The Russian annexation of Crimea has raised a host of important questions about the fate of the diverse populations on the peninsula. Will Ukrainian-speakers be granted Russian federation passports? Will the new authorities respect the rights of long-term residents who are denied Russian citizenship or who choose to retain their Ukrainian passports? Will Ukrainian language and institutions be tolerated? These are important questions not only for Crimea itself, but also for Russia’s strategy in Eastern and Southern Ukraine. The harsh fate meted out by local authorities toward Georgians in South Ossetia (with Russian troops looking on) provides an ominous sign of the possibilities.
Another important group faces a very uncertain future: the Crimean Tatars. There are approximately a quarter million Crimean Tatars currently living on the Crimean peninsula (about 10 percent of the population and about half the total Crimean Tatar population of the world). Most members of this Sunni Muslim group are currently bilingual Crimean Tatar and Russian-speakers, but they have leaned more toward Ukraine than Russia in the current crisis and in the contentious politics of the region over the last 20 years. Although we do not know participation rates, several of the Tatar leaders called for boycotts of the March 16 referendum in Crimea on joining the Russian Federation.
Part of the reason for Tatar mistrust of Russia comes from the searing memory of Soviet leader Josef Stalin’s 1944 brutal deportation of every Tatar man, woman, and child from their native Crimea to harsh exile in Central Asia (238,000 people). Stalin punished the entire nation for alleged collaboration with the Nazis during their brief occupation of the peninsula. Although some Tatars did indeed welcome one dictatorial regime in hopes of a reprieve from the horrific policies of another, punishing an entire civilian population for the actions of a few is, of course, inexcusable. Religion has rarely been considered to be a factor in this violent act, but Stalin did relax his war on Orthodoxy during the war to help mobilize society for a patriotic war effort, and no such relaxation was apparent for the Muslim minorities of the Soviet Union. The motives of the horrific deportation remain under debate, but they were probably more about ethnic stereotypes than religious hostility. Entire generations of Crimean Tatars grew up in exile, banned from returning to their homelands. A decree in November 1989 finally opened the way for Tatars to return to Crimea, a process that continued into the 1990s. Many Crimean Tatars remain in Turkey, Uzbekistan, and elsewhere.
This genocidal act should not be attributed solely to Russians. It was a Georgian individual (Stalin) who ordered his multi-ethnic Soviet secret police to conduct the action. However, Tatars and Russians alike see current Russian president Vladimir Putin and the Russian Federation as the successor to the Soviet historical tradition. While Putin has condemned the deportations, he has not made clear that he will rein in the zeal of local authorities to repress the Tatars. It does not help that Russian nationalism in the past 20 years has focused on anti-Muslim themes, from its two wars against Sunni Muslim Chechnya, to the expulsions from Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other major Russian cities of Muslim traders and laborers from the Caucasus and Central Asia.
If Russia and the Tatars are to get along, they will have to overcome not only the bitter legacy of the 1944 deportations, but also centuries of conflict. Russian Tsar Catherine the Great’s conquest of the Crimean Khanate in 1774 led to a mass emigration of Tatars to the Ottoman Empire that was encouraged by the new Russian authorities. Catherine then proceeded to distribute vast lands that had been used by Tatars for grazing to Russian, Ukrainian, German, and foreign nobles and farming communities. The Crimean war of 1853-56 spurred another mass emigration of Crimean Tatars. Memories of historical injustices run the other way too. During the three centuries when the Crimean Tatar Khanate was part of the Ottoman Empire (1478-1774), one of its primary activities was seizing captives from Russia, Ukraine, and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and selling them as slaves in the Ottoman Empire and Middle East.
