As the international crisis over Crimea’s status escalates, the fate of the Crimean Tatars has been nearly absent from the discussion. The West has essentially accepted a manipulation of history: According to the Russian narrative, Crimea is a traditional Russian territory with an overwhelming Russian population, whimsically transferred to Ukraine by Nikita Khrushchev in 1954. To accept this version is to negate the histories of non-Russian peoples, above all Crimean Tatars, and tacitly sanction Russian aggression, which may lead to consequences beyond Ukraine’s borders.
Since ancient times, many peoples have populated Crimea, including Armenians, Greeks, Jews, Mongols, Slavs and Turks. However, only the Crimean Tatars have Crimea as their only homeland; their presence and rule predates the Russians by centuries. As a distinct ethnic group, they can be traced to the early 15th century and the formation of the Crimean Khanate, a successor state to Genghis Khan’s empire. For almost 350 years, the Crimean Khanate, under the protection of the Ottoman Empire, was a major power in Eastern Europe, controlling the northern Black Sea steppes. The Russian Empire eliminated the state of the Tatars in 1783, contrary to guarantees it pledged in the Treaty of Kuchuk Kainardja (1774).
So what happened to the Crimean Tatars and where did the Russians and Ukrainians come in? The Tatars fought both with and against their Ukrainian Cossack neighbours. After Russia conquered Crimea, it launched a massive colonization of Slavic settlers. Russia continued to reduce the Tatar population, decreasing it by two-thirds over the course of the 19th century through forced migration to the Ottoman Empire. The modern-day presence in Turkey of millions of people of Tatar descent explains Turkish concern over the current situation. Finally, in 1944, Joseph Stalin deported the entire Crimean Tatar population in cattle cars, dumping them in Central Asia under the pretext of supposed collaboration with Nazi Germany. About half of the 225,000 deportees perished from hunger and the elements.
This act of genocide opened the way for the settlement of additional, mostly Russian, colonists in Crimea. In the late 1980s, Tatars began returning to Crimea and found their homes irrevocably lost to the new settlers. They resigned themselves to the situation and to coexistence with the new settlers, who did not always welcome their return. Despite these hardships, the experience of the Crimean Tatars under Russian rule was so traumatic that for them, the possibility of Crimea’s return to Russia, raised Thursday in plans for a quick referendum on that prospect, is appalling. They remain staunch supporters of Ukraine.
Between the ethnic cleansing of the Crimean Tatars and colonization, Russians eventually became the dominant population in Crimea. As of the 2001 census, the population was just over two million: 58 per cent Russians, 24 per cent Ukrainians and 12 per cent Crimean Tatars. (The Tatar proportion will have since risen due to migration and birth rate.) Russians hardly constitute a “vast majority,” as is often stated in the media.
There are two more myths Russia invokes to justify its occupation of Crimea. The first is that Crimea is a land of “Russian glory sanctified with Russian blood” because Russia conquered it in the 18th century and retook it from the Germans in the Second World War. This article of faith disregards the fact that both the Russian and Soviet empires were multinational states whose armies included plenty of non-Russians – the blood of Ukrainians and other ethnicities was spilled in the wars against the Ottoman Empire and the Third Reich.
The second relates to the transfer of Crimea from the Russian to the Ukrainian Republic in 1954. The story goes that Khrushchev, bypassing all legal norms, single-handedly gifted the peninsula to Ukraine to commemorate its 300th anniversary with Russia and earn points with the Ukrainian Communist Party in his struggle for power. (Actually, the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union passed a law that sealed the transfer.) Rarely mentioned are economic motivations. The Second World War devastated Crimea and Khrushchev was particularly troubled by the abysmal pace of recovery. The Ukrainian Republic’s aid was seen as crucial, particularly in bringing water from the mainland to the arid peninsula. Ukrainian resources were a key to the recovery.
Lamentably, Russian myths about Crimea’s past are being allowed the role of a full-fledged actor in the current crisis. Ukrainians have their narrative as well. All nations have heroic myths, but when an exclusivist myth is invoked in an international conflict, it must be understood for what it is, rather than accepted as a legitimizing factor for aggression. The Tatar voice desperately needs to be heard, both as a matter of justice and as a matter of prudence, to avoid a new grievance in the Muslim world. In accepting the Russian narrative, the West may contribute not only to the triumph of oppression over justice, but to war over peace.
Victor Ostapchuk is an associate professor in the department of Near and Middle Eastern civilizations at the University of Toronto, specializing in the history of the Black Sea region and Crimean Khanate.