The strongest​ local resistance to Putin’s annexation of Crimea has come from the peninsula’s Muslim minority. The Crimean Tatars, 12 per cent of the population, largely boycotted last month’s independence referendum, and many took to the streets in protest. The Tatars have a troubled history with Russia. Catherine the Great annexed the Crimean Khanate – until then a great power in the early modern Eastern world – in 1783. The Christian conquerors presented themselves as liberating Crimea from the Ottomans and tried to integrate local elites into the imperial state. Tatar mullahs, now on St Petersburg’s payroll, called on their followers to swear loyalty to the Romanovs. For most Russians, the peninsula remained an exotic place. After touring Crimea in the summer of 1820, Pushkin wrote The Fountain of Bakchisarai, an Orientalist fantasy of opulence, despots and harems, with ‘young captives’ who ‘frolic in cool pools’. Most Russian imperial administrators saw their Tatar subjects as backward, uncivilised and potentially dangerous to the strategically sensitive Black Sea coast. During Russia’s numerous wars with the Sublime Porte, tsarist officials suspected the Tatars as a fifth column, and repression often followed.

In the Crimean War, as Ottoman, French and British troops invaded, tens of thousands were killed in battle or through disease, horrors vividly described in Tolstoy’s Sebastopol Sketches. Tatar leaders were quick to plead allegiance to Russia: ‘We Muslims, from young to old, must be sincerely devoted to the tsar and the fatherland and not hesitate to give life, or blood, if it were demanded from us for their protection,’ the tsar’s Crimean mufti declared. Not all Tatars obeyed: some saw the war as an opportunity for liberation from foreign rule. In this they were encouraged by Allied propaganda, which called for Islamic solidarity with the Ottoman Caliphate. In some areas, Tatars helped the invaders, providing supplies, taking part in plundering and, in a few cases, even organising anti-Russian guerrilla insurgency. Although most remained loyal to St Petersburg, the cases of collaboration fuelled Russian suspicion. Russian field reports, as Mara Kozelsky has shown, demonstrate how paranoid ordinary officers were about Muslims. Every Tatar was suspected of being a spy or saboteur and Cossack squadrons were sent to patrol Tatar villages. The Cossacks, one Russian general later recalled, were ‘continually accusing the Crimeans of helping the enemy, arresting them and setting them free after payment of bribes; others were killed or driven away.’

As the war came to an end Tatars feared escalating Russian oppression and a mass exodus to the Ottoman Empire followed. By the time the Paris peace treaty was signed, the first Tatars had already left. By the early 1860s, around 200,000 had gone into exile, leaving behind hundreds of abandoned villages and mosques. Most chose to travel by sea, but the crossing was dangerous and many drowned. Those who arrived, having handed over vast sums to entrepreneurial boat owners for the privilege of the passage, were often suffering from fever, smallpox or dysentery. Unprepared for the masses of refugees, Ottoman authorities were in no position to help.

Tsar Alexander II declared that there was no reason to oppose the Tatars’ flight, calling it ‘advantageous’, since it rid the peninsula of a ‘harmful population’. Local officials interpreted this as an order to encourage more Muslims to leave. Mullahs across Crimea called for migration, or hijra, to the dar al-Islam – the sacred lands of Islam. ‘The Tatars are a rapidly diminishing race,’ a British observer noted, ‘and failing numbers are accompanied with declining moral energy. This melancholy fact is referable to their position as a conquered people, spoiled of territorial wealth, social and political importance and exposed to the harassing peculation of subaltern agents of government.’ The exodus transformed the ethnic and religious landscape of the peninsula. Slav peasants settled in the abandoned villages. Churches and monasteries replaced mosques and madrasas. It was a change from a Turkic to a Slavic majority, from Sunni Islam to Orthodox Christianity. Those Tatars who stayed faced discrimination, miserable living conditions and suspicion.

During the First World War, Russia’s enemies again appealed to the Crimean Muslims to rise against the tsar. In the autumn of 1914, the Shaykh al-Islam in Constantinople issued five fatwas calling for armed jihad against the Entente powers, and propagandists in Crimea distributed anti-tsarist pamphlets. In early 1918, after invading the peninsula, German officials courted the Crimean Muslims, even recognising a Tatar puppet government. The Bolsheviks soon shattered any hopes of self-determination. Under Soviet rule, the Tatars suffered forced collectivisation, mass arrests and famine; as elsewhere in Russia’s Muslim borderlands, Bolshevik cadres destroyed mosques, confiscated religious endowments and persecuted mullahs.

