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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 8    Issue 24   01-15 May 2014


Professor A. R. MOMIN

Crimea and Crimean Tatars have been brought into the focus of international attention following the region's dramatic and illegitimate annexation by Russia on March 18, 2014. Crimean Tatars, who make up about 12% of the peninsula's population, boycotted the referendum that was used as a pretext for Crimea's annexation.

Crimean Tatars are a Turkic people, a cluster of ethnic groups that have been living in Central Asia, Turkey, northwestern China and Eastern Europe for centuries. The Turkic peoples include several groups and nationalities, including the Turkish people, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Tatars, Uzbeks, Turkmens and Bashkirs. In addition, diasporic communities of Turkic origin are to be found in Europe, the United States and Canada. The global population of the Turkic peoples is estimated to be between 160 and 200 million. The Turkic peoples speak about 30 languages and dialects that belong to the Turkic language family. In addition to a common language, the Turkic peoples are bound together by shared ties of religion (Sunni Islam), ethnicity, historical memories and a shared collective identity.

Though Tatar Muslims have a shared Turkic heritage, they are divided into several ethnic groups which have their distinctive identities, which are shaped by migration, historical and political experiences and location. The major Tatar groups include Crimean Tatars, Kazan or Volga Tatars, Astrakhan Tatars, Siberian Tatars and Lipka Tatars. There are about 2 million ethnic Tatars in Tatarstan, a federal subject of the Russian Federation. More than 1.5 million Kazan Tatars live in the Volga and Urals region of Russia. The Siberian Tatars, estimated to number around 100,000, live in western Siberia.

The Crimean peninsula (derived from the Turkish word Qirim) constitutes a major land mass on the northern coast of the Black Sea. In 1241 Batu Khan, a grandson of Genghiz Khan, conquered Crimea and made it a strategic part of the Mongol Empire. Following the disintegration of the Mongol Empire in 1368, Tatars became identified with the western part of the Mongol Empire, which comprised a large part of Russia and was called the Golden Horde. Crimea was under the control of the Golden Horde from 1239 to 1441. The Tatars were converted to Islam in the 14th century. Following the disintegration of the Golden Horde, independent Tatar khanates emerged in Kazan, Astrakhan, Sibir in Western Siberia and Crimea. The process of ethnogenesis of Tatar Muslims began in the 15th century, which was greatly influenced by conversion to Islam and the establishment of the Tatar khanates.

Crimea Khanate

The Crimea Khanate was established by Haci I Giray in 1449, with Bakhchysaray as its capital. In 1475 the Crimean Khanate became a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire. Ottoman forces conquered the entire Crimean peninsula and made it a part of the Crimean Khanate. The Crimean Khanate had a massive slave trade with the Ottoman Empire and the Middle East. Slaves were acquired from Russia and Ukraine and supplied to the Ottoman Empire and the Middle East. It is estimated that between 1500 and 1700 CE, Crimean Tatars exported nearly two million slaves from Russia and Ukraine to Ottoman Turkey and the Middle East. Slave trade formed the most important source of the Crimean Khanate’s economy. The khanate also received subsidies from the Ottoman Empire for participating in military campaigns. The territories that were part of the Crimean Khanate are now in Ukraine, Russia and Moldova.

In 1552 the khanates of Kazan, Astrakhan and Sibir were annexed by the Russian Empire, which opened the way for Russian expansion and incursions into Siberia and Central Asia. The Russo-Turkish War (1768-74) resulted in the defeat of the Ottomans by the Russians and weakened the hold of the Ottoman Empire on Crimea. The Crimea Khanate was conquered by Russian forces under Empress Catherine the Great in 1783. Following the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Empire, thousands of Crimean Tatars migrated to Turkey and Central Asia. The exodus of Crimean Tatars increased after the Crimean War of 1853-56 and the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78. Nearly two-thirds of the Crimean Tatar population had left the peninsula by the closing decades of the 19th century. Entire towns and villages in Crimea were deserted.

In the 19th century, Tatar Muslims were persecuted by the Czarist regime for participating in the Polish national uprisings against the Russians. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, Crimean Tatar leaders proclaimed the creation of an independent republic called the Crimean People’s Republic in December 1917. However, Crimea was annexed by the Bolshevik uprising in January 1918. In 1921 it became a part of the Soviet Union.

Joseph Stalin and the Era of Oppression

Joseph Stalin (1879-1953) was one of the main architects of the former Soviet Union. A disciple of Vladimir Lenin, he rose to become secretary-general of the Central Committee and a member of the Politburo. After Lenin’s death in 1924, Stalin systematically sidelined and eliminated his political and ideological rivals and competitors, including Leon Trotsky, Grigory Zinovyyev and Nokolay Bukharin, and took complete control of Soviet politics. In the 1930s he cleverly consolidated his power through a series of brutal measures, including state terrorism, forced migrations, banishment of opponents and dissidents to labour camps (Gulags), purges, secret executions and assassinations. It is believed that Stalin’s brutal and terrorizing methods led to the death of more than 40 million people in the Soviet Union.

