20. The Crimean Tatars: Who they are and where they come from

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Miquel Cabal Guarro, PhD
Centre for Research in Sociolinguistics and Communication, University of Barcelona (CUSC-UB)
Endangered Languages Study Group, University of Barcelona, (GELA-UB)


What language do Crimean Tatars speak?

Crimea’s Tatar belongs to the Turkic branch of the Altaic languages. It is one of the languages spoken by the Turkic population of the Crimean Peninsula. The Turkic languages form a dialectical continuum with a very high degree of intelligibility, which decreases only between varieties separated by large geographic distances. Crimean Tatar is a transitional language that includes elements from the Oguz and Kipchak groups.

Where do Crimea’s Tatars come from?

Since antiquity, with the Greek colonies established on the coast of the peninsula that Herodotus called Tauris, Crimea has been inhabited by people of very diverse origins, such as the Scythians and the Sarmatians. Until the Goth invasions of the third century, several rulers maintained different forms of state there, but they always had good relations with the Greeks and, later, with the Roman Empire. After the Goths, the peninsula was the subject of numerous occupations. Chronologically, the occupiers were Huns, Bulgars, Khazars, Byzantines, (Turkic) Kipchaks and Mongols. In the thirteenth century, the Genoese also settled in the coastal fortifications built by the Venetians for eastern routes, and they gained economic and commercial control of Crimea and the Black Sea for almost two centuries.

In the 1240s, the Mongols conquered all the plains in the south of modern Ukraine and also the Crimean Peninsula. The merging of the Mongols and the Turkic population in the north of the peninsula and of the same Turkic population and the Greeks and Byzantines from the south coast configured the Tatar people of Crimea, who were the main group in the peninsula until the beginning of the twentieth century, long after the Russian annexation of 1783.

Crimean Tatars in the USSR

In the 1920s and 1930s, during the phase of indigenization policy, the Soviet state encouraged Crimean Tartar language and culture as expressions of the indigenous people of the peninsula.

At the end of the Second World War, in May 1944, Red Army troops defeated the Nazis in Crimea. The People’s Commissar for Internal Affairs, Lavrentiy Beria, immediately sent a letter to Stalin to suggest that the entire Tatar population be deported. One week later, in the early hours of 18 May 1944, NKVD personnel loaded 190,000 Crimean Tatars into cattle and goods trains and sent them primarily to Central Asia (82% ended up in Uzbekistan). The main objective of the Stalinist deportations was to cleanse strategically sensitive areas. In this case, it seems that Stalin had the intention of occupying two Turkish provinces that bordered Armenia, and he therefore wanted to cleanse all territories of Turkic and Muslim populations, who could have hindered those plans.

Crimean Tatars spent about fifty years of exile in Central Asia, deprived of rights and national recognition. Of course, the language disappeared from the catalogue of languages of the USSR, as though it had no de facto existence.

The Return to Ukrainian Crimea

The Tatars were not able to begin to return legally to Crimea until after the fall of the USSR. Between 1991 and 2014, while the peninsula was part of Ukraine as an autonomous territory, the Tatars fought to retake the rights that they had lost with the deportation. The struggle covered various areas: they requested the return of lands and possessions, and they wanted a restoration of linguistic and cultural rights. As the indigenous people of the peninsula, the Crimean Tatars have always been backed by international treaties and law. Unfortunately, neither Ukraine nor Russia has ever signed those treaties.

The Crimean Tatars managed to open as many as fifteen schools with Crimean Tatar as the language of instruction, and Tatar-language education streams in another three schools. All in all, however, only 10% of Tatar pupils to a greater or lesser extent received education in their mother tongue. In 2005, Radio Meydan, the first Crimean Tatar-language radio station, began broadcasting. In 2006, ATR, a TV channel that broadcasts in Crimean Tatar twenty-four hours a day, was established. All this created the impression that Tatar had undertaken a hopeful path toward normalization that, in the long run, might contribute to remedying a language shift toward Russian that was already well under way.

