H. B. Paksoy

[Published in: Modern Encyclopedia of Religions in Russia and Soviet Union [MERRSU] (Academic International Press, 1995) Vol. VI. Pp. 135-142.]

The Crimean Tatars are a Turkic people who inhabited Crimean peninsula from at least the 13th century to Word War II, when they were deported to Central Asia by Stalin's orders. Although the Soviet regime "exonerated" them, it has denied permission for the Crimean Tatars to return to Crimea. At present, Crimean Tatars live in diaspora. Large numbers are living in Ozbekistan, or in the principal cities of the Turkish Republic. At various times, other Tatar groupings migrated as far as Helsinki, Finland and New York, while still others stayed in the Dobruja region of Romania. Poland has a small enclave.

Origins and Early History:

The word Tatar appears in the Kultigin tablets, which were erected in early 8th century AD and are located close to the Orkhon river near the Mongolian border. These tablets were variously discovered. re-discovered and finally deciphered between the 18th and 20th centuries. According to the inscriptions, Tatars were one of the tribes living in the vicinity of the Altai range of Eastern Asia. During the 11th century, Kashgarli Mahmut, the author of Compendium of Turkic Dialects , noted that Tatars were living around Otuken, next to the Uyghurs. However, Tatars became one of the tribes forcibly incorporated into the Mongol armies by Chinggis Khan, when the Mongols swept through most of Eurasia during the 13th century.

The Latin word "Tartarus," meaning "the infernal regions of Roman and Greek mythology, hence Hell" had already been borrowed into Christian theology by the clergy of Europe. Possibly St. Louis of France was the first, in 1270, to apply this unrelated term to the troops of Chinggis. By the 14th century, this erroneous usage was also extended to the homelands of the Tatars. Consequently that area later known as Central Asia, or Turkistan, was referenced by the European cartographers and authors, including Chaucer, as "Tartary," Tartares," or "Independent Tartary."

By extension the term "Tatar," or "Tartar" was applied by outsiders to almost all groupings of Turkish origin including numerous Turkish confederations present on the Eurasian steppe before 13th century: Kipchaks, Khazars, Pechenegs and a variety of others. These Turkic groups were simply incorporated into the new influx of the 13th century. P. Golden, N. Golb and O. Pritsak provide the details of some of the Turkic Groups already present in Eurasia. Togan and Barthold provide the overview, including the movements of a number of Turkic tribes and confederations. The Mongol leadership was thus absorbed into the Turkic population. By the early 13th century the Mongols encountered by all outsiders --including the Russians-- apparently were speaking "Tatar."

Even Timur (d. 1405), a Barlas Turk (who has been called Tamarlane, Tamburlane, etc. by many authors), was labelled "Tatar." Christopher Marlowe (and, later, Lord Byron) can probably be partly credited with the propagation of this error during the 16th century, as well as for the distortion of Timur's name. Later Western authors argued among themselves as to the "correct spelling" of the word Tatar, some opting for the form "Tartar" based on alleged phonetical studies they conducted. Tatars --and other Turk groups-- seem never to have entertained the thought of including the first "r." Throughout recent history, the term Tatar has been further distorted by other Western authors in applications that had no bearing on the original tribe, descendent or deeds.

The Golden Horde was formed (under Batu Khan, grandson of Chinggis) out of the Western domains of the great Chinggisid Ulus which had reached from Northern China to the Carpathians, including Muscovy. The Golden Horde itself, with its capital at Sarai on the Idil (Volga), dominated the Yayik (Ural)-Idil area, Muscovy, Kievan Rus and the Crimea from its rise in the latter part of the 13th century until the decisive defeat of the Horde under Toktamysh by Timur in the 1490s. However, the Horde was already weakened and fragmented by 1430s, and thereafter one can tentatively begin to speak of an "independent" Crimean Khanate.

