Letter From Crimea: Stalin, Putin and the Exile Tartars

This is the twelfth in a series about a journey, by train and bicycle, across Russia to Crimea shortly before the war began.

The Khan’s Palace in Bakhchysarai, once the center of the Tatar civilization in Crimea. In 1944, the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin deported the Tatars to Central Asia. Only when Ukraine became independent from the Soviet Union in 1991 did some of the Tatars return to Crimea. Photo: Matthew Stevenson.

I appreciated staying on my train to the next stop, Bakhchysarai, more than I relished disembarking into a heavy rain. Under an awning at the small station, I pulled on my poncho, rain hat, and gloves, and slowly biked into a maelstrom, figuring I had not come to Crimea to hide from the rain in the Bakhchysarai railroad station.

In my traveling bag I had maps and printed pages of guides to Bakhchysarai, but all they helped to do was to point me in the right direction to the Khan’s Palace, which was up a hill lined with car traffic and (now) puddles. Pedaling the bike up the narrow, busy road, I thought to myself how smart I was to pack my bathing suit for a summer visit to Crimea. But at least I had made it to the region at the heart of so many conflicts and wars.

Arrival in Crimea

In the end it was less than two miles to the Khan’s Palace, which had yet to open for the day. Across the street were tourist restaurants and cafés that looked tempting, but since I was on my way to getting soaked I decided to stick with the bike and ride to some of the surrounding churches and monasteries that are carved into the rocky mountains that overhang Bakhchysarai. (Buddhist temples in the misty hills of South Korea often have the same look.)

My ride proved another bad idea, as the rain grew heavier, so after seeing (through the fog) Svyato-Uspenskiy Peshchernyy Monastary, I turned back to Bakhchysarai to await the opening of the palace, that which Alexander Pushkin wrote about in his epic poem, Fountain of Tears. Of his visit in the 1820s he wrote:

I visited Bakhchisarai
In oblivion dormant Palace.
Among the silent transitions
I wandered there…

I would like to report that I, too, wandered about a “dormant palace”, but the Khan’s Palace, when it finally opened, was overrun with local tourists, looking for something to do on a rainy summer day.

The Khan’s Palace in Bakhchysarai

I joined the sodden admission line and when I got to the celebrated main gate behind which lie the fountain, harems, mosques and minarets, court reception rooms, and bedrooms worthy of a khan, I hit a brick wall, in the form of the security officers selling admission tickets.

Not only did they say that I could not lock my bicycle anywhere near the palace but they also said there was nowhere on the premises to check my panniers. As I had come from the train and was spending the night in Sevastopol (about twenty-five miles to the south), I was, as they say, sent packing from the palace.

I thought about trying to make a deal with a local café to watch my bags but, between the rain and the surly ticket sellers at the main gate, I had lost interest in spending the morning in a tourist scrum.

Instead I retreated to a restaurant across the street, where I could read my book in quiet while looking at the palace moat (it defeated me) and the minarets that soar above the roof lines, although I did wonder about two of Pushkin’s lines in his poem:

All sense of traveler beckons,
When, per hour in the morning serene…

Neither Russian, Ukrainian nor Turkish

I confess that when I settled my drenched soul into the restaurant chair I knew almost nothing about the Crimean Tatars. I knew—from my travels to Uzbekistan in the 1990s—that Stalin had deported them to Central Asia at the end of World War II, and that some had returned to Crimea after the fall of the Soviet Union.

As for the rest of their story, I was in the dark, which is why I had ordered Brian Glyn Williams’s The Crimean Tatars: From Soviet Genocide to Putin’s Conquest, which Oxford University Press published in 2016. I had thought about lugging a copy with my on the bicycle, but in the end I settled for some Xeroxed pages, which I had stapled to campaign maps from the Crimean War and a Cambridge University Press map that showed “The Expansion of Russia in Europe 1725 – 1855”, on which it became clear that Crimea fell to Russia and Catherine the Great (although maybe not in that order) in 1783. But as I flipped through my self-made briefing book, I thought (wrongly) that the Tatars were a community of Ottoman Turks who had in an earlier age drifted across the Black Sea to Crimea.

As a people, the Crimean Tatars are descended from the Mongol invasions of the 13th century, which swept from what is now Mongolia to Eastern Europe. Williams writes in his history: “The amalgam of pagan Mongols and Turkic Kipchaks then gradually converted to Islam and became known as ‘Tatars’.”

The Tatars later allied themselves with the Ottomans, but they were a distinct race, and in the 16th century their empire stretched to Moscow (they burned it in 1571) and across much of what is now Ukraine, Poland, and Romania.

As their holdings receded, the Tatars retained their homeland in Crimea until Catherine and the Russians (in the course of their many wars with the Ottoman Turks) arrived in the late 18th century. The Tatars’ modern fate was sealed in 1792 when, after a war with Russia, the Ottomans ceded Crimea to Russia, which left the Tatars as foreigners in their own lands.

Backed into a Corner

The 1853-56 Crimean War was another disaster for the Tatars, even though the Allies (notably Britain and France) defeated the Russians on behalf of the Ottoman Empire, fighting, in the initial stages, between Bakhchysarai and Sevastopol.

