5 Things To Know About the Crimean Tatars

March 14, 2024
Key facts about the origin, religion, structure, and culture of the indigenous people of Ukraine and the temporarily occupied Crimea.
  • Crimean Tatars are an indigenous Turkic people of Ukraine whose homeland is Crimea

According to various estimates, approximately 300,000 Qırımlı (Crimean Tatars) live in Ukraine. The prolonged colonial policies of the Russian Empire and the mass deportation of the ethnic group by the Soviet authorities in 1944 can explain this low number. At that time, Russia falsely accused Crimean Tatars of collaborating with the Nazis.

The operation of "resettling Crimean Tatars," an act of genocide, began in the early morning of May 18, 1944. People were given only a few minutes to half an hour to gather their belongings before being placed on trains headed to special settlements surrounded by barbed wire. The main directions of deportation included Central Asia (primarily Uzbekistan) and the Urals.

During this wave of deportation, around 200,000 Crimean Tatars were expelled from Crimea. Some of them perished during the journey, while others died from hunger and disease after arriving in the special settlements. Meanwhile, Russians were resettled in Crimea, provided with the homes left vacant by the Crimean Tatars.

The history of Russian criminal oppression against Crimean Tatars is long and traces its origins back to the first annexation of Crimea in 1783. With the onset of the second annexation of Crimea in 2014, Crimean Tatars also became targets for the Russian occupying authorities: raids on the homes of the indigenous population, arrests, torture, and killings.

With the beginning of the full-scale invasion, Russia is using a new genocidal strategy, as the majority of the mobilization orders in Crimea are for Crimean Tatars, who are forced to wage war against their brethren.

  • Crimean Tatars profess Islam

Crimean Tatars celebrate most of the Muslim world's holidays. The holy month of fasting for Crimean Tatars is Ramadan (Ramazan). In 2024, it lasts from March 10 to April 9. After the end of Ramadan, Crimean Tatars celebrate Oraza-Bayram (Oraza bayramı) for three days. During this time, it is customary to prepare traditional dishes of Crimean Tatar cuisine, visit relatives and friends with the words "Allah tutqan orazalarıñıznı qabul etsin! Butün arzu-istekleriñizni erine ketirsin!" ("May Allah accept your fast! May all your desires come true!").

The religious context of the Crimean Tatars cannot be understood without considering the oppression by the Russian occupying authorities.

Hizb ut-Tahrir is an international Islamic political party that operates in Crimea. In 2003, it was declared in Russia as a "terrorist organisation," leading to a series of persecutions and imprisonments of peaceful members of the party. According to this year's data, Russian occupiers in Crimea are persecuting 107 individuals in the "Hizb ut-Tahrir case," of which 104 are Crimean Tatars. In Germany, for instance, the organisation's activities were also banned due to its refusal to recognize Israel. However, this ban applies only to the public activities of the party, and law enforcement agencies do not prosecute members of Hizb ut-Tahrir.

  • The Crimean Tatars speak their own language

Qırımtatar tili is a Turkic language that belongs to the Kipchak-Polovtsian group of the hypothetical Altaic language family. The language has three dialects: Southern Coastal, Central, and Steppe.

According to UNESCO, the Crimean Tatar language is in danger of extinction. The consequences of Russian terror on language speakers are unavoidable; however, Ukraine is working to build a resilient political foundation for the preservation and popularization of the language. In October 2022, the Ministry of Reintegration of Temporarily Occupied Territories of Ukraine announced the start of collecting printed and online resources in the Crimean Tatar language. In January 2023, the National Commission on Crimean Tatar Language was established in Ukraine.

Historically, the Crimean Tatar language was written using the Arabic script. However, the language was eventually adapted to the universal Latin script. In 1938, the Soviet authorities changed the Crimean Tatar language to the Cyrillic script to align it with the Russian alphabet. Currently, the occupying authorities in Crimea prohibit the use of the Latin script. In 2021, the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine, after consulting with the Mejlis, approved the Crimean Tatar alphabet based on the Latin script. This marked a a landmark step in the language's revival and contributed to its harmonious development alongside other Turkic languages. Thus, in the context of the Crimean Tatar language, the Latin script has also become a symbol of a pro-Ukrainian position.

  • The Crimean Tatars, unlike other indigenous peoples of Crimea, have their own representative body - the Mejlis

The Crimean Tatar Mejlis is the representative body of the indigenous people. The Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar people, in its present form, was established in 1991 to represent the interests of the Crimean Tatars before Ukrainian and Crimean authorities, as well as in international organizations. In its activities, the Mejlis is subordinate to the Kurultai (analogous to the parliament). For more than a decade, Refat Chubarov, Mustafa Dzhemilev's former deputy chairman, has been the head of the Mejlis.

In 2016, the Russian occupying authorities in Crimea recognized the Mejlis as an "extremist organization." Criminal cases were also initiated against Refat Chubarov and Mustafa Dzhemilev; they were banned from entering the peninsula. Currently, the Mejlis office operates in Kyiv.

Two deputy heads were arrested: Akhtem Chiygoz in January 2015 and Ilmi Umerov in May 2016. On October 25, 2017, through an exchange for Russian spies, they were saved by the President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Nariman Dzhelyal, the only active Crimean Tatar politician on the peninsula, was arrested on September 4, 2021, on absurd charges of "sabotage," -- essentially for his active participation in the Inaugural Summit of the Crimean Platform held in Kyiv on August 23.

  • Culture for the Crimean Tatars is not just a tool for self-identification but also a means of fighting for the right to exist

The Crimean Tatars have a unique and multifaceted culture that includes folklore, ethnic music, decorative and applied arts, ritual ceremonies, traditional clothing, literature, and cinema.

On May 17, 2013, on the eve of the Day of Remembrance of the Victims of the Crimean Tatar Genocide, the first feature-length Crimean Tatar film, "Qaytarma," was presented in Simferopol. The film depicts the mass deportation of the indigenous people in 1944. The director and lead actor of the film is the Ukrainian actor of Crimean Tatar origin, Akhtem Seitablaiev.

In the musical context, a powerful embodiment of the Crimean Tatar voice is the Ukrainian singer of Crimean Tatar descent, Jamala (Susana Alimivna Dzhamaladinova). In 2016, the singer became the winner of the Eurovision Song Contest with the song "1944," performed in both English and Crimean Tatar.

In May 2023, Jamala presented the album "QIRIM," featuring 14 Crimean Tatar songs from all corners of Crimea's culture.

"When the full-scale war began, all the work on the album was in the studio which was under direct shelling. Then I slowly began to lose touch with all the people who had helped me collect all these songs. Note by note, word by word... Not releasing this album was about the same as me losing myself. Exploring the folklore of the peninsula, the longing, the heroes of that time, I pieced  myself together like a puzzle and restored what had been destroyed, burned, changed, and trampled into the ground for centuries. The album 'QIRIM' is me and my parental home,; it's our heritage and a step into the future because each song sounds like a testament. It's the beauty and greatness of the past," Jamala shared during her speech at the award ceremony of the Taras Shevchenko Prize laureates on March 9, 2024. The album received one of the most prestigious cultural awards in Ukraine.

What's more, the "QIRIM" album reached the 6th position on the World Music Charts Europe, contributing to the global recognition of Crimean Tatar culture.

Nika Krychovska
Journalist at UkraineWorld