During the period of the Golden Horde's greatest power, it excited the fear and curiosity of Europe. The dearth of information about the Tatars contributed to distorted views among outsiders. An historian of early 15th century (quoted by Togan), wrote of the Tatars:

Their thought processes are as swift as their actions. All information regarding the political conditions existing on earth arrive in their quarters. But, no details of their intentions or thoughts are allowed to leave their domains or reach other people.

The Tatars, like other Turks in Chinggisid armies, practiced Shamanism. The Western edges of the Eurasian steppe also displayed a varied set of religious beliefs. The Khazar ruling class seem to have embraced Judaism sometime prior to the 9-10th century. Portions of the Kipchak (mainly Gagauz and Pecheneks) became Christians. Some Kipchak Turkish odes to Jesus, written or translated, exist in manuscript form. Despite the inroads made by all major religions, the steppe also preserved the earlier beliefs: be it Shamanism, Taoism, or other remnants that originally arrived from Eastern Asia.

The Tatars had their first flirtation with Islam during the reign of the Chinggisid Berkei Khan (r. 1257-1267). However, Islam was not widely established until after the accession of Ozbeg (1313-1340). Fourteenth century travellers found Islamic communities among Tatars. The acceptance of Islam, perhaps still incomplete at the end of the 14th century, added an additional dimension and points of contention to tatar political life. It enhanced the existing competition, alternating with open conflict, with Muscovy; it expanded the ethnic and linguistic affinities with the Ottoman dynasty into the realm of formal religion. Nonetheless, the Crimean Tatars' link to the Golden Horde and its Chinggisid lineage, rather than the religious dimension, remained the single most important factor of political life to the end of the 16th century, possibly longer.

Muscovy had paid tribute to the Golden Horde for 240 years, and Tatar dominance was exercised occasionally even after the last payment in 1480. During Horde rule, Moscow became increasingly a player in intra-horde, and later inter-Khanate politics and intrigues, regardless of any religious issues. The fragmentation of the Horde was partly induced by Muscovite agents who were pitting prominent Tatar families against each other to prevent a unity among Tatars.. After the disintegration of the Horde, but before the Muscovite conquest of Kazan (1552), the Grand Prince of Moscow and the Khan of Crimea competed to control the appointment of the Kazan Khan. Bennigsen is an early Western observer bringing these issues to the attention of the Western world. Inalcik and Fisher explore later aspects of the competition.

The Tatar political legacy, particularly the concept that political legitimacy lay only with the Chinggisid line, was clearly established under Batu Khan in the mid-13th century and survived at least into the reign of Ivan IV, "The Terrible" (r. 1533-1584). Pritsak even relates an incident in 1574 when the Tsar Ivan:

enthroned Simeon Bekbulatovich as tsar in Moscow... he himself rode simply... Whenever he (Ivan) comes to tsar Simeon, he sits at a distance... together with the Boyars... Who was this Tsar Bekbulatovich? He was a genuine Chinggisid, a descendent of Orda, the eldest son of Jochi, who was also a great-grandson of Ahmed, the last Khan of the Great Horde.

Both in this political realm and in the areas of culture and language, the influence of Tatars on the Russians was enormous. During the rule of the Horde and even after the fall of Kazan to the Russians, bearing a Tatar name or Tatar familial ties were a source of prestige for the Russian nobility. Keenan pointed out how the influence of a "Tatar Style of Writing" is discernible in 18th century Russian literature. Kazakh author Oljas Suleymanov, in his recent analysis of the Igor Tale, long regarded as Russian, presents powerful if controversial evidence that it is in fact adapted from an earlier Turkic work. Inalcik, too, demonstrates how Russian Orthodox clerics between the 14th-17th centuries designed the titles of the Russian ruler largely on the basis of the Mongol and Tatar originals.

