Crimea: The Multitude of Nations

28 December 2014, 22:37

Crimea has always been a place of exceptional ethnic diversity. The Bulgarians, Armenians, Greeks, Jews, Karaites, Crimean Tatars, Krymchaks, Ukrainians, Russians, Romani – these are just the most prominent of the ethnic groups that populated the peninsula over the last century and a half. In fact, the most recent Ukrainian census (2001) revealed that there are representatives of 116 nationalities residing in Crimea, be it individuals or large national diasporas. Such an ethnic diversity has always been characteristic of the peninsula, yet its composition changed over time.

Crimean Tatars vs. "everyone else"

Many wonder these days how all these different ethnic groups view the events that recently unfolded in Crimea.

The established train of thought is that the views on the Crimean crisis are determined by the ethnicity: insofar as the ethnic Russians approve of the annexation of Crimea by Russia, while the Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars are against it. The reality is more complicated. In fact the pro-Kremlin camp and the Russian-imposed administration of Crimea is teaming with quintessentially Ukrainian surnames. Also evident are great efforts to adjust and find a place inside the Russian Federation's government structures by some Crimean Tatars. At the same time one can find all kind of nationalities within the Crimea's camp of "political Ukrainians", the minority of locals fighting for their rights in Crimea as the representatives of the ethnically diverse Ukrainian political nation.

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However, if we look for the general trends, we will find that views divide the population onto two large communities. On one side of the fence is what is obviously the majority of Crimean Tatars together with a reasonably scarce (or, perhaps, very covert?) group of "political Ukrainians". On the opposite side of the divide we'll find… everyone else. The latter group includes Russians, Moscow-oriented ethnic Ukrainians and the rest of Crimea's many nations. I'll reiterate that we're dealing with general trends here, there always are exceptions to the rule.

One would logically presume that the motley ethnic composition of the Crimean population would result in a far wider spectrum of thought, rather than a primitive division onto the "Tatars" and "non-Tatars". Then why does the majority of "everyone else" associate themselves with the Russian interests? How come all this "ethnic richness" of Crimea in the political sense is reduced to the "Tatars" and "everyone else"?

The answer to this question is rooted deep in history.

"Welcome guests" and "unwelcome natives"

After conquering the Crimean Khanate in 1783 Russia took over what was essentially a mono-ethnic country almost entirely populated by Crimean Tatars. Such a mono-ethnic situation is very uncharacteristic of the Crimean peninsula, and it was brought about in part owing to Russia's efforts. Before taking the region under its complete control, in 1778-1779 (between occupying and annexing it) the Russian leadership enforced a "voluntary-compulsory" migration of all local Christians from the peninsula to the steppes north of the Azov Sea. All in all that's over 30 thousand Greeks and Armenians.

The goal of this campaign has historians scratching their heads to this day. It is made even more mysterious by the fact that seizing Crimea was only a part of the greater Russian plan of "restoring the Byzantine Empire". Remnants of this bizarre fantasy live on in the current names of the Crimean cities renamed during that period in a quasi-classical fashion (Sevastopol, Simferopol, Yevpatoria, Feodosia), while the very real and living carriers of the Byzantine culture were forced to leave their native mountains and to migrate towards the steppes, dying in their thousands along the way. Some have even resorted to apostasy in order to pass for "Crimean Tatars" and not Greeks just to preserve their homes.

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Having cleansed the peninsula from all Christians (the move that no previous ruler ever dared to embark on over the entire almost five-century long Muslim dominance in Crimea), the colonial administration proceeded to dealing with the Crimean-Tatars. Those of them that didn't flee the peninsula during the Russian invasion and the concurrent civil war were being pushed out and deprived of land. By 1793 Crimea lost up to a half of its former population.

At the dawn of the 19th century great many representatives of the Russia's elite came flooding into the region with great enthusiasm. The empress encouraged the "development" of the peninsula by giving away rather fetching lands left and right. The justification for pushing out the Crimean Tatars was that the latter were supposedly incapable of developing their lands appropriately. A typical view for the times was written by a judge Pavel Sumarokov (conjointly the author of one of the best early Russian overviews of Crimea): 'The greatest good for Tavryda (the classical pre-Turco-Mongol name of the peninsula, also Taurica or Tauris – Ed.) would be if the Tatars left the latter entirely… The delighted area in the aforesaid form liberated from the Tatar Horde would then present all manner of attractions to the Armenians populating Anatolia (Asian Turkey – Ed.) and the Greeks scattered over the islands'

The thought that the place of Crimean Tatars should be taken by the more "apt" and the more "industrious" peoples became generally accepted. Its practical implementation followed shortly.

