The Crimean Tatars:  The Diaspora Experience and the Forging of a Nation

by Brian Glyn Williams

This work is an analysis of the latest theories in Russia, the USA, Turkey and Western Europe on such topics as the ancient ethnic origins of the Crimean Tatars (in the Mongol and Ottoman periods and earlier Gothic and Kipchak eras); the nature of the Crimean Tatar Khanate (from 1475-1783); colonial rule (by Imperial Russia); displacement and migration (predominantly in the aftermath of the 19th century Crimean War); settlement in the Ottoman Empire (in the Dobruca coastal region of the Balkans and Anatolia); national identity formation (on the eve of the Russian Revolution and during the early Soviet period); ethnic cleansing (during the general conflagration of World War II, May 18, 1944); exile in Uzbekistan and elsewhere; repatriation to the Crimea and post-Soviet identity and culture construction among the Crimean Tatars.
 It is intended that this work will have wide applications for those studying forced diasporic groups such as the Armenians, Jews, Palestinians, Tutsis etc. as well as those studying national identity formation among Islamic groups in Communist Eurasia. Most importantly, however, this work brings up to date the tragic history of the Crimean Tatars under Russian, Soviet and post-Soviet Ukrainian rule using the latest declassified KGB documents, previously un-translated 19th century Russian accounts, first hand interviews in the Crimea and Central Asia with those who survived the deportation of this people, interviews with Crimean Tatar leaders such as Mustafa Dzhemilev, and many new Western sources which reflect the virtual renaissance of interest in the Crimean Tatars since 1991.
 A theme which is traced through this work is the gradual process whereby this small ethno-religious community of Muslim peasants developed a modern national identity and a political attachment to a land defined in secular terms as a Homeland. This work in effect traces the forging of the Crimean Tatar nation and their links to their home territory over time and space, from the 19th century provinces of the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans to the deserts of Stalin’s Central Asia. This work challenges many previously held beliefs on the Crimean Tatars, their ethnicity, the nature of their indigenous state, their settlement in the realm of the Ottomans, the rise of a native nationalist intelligentsia, the controversial role of the Crimean Tatars in the Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, the nature of the Crimean Tatars’ experience of total ethnic cleansing, their forced settlement in Central Asia and the dynamics of their return to the Ukraine-Crimea after 1989.
Chapter One.
Origins. The ‘Ethnogenesis’ of the Tatars of the Crimea. This chapter painstakingly disproves the notion that the Crimean Tatars are ‘Mongols’ who arrived in the Crimea with the invasions of Batu Khan in the mid 13th century. Using a variety of sources from many languages, the pre-Mongol, Greek, Armenian, Goth, Scythian and Kipchak-Turkic origins, culture and ethnicity of the sedentary, farming Crimean Tatars of the southern coastal mountains are explored here. In the process, the ancient origins of the culture of the south-Crimean sub-ethnic group of Tatars, known as the Tats, is examined and used to dispute simplistic claims for the nomadic, Mongol origin of this people who would, under the influence of Islam and Mongol ruling institutions, later form the Tatars of the Crimea. This chapter shatters the image of the Crimean Tatars as a race of nomadsand proves that the south Crimean Tatars were the direct descendants of the Pontic Greeks, Armenians, Scythians, Ostrogoths and Kipchak Turks.
Chapter Two. Dar al-Islam. The Crimean Tatars from Mehmed the Conqueror to Catherine the Great. This chapter analyzes the culture of the Crimean Tatars (both urban and rural) during the period of the Crimean Khanate and Ottoman rule on the south Crimean coast. An in-depth analysis of life in the Khanate and the Ottoman coastal province is provided here and the differences between the Kipchak Turkic speaking Tatar sub-ethnic group of the north Crimean steppes (the nomadic Nogais) and the ancient sedentary Tatars of the south (the Tats) is further explored. The continuation of Christian traditions in Crimean Islam, the culture of such Tatar towns as Bahcesaray, Karasubazar and Kefe (Kaffa), and the history of sedentarization by nomads in the Crimea are also explored in this chapter.

Chapter Three. The Pearl in the Tsar’s Crown. The Crimean Land and People under Russia. This chapter traces the events surrounding the Russian conquest and annexation of the Crimea. Using the first-hand accounts of those who visited the Crimea in the 19th century, this land and its people are brought to life in an analysis of agricultural customs, village life, ethnic dialects, traditional Islam, town life etc. From the terraced mountain villages of the southern coast and Yaila Mountains and the bustling bazaars and mosques of the Khanate’s former capital, Bahcesaray, to the auls (camps) of the Tatar herders of the north Crimean steppe (the Nogais), the Crimea of the early colonial period is recreated. This is done, in part, to juxtapose the later collapse of this peasant society which occurred largely as a result of Russian colonial policies.