With regard to the political situation, the constant tensions between the regional government of the Crimean region and the central government in Kiev always kept the Tatars in a difficult position. The Crimean government always adopted pro-Russian stances. This is not to say that it had secessionist intentions, as the only Crimean secessionist party (Russian Unity) traditionally achieved very modest electoral results (around 4% of the vote in 2010). But it did mean that the Crimean government tended to defend and demand national and linguistic rights for the Russian population, which in 2001 represented 60% of the population according to the census (77%, if the Russian-speaking population is counted).

The Ukrainian languages law of 2012

In 2012, Viktor Yanukovych’s government presented a bill on ‘the principles of state language policy.’ Its approval process involved many irregularities and an open and violent conflict between the two sectors of the Ukrainian parliament (the Rada): the so-called nationalists were directly opposed to it, while the so-called pro-Russians were in favour of it. The opposition argued that it was a law that would end up casting Ukrainian aside in many regions with a Russian-speaking majority and that, moreover, the aim of the law was to satisfy the Kremlin, which was dissatisfied with Ukraine’s treatment of the Russian language. The other side, meanwhile, called for linguistic rights not only for Ukraine’s Russian speakers, but for all the country’s national minorities.

The law introduced a notion that until then had not been raised in the Ukrainian language debate: regional languages. It stipulated that any language that was the mother tongue of at least 10% of the population in a particular territory (whether it was a region, province, district or municipality) could attain co-official status in that territory provided that the representatives of the minority in question requested this from the competent governing body. This regulation opened the door to co-official status for eighteen languages at the various territorial levels.

The law was implemented in Ukraine’s territory, and the results were nowhere near as devastating as the picture that the opposition parties had painted. Russian was declared a co-official language in eight regions in the east and south of the country, while Romanian/Moldovan and Hungarian were recognized as official languages in around fifteen municipalities and districts in Southwestern Ukraine.

In the case of Crimea, where Russian was the language of the public sphere, administration and the media, the regional government felt that the region’s statutes had already solved satisfactorily the linguistic question and that, therefore, the new language law was not applicable. This, of course, was rejected by the Tartars, who once again felt that they had been prevented from finding a legal shelter for establishing the public presence of their language.

The annexation of Crimea

In April 2014, the Russian Federation annexed Crimea through an initial covert military invasion that was followed by a self-determination referendum held without democratic guarantees and within a wartime atmosphere. The Tatars, who have always seen Russia as the heir of the same USSR that deported them and denied them civil and national rights, feared that this event would drastically reduce the few national and linguistic rights that they had won over many years of struggle.

The closure of the Crimean Tatar broadcasting network, the inclusion of Crimean Tatars’ national council on the list of extremist organizations and its subsequent outlawing, the ban on entry into Crimea for key members of the national movement (Mustafa Jemilev and Refat Chubarov) and the disappearance of young pro-Ukraine activists would make one think that Crimean Tatars’ fears were justified.

In addition, the education budget for teaching Tatar has been slashed considerably, and the process of readopting the Latin alphabet, which the Crimean Tatar language had used in the 1920s and 1930s, has been stopped.

All this, alongside the already very advanced process of language shift towards Russian that the Tatar language has suffered for decades, does not augur well for Crimean Tatars’ cultural and linguistic recovery and development.

Dufaud, G., 2011. Les Tatars de Crimée et la politique soviétique des nationalités. Paris: Éditions Non Lieu.

Uehling, G.L., 2004. Beyond memory: The Crimean Tatars Deportation and Return. New York [etc.]: Palgrave Macmillan.

Williams, B.G., 2015. The Crimean Tatars: from Soviet genocide to Putin’s conquest. London: Hurst.

Williams, B.G., 2001. The Crimean Tatars: the diaspora experience and the forging of a nation. Leiden: Brill.