Crimean Khanate

Under Haji Giray, who ruled Crimea in the 1440s, one might begin to speak of an "independent" Crimea. In 1475, during the reign of Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II, "The Conqueror" (r. 1451-1481), Crimea became a nominal vassal of the Ottoman Sultan. It was not until the late 16th century that Ottoman power became intrusive. Sultans then were able to unseat and replace recalcitrant khans and the name of the sultan began to be mentioned regularly at the Friday prayer, a symbol of his supreme temporal authority.

Before that time, and occasionally thereafter, the Crimean khans had freely pursued their own policies. They continued to raid Muscovy after the fall of Kazan and even conducted a final raid on the suburbs of Moscow in 1571. As late as the middle of the 17th century, the Crimean Khan made a treaty with Poland against Muscovy. Nonetheless, continued Muscovite control over Idil --with attendant claims to be the legitimate successors to the Golden Horde-- effectively quashed Crimean ambitions to reestablish Chinggisid rule. Crimean Tatars then turned to the Caucasus and Iran in the East and South, and to Hungary to their West.

Crimea under Russian Rule

Catherine II (r. 1762-1796; German princess married Peter --who later became tsar Peter III) separated Crimea from the Ottoman empire and later annexed it to her own empire. The first step was taken in the Treaty of Kucuk Kaynarja (1774), which ended her Russo-Ottoman war of 1773- 74 and provided for the independence of Crimea.

In 1773 Catherine had instructed the Holy Synod to issue a "toleration of All Faiths" edict. She had already closed the Office of New Converts (established by Peter I). Both steps were possibly meant to make the tsarist russian empire more attractive to a Crimea she intended to absorb. In 1777, i.e. after Crimea's detachment from the Ottoman Porte, Catherine ordered preparations for the settlement of Greek and Slavic groups from Ottoman domains in order to strengthen Russia's position there. Catherine annexed Crimea six years later.

Catherine was advised by one Baltic German nobleman that Crimean Tatars, if properly incorporated in a new Russian administration of their homeland, might ultimately prove useful in advancing Her Majesty's imperialist goals in Central Asia. Catherine wished to utilize Tatar merchants, who included itinerant Muslim "clerics," in Islamizing the steppe people. The Russians believed that the adherence to Islam would prevent any union against Russians and make Islamized subjects more pliant. As the Russian empire began preparations for military occupation of Central Asia, special schools were established. In such institutions, Tatars were encouraged to enroll to train as translators and minor officials, for duty in Central Asia to represent and enforce the tsarist interests.

After the Crimean War (1855-6), the Russian empire sought to expel, and indeed induced by force, large numbers of Tatars from Crimea, on the ground that the tatars sided with the invading allied forces. Hundreds of thousands migrated to the Ottoman domains, to Dobruja, located West of the Black Sea. Portions of the emigrants went directly to Istanbul. As a result of the later Balkan Wars (1912-3), sizeable groupings of Tatars crossed the Bosphorus and settled in various cities in Asia Minor. The armistice (and terms of peace treaty) following the First World War further speeded this process.

Despite the emigrations, there still remained a Crimean Tatar populations living in Crimea in the 19th century, apart from the Tatars of Kazan. This group was urged on to further develop their original culture --which predates the first mention of the word Rus in the Chronicles (e.g. Annales Bertiniani of 9th c.)-- and adapt it to the demands of the age. Such 19th century Crimean and Idil Tatars as Kayyum Nasiri, Marjani, Ismail Bey Gaspirali and others advocated this position. They sought to establish cultural links with other Tatar and Turk groupings living elsewhere in order to prevent a total assimilation by the Russians. This movement was labelled Jadidism, or, convolutedly, "Pan- Turkism." Treated as if a "pan" movement were the plague itself, even today, such "bogey-man" approach is widely applied to any thought even remotely suggesting that Crimean Tatars have a history prior to the coming of the Bolsheviks.