In 1932, Soviet authorities on the orders of Stalin increased the grain procurement quota for Ukraine by 44%. The Soviet secret police kept a watchful eye on peasants who might be hiding grain from the authorities. Grain obtained from Ukraine was collected and stored in grain elevators that were guarded by military units and the Soviet secret police. This move caused a severe shortage of grain for the local population and resulted in a devastating famine in Ukraine, the northern Caucasus and the Lower Volga River region in 1932-33. The famine took a toll of nearly 10 million people, mainly Ukrainians and Tatar Muslims. Tens of thousands of Tatar Muslims migrated to Turkey and Romania. Between 1017 and 1933 nearly half of the Crimean Tatar Muslim population was decimated.

Recently declassified KGB records on the Ukrainian famine reveal that the famine was deliberately engineered by Stalin. The man-made famine was aimed at breaking the spirit of Ukrainian peasants and forcing them into collectivized farming (which was introduced by Stalin during 1929-34). The famine was also used as an instrument to undermine and subvert the resurgence of Ukraine’s indigenous culture, which was blossoming during that period and was perceived as a threat to Soviet hegemony. Ukraine declared independence in 1991. On 28 November 2006, the Ukrainian parliament passed a law declaring the 1932-33 famine as a deliberate act of genocide against the Ukrainian people.

From 1934 to 1939, an orchestrated campaign of political oppression, forced deportations and ethnic cleansing – known as the ‘Great Purge’ -- was carried out by the Soviet secret police NKVD on Stalin’s orders. The campaign involved imprisonment, repression of peasants and minorities and arbitrary execution of political dissidents and suspected traitors. The number of deaths during the Great Purge is estimated to be between 950,000 and 1.2 million.

Between 1939 and 1945, hundreds of thousands of people, including Ukrainians, Estonians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Romanians, Crimean Tatars, Balkars, Karachai from the North Caucasus, Kalmyks, Meskhtian Turks, Germans, Poles and the entire population of Chechnya and Ingushetia, who were accused of collaborating with Germany’s Nazi regime, were deported on orders of Stalin to Siberia and Central Asia. According to Soviet estimates, as many as 7-8 million people were deported. Almost half of the Chechen and Ingush population perished due to starvation, disease and cold. After their deportation, their lands and properties were taken over by Ossetians and ethnic Russians. The European Parliament has classified the deportation as genocide. The Ingush and Chechens were finally allowed to return to their homelands in 1957. Ironically, they were forced to buy back their own properties from Ossetians and Russians, who had usurped them.

The policy of Russification adopted by the Soviet leaders entailed the planned migration and settlement of ethnic Russians in the Central Asian republics. This move was aimed at taking over the fertile lands and mineral resources of these regions and to alter their demographic composition. By 1914 nearly half of the population of Kazakhstan was composed of Russians. Millions of acres of fertile land and grazing ground were captured by Russian immigrants with the connivance of the authorities. This created deep resentment in the local population, leading to the Central Asian Uprising of 1916, which was crushed by the Soviet authorities with an iron hand. In 1929 large tracts of Kazakh lands were forcibly taken over by the authorities, as a result of which more than a million people died of hunger and starvation. Large-scale killings and deportation of Kazakhs on the orders of Stalin led to a massive decimation of the Kazakh population. Between 1916 and 1934, 3.3 million Kazaks died and another 1.3 million were driven into exile, reducing the Kazakh population to about one-third of what it was in 1917.

The annexation of the Muslim-dominated regions of Central Asia and the Caucasus by the Soviet Union brought about untold hardships and suffering for millions of Muslim people. The campaign of Russification carried out by the Soviet authorities sought to erase all ethnic, religious and cultural diversities and distinctions in the population and to impose upon it the Russian language and the atheistic and anti-religious ideology of communism.

Stalin sought to eradicate the presence of Islam in the former Soviet Union by ordering the closure of mosques, madrasas and Sufi hospices and by proscribing the observance of Islamic rituals and feasts. Thousands of ulama and teachers were imprisoned, deported or executed. There were 26,000 mosques in the Soviet Union on the eve of the Russian Revolution in 1917. Their number was reduced to just 400 by 1984. The use of the Arabic script was banned and replaced by Latin and Cyrillic scripts

Deportation of Crimean Tatars

During the Second World War, Crimea was taken over by the Nazis and remained under German control until May 1944 when it was recaptured by the Soviet army.