The Crimean War ended when the Allies captured Sevastopol from the Russians (among those present in the besieged port was a young Russian officer, Count Leo Tolstoy who learned about war and peace in Crimea), but the Tatars suffered significant collateral damage in the post-war years.

The war wasn’t fought to restore Crimea to the Tatars but to keep the Russians out of Constantinople and its straits, and to maintain a notional balance of power in the Middle East and the Balkans, where the tsars, as the phrase went, had “designs”. Williams writes:

With the allied French, English, Sardinian and Ottoman invasion of the peninsula and the bloody reduction of the Tsars proud naval bastion at the Crimean port of Sevastopol, the Crimean Muslimsposition was… to go from bad to worse.” For many Russian military officers, the distrusted Crimean Muslims were to become synonymous with the hated Ottomans.

More Tatar Misery

In the late 19th century, expansive Russians (then sweeping across Turkistan in the east) made life miserable for the Crimean Tatars. Some of them fled across the Black Sea to the Ottoman Empire, while others who remained in Crimea tried to position the Tatars as worthy of their own nation, much as across the Balkans and western Russia various nationalities were making their own claims to statehood.

In the early part of the twentieth century, Tatars and Jews made up the majority population in Crimea, still very much a backwater, despite the imperial naval base at Sevastopol.

Prior to World War I, the Young Turks in Constantinople overthrew the Ottomans, giving the Tatars hope that they might be capable of the same drive for independence, but then Turkey found itself on the losing side in the Great War. Russia emerged from the war as the great power of the Black Sea, further sealing the fate of the Tatars, despite the confusion of many mixed messages conveyed in the 20th century.

Lenin Makes Nice

During the 1917 Russian revolution and the Bolsheviks’ victory in the Civil War, V. I. Lenin, who was chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars of the Soviet Union, took the position that many indigenous peoples had extensive national rights. Williams quotes at length from one of Lenin’s early statements on Muslims inside the Soviet Union:

Prior to the Civil War, Lenin had actually singled out the Crimean Tatars in his 1917 Proclamation to all the Muslims of Russia and the Orient” which declared:

Muslims of Russia, Tatars of the Volga and the Crimea, Kirgiz and Sarts of Siberia and Turkestan, Turks and Tatars of Transcaucasia, Chechens and mountaineers of the Caucasus and all of you whose mosques have been destroyed, whose beliefs and customs have been trampled underfoot by the tsars and the oppressors of Russia. Your beliefs and usage, and national and cultural institutions are henceforth free and inviolable. Organize your national life in complete freedom. You have the right. Know that your rights, like those of all the peoples of Russia, are under the powerful safeguard of the revolution and its organs, the Soviets of workers, soldiers, and peasants. Lend your support to this revolution and its government.

Within the hierarchy of the Soviet Union, Crimea was established as the Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR), which was a subset of the Russian socialist republic (probably because even Lenin recognized the importance of the naval base at Sevastopol, not because Russians were then living in large numbers in Crimea).

The Tatars and Ukraine

At the time, Tatar nationalists wanted it understood that the Crimean ASSR was actually a Crimean Tatar Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, but by then Lenin was dead and his successor, Stalin, saw an existential threat in Muslim communities across the Soviet Union.

Williams writes:

All aspects of Crimean Tatar identity construction in the Crimean ASSR were to strictly follow the maxim socialist in content, national in form”. This government program of co-opting nationalism and channeling it off into harmless cultural directions has been described as a licensing” of nationality. It was a tame, Soviet version of nationality that was permitted in the Crimean ASSR and various other ethnic republics and autonomous territories of the USSR.

By this reasoning the Tatars could keep their national costumes and dishes (steak Tatar comes from the raw meat that Tatar horsemen kept under the saddles on military campaigns), but they would be, first of all, citizens of the Soviet Union (thus largely Russian).

In the 1930s, Moscow briefly considered exiling Jews from the former Russian Pale of Settlement to Crimea, but the idea was dropped, as was the idea to create a Jewish homeland, Birobidzhan, in Siberia.

Instead, large numbers of Ukrainians and Russians were settled in Crimea, which, upon the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, became part of the Nazi Reich.

The German Occupation of Crimea

The Germans held onto Crimea for three years, and the 1944 battles in which Soviet forces cleared the peninsula saw some of the heaviest fighting on the Eastern front.

Almost immediately after Moscow defeated the Germans in Crimea (many of the Axis troops fighting there were actually Romanian), Stalin issued the order to wipe the Crimean Tatars from the official map of the Soviet Union. William describes the purge:

On the night of May 18, 1944, less than a week after the bloody German retreat from the Crimea, the Kara Gun (Dark Day), commemorated by Crimean Tatars throughout the Central Asian, Balkan and Turkish diasporas, commenced. NKVD mechanized infantry units surrounded all the Tatar villages and suburbs and herded the startled inhabitants to several designated transshipment points….

Between 187,000 and 191,000 Crimean Tatars were deported from the Crimean autonomous republic in that May of 1944….

