built by the Tatars, still stands about half-an-hour by bus from Simferopol. On 18 May of this year, tens of thousands of people marched in a rally in and around that Crimean city marking the 65th Anniversary of the deportation. Once descendants of strong Mongolian armies, the Tatar population is becoming stronger once again. They have finally been given permission to return to their homelands and are very important political players on the Crimean issue. Unfortunately, they still face obstacles: some remain political, such as land rights, language and education, some as demoralising as racism. Promises made by the Ukrainian government during the days of their own coming into Independence have yet to be realised and assurances for the reinstatement of social and legal rights have done little to assuage the increasing restlessness within the population.
However, the State Security Service of Ukraine, commissioned by the President earlier this year, has started to take steps (albeit baby steps), making it their mission to look into the deportations and their consequences. Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemilev commends the creation of this investigative unit and wants to make people understand that this investigation is not to be considered as a punishment for those at fault – those responsible for the deportation are in fact no longer alive - but rather, a reconciliation and an unveiling of the truth; “for society to know that it was in fact a crime. That it was tantamount to genocide.”
Historically, Tatars allegiance belongs to no one. But since Ukrainian independence, they seem to side with Kyiv and Ukraine on most issues and certainly the one concerning Crimea. Refat Chubarov, the Deputy Leader of the Tatar representative body (the Mejlis) says that “Ukrainians don’t have any imperial ambition. What’s more, Ukrainians and Tatars share a bond from being on the wrong side of Russian imperial ambition and many unfortunate parts of our history come from Moscow. It’s the same with Ukraine.”
This is the feeling at the moment, but promises only go so far. Like the Aboriginals in Australia or the First Nations people in North America, living without any real legal or social rights as a nation along with the inability to reclaim valuable land, it’s my guess that it won’t be long before the Crimean settlers get fed up waiting for something to be done. The problem is that we are all waiting for the government to get their act together and stop behaving only in the best interests of themselves. By then though, the Crimean trump card may already have landed in Russian hands and the pot that could have been belonged to this great nation, will no longer be ours to keep.
History continually repeats itself and Russia is in for the ride. It’s our responsibility to make sure that message doesn’t fall on deaf ears.