Having deported the Crimea's Greeks and the Armenians, Russia began to populate the peninsula with… the Greeks, but a different kind. The previous Greek population of Crimea was not so much a Hellenic diaspora but rather a conglomerate of descendants of ancient Crimean peoples consolidated by Greek Orthodoxy: the Tauris, Scythians, Goths, Alans, Cumans etc. In this sense the "Crimean Greeks" were closely related to Crimean Tatars, a considerable part of whom were the descendants of the very same ancestors. To replace the peaceful natives of Crimea, who were accustomed to the Khanate's tolerance towards them, Russia invited the Greeks from the Aegean Islands, the "Arnauts". These, unlike their Crimean siblings were battle-scarred in the uprisings against the ottomans, and we used by the Russians as military settlers brought in to look after the "suspicious" Crimean Tatar population.

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After brining in the Greeks, the Russian Empire opened Crimea's doors for thousands of other new settlers: the Russians, Ukrainians, Bulgarians, Serbs, Germans, Czechs, Estonians… They were to turn Crimea into an income source and a trading centre: essentially to do exactly what the natives were incapable of, as far as Saint Petersburg was concerned. The Russian government encouraged foreigners to settle in Crimea by granting various privileges and, most importantly, generously providing land plots. And there was plenty of land up for grabs on the peninsula, given that simultaneously with the waves of new settlers arriving to Crimea, the Crimean-Tatars were being pushed out. This phenomenon reached its peak after the Crimean war of 1853-1856 when the very presence of anti-Russian coalition forces on the peninsula provided Saint Petersburg a suitable (but false) premise to accuse Crimean Tatars in mass collaborationism. Following this up to 150 thousand more Crimean Tatars were forced to migrate. As a result, for the first time this ethnic group became a minority in Crimea.

The most fitting term to describe the relationships between the new settlers and the natives would be "segregation". The newcomers settling away from home ended up living in closed standalone communities. They never managed to form a class of latifundists: some remained wealthy farmers (the Germans), others (the Serbs and a certain percentage of Bulgarians) failed to adapt to the new place and chose to return to their homeland. Yet in spite of the small disparity on the social ladder, the difference in the official position between the settlers and the Crimean Tatars was dramatic: the newcomers were the welcome guests, while the natives were being forced to migrate.

Among the Crimean natives that remembered the life under Khanate, two other ethnicities should be mentioned: the Krymchaks and Karaites. The first being the descendants of Crimea's medieval Jews were subject to the same kind of restrictions that the Russian laws imposed upon Jews. At the same time the Karaite clerics insisted that their people descends from the Jews that had supposedly settled in Crimea Before Christ, and therefore are not responsible for the Savior's Crucifixion. Whether the Tsar believed their story or not is unknown, but the Karaites were granted a whole host of privileges that the rest of Russia's Jews could only dream of. Consistently showing great loyalty to the Russian government this ethnic group managed to preserve its traditional social niche being financiers/creditors and prominent merchants.

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Similar tactic of unquestionable loyalty was also employed by the representatives of the Crimean Tatar nobility, or rather the part of it that managed to maintain such status by cooperating with the colonial authorities. Russian manifestos regarding the annexation of Crimea envisaged guarantees of preserving all the "natural rights" of the empire's new citizens, and it must be said that in regards to the part of the elite that obeyed those guarantees were observed. Crimean Tatar nobility smoothly merged into Russia's upper class (which did have a long tradition of integrating various indigenous elites), and found itself on the opposite end of the social divide that separated them from their compatriots.

Nativization, occupation and deportation

It's not exactly breaking news to say that the transformative period of the 1917-1920 changed a great deal. The revolutionary flames claimed the ruling classes of all ethnic groups on the peninsula along with the plans to call a Founding Assembly where delegates of all Crimea's ethnic groups were to meet and determine the region's future together… The subsequent events unfolded in a very similar way they did in Ukraine: the "nativization" propaganda stunt gave the Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic traits of a Crimean Tatar national autonomy.

The Bolsheviks' belief that Crimean Tatars were the most oppressed by imperialist Russia ethnic minority on the peninsula was not unfounded.  They were less enthusiastic in their attitude towards other nationalities, as the majority of the Greeks qualified as "small bourgeoisie", while the Germans presented a classic example of "kulaks". There was also a brave experiment in "liberating" peoples from the "bourgeois shackles" in the form of organizing Jewish collective farms in Crimea, furthermore a whole agricultural region was reserved for the representatives of this ethnic group. However, Crimean Nativization also ended in a way it did elsewhere: accusation of the "National-Bolsheviks" in "bourgeois nationalism" and the subsequent shootings.

After seizing Crimea the Hitler's Germany initially acted much like the Bolsheviks did when they took control of the peninsula: appeasing ethnic minorities, creating faux self-government bodies etc. The major difference was the mass killings of Jews, which all but wiped out the population of Krymchaks. The Nazi long-term programme for Crimea envisaged complete depopulation and the arrival of the Tyrol Germans. Unlike most occupied territories, Crimea was to become part of Germany itself. Fortunately the Nazi plans were thwarted, but shortly afterwards Crimea was subject to a new wave of racial experimentation, this time by the Soviets.