On May 18, 1944 Stalin ordered the NKVD to deport the entire Crimean Tatar population to Uzbekistan and other parts of Central Asia, some 3000 kilometres away. They were given just half an hour to pack their baggage. A total of 238,500 Crimean Tatars, including women and children, were herded in cattle trains. Nearly half of them died en route or shortly after reaching the Urals, Central Asia and Siberia. Many of those who survived the harsh journey were relocated to other regions to serve as indentured workers in the Soviet Gulag system. Crimean Tatars were falsely accused of collaborating with the Nazis. The Crimean republic was dissolved in 1945. In 1954 Crimea was transferred to the Ukrainian republic in the Soviet Union.

Of a total of 238,500 Crimean Tatars who were deported, only 9,225 had served in the anti-Soviet Tatar Legions of the German army. Yet the whole community had to bear the brunt of the punishment. In 1967 the charges against Crimean Tatars were dropped by the Soviet authorities, but they were allowed to return to their homeland only in the late 1980s when the disintegration of the Soviet Union appeared to be imminent. When Crimean Tatars began returning to the peninsula they found that their most of their ancestral lands were taken over by the Russians. Most of them had to live in make-shift shelters.

The present population of Crimean Tatars is estimated to be around 6.6 million. They are scattered in 22 countries, including Ukraine, the Russian Federation, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Turkey and Tajikistan.

In 1991, when Ukraine gained independence, Crimea became the Autonomous Republic of Crimea in the new nation, with its own flag and national anthem. According to the 2001 census, the population of Crimea comprised ethnic Russians (58%), Ukrainians (24%), Crimean Tatars (12%) and others (6%). The population of Muslims in Ukraine is estimated to be around 500,000. In additional to Crimean Tatars, who number around 300,000, there are communities of Volga Tatars, Azeris, Uzbeks, Turks, Kazakhs and Arabs. Tens of thousands of the descendants of Crimean Tatars who were deported in 1944 are living in Turkey, Uzbekistan and other parts of Central Asia.

Russian Annexation of Crimea

Ukraine, located in Eastern Europe, gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Ukrainians form the majority of the country’s population of 44.6 million (77.8%), followed by Russians (17.3%) and other ethnic groups (4.9%).

Protests against the government of Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych started in Kiev in November 2013. The protests were fuelled by Yanukovych’s reluctance to sign association agreements with the European Union and his eagerness to establish closer ties with Russia. Large numbers of Ukrainians took to the streets to express their support for closer ties with Europe and resentment with the pro-Russian leanings of Yanukovych. In some places the demonstrations became violent. The Ukrainian Parliament impeached the president on February 27 and announced the formation of an interim government headed by the Prime Minister Arseniya Tatsenyuk. The new government was recognized by the United States and the European Union. However, Russia accused the US and the EU of sponsoring and funding the uprising.

From February 26 pro-Russian forces, instigated and armed by Kremlin, began to take control of the Crimean peninsula. Many of them were Russian military personnel in civilian disguise. The Crimean parliament passed a resolution to dismiss the Crimean government and called for a referendum to decide Crimea’s autonomy. On March 1 Russian President Putin ordered the deployment of Russian troops in the peninsula.

A referendum on the status of Crimea was held by the legislature of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea on March 16, 2014. The referendum asked the people of Crimea whether they wanted to remain in Ukraine or join Russia as a federal subject. The referendum was held while Crimea was occupied by Russian troops. The Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People, a representative body of Crimean Tatars, called for a boycott of the referendum. Crimean Tatars held rallies in support of Ukraine and against Russian intervention. Before the referendum, Crimean Tatars were subjected to threats and intimidations by ethnic Russians. Crosses were marked on many Crimean Tatar homes. Tatar youth had to hold nightly vigils to ward off attacks by pro-Russian groups.

An overwhelming majority of voters (96.77%) voted in favour of seceding from Ukraine and joining Russia. On March 17 the Crimean parliament declared Crimea to be independent from Ukraine and expressed its intention to join the Russian Federation. The Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People rejected the outcome of the referendum. On March 18 Russia and Crimea signed a treaty formalizing Crimea’s accession into the Russian Federation.

The referendum, which was held while Crimea was under the control of Russian troops and armed pro-Russian militants, was declared as illegal and illegitimate by the United Nations, the US and the EU. Russia sought to legitimise Crimea’s annexation on the basis of a dubious and illegitimate referendum. The claim not only flies in the face of international law but also exposes the hypocrisy and double standards of Russia’s leadership. It is significant to note that on March 21, 1992, Tatarstan held its own referendum on whether to become a “sovereign state and subject of international law.” Of the 81.6 per cent of people who participated in the referendum, including ethnic Tatars and Russians, 61.4% voted in favour of separation from the Russian Federation. However, the referendum was denounced by the then Russian President Boris Yeltsin. In April 2001, Tatarstan’s referendum was retrospectively declared unconstitutional by the Russian authorities.

