The Tatar Muslims
in Eastern Europe and their ethnic
cleansing under Joseph Stalin
by James Mayfield (Chairman, European Heritage Library)
this Article • About
the Author • Bibliography/Sources
This essay focuses on
the cultural, political, and demographic experiences of the
Tatar Muslim population in Russia and the Soviet Union, ending
with their almost complete destruction through forced migration
under the order of Joseph Stalin and Lavrentij Beria. For
collaborating with the Nazis -- as was the charge -- virtually
the entire ethnic group of the Crimean Tatars had to be forced
on trains to Siberia, during which as many as 50% of the entire
race died. This strategy was also applied by the Soviets towards
the German families in the East.
under Russian rule and the coalescence of a Tatar Muslim identity
under Communist Soviet rule
In the 18th century, Russia's
"Europeanization" process of Peter the Great allowed
the ethnic German Catherine the Great to seize power. In part
to propitiate her constant struggle against the Russian elite
for not being a Slav, Catherine promoted a system of superficial
ethnic and religious autonomy. As a result, the Tatar minority
enjoyed remarkable cultural autonomy as Turkic Muslims until
the fall of the Russian Empire in 1917. This was largely done
because of the little threat or influence the remote Tatars
could wield. She even funded the construction of a mosque
and a Madrasa school in the main Tatar center, Kazan
(in today's Tatarstan province in Russia). The Orthodox
Bible was printed in Tatar in 1803, and also the Qur'an .
The Tatar Muslim minority survived in the Crimea (although
displaced by settlement by ethnic Slav nobles), Kazan, and
the new province of Azerbaijan. During the 19th century, Tatar
nationalists like İsmail Gaspıralı promoted a pan-Turkic,
pan-Muslim consciousness throughout the Russian Empire called
the Jadid movement. Tatars Jadids asserted the formation of
a unified Tatar Muslim identity and Tatar language through
newspapers like Tercüman that called for modernization
A map of the Russian empire by 1880, after the conquest of
the Crimea. (click to enlarge)
This process of Tatar national
awakening continued during the Russian Revolutionary crisis.
When the Russian Empire collapsed due to the Bolshevik Revolution
in 1917, the Tatars anxiously broke from Russian control.
Tatar and Turkic nationalists like the Basmachi used brutal
violence to expel Slavs from their lands. The Tatars of Tatarstan
(Kazan) declared an independent republic. The Crimean
Tatars, soon to be the victim of genocide, declared
the Crimean People's Republic which established
Islam and Tatar nationalism in southeast Ukraine.
All of these independent
Tatar Muslim nationalist states were again crushed by the
invading Communist Red Army by 1920, including Kazan/Tatarstan,
the Crimean Tatars, Khiva, and Buqara. Ever practical, the
Tatars hoped that they could combine their Islamic faith with
their new Communist dominators. Prominent statesman Hanafi
Muzaffar of the Volga Tatars said, "Muslim people will
unite themselves to Communism: like Communism, Islam rejects
narrow nationalism" . Others like Sultan Galiyev
promoted so-called Islamic Marxism. All of these hopes were
fanciful. Despite initial auspicious All-Russia Muslim Congresses,
Islam was effectively abolished, almost all mosques were eventually
destroyed, and major loyal Islamic Communists like Galiyev
were executed by the Communists in the name of the collective.
The Crimean Tatars lost their
religion and their sovereignty, absorbed into the Ukrainian
SSR. The independence of the Tatars of Kazan (Tatarstan) was
destroyed and the Red Army formed the Tatar Autonomous
Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR). The forced abolition
of the Tatars' religion and their long-sought autonomy was
a major problem that would cause many Tatars to actively join
the anti-Communist White Army and the invading Nazi killing
squads against Jews and Communists during the war . Nonetheless,
the Tatars of the Tatarstan ASSR were given significant cultural
and ethnic autonomy (as all other minorities) so long as they
did not conflict with Stalin's dictate, in which case they
were purged and often executed.
Like the Chechens, Kazakhs,
and Ukrainians, the Tatars suffered tremendously as a result
of Soviet rule. Some 30-40,000 Tatars were forced from their
homes to work on collective farms during the collectivization
campaigns of the 1930's by Stalin, and about half
the Tatar population was completely gone by the time
the Germans arrived .
