Tatars of Crimea

Tatars of Crimea


The Tatars, around 250,000 of whom live in modern-day Crimea, have a turbulent history.

In their heyday from the 15th to the 18th century they ruled a Crimean Khanate, but their population was slashed and scattered, first by Tsarist Russia and then by the Soviets. Now, many are apprehensive about the prospect of Crimea leaving Ukraine and coming under Moscow’s rule.

. SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine. Reuters/Thomas Peter

The Kebir-Jami Mosque, where these men pray, was built in 1508, a time when the Muslim Tatars were dominant in Crimea.

During their era of power, they became notorious for enslaving Christian Slavs and selling them on within the Ottoman Empire, something Russian nationalists recall to this day.

Their dominance ended when Russian Empress Catherine the Great conquered the area at the end of the 18th century. Many were massacred or exiled. Others fled.

Later, the Soviet Union brought more hardship. Many prominent Tatars were arrested and executed in Soviet dictator Josef Stalin's purges and harsh agricultural collectivisation policies led to famine.

Between 1917 and 1933, historians estimate that half the Crimean Tatar population died, was killed or deported.

. SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine. Reuters/Thomas Peter

Although many Tatars, like those pictured above, are now back in Crimea, their entire community was swept out of the region during World War Two.

Many Tatar men served in the Red Army and fought the Nazis in the Second World War, but others joined special units of the Waffen SS. When Soviet troops retook the peninsula, Stalin took his wrath out on the entire Tatar population.

In a single day, Soviet troops rounded everyone up, loaded them into railway cattle cars and sent nearly 200,000 into exile in Central Asia. Many died en route. Others died of malaria or starvation when they arrived.

. BAKHCHISARAY, Ukraine. Reuters/Thomas Peter

Following the mass deportation of 1944, the town of Bakhchisaray (pictured above) became a ghoulish Soviet tourist attraction, emptied of people.

It was reborn in the late 1980s, the beginning of a restoration that saw most Crimean Tatars return from exile to their homeland, first under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and then after Ukraine became independent.

They settled among Slavic neighbours, including a much larger number of ethnic Russians. Tatars now make up roughly 12 percent of Crimea's total population of 2 million or so.

. SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

In recent weeks, a new era of upheaval has hit the region.

In the political turbulence following the ouster of Ukraine’s former pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich, thousands of Tatars turned out in the streets of Crimea’s regional capital, Simferopol, on February 26.

They marched in favour of Kiev's new government at a counter demonstration to one held by Russian separatists. Some people were hurt in the scrum.

The next morning before dawn, armed men seized the Crimean parliament in a raid that heralded the start of a Russian military operation on the peninsular. A referendum on whether Crimea should join Russia is planned for March 16.

. SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko

Worried that the Tatars might disrupt Crimea's transition to Russian from Ukrainian control, the Kremlin and the peninsula's Russian-backed authorities have been working hard to win them over, even inviting one of their spiritual leaders to a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow.

Crimea's pro-Russian authorities have held out the promise of guaranteed Tatar representation in the local government, proper land ownership rights - something many Tatars lack - and financial aid.

But suspicion and fear run deep. In the picture above, a member of the local Crimean Tatar community looks out of a makeshift shelter to keep watch against pro-Russian supporters.