However, those Crimean Tatars remaining in their homeland were also to be subjected to another type of ideological struggle as well --the struggle between kadim (old) and jadid (new). The Jadid movement had begun among Idil Tatars as an attempt to modernize the curricula of the madrasa (loosely, Islamic seminaries). The Jadids advocated the rejuvenation of education by ending blind memorization of a few texts and the addition of such secular courses of study as sciences and Western languages. Those Crimean Tatars who followed this movement and in all spheres of life advocated adapting to the age of science and were known as the Jadidists.

The religious establishment in Crimea, as in the Idil region, resisted these attempts to introduce changes which they interpreted as heretical, and would, in any event, threaten their hold over the education system and the population. Encouraged by the russian bureaucracy, indeed incorporated into the russian bureaucracy by a system of appointments and regulations, the Crimean Tatar Muslim clergy insisted on maintaining the strict hold of religious dogma over the Crimean Tatars. This group was named kadimist because they strove to remain the "old," or kadim.

Soviet Period

After the imposition of the Soviet regime in Moscow, Crimea was the scene of brief but bloody conflict between Bolshevik sailors at the port of Sebastopol and the Tatar national organization, the Milli Firka (The National Party). The Milli Firka was entirely in the Jadidist tradition and oppose control of waqf (religious endowments) and schools by the conservative ulama (religious scholar/jurists and administrators; most of whom were kadimist) of the official establishment. Military defeat of the Tatar armed forces at the hands of the Bolsheviks (January 1918) was followed by German occupation in May.

The Germans brought in a Lithuanian Muslim, General Sulkevich, to administer the occupied Crimea. His policies, including the shipping of Crimean food supplies to Germany, earned him and the Germans considerable unpopularity. The withdrawal of German forces in late 1981 was followed by brief rule of the Milli Firka and subsequently by a second communist government. The Red Army had invaded Crimea in April 1919 and established, among other organs of administration, a Crimean Muslim Bureau. Despite its name, the Bureau had little to do with religious affairs and was intended to administer all matters concerning the Tatar population (rather than the Russian settlers). This communist government rejected offers of cooperation in return for power sharing advanced by the Milli Firka.

This second communist government fled one month after its establishment at the approach of General Denikin and his White forces. The rule of denikin was the worst of those governments since 1917. Post-revolutionary reforms were reversed and the tsarist Mufti (the highest cleric) of Crimea, unseated by the Milli Firka in 1917, was restored to his former post. The Milli Firka was outlawed; in order to drive out the Whites, the Milli Firka allied with the Reds. The latter fought its way to power in Crimea in October 1920, despite the shipment of British weapons to the Whites through Istanbul --which was then under occupation of the British, French and the Italian forces.

The policies of the third communist government included seizure of large landed estates, many the results of Catherine II's land grants to Russian nobles. Despite peasant expectation that these lands would be distributed, they were instead made into state farms (sovkhozy). As noted by R. Pipes in his detailed account of the "Civil" War in Crimea, "many irregularities" were committed in the establishing of the sovkhozy and the "heaviest losers" were the tatars.

After the recommendations of Kazan tatar Mir Sultan Said Sultan Galiev, then deputy to Stalin, the Commissar of Nationalities (Commissariat for Nationality Affairs), the Crimean policy was changed. Tatars were accepted into the Communist Party and, in an effort to soothe ruffled feathers, an Autonomous Crimean Soviet Socialist Republic (Crimean ASSR) was established in November 1921. The new status of Crimea as an ASSR within the RSFSR (status which continued until 1954) had no practical significance. Despite a liberal sounding list of promises on paper, Crimean Tatars were not guaranteed political or cultural autonomy by the central government.

One Tatar Communist leader, Veli Ibrahimov was able, in his capacity as Chairman of the Central Committee and of the Council of Ministers in Crimea, to continue the work of the pre-revolutionary Tatar nationalist government. He made government appointments largely from the ranks of the Milli Firka. Under his leadership, until he was purged in 1929, Tatar-language schools and newspapers were reestablished. Tatar, with Russian, became the official language of Crimea.