The exclusive EHL map charting the USSR and modern Russia's
autonomous republics. Tatarstan is in the center-west. (CLICK
The flag of the shattered
Crimean People's Republic after it was destroyed by the Red
Army (from flagspot.net)
Soviet genocide of the Tatars and their forced expulsion to
Any autonomy that the Tatar
minority of the Crimea and Tatarstan (Kazan) enjoyed was lost
as a result of World War II. When the Germans, Romanians,
and Hungarians invaded the Soviet Union after 1941, they found
huge segments of Soviet minorities like the Muslim Tatars,
Chechens, Dagestanis, Latvians, Lithuanians, Estonians, and
Ukrainians actively joining the Nazis against the Soviets.
Some were, like the Bosnian Muslims, inspired by the Grand
Mufti of Jerusalem Amin
al-Husayni in Islamic jihad against Jews and atheistic
Communists. Most Tatars, however, have not been proven to
have supported the invading Axis armies. Most Tatars lived
in the Tatarstan SSR, which was never even taken by the Germans
in the war.
But Joseph Stalin and Lavrentij
Beria implicated the Tatars as being a potentially perfidious
threat to the Soviet Union. The Crimean Tatar sect were the
worst victim of the Tatars. What ensued were several of the
worst -- and yet bizarrely unheard of -- genocides of the
20th century. Along with 800,000
ethnic German civilians and nearly half of the Chechens,
Ingush, Kalmyk, and Koreans, almost the entire Tatar Turkic
race was expelled from Russia to the distant wastelands of
Central Asia and Siberia for forced labor. More than 11,000,000
ethnic German civilians were expelled from Poland, Hungary,
and Czechoslovakia. The entire Crimean Tatar population was
expelled and resettled by Ukrainian Slavs encouraged by government
subsidy. Tatars were shipped en masse on train rides lasting
weeks with no heat, food, or waste disposal to forced labor
camps in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, with about 46% of Tatars
and ethnic Germans dying on the way . About a total of
190,000 Crimean Tatars alone were sent to Central Asia .
Many Tatars remained in Tatarstan after a thorough purging,
but the remaining Tatar culture that was disparately settled
throughout the Russian SFSR was forever dismantled.
After Stalin's death in 1953,
the "de-Stalization" reforms of Nikita Khrushchev
lifted the measures of forced labor that were imposed on resettled
minorities like the Chechens, Volga Germans, and Koreans.
The Tatars, however, were disallowed to return to
the Crimea until 1988. As there is no certain documentation,
the pervading theory for this delay is because of the significant
role that the Crimea played in the Ukrainian SSR's economics,
which were in part supported by the ethnic Ukrainian Khrushchev's
authority. After 1968, Some Soviet human rights groups increasingly
campaigned for the return of Tatars to their homelands. A
massive street riot in the Uzbek SSR by Tatars was met with
arrests and gunshots. It was only in 1988 with the liberalization
of Gorbachev's Perestroika that the Crimean Tatars, now almost
entirely extinct, were allowed to return to Ukraine.
Today, Tatarstan (still a
legal province of Russia) has a slight ethnic Tatar Muslim
majority. Most Crimean Tatars, ironically, live in Uzbekistan
(1.5% of the population) and Kazakhstan (1.7%) . About
50,000 Tatars have returned to the Crimea since the 1990's
. Most are reluctant to leave due to the tremendous cost
and uncertainty, and the inter-ethnic hostility they would
receive in ultra-homogeneous Slavic Ukraine versus Turkic
Central Asia (where their languages are inter-communicable).
The Crimea is the southernmost
tip of Ukraine on the Black Sea (from mytravelguide.com) (click
Crimea today, land of the disappeared Tatars (with my photos)
(See my gallery
of Yalta, Crimea, Ukraine for the Tsar's Palace of the
Yalta Conference and more)
Today, Ukraine is now one
of the most homogeneous countries of Europe, with an almost
universally Slavic genetic stock. Mosques long destroyed by
Communist rule have been replaced by resplendent Orthodox
cathedrals (shown below). There are hardly any non-Slavs,
Turks, or Muslims. Ukraine is officially only 0.5% ethnic
Crimean Tatar . The Crimea itself is officially 11.4%
ethnic Tatar . They have their own propitiatory representative
body in the Ukrainian political structure. The Turkic Muslim
population is quickly growing due to immigration from Turkey
and repatriation from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in addition
to the huge birthrate of Muslims
over the native Ukrainians. They are sedulously encouraging
the construction of new mosques, new measures for academic
commemoration for the genocide of the Tatars, and the encouragement
for government support to foster or subsdize Tatar immigration.
