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Photo of Crimean Tatars holding flags during a rally.

People hold Crimean Tatar flags at a rally near the parliament building in Simferopol on February 26, 2014. Many Crimean Tatars plan to boycott the referendum on rejoining Russia.

Photograph by Baz Ratner, Reuters

Eve Conant

for National Geographic

Published March 14, 2014

For Crimea's Tatars, history is not just something in books—it is a guiding and often painful undercurrent of everyday life. The eldest of them still remember the 1944 deportation of their entire population under Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. They were given 30 minutes' notice, and most would never see their homes again.

Nearly half of the 200,000 exiled men, women, and children loaded onto cattle cars died en route or shortly after their arrival in the Urals, Siberia, and Central Asia. Exile from their homes was punishment for their alleged "massive collaboration" with the Nazis who had occupied the peninsula. They, and their children and grandchildren who have been able to return over the past 20 years, are loath to fall once again under Moscow's control. (See: "Inside Crimea: A Jewel in Two Crowns.")

Some of the children of the deported—raised in Uzbekistan and now adults—have returned to become leaders. Refat Chubarov, head of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People, the representative body of the Tatars, has called on his people—there are now approximately 300,000 Tatars in Crimea—to peacefully boycott the referendum. Nevertheless, some Crimean Tatars have vowed to oppose secession, with force if necessary. According to Western press reports, some Tatars fighting with the rebels in Syria have offered to return to join the cause.

Photo of a Crimean Tatar man crying during a rally.
A Crimean Tatar man cries during a rally held in Simferopol on the 60th anniversary of Stalin's deportation of Tatars from Crimea.

Exile and Return

His mother was 11, his father 13 when they were deported from the village of Ay-Serez to Uzbekistan in 1944. "Our parents said we had to do all we could to return to our homeland," says Chubarov, speaking from the Crimean capital, Simferopol. "We had to study hard, to work hard, and to save money to someday return and buy a home." In 1968 his family was one of only 300 allowed to return "so the Soviets could tell the world they were letting us back," he says bitterly, "for propaganda purposes."

It wasn't until the late 1980s and the disintegration of the Soviet Union that large numbers of Tatars began returning from exile. "But many didn't make it," says Chubarov. "Our grandfathers, and so many others, they were all buried in Uzbekistan."

Now, other children and grandchildren of the deported, the strong ones, are up all night guarding their neighborhoods—afraid of attacks by ethnic Russians or the Russian soldiers who have swarmed their once-quiet peninsula. There are credible, firsthand reports of X marks on the doors of Tatar homes, a worrisome echo of the deportation tactics used more than half a century ago.

A spokesperson for the Crimean Tatars, Leyla Muslimova, says that while every year has shown "some excesses" against the Tatars, from "skinheads" destroying Tatar gravestones to the destruction of Tatar homes under construction, the tension now is unbearable. "Right now we are afraid. We're awaiting some provocation from pro-Russian organizations but are calling on our people to remain quiet and calm," she says, "and for the United Nations to invite some forces to protect us."

Photo of relatives and friends of a Tatar woman pulling her away from a fight.
A Tatar woman is pulled away from a fight near the Ukrainian parliament in Kiev on March 19, 1992, after several hundred Crimean Tatars demonstrated for their autonomy.

Tatar Power

Long ago it was the Tatars who ruled the region. Their history with Russia—a relationship of trade and cooperation, intermarriage and cultural exchange, but at times, significant mistrust—stretches back over the centuries. (See list of famous Russians of Tatar descent at the end of the story.)

The Crimean Tatars "first came on the map" around 1241, says Eric Lohr, when Batu Khan, a grandson of Genghis Khan, conquered the region, making it a strategic part of the Mongol empire and close trading partner with the emerging power center of Moscow. (Related: "Genghis Khan's Secret Weapon Was Rain.")

"The Moscow district still known as Kitai Gorod [which translates as Chinatown] is where the Crimean traders set up shop. Relations were strong," says Lohr, chair of Russian history and culture at American University in Washington, D.C. By the 15th century, the group dominated the region as the Crimean Khanate—the longest lived of the Turkic-speaking khanates that were the remnants of the vast Mongol empire—eventually falling under the loose protection of the Ottoman Empire in the latter part of the century.

Photo of 2 Tatar women sitting outside on a bed frame.
Unofficial Tatar settlements, like this one, arose around Simferopol after the Crimean Tatars were allowed to return from exile in the 1990s.

