Crimea’s Tatars in Historical Perspective


Prior to 2014, both Crimea and the Tatars were relatively unknown names to household news in the West. Now they are mentioned almost daily, most recently in the apprehension of ex-TV star and the newly elected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s policy on the region.[1] Here’s a brief history on the peninsula, and an ethnic minority that’s been around for a long time.

Settlement in Crimea is said to have begun in about 1300 BCE by the Tauri in the South, and by the Scythian in the North. Both groups were nomads of the Eurasian steppe, and both were conquered by the Pontics by around 3-2 BCE. The Scythian were the favored group of the Pontics, with a considerable amount of say in governmental affairs. Shortly thereafter, the Romans invaded and ruled over the region until the mid-300s CE. Crimea then faced several waves of invasions and occupations until the mid-1000s by the Huns, Bulgars, and finally by the Khazars. These groups were primarily Tengrist, which starkly contrasted the soon-to-come Byzantines, who ruled over Eastern Crimea starting in the mid-1100s. The Byzantines began to lose control over the region as the Golden Horde continued their expeditions in Crimea from about 1230 until well into the late 1400s. Their leader Batu Khan, one grandson of Genghis, is regarded as the ‘Baba Tatar’. Batu’s younger brother Berke later succeeded this throne, and was one of the first Mongolian descendants to convert to Islam. Throughout the mid-1600s, the Tatars settled permanently and became the ethnic majority of the region; Crimea was absorbed into the Ottoman empire by the 1700s as an autonomously ruled region. Crimean sovereigns are recorded to have continued permitting the looting of Ukrainian cities during this era, capturing slaves to sell off to the Ottomans by the thousands.[2]

The first Russo-Turkish War began in 1768, at which point Crimea’s ethnic majority was still Tatar, but closely followed by ethnic Russians. Crimea was still a branch of the Ottoman empire, thriving economically due to riches from the slave trade and grape-growing.[3] The conflict began with Catherine II’s troops marching back from the Polish fortress at Bar, which had been captured in June of that year. In September, troops attempted to pass through Balta on their way home, which was technically Ottoman territory. The Tatars attacked, locals fled, and as a result, the Ottomans formally declared the war in October. The Russo-Turkish War lasted until July 21st, 1774 with the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca. This treaty was composed of twenty-eight articles, promising a ceasefire and maintaining recognition of an autonomous Crimean region enjoying the freedom of religion.

The treaty also permitted Russia to send ships through the Bosphorus Strait, past the Sea of Marmara, and into the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas. This route crucially shortened the length of shipping for Russian goods. As a result of this supply-chain solution, agricultural output in Russia grew while Crimea’s economy continued to thrive off of the slave trade for a brief period.[4] Crimea was slowly absorbed into the Russian Empire and by 1783 via annexation, Crimea was under the official rule of Catherine the Great.

Catherine sent no waves of religious apostles to the Muslim Tatars as previous rulers had, nor did she show open hostility to the ethnic majority in New Russia. She did, however, encourage the mass settlement of non-ethnic Tatars into Crimea with massive subsidies, and Crimea reached a non-Tatar majority by 1863.[5] The slave trade slowly came to a stop, and agriculture became the primary economy driver for the region; however, they relied heavily on Russian foodstuffs as they still do today.[6] Tobacco and grape output rose, but not by noticeable margins, and majority of the crop was exported. Livestock and subsistence farming supplemented what local Crimeans largely purchased from merchants to put dinner on the table.

Another key shift from 1783 involves the Black Sea. Not only did the Black Sea provide shipping advantages to the Russian empire, but it provided important naval prospects. The Black Sea Fleet was founded in May of 1783 by Grigory Potemkin. The fleet, located in Sevastopol, combined with a growing protectorate in Georgia, gave strategic advantage to the Russian military.[7] This was one factor which helped to establish Russia as a regional hegemon, foreshadowing Russia as competition before the eventual collapse of the Ottoman Empire by 1920.

