Crimean Tatars: The Forgotten Struggle in the Russo-Ukrainian Conflict

The Eurovision Song Contest is an annual international songwriting competition between European states (and Australia). The competition’s popularity across Europe and beyond has made it a staple of European pop culture, where each country can showcase its cultural heritage through music. 

In the 2016 competition held in Stockholm, Ukrainian singer Jamala won the contest with her song “1944.” The song was written and performed in the Crimean Tatar language, a tongue spoken by Crimean Tatars — a Muslim and Turkic ethnicity indigenous to the Crimean Peninsula. 

Since Crimea entered center stage following its annexation by Russia in 2014, Crimean Tatars now face a new struggle for survival under the thumb of oppression once more. Russia’s growing encroachment upon Ukraine brought detrimental effects on the Crimean Tatar people, where Russia aims to wipe out the Crimean Tatar culture and put the Tatar people under threat of conflict.

The history of the Crimean Tatar people extends back to the 13th century, when the descendants of Genghis Khan entered the Eastern European plains and into the Crimean Peninsula. Crimean Tatars ruled the peninsula for centuries under the Crimean Khanate until the Russian Empire conquered Crimea. Although once the masters of Crimea, Tatars were relegated to second-class citizens under Tsarist rule, resulting in several waves of mass migration into Turkey. 

Following the establishment of the USSR, Crimean Tatars found themselves subject to a new, more oppressive hegemon. Through collectivization and subsequent famines under Stalinist rule, the Crimean Tatar population took a significant hit, with about 50% leaving their ancestral home. The worst, however, was yet to come, as the USSR entered World War II in 1941. 

Crimean Tatars were suddenly subject to suspicion by the Soviet government as collaborationists and Nazi sympathisers, along with other ethnicities like Chechens and Volga Germans. As the USSR had planned to take over the Dardanelles and, in turn, territories in Turkey, Crimean Tatars were seen as a threat as they shared a cultural bond with the Turks.

May 18, 1944, was a harrowing day in the collective memory of the Crimean Tatar people. Joseph Stalin ordered the exile of the entire Crimean Tatar population to Central Asia. 240,000 Tatars were rushed onto trains that would take them to unfamiliar lands, with tens of thousands dying along the way. This painful event was named Sürgünlik in the Crimean Tatar language, as the Tatar people were disenfranchised and victimized by imperialist tyranny.

The popular Crimean folk song “Ey Güzel Kırım” features the lyrics, “men bu yerde yaşalmadım, yaşlığıma toyalmadım” (meaning “I could not live in this land, I could not enjoy my youth”), describing the pain of being in exile and losing one’s homeland.  

As the once-mighty Soviet Empire began collapsing in 1989, Crimean Tatars were eventually allowed to repatriate to their homeland in Crimea. Thousands of Crimean Tatars managed to return to Crimea, but their land was entirely different. Although originally under Ukrainian jurisdiction, Russians had since taken up the vast majority of Crimea, as historically Tatar settlements were wholly populated by Russians. 

Yet, the Crimean Tatars persisted in reclaiming their homes and re-establishing their cultural presence on the peninsula. The Mejlis, a political body representing the Crimean Tatar people, was founded in 1991 to protect Crimean Tatar culture and rights. Since the Ukrainian government had been most sympathetic to the Crimean Tatar struggle, the Mejlis was allowed to operate within the scope of Ukrainian and Crimean politics.

However, things took a sharp turn for the worse when Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula in February 2014. Crimean Tatars once again found themselves under a familiar overlord as the Tatar community overwhelmingly stood against the Russian annexation. Subsequently, Crimean Tatar voices were silenced following a peninsula-wide ban on Tatar news publications and radio stations. Tatar journalist Reshat Amatov was abducted and later murdered by pro-Russian groups, while Russian authorities made no effort to bring justice to Amatov’s case. 

In April 2016, the Mejlis was banned by Russia for promoting separatism and extremism. The head of the Mejlis, Mustafa Dzhemilev, was barred from entering Crimea two years before the ban on the organization. Tatars linked to the Mejlis were also arrested on charges of collaborating with terrorist groups.

