Who Are the Crimean Tatars?

Crimean Tatars
Crimean Tatars gather to commemorate the mass deportations from the region in 1944 during a rally in the Crimean capital Simferopol May 18, 2014. Stringer/Reuters

The Tatar people have lived in settlements all across Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union since the Middle Ages.

The Tatars traditionally espouse the Sunni branch of Islam and have historically enjoyed a close relationship with Turkey and other Muslim peoples in the nearby Balkans, Caucasus and Central Asia. The Tatar language is also part of the Turkic family, sharing traits with Turkish, Azerbaijani and Turkmen—spoken in Turkmenistan and parts of Syria.

Crimea has been home to a vibrant Tatar community for over 1,000 years, during which the peninsula has been governed by many rulers. Crimean Tatars have lived as part of the Russian Empire, as a vassal state to the Ottoman Empire, as a province of the Soviet Union and as an autonomous republic of Ukraine.

Today Crimean Tatars make up between 12 and 13 percent of the peninsula’s population and Tatar landmarks such as the Khan’s palace in the town of Bakhchysarai.

During the Soviet era, Joseph Stalin began a campaign of repressions against the Crimean Tatars, ordering the deportation of some 180,000 of them to Central Asia in 1944. The event remains one of the most painful chapters in Tatar history and estimates by activists, compiled in the 1960s and archived by the Ukrainian government, estimate around 100,000 died as a result. Stalin accused Tatar communities of conspiring with the Nazis, and as a result many were sent to labour camps or relocated in poor living conditions.

Soviet archives show that 30,000 Crimean Tatars died less than two years after the deportations. The Soviet Union dropped the charges of treason and Nazi collaboration after Stalin’s death.

Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 prominent members of the Tatar community in Crimea have clashed with the unrecognized Russian authorities. International humanitarian organizations have reported disappearances of Tatar activists and Russian authorities have outlawed several Tatar media outlets.

Most recently the prosecutor general of Russian-governed Crimea outlawed the traditional assembly of the Tatars—the Mejlis. Tatar activists have staged a protest on the road link between Ukraine’s Kherson region and Crimea, which is the principal road in and out of Crimea. The protest also resulted in a massive energy blackout in Crimea, as the electricity pylons for the peninsula were blown and activists would not allow authorities access to repair them.