The Ottomans wanted slaves, and the Crimean Tatars provided them from the steppes of Ukraine and southern Russia—with the help of raiding Nogai Tatars and, until the 15th century, with the collaboration of Genoese merchants who shipped them off from the Crimean port town of Feodosia. One translation of a Ukrainian folk song reads:

The fires are burning behind the river—

The Tatars are dividing their captives.

Our village is burnt

And our property plundered.

The khanate ruled until 1783 when, after a successful war against the Ottoman Empire, Empress Catherine the Great annexed the peninsula as part of her vast expansion of the Russian Empire. During this time, says Lohr, there were several mass migrations of Crimean Tatars to Turkey (where populations remain); another migration followed the Crimean War, which ended in 1856.

The peninsula was the last holdout of the White Army during the civil war that followed the murder of the last tsar and the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. But the decades that followed were marked more by repression than by resistance. The Crimean Tatars were not spared the forced collectivization of the Soviet regime and the Holodomor, or man-made famine, of the early 1930s.

Photo of a religious family in a Crimean Tatar settlement near Bakhchisaray.
Crimean Tatars are a Turkic group of Sunni Muslims who were forcibly deported in 1944; many, like this family near Bakhchysaray, returned to their homeland after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Photograph by Carolyn Drake, Panos Pictures

Stalin's Repressions

Stalin began deportations of "suspect nationalities" well before World War II, says Paul Gregory, a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution in California and author of multiple books on the Soviet archives and gulag system. "Special settlements" were small groupings of families in remote areas, he says, "which were especially cruel because the whole family would be deported, and unlike in a gulag, there were no terms of sentence. It was unclear whether you'd ever get out."

But it was an April 13, 1944, NKVD (People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs) order "On Measures to Clean the Territory of the Crimean Autonomous Republic of Anti-Soviet Elements" that set in motion what Gregory calls "the major blow" to the Crimean Tatars: the deportation order of May 11, 1944, that shaped the Crimean Tatars' fate in the decades to follow, and much of their distress over Russia's actions today.

"This [was] not a legal referendum," says Mustafa Dzhemilev, a longtime leader of the Crimean Tatars, speaking from Bakhchysaray, the former capital of the Crimean Khanate and the heart of Tatar culture and architecture. He was six months old when his family was deported.

In Uzbekistan, Dzhemilev became a leading Soviet dissident, protesting not just Russia's invasions of Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan, "but [also] for what was central to us, the return of Crimean Tatars to our homeland." He suffered 15 years in Soviet prison camps, including in a vast camp system in Magadan where he worked building and carrying cement blocks, "often ending up in the izolator [isolation] because I didn't fulfill my 'norms,'" recalls Dzhemilev.

He was freed in 1986, at the height of the Perestroika movement, and joined the tens of thousands of Crimean Tatars who were finally able to return home in the late 1980s and 1990s, following a trickle of returning Tatars in previous decades.

Photo of a man holding aloft the Crimean Tatar flag.
A man holds the Crimean Tatar flag aloft near Bakhchisaray.
Photograph by Carolyn Drake, Panos Pictures

A Homeland Like Paradise

Dilara Setyeyiva was part of that unwelcome trickle. "There were no more than 10,000 of us here by 1979," says Setyeyiva, an engineer, mother of three, and now head of a teachers council for Crimean Tatars that tries to promote learning in the Crimean Tatar language. She and her young family fought bureaucratic red tape in their efforts to resettle, and at one point were kicked out of the area altogether. "We didn't go back to Uzbekistan when that happened," she said. "We didn't want to scare people into thinking there was no chance for them to return to our homeland."

And that homeland offered much to yearn for: It's "like paradise" in parts, says writer and adventurer Tim Cope, who traveled the peninsula by horseback in the spring of 2006 through its "waist-high grass, tulips and camomile" before the steppe meets the coastline of beaches, where dolphins play in the waves. In his book On the Trail of Genghis Khan, Cope details both this beauty and the long-standing tensions between ethnic Russians and the Sunni Muslim Crimean Tatars, including violent clashes over a Russian market built in the 1990s over mausoleums where Tatar khans and spiritual leaders were laid to rest.

Speaking from her home in Bakhchysaray—the site of the market clashes years ago—Setyeyiva laughs at the idea that Russia will build a bridge across the Strait of Kerch connecting Crimea to the Russian mainland. Like many Tatars, she embraces Ukraine's turn to the West and fears that a Crimea under Russian control will become like the disputed territory of Abkhazia, a once-beautiful place, she says, "that will become like a desert. These small republics, we will become isolated from the world."

Five Famous Russians of Tatar Descent

Tatars are an ethnic Muslim minority in Russia; many notable achievers throughout Russian history have had Tatar roots.

