The Tatars – Crimea’s dark Soviet past

On the 6th of March the Crimean parliament declared that a referendum would be held on the 16th to decide whether Crimea would join Russia. This intensified the crisis, as the US declared that “there would be little to discuss” if Russia annexed the province. While many Crimean Russians have been celebrating this referendum, there is one group in Crimea to whom the idea of joining Russia is terrifying. These people are the Crimean Tatars.

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Today the Tatars make up 12% of Crimea, but it has been their homeland since the early Middle Ages. For a time it was part of the Mongol Golden Horde, but in 1441 the independent Crimean Khanate was established. This was an ethnically Tatar state which was Islamic, and allied to the Ottoman Empire. The Tatars fought and raided the Ukrainians and the Russians for centuries, but by the 1700s the new Russian Empire was too strong, and Crimea was absorbed into Russia. Despite numerous uprisings, and a brief Tatar government during the Russian Civil War in 1917, Crimea became a part of the Soviet Union. This is where their destruction as a nation began.


During the Second World War some Tatars collaborated with the Germans. Just like the groups of Western Ukrainians who sided with the Germans, they saw the Nazi’s as little worse than  Soviet rule. Despite the many Tatars who fought for the Soviet Union, that was enough for Stalin.

On the 18th of May 1944 the doors of Tatar houses in Crimea were marked. Soldiers and police went to these houses door by door telling the Tatars that they were being deported as traitors. All were given less than a half hour to pack their belongings, before leaving their homes forever. Every single one of the 238,500 Tatars in Crimea were packed into cattle trains and taken to destinations in Central Asia and all across the Soviet Union. These trains weren’t intended for humans, and up to 6000 people died from disease on the journey.

Their fate did not improve when they reached their destinations. Some were set straight to hard labour, including Tatar soldiers who had fought for Stalin in the Red Army. Others arrived in Central Asia only to find that there had been no preparation for their arrival. Thousands starved to death, and in the following years disease claimed many more. Almost half of the Tatar population died in the years following their deportation.

In the 1960s the Soviet government declared that the Tatars weren’t traitors after all. However they were not allowed to return home until the 1980s. Today they are a minority in their own historical homeland, outnumbered by Russians and Ukrainians.

Tension after the takeover

This history is why the events of the last few days are so disturbing for the Tatars. Since Russia took control of Crimea, the Tatars have been feeling under threat. Not just because of their ethnicity, but because they supported the Euromaidan protests in Kyiv. Already there have been some signs of history repeating itself. The New Yorker’s Natalia Antelava describes what has happened in cities across Crimea:

At first, Rustem Kadyrov could barely make out the mark outside his house, in the Crimean town of Bakhchysarai, but it filled him with terror. It was an X, cut deep into the gray metal of the gate, and its significance cut even deeper, evoking a memory Kadyrov shares with all Crimean Tatars. Kadyrov, who is thirty-one, grew up hearing stories about marks on doors. (New Yorker)

This is clearly an effort to intimidate the Tatar population. Once more they are being marked out as strangers in their own land. The new parliament wants them to vote to join Russia, and to stop supporting Kyiv. While the Russian soldiers in Crimea have so far harmed no one, and been extremely professional, their very presence is a reminder of the painful Tatar history. But the local pro-Russian militias, such as the Cossacks, are much more of a threat. They have a historical enmity with the Tatars, and the situation is tense (video).

At the moment though, the pro-Russian government of Crimea is still playing nice. They are offering representation in government and protection for the Tatar language. But the markings on Tatar houses and the Cossack militias tell a different story, and for the Tatars they hint at a very uncertain future. The ethnic Ukrainian Crimeans have Ukraine after all. The Tatars have nowhere else to go.

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