The Crimean War, beginning October of 1853, began with Turkish obstruction to Russia’s continual expansionist grabs, backed by the French, British, and Sardinia.[8] Crimean Russians remained loyal to Russia throughout their tensions with the Ottoman Empire, especially when it was advertised that their government was fighting for their rights to Jerusalem as Eastern Orthodox practitioners. Czars sent various waves of Christian apostles to Muslim Tatar areas in the hopes of gaining loyalty. While largely unsuccessful, the few Krashen Tatar converts were largely the success of Nikolay Ilminsky, a linguist who led the missionary efforts of the Orthodox Church of Russia. Ilminsky’s methods toyed with relationships between identity, nationalism, culture, and language with religious conversion. He translated the Bible into Tatarcı, and ‘Christianized’ many aspects of Tatar culture into books aimed at mothers to read to young children. Krashens were generally denounced by their Muslim neighbors and outcast from their communities, accused of converting solely for the financial and social benefits that came with Christianity under the Czar. When Russia mobilized for the Crimean War, Krashens and Muslims alike were drafted to fight the Ottomans. Krashens were promoted in rank alongside Russian soldiers, causing further tensions between the groups.[9]

The Treaty of Paris of 1856 marked the end of the Crimean War. Nicholas I negotiated permission to hold onto Sevastopol and a few other cities, while he lost regions of Crimean land to the Ottomans. The Black Sea was established by the Western and Ottoman powers as a demilitarized zone, forcing Russia to temporarily disband the Black Sea Fleet. The treaty also established the mouth of the Danube at the Black Sea as an open entrance for merchant ships to expand trade between countries in the hopes of incentivizing peace in the region. However, the Treaty failed to establish a policy regarding the allowance of Russian merchant ships on the Bosphorus, which would prove a tricky question later on in Russian-Turkish affairs.

Russia was far more victorious in the second Russo-Turkish war of 1877 than the first. They backed Romania, Bulgaria, Montenegro, and Serbia in their Balkan fight for independence from the Ottoman Empire. Russia, of course, had stakes in any opportunity for the Ottomans to lose land at the potential gain of Alexander II’s territory, especially considering Romania’s and Bulgaria’s strategic Black Sea coast. The Treaty of San Stefano was replaced by the Great Powers with the Congress of Berlin of 1878, which established Bulgaria as a semi-autonomous principality within the Ottoman Empire. Meanwhile, Romania, Serbia, and Montenegro each claimed complete independence, and Russia gained most of its Crimean territory back. The Russo-Turkish War was one of several violent conflicts in the late 1800’s-early 1900’s, including the Serbian-Ottoman War and the Balkan Wars, eventually erupting into World War I.[10]

The Black Sea Fleet was reinstated and utilized during World War I in battles against the Ottomans, giving Russia virtual control of the Sea until the October Revolution in 1917.[11] Throughout the early 1900s until World War I, Crimea underwent six different changes in government consisting of:

            The Crimean People’s Republic (December 1917-1918)

            Taurida Soviet Socialist Republic (March 1918-April 1918)

            Ukrainian’s People’s Republic (May 1918-June 1918)

            The First Crimean Regional Government (June 1918-November 1918)

            The Second Crimean Regional Government (November 1918-April 1919)

            Crimean Socialist Soviet Republic (April 1919-June 1919) [12]

After June of 1919, Crimea was absorbed into the government of South Russia, which was taken over by the Bolsheviks in 1920. In 1921, the region was overcome by Communist forces just before the instatement of the USSR in 1922. The era under Vladimir Lenin is known as the “golden years” by the Crimean Tatars, who were permitted freedom of religion and governmental autonomy.[13] Following Lenin, Joseph Stalin’s rule brought the kulaks. Kulaks owned a small amount more of land and livestock relative to their neighbors, serving as the ‘ears’ of the Soviets in rural areas. Grain quotas rose to unrealistic numbers, justifying grain barrel seizures, a major aspect of local diet. These quotas functioned within greater Holodomor throughout the early 1930s, with seven to eleven million people dying of malnutrition. This is in addition to the seven hundred thousand to six million direct executions under Russian orders.[14]

As such, in 1943 ethnic minorities including Jews, Tatars, Armenians, Bulgarians, and others were officially evicted from Crimean land on the grounds of colluding with Nazi Germany. Hundreds of thousands were shipped to the northeast, and a majority of the male able-bodied population were assigned to the front before being sent into exile.[15] This left the elderly, women, and children at hand for mass deportations, many of whom died on the train to work camps. Those who did not die worked to build Russia’s extensive railroad system. It is estimated that approximately 46% of the Tatar population at the time died during this Sürgünlik.[16]

Today, while nationalists still preach a return to the homeland, only about 12 percent of Crimea is ethnically Tatar.[17] Since 2014, another set of problems have arisen, with a significant percentage of the ethnic population fleeing the region. The Russian annexation of Crimea is primarily rooted in access to oil in the Black Sea.