After the 1929 purges of Ibrahimov and his followers for "national deviationism," the new policy of "Sovietization," (meaning de facto "Russification") was set in motion. Tatar leadership in education and the press was replaced by Russian and Ukrainian communist cadres. The Latin script was replaced by a contrived "specially created" Cyrillic and "new" grammars were written for Crimean Tatar introducing Russian words in place of Turkish. Most existing tatar publications were labelled "nonproleterian" and "non-Soviet." In the 1930s, Tatar intellectuals were eliminated both by exile and by execution in large numbers. The clergy, too, was purged wholesale with many ulama being sent to Siberian and Central Asian exile. Virtually all religious schools and mosques were closed.

The Soviet regime thus continued the tsarist policies toward religion, only with the added zeal of Marxism. Religious personnel were branded social parasites. The "campaign of denigration," as Bennigsen has called it, was replaced around 1930 with a more direct approach. The League of Godless Zealots, which had been founded in 1925, were active in Crimea and other traditionally non-Russian areas only from the late 1920s' Membership in that league grew from 15,000 in 1930 to 30,000 in 1931 and 42,000 in 1932. Clerics, formerly were "parasites" now became "counterrevolutionaries." The role of the Muslim Spiritual Boards (of which there were four in the USSR: Ufa for the "European" region; Tashkent for Central Asia and Kazakhistan; Mohachkala; Baku --the latter two in the Caucasus) were streamlined. Crimea, as in tsarist times, was in the jurisdiction of Ufa.

During the Second World War, after the Soviets reoccupied Crimea from the withdrawing German forces (c. 1945), Stalin forcibly loaded the entire Crimean Tatar population of Crimea onto cattle-cars and deported them to Central Asia. The alleged reasoning, once again, was their collaboration with invading forces. Karpat and Inalcik provide most of the details on the emigration and related aspects. Although the Crimean Tatars were later exonerated of the previous charges that they have "collaborated," no "permission" was forthcoming for their return to their homeland.

Since that time, a large group of Crimean Tatars are living in Ozbekistan. They are mostly concentrated around Tashkent, Samarkand and Shehrisebz. They are allowed to publish one weekly newspaper (until 1992 called Lenin Bayragi --Lenin's Banner). Their struggle to return to their Crimean domains and with the Soviet security apparatus and psychiatric hospitals are chronicled in Uncensored Russia, translated by Peter Reddaway.

Crimean Tatars are one of the earliest and better organized "nationalities" living in Russia. This fact was once again brought to the attention of the world through their unprecedented Red Square demonstrations of 1987, stressing the Crimean Tatar desire to return to Crimean homelands. They are presently maintaining observers at various localities around the world, including the "Council of Europe" in Strasbourg, to inform humanity of their plight.

(Completion date: 1988)


For the earliest known references to Tatars in written sources (8th c.), see T. Tekin, A Grammar of Orkhon Turkic. (Bloomington: Uralic and Altaic Series Vol. 69, 1968), containing the originals and translations. Kilisli Rifat produced the edition princeps of Kasgarli Mahmud, Kitab Diwan Lugat at Turk. (3 Vols.) (Istanbul, 1917-19), which places the tatars in the vicinity of the Altai range during the 11th century. This work is also edited by B. Atalay, as Divanu Lugat-at-Turk. (Ankara, 1939-1941), and translated into English by R. Dankoff with J. Kelly, Compendium of Turkic Dialects. (3 Vols.) (Cambridge, MA., 1982-84).

Z. V. Togan, in his Umumi Turk Tarihine Giris (Istanbul, 1981), 2nd edition, provides the insight into the composition of Tatars in Eurasia and the later confederations incorporating them.