In order to mollify Crimean Tatars and to allay their apprehensions, Putin signed a decree on April 20, which says that the Russian government would make efforts to rehabilitate Crimean Tatars by protecting their cultural and linguistic rights. The decree says that the Tatar language will be given the status of Crimea’s third official language, alongside Russian and Ukrainian. Putin has given residents of Crimea one month to opt out of Russian citizenship if they so desire. Thousands of people, predominantly Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars, have started leaving the country.

Prospects for Crimean Tatars in Russia

The annexation of Crimea by Russia is a dreadful experience for Crimean Tatars. It rekindles the nightmarish memories of the 1944 deportation, which are deeply entrenched in the community’s collective consciousness. Many of them view the annexation of Crimea and the forcible relocation of Crimean Tatars to Russian territory as a second deportation.

The prospects for Crimean Tatars in Russia are filled with foreboding. The condition of Muslim communities living in Russia is far from reassuring. The Russian Federation has a large Muslim population, estimated at around 23 million or 14% of the population. Russia’s Muslim population is concentrated in Dagestan, Bashkortostan, Tatarstan, Chechnya, Kabardino-Balkaria, Ingushetia, Karachaevo-Cherkessia and Adygyea. The autonomous republics of the Russian Federation’s northern Caucasus region are inhabited by a number of Muslim communities, including the Dagestanis, Chechens, Adyghe, Balkars, Ingush, Circassians, Kabardin, Tatars, Bashkirs and Kabardin. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, this vast region has been in the grip of unrest and violence.

Dagestan, an autonomous republic in the Russian Federation, is rich in oil and gas reserves, but the people of Dagestan are among the poorest in the Russian Federation. In 1999, an Islamic group declared the establishment of an independent Islamic state in parts of Dagestan and Chechnya and called on all Muslims in the Russian-held territories to rise in revolt against Russian domination. Chechen fighters moved into Dagestan and joined hands with the group. Putin dealt with the uprising in a ruthless manner. Since then the Russian forces have carried out a brutal campaign of terror and repression in the region. The region continues to be dogged by violence, political instability and lawlessness.

Following the Caucasian War (1817-1864), Chechnya was annexed by Russia. Ingushetia was joined to Chechnya under Soviet rule in 1936. The Chechens have resisted Russian imperialism for nearly two centuries. In 1991 the Chechens declared independence from the Soviet Union, which was ruthlessly suppressed by the Russian authorities. Violent clashes between Chechen fighters and Russian security forces took place in Grozny between 1994 and 1996. In 1999-2000 Putin ordered Russian security forces to storm Grozny. The capital city was laid waste and several thousand people, including Chechen fighters and civilians and Russian troops, were killed.

Ingushetia is one of Russia’s poorest regions. Rampant corruption, crime, violence and violation of human rights have become the distinctive features of the region. For over a decade, Ingushetia has been engulfed by escalating violence, including abductions, extrajudicial killings, assassinations and suicide bombings. The culture of violence has been fuelled by Moscow’s authoritarian and repressive rule, corrupt and high-handed local administration backed by Kremlin and the resurgence of militancy in a section of the Ingush population. The surveillance of civilians by the FSB, the present incarnation of the dreaded KGB, is a routine affair in the region. Ingushetia’s ruling regime has been a puppet in Kremlin’s hands. A large majority of Ingush continue to live in an atmosphere of insecurity, fear and apprehension.

Vladimir Putin stirred up a controversy on October 18, 2012 by stating that he was against the wearing of headscarves by girls in schools because this went against Russia’s secular traditions. Putin’s statement came in the wake of a recent incident in Russia’s southern region of Stavropol when the principal of a school forbade Muslim girls from wearing the headscarf to class. The incident sparked protests from the parents of the affected girls.

In 1991, shortly after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Putin, a former KGB official and former director of the Federal Security Service (the KGB’s successor in post-Soviet Russia), said that he viewed the collapse of the USSR as a geopolitical catastrophe. He also quoted the conservative Alexander III who believed that Russia had only two allies: the army and the navy. Vladimir Sorokin, a popular contemporary Russian writer, has perceptively remarked that the Soviet Union may have collapsed geographically and economically, but ideologically it survives in the hearts of millions of Homo sovieticus. 1 In recent opinion polls, almost half of those surveyed consider Stalin to have been a “good leader.” Putin is in the forefront of millions of Russians who are nostalgic about the lost glory of the Soviet Union. He is dreaming of a Greater Russia, a global power with client and vassal states and puppet regimes which will do his bidding. A megalomaniac obsession with power and a resurgent and militant nationalism -- a heady mix -- are leading Putin’s Russia on a reckless and disastrous course.


1. Vladimir Sorokin, ‘Let the past collapse on time!’ The New York Review of Books, May 8, 2014 (http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2014/may/08/let)

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