Offshore and onshore drilling in the Black Sea began in the 1980’s with major international names on board. Exxon, Shell, Total, and TPAO all had stakes in Dzhonkoyske, Karlavske, Strillkove, and Odessa oil fields. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Crimea became a popular vacation spot for Russians for its views, beaches, and warm climate. Fast-forward to 2012 with today’s Vladimir Putin in power, when a block of about 84 billion square meters of oil and natural gas reserves are discovered in the offshore Black Sea within Romania’s drilling rights. In April that year, Eni was given the accords to drill after outbidding the Russian competitive bidder.[18]

Following the discoveries in Romania, Putin sent several waves of expeditions off of the Russian coast to investigate the potential for oil. These expeditions proved successful with the potential for oil and natural gas; however, it was also discovered that a—figurative—gold mine of oil was lying further west, in then-Ukrainian Crimean territory. In August of 2012, Ukraine gave Exxon the rights to drill off of the coast of Odessa. Exxon had in fact outbid Lukoil, a state-owned Russian petroleum company, sending the message that Russia would get no special dibs on Ukrainian oil. Shortly thereafter, Putin began sending troops to occupy the Russian-Ukrainian border.[19]

Following the disputed annexation in 2014, Russian company Novye Proetky was given the licensing to drill in the Crimean Black Sea. Beginning in March of 2017, Novye Proetky was permitted to explore the region, with the sole right to drill in the Skifsa, Foroske, Tavria, and Prykerchenska blocks as long as they begin drilling within the next eight years; Novye Proetky will retain drilling rights for the following thirty years after this point. The sum of these blocks is estimated to be worth trillions of dollars, and the potential effects on the Russian economy have been compared to the 1960’s and 70’s North Sea rush of Western Europe.

Putin’s decision to allow Novye Proetky to drill seemed to come out of left field for those in the industry, Crimea only having been drilled by state-run petroleum companies. However, NP is a private company linked to the infamous Serhiy Kurchenko—known for fake oil deliveries. NP was previously a virtually unheard-of company. They had no former drilling activity, nor did they have any other assets. In fact, Novye Proetky did have the rights to drill into the Ukrainian Glubokaya Balka; however, they never actually put rigs in the ground. Anton Dornostup owns 99 percent of the company, who previously held a Russian position in subsoil resource management.[20]

Before March 18th, then-United States President Barack Obama released statements warning Putin to lay hands off of Crimea. The two allegedly had a somewhat heated phone call in the days beforehand, and Obama threatened to withdraw from Russia’s G8 Summit that year. Following the annexation, the US refused to send a presidential delegation to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, although they did compete.[21] In Turkey, both President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu publicly condemned the annexation, calling it a breach on democracy and standing in “solidarity” with their Tatar brothers.[22] Romania and Bulgaria, the Balkan states with the highest oil stakes in the Black Sea, declared that this was indeed seen as an act of aggression and would be interpreted as an expansionist grab.[23]

The European Union instated a non-recognition policy, committing to Ukrainian sovereignty in the region. High Representative Catherine Ashton released an External Action statement, referring to it as “an unwarranted escalation of tensions”, imploring restraint and nonviolence on both sides of the equation. Once it became clear that Putin would not hold back, however, they were responded to with heavy sanctions on imported goods, investment, and tourism.[24]

Quality of life in the peninsula has suffered under these sanctions. Crimeans face high unemployment rates and increased price levels, although a majority of the population supported the transfer.[25] Under Russian rule, increased censorship, mass political prisoning, and the abduction of ethnic minorities plague some of Crimea’s latest news.[26]


[1] Brown, Hayes. “He Plays A President On TV. Now He Wants To Be The Real Deal.” BuzzFeed News, BuzzFeed, 29 March 2019. Web.

[2] Fisher, Alan W. The Crimean Tatars. Stanford, Cal., Hoover Inst. P., 1987. Print.

[3] Halenko, Oleksander. “Wine Production, Marketing and Consumption in the Ottoman Crimea, 1520-1542”. Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 47.4 (2004). np. MSU Libraries. Web.