Chapter Four. Dispossession. The Loss of the Crimean Homeland. This is a systematic study of the loss of Crimean land suffered by the Crimean Tatar peasants and villagers due to Russian land confiscations in the late 18th and 19th centuries. As in other areas of colonial rule, in the Crimea Russian magnates, large-landowners (pomeshchiks) and the nobility displaced the weaker indigenous population of the Crimea causing a virtual collapse of their traditional society. Overwhelming evidence of this loss of communal land, access to communal wells and the impoverishment of the Tatars is provided through the use of contemporary Russian sources. This encroachment and exploitation of the Crimea at the expense of the apathetic Muslim peasants led many Tatar Muslims to conceive of the Ottoman Empire as the true home of pious Muslims and a land of religious freedom and opportunity.

Chapter Five. Dar al-Harb. The 19th Century Crimean Tatar Migrations to the Ottoman Empire. This chapter discusses the collapse of Crimean Muslim society in the aftermath of the Crimean War of 1853-6. This chapter is an analysis of the role that such factors as Russian colonial excesses during warfare with the Ottomans, war-time depredation by Cossack units during the Crimean War and internal calls for hijra (religious migration) to the Islamic -Ottoman Empire by the Tatar Muslims’ religious leaders played in causing a strange mass migration of 200,000 of the Russian Empire’s 300,000 Crimean Tatars to the Ottoman Empire in 1860. This chapter demonstrates that the Crimean Tatar Muslims were subjected to considerable loss of land to Russian landowners, deprived of access to pastures and wells and subjected to a massive disruption of their traditional agrarian and social systems. All of these colonial abuses, when combined with war-time persecution, led many pre-modern Crimean Tatar Muslims to abandon Russia (which was seen as the Dar al-Harb, the ‘Land of War’ with the infidel) for the blessed lands of the Ottoman Muslims. As becomes evident here, the pre-modern Islamic population of Tatars in the Crimea had no communal construction of the Crimea as a ‘Fatherland’ in the Western nationalist sense in this early period. I translate beautiful Tatar destans (ballads) which describe the Crimea as un-Islamic land of the unbelievers ‘consumed by fire’ as a means of demonstrating the lack of territoriality among the Crimean Muslims who of course had not yet been exposed to modern, Western nationalism and its romanticization of home territory (Fatherland).

Chapter Six. Signs and Portents. The Crimean Tatars in the Aftermath of the Migration of 1860. This chapter analyzes the results of this frenzied emigration of Crimean Tatar Muslims to the Ottoman Empire (mainly in 1860-1) on the Crimea’s economy and its indigenous Tatar population. I use Russian sources in particular to describe the loss of ancient farming techniques, the collapse of grain growing in the Crimean steppe (farmed by Nogai Tatars) and the terrible impact that the loss of the Crimea’s skilled indigenous peasant class had on this region’s welfare. This chapter disputes simplistic notions that the Crimean Tatars were ‘ethnically cleansed’ from their homeland by their Russian masters. It is the contention here that the pre-modern, tribal-Islamically defined Tatar community of the Crimea felt the Crimea to the be the Dar al-Harb  and emigrated to the Islamic Ottoman Empire (conceived as the Dar al-Islam, the Realm of Islam and seat of the Caliph) to preserve their religious beliefs and communal identity. Ironically enough, I demonstrate here that Russian authorities prevented the remnant of Crimean Tatars in the south (the Tats) from following in the footsteps of the emigrating nomadic Tatars (the Nogais) and thus preserved a Tatar core in the Crimea which would later form the Crimean Tatar nation.  It is, however, demonstrated here that land confiscations by Russian landowners and other ‘push’ factors, such as carefully analyzed anti-Tatar discrimination and Cossack pogroms during the Crimean War, left this religious community prone to internal ‘pull’ factors which encouraged emigration, such as calls of hijra (religious emigration) to the lands of the Ottoman Sultan-Caliph.

Chapter Seven. Ak Toprak. The Formation of the Crimean Tatar Communities of the Caucasus, Romania and Bulgaria. This section provides an in-depth analysis of the settlement of the emigrating Crimean Tatars in the lands of the Ottoman sultans (known in Tatar as ‘white or holy lands’ or ak toprak) in the Caucasus (Circassia) and the Dobruca (coastal Romania and Bulgaria) . The process whereby the Dobruca plain became known as ‘Little Tatarstan’ as a result of these costly migrations is given considerable attention. The continuation of Tatar customs in the Dobruca is explored in this anthropological chapter as is the role of the Crimean Tatars in Ottoman Balkan society and Ottoman military organizations. In many respects this chapter is the first comprehensive analysis in a Western language on the Tatars and their culture in this little studied corner of Europe.