Following the annexation of Crimea, Russia continues its attempts to wipe out the Crimean Tatar culture. For example, many mosques and religious institutions were shut down by Russian authorities. Russia also banned Tatar-language classes as Russian became the only teaching language in Crimean schools. In 2016, human rights activist Teimur Abdullaev was arrested and sent to an isolation ward in Simferopol because he had written a letter in Crimean Tatar.

The brutal nature of Moscow’s governance over the Crimean Tatars is due to its own political structure and culture. Despite Russia being a multiethnic federation on paper, Russia is very much dominated by its largest ethnic group. The various titular nationalities of Russian republics, like Volga Tatars, Ossetians and Yakuts, have little to no power over how their respective polities are run (with Chechnya being an exception). 

As a result, ethnic minorities in Russia are expected to live a fully Russified lifestyle, where their identities are blurred out and replaced with an overarching Russian identity. For an authoritarian state like Russia, keeping the homogeneity of the country’s culture is vital for the regime’s survival to maintain control over non-Russians and prevent secession. 

For Crimean Tatars, their disobedience towards Russian rule and the presence of a unique and lasting culture pose an active threat to the Russian Federation. For Russia to create stable control over Crimea, the presence of a non-Russian and indigenous culture is enough for Russia to engage in suppressive policies. 

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has undoubtedly brought renewed tensions amongst Crimean Tatar communities, as they are being dragged into a war against their will. Many Crimean Tatars chose to fight against Russia as they joined the Ukrainian Army or served in independent battalions. 

One of the most prominent Tatar battalions is led by Isa Akayev, whose troops mainly comprise Crimean Tatars but also from other ethnic groups like Chechens and Circassians. Bonded by Islam and a common goal of liberation, nationalities from the North Caucasus often fight alongside Crimean Tatars to repel Russian encroachment. North Caucasians like Chechens, Ingush and Avars also share a similar past as victims of forced deportations during the USSR. 

The recent wave of mobilization in Russia gravely impacted Crimean Tatar communities, as the order also extended into occupied Crimea. Crimean Tatars are reportedly being disproportionately targeted in military drafts in Crimea, where the vast majority of the draft is being carried out in Crimean Tatar villages. 

During an evening address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that “this is a deliberate attempt by Russia to destroy the Crimean Tatar people, this is a deliberate attempt by the aggressor state to take the lives of as many residents of the territory the Russian troops invaded as possible.”

As a result of the mobilization, Tatar families had already started to leave their homes en masse since the start of the war, paving the way to further disenfranchisement of the Crimean Tatar people and an even more significant exodus. 

Surely, one can interpret Moscow’s draft policies in Crimea as a deliberate attempt to completely rid Crimea of its indigenous inhabitants. By disproportionately drafting Crimean Tatars and forcing families to abandon their homeland, Russia can thereby replace them with Russian settlers, ensuring loyalty from Crimea to Moscow and completely Russifying the peninsula. 

The conflict between Russia and Ukraine does not simply present a binary selection, as many groups, like the Crimean Tatar, are caught in the middle. The resistance against Russian imperialism is not a struggle defined by the West. Instead, it is the various traumatic experiences and acts of defiance towards tyranny. It is the struggles of peoples like the Crimean Tatars, the Chechens, the Circassians and many more that complete the story.

In reality, Crimean Tatars do not wish to be puppets under Russia or Ukraine. They deserve a homeland with no masters above them. Yet, the hard truth is that Crimean Tatars have fought and suffered too much, where at least Ukraine has allowed them to rebuild themselves. 

The Crimean Tatar experience is one scarred by blood and oppression, but it’s also one empowered by an undying will to fight and survive. As the Crimean Tatar people once again face the possibility of further disenfranchisement, one could certainly expect them to resist their oppressors and protect their beloved homeland.


Joshua Pan

Joshua Pan is currently a sophomore majoring in International Relations. He developed a deep and longstanding interest in global affairs through living in different countries and understanding other cultures. He sought to specialise in Balkan, MENA, and Central Asian affairs, as he is passionate about shedding light on the regions of the world that are underrepresented or misrepresented. Outside of his professional work, he enjoys cooking, soccer, and furthering his career as an amateur DJ.