The Crimean Tatars and Ukrainian Nationhood

By Quinn Sippola

The Russian invasion and subsequent annexation of Crimea in 2014 affected the geopolitical stability of the entire Black Sea region. It also profoundly affected one of the major ethnic groups residing in the peninsula, the Crimean Tatars.  On Tuesday, March 3, Dr. Austin Charron, a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Russia, East Europe, and Central Asia at the University of Wisconsin, discussed the Crimean Tatars, their historical experiences, and the ways they have adapted to Ukrainian nationhood before and after 2014.  Charron analyzed the effects of the Crimean Tatars’ displacement from their homeland and how the Crimean Tatars maintained their cultural identity between their expulsion to Central Asia in 1944, return in 1989, and subsequent inclusion in the new Ukrainian state created in 1991. In his lecture on these topics, Charron drew extensively from his interviews with Internally Displaced Peoples (IDPs) from the region with statistical analyses to present a full understanding of the Crimean Tatars’ current plight.

Charron first provided a brief history of Crimea and the Crimean Tatars, starting with the various groups of peoples who attempted to colonize the area. The peninsula was then a part of the Crimean Khanate from 1441 to 1783. It was under the Khanate, Charron noted, that the peoples of Crimea coalesced into a coherent, albeit still multicultural, ethnic group known as the Crimean Tatars. Russia annexed the Khanate and, by extension, the Tatars in 1783, leading to Russian and then Soviet colonization and rule. Soviet leaders created an Autonomous Republic for the Crimean Tatars, Charron noted, while also encouraging them to develop their national culture within socialism. During the Second World War, however, the Stalinist state categorized the Crimean Tatars as an enemy nation, and on May 18, 1944, just after the Red Army liberated Crimea from Nazi occupation, all Crimean Tatars were rounded up, placed on train cars, and deported, most to Uzbekistan. Nearly half–46%–died in transit to  their new home.  For reasons that still are not entirely clear, Charron noted, Soviet authorities only allowed Crimean Tatars to return to their homeland in 1989, where other enemy nations had been allowed to do so in the 1950s and 1960s.  When they returned, the Crimean Peninsula was a part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, after Nikita Khrushchev had gifted the region to Ukraine in 1954. The return brought a quarter century of some stability, but the 2014 invasion and subsequent annexation of Crimea saw tens of thousands of Crimean Tatars relocated to mainland Ukraine as IDPs, leaving their home once more.

So why did the Crimean Tatars leave after their hard-fought battle to return? Charron argued that the answer rests with their support for Ukraine, the Ukrainian Government, and their embrace of Ukrainian nationhood. In interviews with Crimean Tatar IDPs, Charron relayed that he heard many reasons for this trust, ranging from the common enemy the two peoples have in Russia to the long history of cooperation between the Ukrainian Cossacks and Crimean Tatars to the simple fact that the Ukrainian state mostly left the Crimean Tatars alone.

This embrace of Ukraine can best be seen in the young generations of Crimean Tatars, who increasingly see themselves in a sort of hierarchy of identities. They are Crimean Tatar first, Ukrainian second, and European third. Both Crimea and the Ukrainian mainland are seen as home to the young generation, helping to create a fused multiculturalism in a country that is overwhelmingly Ukrainian. The fusion of Ukrainian civic identity and Crimean Tatar cultural identity has led to an explosion of Crimean Tatar culture in the cities of Kyiv and Lviv, two of Ukraine’s largest cities. The Crimean Tatar national dish, Chebureki, is sold in shops across the cities. As Charron demonstrated, a “Crimean Tatarification” of Ukrainian cultural landscapes has occurred since 2014, with paintings, holidays, and advertisements all commemorating the May 18, 1944 deportations of the Crimean Tatars. Posters, ads, and other visual media have merged the Tryzub, the national symbol of Ukraine, and the Tamga, the symbol of the Crimean Tatars, to show the connection between the two groups. And in 2016, Crimean Tatar pop artist Jamala won the Eurovision song contest representing Ukraine for her song ‘1944’, written about the deportations. One of Charron’s interviewees described this explosion of culture as if “In the dance of Ukrainian society, (the) Crimean Tatars have a leading solo”. Ukrainian civic identity is also growing in the older generations, with one of Charron’s interviewees, an older Crimean Tatar man regarding how he used to know only the melody to the Ukrainian national anthem, but now sings the anthem loudly at the beginning of soccer matches he attends.

Charron ended his lecture with one thought that has increasingly been debated since 2014: will the Crimean Tatars receive their own autonomous republic? Charron stated it is a possibility, but for now remains just a dream. There have been talks about a possible symbolic declaration in the face of Russia’s control of the region, but not all support the idea of Crimean Tatar autonomy.  In a poll conducted by Charron, he found that most Ukrainians and Russians held the Crimean Tatars in high regard, but when asked about the possibility of autonomy, only 38% of those Ukrainians and Russians polled would be in favor of Crimean Tatar autonomy. Charron believed that this high trust for the people but low support for autonomy is due to past ideas of the Crimean Tatars, mainly that if they were granted autonomy they would either declare independence or ally themselves with Turkey.

The future for the Crimean Tatars is unpredictable. Will the Tatars be able to once again return to their homeland and be self-governing? Will they stay on the Ukrainian mainland?  Will Ukraine continue to accept the Crimean Tatars in the face of Russian collaboration from those still on the peninsula? No one knows. One thing is certain: the Crimean Tatars have created a new form of multiculturalism in a post-Soviet Ukraine.

Quinn Sippola is a first-year student at Miami majoring in History.

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