Of the 151,529 deposited in Uzbekistan an astounding 68,287 were children, along with 55,684 women and a mere 27, 558 men, according to a letter sent to Beria. A full 82 per cent of the Nazi collaborators” brutally deported in 1944 to Uzbekistan were actually women and children.

Only by this ethnic cleansing did Crimea become, depending on your perspective, a Russian or Ukrainian oblast (much the way Oklahoma is American, not Cherokee).

Williams writes: “According to most estimates a full 90 per cent of the Slavic population of the Crimea actually arrived in the peninsula after the deportation of the Tatars.”

Meanwhile, almost half of the Tatar population died during their forced exile to places such as Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, where at the end of their trail of tears a formally nomadic people were put to work in factories.

Strangers in Their Own Land

With the end of Stalinism in the 1950s (he died in 1953), the Tatars had hopes that they might be able to return to Crimea and re-establish their homeland and claims of national independence, but it was not to be.

For some displaced peoples, Nikita Khrushchev (Stalin’s successor) issued an amnesty and allowed them to return home, but he excluded the Crimean Tatars. Williams writes:

Three national groups were, however, omitted from Khrushchevs amnesty decree allowing for the repatriation of the various ethnic groups deported from the Caucasus region: the Volga Germans, Meshketian Turks and the Crimean Tatars. For reasons that were undoubtedly related to the strategic and economic importance of their former homeland republics, these three groups were completely ignored by Khrushchev and condemned to remain in Central Asia. Their forced exile was to be permanent.

It was in 1956 that Khrushchev, who grew up in Donbas and Ukraine, transferred Crimea from Russian to Ukrainian jurisdiction, the seeds of so much current unhappiness.

The Workers’ Paradise of the Soviet Union

Meanwhile, beginning in the late 1950s, Crimea became the Florida of the Soviet Union, a land of seaside worker retreats. Williams writes: “What had previously been sleepy Tatar coastal hamlets were replaced by bustling sanitoria and kbirorts (resorts), Young Pioneer and Komsomol (Communist Youth League) camps, and hotels which catered to millions of Soviet citizens who vacationed in a proletarian playground few could guess had been inhabited by Yaliboyu Tatar farmers for centuries.” No mention was made of the ethnically cleansed natives of these shores.

Only with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the creation of an independent Ukraine were the Tatars welcomed back to Crimea, although even then great power politics were in play. For example, Russia agreed to support some returning Tatars to Crimea, provided that these Tatars would back Russia’s claims that Crimea was actually Russian, not Ukrainian.

Nor was it always easy for repatriating Tatars to secure the right to settle in Crimea, as they had no claims on Ukrainian citizenship and hence would be living outside the health care and school systems. For many, the idea of returning to Crimea was a dismal prospect.

By the time some Tatars managed to get back to what they considered home, they discovered that on their ancestral lands there were now high-rise condos with SUVs parked in the underground garage. They might well have been Seminole Indians from the 1830s coming back to Florida’s gated communities in the 1990s.

Another Russian Invasion

Even though I own a wardrobe of quick-dry clothes, I cannot say that, hiding from the rain in a café, I did much drying out. There are times on the bicycle when I think I should be riding in a wet suit, and this was one.

At the same time, I did have an unobstructed view of the Khan’s Palace, not to mention the long line of tourists waiting under umbrellas to go inside, although it struck me as incongruous that so many vacationing Russians were interested in Tatar culture, especially as Putin views the Tatars with suspicion.

The Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014 filled the Crimean Tatars with dread, as once again Russia was the hegemonic power over their lives.

Putin’s views of the Tatars cannot be much different, they concluded, than his impressions about the Chechens (another Muslim minority within the Russian Federation), whose own claims to national independence were obliterated by cluster bombs.

The Tatars also judged correctly that Russia’s interests in Crimea were its military bases and summer homes, not aiding in the development of its indigenous people, some of whom had just returned from exile in Central Asia.

Williams concludes:

Putting the latest Russian invasion [2014] in its historical context, another Crimean Tatar said From the moment Russian Empress Yekaterina II sent her troops here to annex this territory, our sorrows began.” Most Tatars saw the March 2, 2014 Russian invasion of the Crimea through the prism of history and related it to their own experiences….

As a mere 12 per cent of the peninsulas population of just over two million, they [the Tatars] fear for their future under Vladimir Putin, who came to power in 1999—2000, crushing the Chechensbid for independence. Despite the professed resolutions of many Tatars to never again leave the Crimea, thousands have already fled to the Ukraine.

With the outbreak of the current war between Ukraine and Russia—in part the next chapter after the Russian seizure of Crimea—the Tatars yet again feared for their survival as a people—knowing that they would be Ukrainian citizens living under Russian occupation and having once been deported to Central Asia for the threat they posed to Stalin’s regime (which looks a lot like Putin’s Russia).

As Pushkin writes toward the end of his epic poem about the khan’s palace:

I saw the khan’s cemetery,
Lords last home.
These grave posts,
Wedding marble turban,
It seemed to me, the fate of the covenant
They read as a coherent rumor.

Next: The River Alma and the early stages of the Crimean War in 1854 . Earlier installments can be found here.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.