Chapter Eight. The Great Retreat. The Formation of the Crimean Tatar Diaspora in Turkey. This chapter traces the tragic Tatar migrations to Anatolia and brings to life the loss of life, disruption to emigrating families and efforts to readapt to life in western Anatolia by Crimean Tatar muhacirs (religiously-motivated immigrants) following the bloody collapse of Ottoman rule in the Balkans (1875-7). This chapter analyzes the socio-economic role of the Crimean Tatar refugees in Ottoman Anatolia, their gradual Turkification (especially of the Tat sub-ethnic group which had close ties to the Ottomans in the Crimea) and their later efforts to preserve or revive their identity as a diasporic people in the officially homogenous, mono-ethnic Turkish Republic.
 It is argued here that, while most Crimean Tatar immigrants assimilated into Turkish society due to the fact that they had no articulated sense of modern ‘national’ identity or attachment to secular ‘Fatherland’ at the time of their arrival in the Ottoman Empire, later Crimean Tatar activists have been successful in maintaining or reviving a continued sense of ‘Crimean Tatarness’ amongst many Crimean Tatars in Eski Sehir and other cities in Western Anatolia. While Ataturk’s policies of Turkification were successful in assimilating the Crimean Tatars of Turkey, a minority continued to link themselves to their former Crimean homeland through cultural associations and diasporic journals such as Emel (Aspiration). This diasporic community (a ‘sleeping’ community of over a million) has the potential to play the role of a traditional support diaspora in assisting their parent community in the former Soviet Union. With the collapse of the USSR and the relaxation of Ataturk’s policies of unifying Turkification, the Crimean Tatars of Turkey have the potential to be a mobilized diaspora with the real ability to shape events in their former homeland.

Chapter Nine. Yeshil Ada. The Construction of Tatar Diasporic Identity in Romania and Bulgaria. This chapter explores the construction of an active diasporic identity among the Crimean Tatars of the Dobruca in the 20th century. Although this islanded community of Tatars has undergone repression in Communist Bulgaria (especially in the 1980s) and loss of land Romania, it has kept alive its links to its former Crimean homeland alive and many of the Crimean Tatar diaspora’s most dynamic leaders hail from the Dobrucan plain. This unique Balkan diasporic community has gone largely un-studied by those in the field of comparative diasporic studies (i.e. the study of Jews, Armenians, Palestinians, Tutsis etc.) and it is the aim of this chapter and the previous one to include the Crimean Tatars in larger academic discussions on diaspora groups of the world. This chapter also traces the process whereby this diasporic community constructed symbolic links to the Yeshil Ada (Green Island) of the Crimea under the influence of nationalism.

Chapter Ten. Vatan. The Construction of the Crimean Tatar Homeland. This chapter takes the story of the Crimean Tatars back to the largely Russified Crimean homeland of the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the aftermath of the great emigration of 1860. This section explores the role of such seminal Crimean Tatar leaders as the modernist, Ismail Gaspirali, early nationalist Abureshid Mehdi, and later nationalist leaders such as Cafer Seydahmet, Ahmet Ozenbashli, and Numan Chelebi Cihan in constructing the Crimea not as a adjunct of the Russian Empire, or an infidel-ruled land to be abandoned in order to preserve one’s Islamic identity (the Dar al-Harb) , but as a unique ‘Fatherland’ or ‘Homeland’ (Vatan) for the Tatars of the Crimea. It is argued here that indigenous intellectuals among the Crimean Tatars were exposed to Western nationalism and borrowed allegories of blood mixed with soil, the sacredness of one’s home place, the rights of nations to a territory defined as a Faterland or Patrie etc. to construct the Crimea as a (Vatan) Homeland in the Western nationalist sense.
 In the process, it is argued here, the Muslim Tatars of the Crimea were encouraged by an educated elite to see themselves as an ethno-linguistic nation with a unique national claim to the idealized soil of the Crimean homeland. It is the contention here that the great Islamic reformer Gaspirali started this process by emphasizing the ethno-linguistic (Not Islamic) aspects of his imagined community which was the greater Turkic nation (the Crimean Tatars were seen by Gaspirali as simply a component of a much larger Eurasian Turkic nation made up of Azeris, Volga Tatars, Kazakhs, Uzbeks etc.). Younger Crimean Tatars with a more narrowly-defined, political outlook took Gaspirali’s ethno-cultural ideas and applied them not to the Turkic people as a whole, but to their more narrowly defined imagined community, the Tatar national-community of the Crimean Peninsula.
 In the process these early nationalists began to compete with the Crimean Tatars’ traditional communal leaders, the Islamic ulema, for the hearts and minds of their people. In so doing this small nationalist intelligentsia condemned religiously-sponsored migration to the lands of the Muslim Empire (the Ottoman Empire) as a betrayal of the Crimean Tatar ‘nation’ and ‘homeland’. This was a revolutionary break with a time honored Crimean Muslim tradition of abandoning the Crimea for the ak toprak (holy or white soil of the Ottoman Caliph) and laid the seeds for the later dissemination of a sense of territorialized national identity to the Crimean Tatar masses. In the process the concept of the Crimea as a Homeland began, for the first time, to reach the Muslim masses in the Crimea.