A. Aziz, Tatar Tarihi (Moscow, 1919) and G. Rahim & G. Aziz, Tatar Edebiyati Tarihi (Kazan, 1925) provide the later views of Tatars of themselves. See also H. B. Paksoy, "Chora Batir: A Tatar Admonition to Future Generations" Studies in Comparative Communism Vol. XIX, Nos. 3&4 Autumn/Winter 1986. The works by Togan, Aziz and Rahim are not yet available in Western languages. To avoid the usual pitfalls, these are panacea.

For an analysis of the Turk groups resident in Eurasia prior to the arrival of Mongols and Tatars, reference should be made to: Togan's above referenced works; P. Golden, Khazar Studies. (Budapest, 1980). Two Vols; idem, "Cumanica" Archivum Eurasiae Medii Aevi, IV, 1984; D. Sinor, Editor, The Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia. (Cambridge, 1990); Uli Schamiloglu, "Tribal Politics and Social Organization" (PhD Dissertation, Columbia University, 1986); W. Barthold, Turkestan Down to the Mongol Invasion. (4th. Ed.) (London, 1977); N. Golb & O. Pritsak, Khazarian Hebrew Documents. (Ithaca, 1982).

E. L. Keenan shows the high esteem, via imitation, the tatar literary enjoyed among Russian literati, long after the political position of the tatars eroded. See E. L. Keenan, "Muscovy and Kazan: Some Introductory Remarks on the Patterns of Steppe Diplomacy" Slavic Review Vol. VI, No. 4 (1967); idem "The Jarlyk of Axmed-Xan to Ivan III: A New Reading" International Journal of Slavic Linguistics and Poetics Vol. XII, (1967). Also O. Pritsak, "Moscow, the Golden Horde, and the Kazan Khanate from a Polycultural Point of View" Slavic Review Vol. VI, No. 4 (1967). R. Pipes, The Formation of the Soviet Union (Harvard, 1954) provides information about the tatars during the Bolshevik revolution.

Turco-Tatar Past, Soviet Present: Studies Presented to Alexandre Bennigsen (Louvain-Paris, 1986) is of importance. In addition to a list of Bennigsen's personal (and co- authored) contributions to the field, this volume (Edited by Ch. Lemercier-Quelquejay, G. Veinstein, S. E. Wimbush) contains papers directly addressing the issues at hand. Among them are: J. Martin, "The Tiumen Khanate's Encounters with Muscovy, 1481-1505;" H. Inalcik, ""Power Relationships between Russia, the Crimea and the Ottoman Empire as reflected in Titulature;" K. H. Karpat, "The Crimean Emigration of 1856-1862 and the Settlement and Urban Development of Dobruca;" E. J. Laerini, "The Revival of Culture in pre-revolutionary Russia: or, why a Prosophography of the Tatar Ulema?;" A. A. Rorlich, "The Temptation of the West: Two Tatar travellers' Encounter with Europe at the end of the Nineteenth Century."

A short list of specialist and general works on the Tatars, their lineage and politics include A. W. Fisher Crimean Tatars. (Stanford, 1978); J. Pelenski, Russian and Kazan: Conquest and Imperial Ideology (Hague and Paris, 1974); A-A, Rorlich, The Volga Tatars: Profile in National Resilience (Stanford, 1986); T. Allsen, Mongol Imperialism (Berkeley, 1987); N. A Baskakov, Russkie Familii Tiurkskogo proiskhozhdeniia (Moscow, 1972); Peter Reddaway, Editor, Translator, Uncensored Russia (New York, 1972). Resat Cemilev, Musa Mamut: Human Torch, M. Serdar, (Ed.) (New York: Crimea Foundation, 1986); Tatars of the Crimea: Their Struggle for Survival, E. Allworth (Ed.), (Durham and London, 1988); Shest' Denei: Sudebnyi Protsess Il'i Gabaia i Mustafy Dzhemileva, M. Serdar (Ed.), (New York: Crimea Foundation, 1980).

This text was produced and installed by Lynn H. Nelson