Overcoming historical legacies like these will be a major challenge, but the historical background is not all bleak. The Crimean peninsula also has a deep history as a cosmopolitan meeting place where empires and peoples not only clashed but also interacted productively. The Crimean peninsula played such a role in the Greek, Scythian, Sarmatian, and Hunnic empires. It really emerged on the world stage during the era of the great Mongol Empire from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries. The khans of Crimea were a key part of the global long distance trade network that made the Mongol Empire so prosperous and powerful. Although some textbooks portray the era as a titanic conflict between Orthodox Christian Muscovy and the Muslim khanates of the Mongol Empire, religion was not actually the key to everything. In fact, as Muscovy rose to prominence, the Sunni Muslim Crimean khanate was the principality’s best trading partner and its frequent ally in wars against the Catholic Christian Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. After Catherine’s conquest, Crimea became part of an ambitious project to create a multi-ethnic, Enlightenment-era “New Russia” based on principles of religious tolerance and greater freedoms than existed elsewhere in the empire. Religious tolerance was a key element of her policy of consolidating imperial expansion by co-opting local conquered elites. She used it to co-opt Muslims in Crimea and Catholics in Poland, and to entice Mennonite and Protestant immigrants to settle in the open lands of Crimea with the offer of religious freedom. So Crimea was not a straightforward site of eternal conflict between Muslims and Christians, but rather, a site of alliance, cooperation, and close working relationships between Christians and Muslims for several centuries.
The Crimean Tatars now join more than 16 million Muslims in the Russian Federation (11 percent of the population), more than 6 million of whom are the closely related Volga Tatars. Since 1991, Russia has fought two brutal wars against Muslim Chechens in the Caucasus and has imposed discriminatory policies in its major cities, but it has also found productive working relationships with the Volga Tatars and other Muslim groups. Like all Muslim communities in the successor states to the atheist Soviet Union, Crimean Tatars have restored mosques and religious practices since 1991. But this is not the primary source of conflict with Russia. In fact, the Russian leadership has revived a deep historical tradition of recognizing the Muslim faith as one of the official faiths of the country, and working closely with its leaders. This tradition goes back to the fourteenth century origins of Muscovy, whose grand princes were close collaborators with the Muslim khanates of the Mongol Empire. When Muscovy conquered the Khanate of Khazan in 1552, its elite joined the Russian nobility; and Moscow recognized the Islamic faith and its hierarchy as completely legitimate, working with them rather than against them to establish Russian hegemony in the region. The future of the Crimean Tatars need not be determined by the horrific episodes of violence and mass expulsion of the past, but history does pose a particularly difficult set of challenges to all sides in the new Crimea.
Some Crimean Tatars have fled to Ukraine and Turkey in the wake of the Russian annexation, and there is a debate about whether to accept Russian passports. On March 29, the elected representative body for the Crimean Tatars, the Kurultai, met and voted to pursue ethnic and territorial autonomy. How the Russian and local Crimean authorities respond remains to be seen. But early indications do not look promising.
One of the biggest unresolved questions regards property. The Crimean Tatars who have returned from exile in the past 25 years have for the most part not acquired legal title to the properties and land that they have been using. Part of this was a result of the murky status of property after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Ukrainian authorities failed to resolve the question, and now it stands as a threatening problem for the Tatars. Crimean deputy Prime Minister Rustam Temirgaliev recently announced that the government would ask Tatars to vacate “illegally occupied land.” This would threaten the status of many of the Tatars, most of whom settled in makeshift homes on unauthorized property when they returned from exile. The local authorities also recently imposed a five-year ban on entry into Crimea of perhaps the most prominent Crimean Tatar leader in recent decades, Mustafa Dzhemilev, a leader of the Crimean Tatar National Movement.
One of the interesting things to watch as policies and events unfold in Crimea will be whether such statements and actions are backed up by the central authorities in Moscow, or whether these are isolated instances of overzealous local officials. Thus far, it remains unclear. What is clear is that Russia’s treatment of the Crimean Tatars will be closely watched by others on Russia’s borderlands and by Tatars and Muslims throughout the Russian Federation.
Eric Lohr is the Susan Carmel Lehrman Chair of Russian History and Culture at American University.