[4] Faroqhi, Suraiya. The Ottoman Empire: A Short History. Trans. Shelley Laura Frisch. N.p.: n.p., 2009. Print.

[5] Harris, Carolyn. “When Catherine the Great Invaded the Crimea and Put the Rest of the World on Edge.” Smithsonian Institution, 4 March 2014. Web.

[6] Makarenko, Olena. “Crimea’s Economy: When Russia’s Words and Figures Don’t Meet.” Euromaiden. The Renaissance Foundation, 2016. Web.

[7] Montefiore, Simon Sebag. “An Affair to Remember.” The New York Review of Books. NYREV Inc., 24 Feb. 2005. Web.

[8] Fisher, Alan W. The Crimean Tatars. Stanford, Cal., Hoover Inst. P., 1987. Print.

[9] Kefeli, Agnès Nilüfer. Becoming Muslim in Imperial Russia: Conversion, Apostasy, and Literacy. Ithica: Cornell U, 2014. Print.

[10] Fisher, Alan W. The Crimean Tatars. Stanford, Cal., Hoover Inst. P., 1987. Print.

[11] Nekrasov, George. North of Gallipoli: The Black Sea Fleet at War. New York. Boulder: East European Monographs, 1992. Print.

[12] Kefeli, Agnès Nilüfer. Becoming Muslim in Imperial Russia: Conversion, Apostasy, and Literacy. Ithica: Cornell U, 2014. Print.

[13] “A Struggle for Home: The Crimean Tatars”. Dir. Christina Paschyn. Paschyn Productions. 30 Oct. 2015. Web.

[14] Bondarev, Vitaly A. “Dekulakization as a Key Method in the Repression Politics of Soviet Government Applied in Villages in 1930s”. Directory of Open Access Journals 26.4 (2012): 24-30. Web.

[15] “Tatar Nation: The Other Crimea”. Dir. Simon Otrovsky. VICE News, 2014. YouTube. Web.

[16] Makarenko, Olena. “Crimea’s Economy: When Russia’s Words and Figures Don’t Meet.” Euromaiden. The Renaissance Foundation, 2016. Web.

[17] Mirovalev, Mansur. “How Crimean Tatars defy Moscow’s pressure”. Aljazeera Media Network, 2 Feb. 2018. Web.

[18] Bierman, Stephen. “Ukraine Crisis Endangers Exxon’s Black Sea Gas Drilling: Energy”. Bloomberg, 11 Mar. 2014. Web.

[19] Smith, Matt, and Alla Eshchenko. “Ukraine Cries ‘robbery’ as Russia Annexes Crimea”. CNN, 18 Mar. 2017. Web.

[20] Slav, Irina. “This Mysterious Oil Company Just Got A License To Drill In Crimea”., 8 Mar. 2017. Web.

[21] Brady, Erik. “USA Won’t Send Presidential Delegation to Sochi Paralympics”. USA Today. USA Today, 3 Mar. 2014. Web.

[22] Çağaptay, Soner, and James Jeffrety. “Turkey’s Muted Reaction to the Crimean Crisis”. The Washington Institute. The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 4 Mar. 2014. Web.

[23] Ford, Matt. “Russia’s Seizure of Crimea is Making Former Soviet States Nervous”. The Atlantic. The Atlantic Monthly Group, 1 Mar. 2014. Web.

[24] European Union. External Action. Statement by EU High Representative Catherine Ashton. European Union, 1 Mar. 2014. Web.

[25] Greene, David. “How Has Life In Crimea Changed Since Russia Seized It From Ukraine?” NPR, 25 Jan. 2018. Web.

[26] Schreck, Carl and Olena Removska. “Snatched in Plain Sight: No Justice In Crimean Tatar’s Slaying Five Years After Russian Annexation”. Radio Liberty, 14 Mar. 2019. Web.

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About the Author

Elanur Ural is a junior fellow at the ERA Institute. Her research interests include gender, resource politics, and Turkic Eurasia.

This article is produced by the Eurasian Research and Analysis Institute, Inc. a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, nonpartisan e-think tank. All views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

This article is produced by the Eurasian Research and Analysis Institute, Inc. (ERA Institute), a public, 501(c)(3) nonprofit institution devoted to studying Eurasian affairs. All views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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