1. Rudolf Nureyev: This celebrated Soviet ballet and modern dancer defected from the Soviet Union to the West in 1961. According to the website of the Rudolf Nureyev Foundation, "The family were Tatars, coming of peasant stock in the Soviet republic of Bashkir, but his father, Hamet, seizing the opportunities brought to ordinary people by the Russian Revolution, become a political education officer in the Red Army, advancing to the rank of major."

Photo of Rudolf Nureyev.

2. Sergei Rachmaninoff: The famous pianist, composer, and conductor was born under the tsars and left Russia on the heels of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. He was born into a noble family of Tatar descent, which had been in the service of the Russian tsars since the 16th century in northwestern Russia.

Photo of Sergei Rachmaninoff.

3. Roald Sagdeev: The man who would become one of the pioneers of modern plasma physics, the director of the Space Research Institute of the U.S.S.R. Academy of Sciences, and science adviser to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev was born in Moscow to Tatar parents in 1932.

4. Felix Yussupov: The flamboyant prince and count was of Tatar origin and a key figure in late tsarist Russia, best known for his part in the 1916 assassination of Grigori Rasputin, the self-proclaimed healer who was said to hold undue influence over Tsar Nicholas II and his wife.

Photo of Prince Felix Yusupov.
Photograph by Henri Bureau, Apis/Sygma/Corbis

5. Marat Safin: The famous tennis champ, who was ranked number one in the world in his day, and politician was born to Tatar parents in Moscow in 1980.

Photo of Marat Safin.
Photograph by Felipe Dana, AP
France Anglo
France Anglo

According to you Eric Saxon all nations should judge others on the account of what happened to them hundreds of years before?

France and England had lots of wars and One Hundred year war and England was occupied by Normans from France just one example.So all nations of European Union should be suspicious of neighbours since they had suffered so much at the hands of this neighbour at some point in history?

Number of 2 millions slaves is a bogus number from Crimea Wikipedia article that you quote,

and Crimean Tatars didn't trade in slaves with Ottoman Empire, Crimea was a part of Ottoman Empire.

The truth is that Turkic or Turkish speaking people populated Crimea under different tribal confederations from at least 6th century B.C.

From the same Crimea Wiki article you can find them under the names Bulgars,

Khazars, Kipchaks, Golden Horde, etc.

And Crimean Tatars are their descendants!

Tatar happened to be the last name of such of Confederation of Turkish speakers.

Ukraine history had its share of interreligious wars, and people of different religions suffered greatly during religious conflicts and nobody can have even aproximate number of victims of this conflicts.

Crimean Tatars, Poles, Ukrainians, Jews were all victims of this wars.

Crimean Tatars are indigenous people of Crimea and Crimea only and if "everyone else remembers what came before" than majority of the people you counted like Lituanians, Georgians, Moldovans, Ukrainians,(except Russians of cause) would remember their recent wars and conflicts with Russia and Russian Empire.

Eric Saxon
Eric Saxon

2 million, that's how many people the Crimean Tartars sold into slavery in the slave markets of Istanbul. This does not account for the rapes of women who were not taken into slavery, this does not account for the children and old, who died on Eastern Europe's version of the Trail of Tears. This does not account for the millions who died defending their homes.

2 million is simply the number of people that were sold by the Crimean Tartars into slavery, in what they called 'the Harvest.' We can thank the Ottoman Turks for keeping good accounting of the taxes they collected on the sales.

The Crimean Tartars, you be the judge of what Poles, Moldavians, Belorussians, Russians, Ukrainians, Georgians, and Lithuanians think of them. And just as the Crimean Tartars remember 1944, everyone else remembers what came before.

Kendall Garmon
Kendall Garmon

The TRUTH is that Puttin saved Crimea from internal Islamic aggression. You won't hear about this enormous rescue effort of Crimea in America as Obama's love affair for anything Muslim is suppressing the "bad press" dealing with the Muslims radical/homicidal and suicidal actions as Muslims are murdering thousands in Crimea in an effort to create mayhem. THIS IS the SAME GROUP of Muslims that partook in a "massive collaboration" and colluded with the Nazis during WWII (Muslim Nazi's are still alive to this day!) ((American News is suppressed)) by our President Obama... Read history and know the who, what, why and where of this thing and you will come to realize Puttin did us all a huge favor.

Shamsuddin Kassim
Shamsuddin Kassim

Russia as a civilized nation should learn how to live with minorities within its borders. The Russian State cannot fan the spirit of patriotism and nationalism amongst ethnic Russians at the expense of other ethnic minorities whom they they have subjugated and abused for so long.