In May 1944 the entire Crimean Tatar people was deported from the peninsula. Several weeks later followed the Bulgarian, Armenian and Greek diasporas (the Germans having been deported before occupation in summer 1941).

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The analysis of the reasons for deportation is a vast topic for a separate discussion. It should be mentioned, though, that those reasons were exclusively racial rather than political, as no amount of previous achievement and no amount of loyalty could save Crimean Tatars: neither war veterans, nor party members were spared.

In the late 1950s the Bulgarians, Armenians and Greeks were allowed to return to Crimea. A decade later the Germans were given the green light as well, yet the Crimean Tatars weren't as fortunate. The appeals of the communists among the deportees to the "principles of Lenin's national policy" only resulted in government denouncing the "sweeping accusations of aiding the invaders", but not the permission to repatriate. Having achieved the Tsar's age-old dream of cleansing Crimea from the Tatars, Moscow wasn't resting on its "laurels". The deported peoples suffered more inequality, where some were "pardoned" while others faced continued oppression.

Divide et impera

During the Perestroika Moscow finally allowed Crimean Tatars to repatriate. However, their demands went beyond the permission to return. Facing artificial obstacles regarding place of residence, employment and so forth, being treated like semi-legal migrants in their homeland Crimean Tatars demanded the status of Crimea's indigenous people (which, it must be noted, was completely justified, given that this nation formed in Crimea and did not represent a diaspora of any nation living outside of the peninsula). Such a demand envisaged state guarantees of restoring the people's rights, its representation in local authorities as well as the protection of the language and the cultural heritage. The Crimean Tatars believed and believe to this day that the best format for ensuring such guarantees is a Crimean Tatar national autonomy within Ukraine.

Such demands infuriated the post-Soviet half-communist party half-criminal clan elites that after the collapse of the USSR already began building up a "comfortable" structure of Crimea's politics for themselves. The typical counterargument to the demands of the Crimean Tatar national movement was the response along the lines of "You're not alone in Crimea". According to this logic, the Crimean population's ethnic diversity itself precluded the possibility of restoring Crimean Tatar national autonomy. Categorical objection to the status of Crimean Tatars as the peninsula's indigenous people became a tenet of the state policy both in Simferopol and, unfortunately, in Kyiv. To back its stance the government would seek support from other ethnic minorities of the region, trying to create an artificial conflict between the Crimean Tatars in one corner and "Crimea's multitude of nations" in the other. The demagogues would stress that none of Crimea's many ethnic groups is above all others.

There's no denying that having "superior" and "inferior" ethnic groups is unacceptable, yet this was never part of Crimean Tatars demands. National statehood itself (and national autonomy in particular) is not an issue of "racial superiority" or even ethnicity-based privileges, but simply of political recognition of the fact that every territory has its indigenous and non-indigenous peoples. This fact of nature in no way restricts the rights and freedoms of citizens regardless of their ethnic descent. It does, however, demand certain changes to the political system, the kind of changes that would no-doubt spell bad news for the Crimean "elite".

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So the tactics employed by the authorities to divide Crimea's ethnic groups onto the different sides of the ideological fence are old as the world itself: divide and conquer. And, as we can see, those have been in use on the peninsula for a very long time. Putting your citizens in distinctly unequal conditions and by artificially fuelling the manipulated conflict between them is the easiest way to prevent their consolidation into a single front of dissent, a way to avert the emergence of a force capable of pushing the manipulators out into the dustbin of history.One must admit that the latter succeeded to a great extent. It managed to persuade the rest of the ethnic groups that Crimean Tatars declaring their indigenous status would threaten the rights of all other ethnicities. The division was helped by the fact that almost all Crimea's ethnic and cultural societies were dependant on government subsidies and thus maintained their loyalty to the Crimean authorities. All the while Crimean Tatar national movement surpassed them in quantity, organization, independence, and, most importantly, its objectives that reached far beyond strictly ethnographic interests. Being in constant opposition to the local authorities, the Crimean Tatar movement was also seen as the agent of "Ukrainian interests" on the peninsula. This perception is maintained to this day… with all the dangerous consequences it may bring under today's Russian occupation.


Oleksa Hayvorovskyi is a Ukrainian historian from Crimea, writer and television presenter. His fields interest include political history of the Crimean Khanate. He worked in the Khan's Bakhchysarai Palace for 16 years, 10 of them as deputy director on research. He wrote Rulers of Two Continents, the best-selling Crimean history monograph that presents a "Crimean-centric" view of the Crimean Khanate's history. From 2012 onwards he presents a television program on historic landmarks Walking in Crimea with Oleksa Hayvorovskyi aired on ATR, the first Crimean Tatar TV-channel

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