Chapter Eleven. Soviet Homeland. The Nationalization of Crimean Tatar Identity in the USSR. This chapter explores the position of the Crimean Tatars in the Soviet Union prior to their deportation in 1944. This is a contentious issue today as the Crimean Tatars argue that the Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR) of 1921-45 was established, as were all other territorial autonomy-homelands in the USSR, in recognition of the republic’s indigenous ethnic group (i.e. the Crimean Tatars in this case). Most Russians in the Crimea today, however, point out that the Crimean ASSR was never a de jure Crimean Tatar ASSR, rather they argue it was a multi-national territorial republic, not a national republic established for the minority Crimean Tatars (who represented only 25% of the Crimean ASSR’s population). This chapter proves that the republic was indeed established in recognition of the Crimean Tatars as the autonomy’s officially recognized native population (korennoi narod) and that all the state institutions of this republic recognized the Crimean Tatars’ unique status in the Crimea and claim to this republic.
 This policy of ‘positive discrimination’ towards the Crimea’s de facto state-sponsored native people was best demonstrated in Lenin’s policy of korenizatsiia (‘rooting’ of indigenous populations in the administration of their homeland-republics). During this period the Tatar head of the Crimean ASSR, Veli Ibrahimov, used all of the vast resources suddenly made available to him by the new Bolshevik Communist regime (Tatar language newspapers, education in primary and secondary schools by Tatars, increased literacy, Tatar language publishing houses and libraries, state-sponsored archeology, Tatar language programs in the university etc.) to nationalize his backward Islamic peasant people and contribute to the territorialization of their identity in their state-sponsored homeland-republic.
 In the process Islam as a competing basis for communal identity was disrupted in the Soviets’ drive against religion and obscurantism. The Crimea thus became a secularly-defined homeland for most secular Crimean Tatars who now linked themselves to this territory in a way their religiously defined, aterritorial ancestors had not a generation earlier. The Crimea had both emotive and bureaucratic claims to the Crimean Tatars’ allegiance as a homeland by this time period and this territory was seen as the only place for Soviet citizens of Crimean Tatar origin to live. This fascinating chapter in Crimean Tatar history (the role of the Soviet state in completing the construction of the Crimea as a homeland by its native population) has gone largely unrecognized by Crimean Tatars today.

Chapter Twelve. Surgun. The Crimean Tatar Exile in Central Asia. This chapter analyzes the role of the Crimean Tatars in World War II and recreates the horrors of the deportation of 1944. Using previously off limit NKVD (KGB), German and Tatar sources this chapter provides hitherto unpublished information on the role of the Crimean Tatars as fighters in the Red Army, partisan units and the invading German Wehrmacht. This chapter demonstrates that, according to NKVD sources, 20,000 Crimean Tatars fought in the ranks of the Red Army and 20,000 for the Nazis. All sources agree that most of those who fought for the Nazis were either captured by the Germans and given the choice of dying in prison camps or being used as cannon fodder or fought in the German ranks in the hopes of achieving Crimean Tatar independence from Stalin’s brutal regime. Many Tatars who fought for the Germans did so in order to further Crimean Tatar national agendas (not assist the Nazis) and the majority of the Crimean Tatar people were strongly anti-German by the end of the war (due to confiscation of livestock and grain by the Gestapo and the forced deportation of Crimean Tatars to work in German factories as Ostarbeiters-Eastern Workers).
 Regardless of the complexity of the issue, it is the contention here that the NKVD deported the Crimean Tatars probably to preempt their collaboration with Turkey which Stalin intended to invade in order to seize two provinces lost to Russia at the end of World War I (Kars and Ardahan). This chapter subsequently traces the deportation routes and resettlement of the Crimean Tatars, largely in eastern Uzbekistan, and makes use of interviews with survivors (carried out by the author in Uzbekistan and the Crimea) and newly declassified NKVD-KGB sources to reconstruct this tragic event. Such issues as new statistics on the mortality rate, conditions in the ‘special settlement’ camps, relations with the indigenous Central Asian populations, and efforts to ‘de-Tatarize’ the Crimea after 1944 are discussed here.