Don Chischiotte GP Luparelli
Don Chischiotte GP Luparelli

 Non capisco se la crimea è russa.. allora chi scrive è un poeta libero, se invece scrive che la Crimea non era Russa... allora è politicizzato, venduto schiavo...

Lo dico da ben tre settimane ! La Crimea non è MAI STATA RUSSA DEI RUSSI!
La storia la volete studiare?
In epoca Zarista ed Imperiale le terre appartengo per diritto divino allo Zar o alla Zarina! Non al popolo .
Poi  le terre della Crimea come territorio di gestione/provincia non erano comprese tra quelle Russe Moderne ... ma separate come era l?ucraina che si chiamava principato di Kiev etc etc.
Quando fu assassinato lo Zar... si sono persi i legami storici con la Crimea.. solo un discendente dei Romanov può decidere a chi appartiene la Crimea.
Entrò nell'oblast della Russia solo grazie alle deportazioni di Stalin!!
Chi dice oggi che è Crimea è Russa è un criminale come Stalin!
Il popolo non voleva stare con la SSR Russia!
Poi la storia moderna dice che è Ucraina!
Se io faccio un regalo non lo voglio più indietro .. ma non solo prima che l?ucraina si staccava dall'Urss si definì che la Crimea apparteneva a KIev e basta!
Per il resto sono solo chiacchere di propaganda .. per giustificare un' annessione gratuita!

Nikola Grzesinski
Nikola Grzesinski

It think this is right time and right case to be, if you say politicised. Crimea was not under the Russian possession all the time, and, I believe these people have even more right to add their voices into the discussion about the future of the Ukraine. Take it like that ;)

Irina G.
Irina G.

I didn´t expect National Geographic can be so politicized.... It is very sad....

Randall Woods
Randall Woods


Alan Saeed
Alan Saeed

The writer of this article forgot to mention a very important historical event that makes Crimea immensely significant for Russians. Long before the appearance of the Mongols and the Tatars, and according to medieval chronicles, it was in Khersonesos – the ancient Greek colonial city on the south-western coast of Crimea, just outside Sevastopol – that Vladimir, the Grand Prince of Kiev, was baptised in 988, thereby bringing Christianity to Kievan Rus', the kingdom from which Russia derives its religious and national identity.

Evgeniy Maiorov
Evgeniy Maiorov

This article is very speculative. I was in Crimea, and many people want  rejoin with Russia because people do not  have good jobs, good education and medicine. Crimea will be Russian region. Russia will attempt correct its mistakes (at this moment I mean mistake of N.S. Khrushchev)

Roy Karros
Roy Karros

@Irina G. how long have you been reading national geographic because it has always been politicized to some extent.

Marguerite Kopiec
Marguerite Kopiec

@Alan Saeed  Nationalism, minority, majority, christianity, etc.. What about democracy and an open, pluralistic and all inclusive society?

Linda Wagner
Linda Wagner

@Evgeniy Maiorov I think the speculation is YOURS, Evgeniv..

I'd like to take you at your word but after looking at your bio profile, stating you are a Russian from St. Petersburg, I think it needs to be pointed out that you have a vested interest in this region being forcibly rejoined to your country.

Alan Saeed
Alan Saeed

@Marguerite Kopiec @Alan Saeed

When it comes to democracy the Ukrainians are not much better than the Russians. The first act of the new pro-West government in Kiev was to scrap a law that allowed Russian as a major language in the eastern parts of Ukraine. Do you call this an attempt at "democracy and an open, pluralistic and all inclusive society"?

Evgeniy Maiorov
Evgeniy Maiorov

@Олексій Гаркуша @Evgeniy MaiorovFirst. Education and medical treatment in Russia are on the higher and better level than in Ukraine. That is a fact. I won't even argue with that. For instance, take a look at the international rating of Institutions and check out the names of famous scientists and physicians.
Second. I am disgusted to even talk to people that support Western politics. Especially with nationalists. Why isn't Europe writing about the way people came to power in Ukraine? Wasn't that illegal?
Third. Population of Crimea expressed their own desire to without any pressure or intervention of Russian military. And that is a fact you can not go against. Same as the fact of union of Eastern and Western Germany. In that case the union was also based on the willing of people.
Fourth. The thing I am most disgusted about is hearing that Russia is being some sort of "bandit" or "evil creature" that wants to have all the territory they can have. That's just absurd!
Fifth. I am actually really interested to know why does NATO needs some many military bases on the territory of Europe? Or does may be Ukraine needs these bases? Why do they have to tease a big strong nation?