Hookah (waterpipe) bars and Turkish food restaurants can be
seen popping up with Turkic owners. Despite the Tatars' auspicious
hopes for an increased repopulation of the area and the achievement
of autonomy or independence for their tiny minority, there
is growing inter-racial hatred between the overwhelming Slavic
majority and the incoming Tatar Muslim minority. From a few
interviews and observations I gained of the interaction between
Ukrainians and the few Turkic people I saw, there was a strong
sense of antipathy for this incoming population. They greatly
derided the "flooding" of their city by what they
portrayed as illiterate, unemployed, and Muslims who (in their
words) expect tremendous economic, social, and political leniency
and taxpayer support for the crimes of Stalin -- even though
Ukrainians were not involved and suffered famine under Stalin
themselves. The Ukrainians insist (perhaps correctly) that
the suffering of the Tatars is completely insignificant compared
with the Holodomor famines caused by Stalin against
the Ukrainians, causing some of the highest death tolls of
the 20th century that many Russians refuse to acknowledge
even happened. Two Ukrainians I interviewed intimated the
same notion, "why should we support the Muslims when
the Russians don't even compensate us for Holodomor?"
Street violence between gangs and even citizens has escalated
recently from the context of a growing inter-ethnic antipathy
in Europe for Muslim immigrants (see our Muslims
in Europe map). Russia and Ukraine have exploding far-right
and racialist populations that have even entered the governments.
There is widespread grafitti that included Swastikas everywhere
and said "F*CK JEWS" and "F*CK MUSLIMS."
Some Tatar groups were described by the local government as
being sponsored by foreign Wahhabi groups seeking to proliferate
Islam in this newly-settled Turkic Muslim population .
Arab extremist groups like the Hizb-i-Tehrir, emphasizing
a supposedly concentrated Christian persecution of Tatar Muslims
by the very un-Christian Communists, have caused clashes with
the semi-autonomous Tatar government. Even assassinations
of journalists and death threats against Russian nationalists
and reconciliatory Tatar officials have occurred. The Tatar
government (the Mejliler) has responded with a very
acquiescent policy in hopes of gaining a respected sociopolitical
standing. However, as immigrants from a very foreign and disliked
Muslim culture barrage into this incredibly homogeneous and
nationalistic country with an exploding population of far-right
racialists, the Crimean Tatars' hopes for a reversal of their
history of persecution and an integration into Ukraine seem
to have many obstacles ahead. The Crimean Tatars are hoping
to reclaim a Crimea that has now become thoroughly Russian
and Ukrainian over the course of the twentieth century.
My photo of a majestic Orthodox Ukrainian cathedral. By no
means are Ukraine and the Crimea Islamic as they were before
the Slavic conquest. (click to enlarge)
My photo of a close-up of the above Orthodox conservative
cathedral. (click to enlarge)
My photo of a Tatar huqqah bar for tobacco, brought by the
Tatar and Turkish immigrants.
My photo of a magnificent Christian Slavic palace for Russia's
heroic general against Napoleon and the Caucasian Jihad near
Chechnya. Here the Iranian Shi'ia style is shown in the backside
of the palace.
My photo of one of Ukraine's last standing statues of Lenin.
The text at the base means "Lenin" in the Ukrainian
James Mayfield is a historian
and the Chairman of the European Heritage Library. I have
a Cum Laude BA in History with a Minor in Germanic Studies
(language and history), am presently working for my Masters
in History, and plan to immediately progress to my PhD Doctorate.
I have a special academic interest in Europe's diverse ethnic
identities, languages, and cultures, and the political struggles
of native European and immigrant minority identities. See
my staff entry for more information.
-Images that lack an EHL
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your property has been used, feel free to notify us.
-Personal photos, interviews,
and observations in the Crimea in Ukraine
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