Chapter Thirteen. Return. The Post-Soviet Migrations of the Crimean Tatars from Central Asia to the Crimea. This chapter provides a history of the exiled Crimean Tatars’ long struggle against the Soviet regime to return to a homeland that this nation, which had become very territorialized and nationalized during the early Soviet period and even more so during the surgun (exile), saw as its only legitimate home place. It is argued here that the Crimean Tatar people’s attachment to the Crimean homeland went from passive to politically active as a result of their communal deportation and continuing ethnically-based oppression under the Soviets.
 Of interest here is the analysis of the trans-generational narratives of the homeland which linked new generations of Tatars growing up in exile in Central Asia to the Crimea as a romanticized homeland (the so called Yeshil Ada-Green Isle). This unique example of an entire people living in exile but refusing to accept their places of ‘resettlement’ as permanent has gone largely unnoticed by the outside world. Those studying ethno-political mobilization, diasporic identity construction, the durability of nationalism etc. have in the Crimean Tatar exile been offered a unique comparative case study on the salient nature of territoriality and nationalism.
 Far from assimilating into the Central Asian Turco-Islamic milieu as the Soviet government obviously intended, the exiled Crimean Tatars were led by such dynamic dissident leaders as Mustafa Dzhemilev Kirimoglu in fighting for the right to return to their national homeland. All efforts to provide alternative solutions to the Crimean Tatar ‘problem’ (such as state-sponsored discussions on the establishment of an autonomous Crimean Tatar homeland-autonomy in Uzbekistan) or to de-nationalize the Crimean Tatars were rejected by this politically mobilized people who waged a determined dissident struggle to sustain their group identity and return their entire nation to its historic homeland.
The irony here is that the secularized descendants of those 19th century Tatar Muslim emigrants who left the Russian-dominated Crimea for the Islamic Ottoman Empire were now engaged in a determined struggle to return to the very land abandoned by hundreds of thousands of their religiously-defined ancestors a century earlier.
 With the implementation of Gorbachev’s policy of openness-glasnost and the collapse of the USSR, approximately half of the CIS’s population of 500,000 Crimean Tatars have returned with great difficulty to the Crimean ‘Homeland’. It is argued here that this strange migration of car convoys, whole collective farms and neighborhoods was not a spontaneous event but rather a well organized action as were the subsequent land seizures in the Crimea by returning Crimean Tatars.
     This chapter provides a chronology of the subsequent clashes between the Crimean Tatar ‘returnees’ (many of whom had never seen the Crimea) and Russian-Crimean authorities in the early 1990s, attempts by the Russian dominated authorities of the Crimea to destroy Crimean Tatar settlements (known as samozakhvats-self-seized settlements), the struggle to gain representation in the Russian-dominated Crimean parliament and difficulties (such as de-urbanization) related to the process of resettlement in the Crimea.  This chapter is based on field research in the Crimea and provides a description of life in the settlements, the importance of Central Asia in the collective memory of the Crimean Tatar repatriates, the sense of disillusionment many returnees feel in a homeland most had never seen prior to the Soviet collapse, and problems related to keeping Crimean Tatar identity alive among that segment of the Crimean Tatar population (50%) still in exile. The narrative ends with an analysis of events on the ground in the Crimea as of spring 2000 and discusses such topics as the homogenizing effects of the exile on creating a sense of unity among the Crimean Tatar sub-ethnies (the Tats and Nogais), efforts by Crimean Tatar leaders to have the Crimean Tatars defined in the Ukraine and international forums as an indigenous group, the role of Turkey (and the Tatar diaspora there) in the Crimea and the future prospects of the Crimean Tatar diaspora still residing in Central Asia and Russia (predominantly the Krasnodar region and Moscow).

Volume 2, Brill's Inner Asian Library
2001,  Brill, Leiden, Boston, Koln
ISBN:  90 04 12122 6
ISSN:  1566-7162

Review of Book in "Choice"
; by D. MacKenzie, emeritus, Univ. of North Carolina. Greensboro.

Pictures from Book


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