Evgeniy Maiorov
Evgeniy Maiorov

@Linda Wagner  

Many countries have negative position in relation to Russia and its relation to Crimea. What can you say about actions of USA in relation to Serbia, Iraq, Libya and so on. Why USA  shared Serbia in 1999??? 

What about me - yes, I live in Russia, and I know many people who have relatives in Ukraine, in particular, in Crimea. Russia, Belarussia, Ukraine - these countries have many common interests, common history... And my position is not politicized, but it is true... 

Alan Saeed
Alan Saeed

@Kendall Garmon @Marguerite Kopiec@Alan Saeed

I got the news from a British newspaper, The Guardian. It says "Russian speakers are understandably alarmed after the new Kiev authorities scrapped a law allowing Russian as an official language in their areas."

Google the article: "The Ukraine crisis: John Kerry and Nato must calm down and back off" 

Krysia K-Dumas
Krysia K-Dumas

@Alan Saeed @Marguerite KopiecUkraine’s interim President refused to enact legislation limiting the use of the Russian language at regional level, and Ukraine’s Prime Minister Yatseniuk has said that this proposed law will not be enacted.

Evgeniy Maiorov
Evgeniy Maiorov

@Nina Dziuba Yakimiuk @Evgeniy Maiorov@Linda Wagner  

Sorry but your opinion make me cringe... What about USA which can take everything in the world? Oh, yes, democracy... What is modern world??? The world with democracy and without nationalists? Sorry, but it is nonsense. And please dont forget why USA and Europe disorganized USSR in 1991.

Nina Dziuba Yakimiuk
Nina Dziuba Yakimiuk

@Evgeniy Maiorov @Eric Mulfinger @Linda Wagner  The rivalry between Russia and the USA has now really been surpassed by China.  They are economically winning.  As the West declines and Russia as well you have a strong player on the international scene.  When I read "The Audacity of Hope" by President Obama I realised that it is an economic war...but more than that right now it is an ideological one.  The fascistoid approach to government brought forth by Putin will fail in the long run.  People crave to voice their opinions.  In spite of this nationalistic fever the Russians will wake up and see how they have been manipulated.  Corrupt governments with no opposition fail.

Nina Dziuba Yakimiuk
Nina Dziuba Yakimiuk

@Evgeniy Maiorov @Linda Wagner  

If you have Russia as a neighbour you always worry they may come and take your country.  If you have Russians living in your country those Russians will want the land to belong to Russia.  For some reason this is part of the culture...take everything you can for the glory of Russia.  How about  a democracy and sharing the land and also the identity.  For instance in Britain we have various nationalities but we are British.  If you live in a country that is super nationalistic plus unable to come into the modern world...what can I say?  Will it stay frozen in Stalin times or Kruschev times or God forbid Putin Times.  The despots that come out of Russia make me cringe.

Evgeniy Maiorov
Evgeniy Maiorov

@Eric Mulfinger @Evgeniy Maiorov@Linda Wagner  

I agree: politics and geography aren't disjoint subjects but all time I live I hear that Russia is enemy, I hear that Russia is invader and so on (By the way the opposition of two large countries like Ruissia and USA never stopped, and it is so sad)

p.s. politics and geography, as we know, is geopolitics =)) 

Kerry Pay-Mann
Kerry Pay-Mann

@Eric Mulfinger @Evgeniy Maiorov @Linda Wagner Absolutely!

As a world history teacher geography has always shaped history.

This was why I tried to educate Americans that it was useless to invade Afghanistan because the British failed many times because of geography. Also I opposed the Iraq war because of the tribal culture and all the religions that were "in check" because of Saddam. Strong rulers keep the local peace because fighting amongst the locals is "bad for business". Russia was started in the south of the country. Study "all" the history of the world and you will learn that ALL EMPIRES FALL. The U.S. in which I live will fall in less than 50 years I predict.

I wish as most Americans, that we wish our Gov leaders stop putting our noses where we are not wanted. What arrogance!

Eric Mulfinger
Eric Mulfinger

@Evgeniy Maiorov @Linda Wagner 

Mr. Maiorov: Politics and geography are not disjoint subjects.  It is entirely appropriate to read about the background to this current international crisis, even if it brings up unpleasant historical truths.  NG could go back farther and point out the ravages of the Mongols (and Tatars) against the Russian principalities in the late middle ages, but there's only so much space.  You are also entirely correct to question the actions of my government in Iraq, Libya, and Serbia.  Many here do also. 


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