In the autumn of 1941, German and Romanian troops led by Erich von Manstein invaded Crimea. Again, the German command hoped to win over the Tatars, to pacify the areas behind the frontlines. In his infamous order of 20 November 1941, which demanded that the ‘Jewish-Bolshevist system’ be ‘exterminated once and for all’, Manstein urged his soldiers to treat the Muslim population well and to present the Third Reich as a protector of Islam: ‘Respect for religious customs, particularly those of the Mohammedan Tartars, must be demanded.’ Wehrmacht officials supported the reopening of mosques, prayer halls and madrasas, and the reintroduction of religious holidays and celebrations; they also established Muslim Committees, which provided Tatars with a degree of autonomy, especially in religious affairs. Goebbels noted in his diary that ‘after they had been allowed to call out their religious chants from their minarets again’, the Tatars quickly warmed to the Wehrmacht. Muslim collaborators published a newspaper called Azat Kirim (‘Free Crimea’), copies of which can be found in the Crimean State Archives in Simferopol; following Berlin’s directives, it was full of rants against Communists and Jews.

Rallied by some of their religious leaders, nearly 20,000 Crimean Muslims enlisted in German units to fight partisans in the mountains. ‘Their value in partisan counterinsurgency cannot be estimated highly enough,’ an army report noted in early 1942. Field post letters, now in the German Federal Archives, give insights into the motivations of the volunteers, which ranged from the wish to liberate their home from Soviet oppression, to hopes for better treatment by the Nazis. ‘Thank Allah and Adolf Effendi!’ one soldier wrote to his family. ‘We are well! If Allah protects us, we will not endure one year, but ten years, of war.’ As German defeats mounted, however, some soldiers worried about Soviet retaliation: ‘The freedom of the people means death for us. Now our luck is not worth much anymore.’

Other Tatars fought with the partisans, even though most commanders made no secret of their anti-Muslim feelings. Towards the end of the occupation, Tatar relations with the Germans cooled. SS and Wehrmacht troops burned down Tatar villages when they suspected their inhabitants of sheltering or supporting partisans. When evacuating Crimea in spring 1944, the Germans allowed only a small number of Tatars to come with them, including some volunteer soldiers, who were soon employed in the defence of the Reich.

In the weeks following the Soviet reconquest of Crimea, the Red Army killed hundreds of Tatars accused of Nazi collaboration. The streets of Simferopol were lined with bodies hanging from telephone poles and trees. Encouraged by his secret police chief, Beria, Stalin finally ordered the Tatars to be deported. On the night of 18 May 1944, the NKVD rounded up more than 200,000 Tatars, including invalids, the elderly, children, women and even those who had fought for the Red Army and the partisans. Given only a few minutes’ notice, they were transported in wooden cattle cars east to the Urals, Siberia and Central Asia. The transports took weeks, and many died along the way of hunger, thirst, suffocation or disease. During stops the dead were thrown off the trains, their bodies left beside the railway tracks.

The Tatars who ended up in Germany at the end of the war – whether recruits or prisoners – did little better. In accordance with the Yalta agreement, British and American soldiers handed them over to Stalin along with other Soviet citizens caught in the Reich. Some of those being repatriated committed suicide: many jumped from moving trains. Of those who did return, many were charged with treason, then shot or sent to gulags. ‘All during 1945 and 1946 a big wave of genuine, at-long-last, enemies of the Soviet government flowed into the Archipelago,’ Solzhenitsyn later wrote, recalling the ‘Muslims from the national units created under Hitler’. Although Moscow officially pardoned the Tatars in 1967, a return to their homeland was out of the question. Those who had survived the war, repatriation and deportation east only began to travel back to Crimea – by then part of Ukraine – in the 1980s, as the Soviet Union began to falter. After the end of the Cold War, Ukraine gave the Tatars a previously unknown freedom. It is that freedom that is now at risk.

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