The September 2023 appointment of Rustem Umerov as Ukraine’s defense minister was well received at home and abroad.
Noted for his youth and corruption-free record, the 41-year-old has been a top negotiator in talks with Russia. But what has drawn the most notice is Umerov’s ethnic background as a Crimean Tatar, representing an often-overlooked part of Ukraine’s Indigenous history.
Crimea has a long history of human habitation, having been settled by the Tauri and Scythian people before becoming a Greek and later Roman colony.
During the medieval period, the peninsula saw rule by the Khazar Empire, Byzantium, the Kyivan Rus, and the Republic of Genoa, as well as invasions and settlements by Goths, Huns, Bulgars, Jews, Turks, Armenians, and more. With the arrival of the Mongol Golden Horde and the adoption of Islam in the 14th century, most of these diverse populations assimilated to the Turkic-speaking Cuman-Kipchak majority, forming the Crimean Tatar identity.
By the 15th century, the Tatars had cast off Mongol rule and allied with the Ottoman Empire.
Palaces and ports
The quasi-independent Crimean Khanate was one of the most powerful and wealthy states in Eastern Europe, with splendid palaces and thriving port cities. But much of the Khanate’s wealth was built on supplying slaves to the markets of the Middle East, and their periodic raids to take captives led to conflict with the neighboring Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and Russian Empire.
It was amidst these clashes that the Cossacks, an early incarnation of the Ukrainian state, would form in the contested territories, at times fighting against the Tatars and at times allying with them against the other powers. However, with the gradual decline of the Ottoman Empire in the 18th century and Russia’s victory in the Russo-Turkish War, the Khanate was left unprotected. In 1783, Catherine II annexed the entire peninsula as the Taurida Oblast of the Russian Empire, violating Russia’s treaty guaranteeing Crimean independence.
Russian rule was not kind to the Tatars. The tsarist governments considered them a disloyal population, and over the next century, each new war in the region brought fresh waves of persecution.
Hundreds of thousands of Tatars were expelled or pressured to leave, with their lands confiscated and Russians resettled in their stead, while Tatar language and culture were suppressed. Nevertheless, at the end of the nineteenth century, Tatars still made up over one-third of Crimea’s population and had begun to form a national movement like many others in Europe.
Starvation, deportation, and violence
Amidst the Russian Empire’s collapse in World War I, the Crimean People’s Republic — the first democratic republic in the Muslim world — was proclaimed in December 1917 and recognized by the Central Rada of the Ukrainian People’s Republic before both ultimately fell to the Bolshevik army.
In Crimea’s first decade of Soviet rule as an autonomous republic within Russia, Tatars faced starvation, deportation, and violence along with Ukrainians and other populations, as the famines of the early 1920s were followed by man-made famines resulting from Stalin’s forced collectivization.
When Nazi Germany invaded the peninsula in 1941, thousands of Tatars were killed, displaced, or sent to prison camps. But their worst ordeal was yet to come. By holding out the promise of liberation from Soviet rule, the German occupiers managed to recruit a minority of Tatar collaborators into volunteer battalions, as they had done with many other nationalities — including Russians themselves. Most Tatars had resisted the Nazis and many had fought alongside the partisans and the Red Army, with six earning the highest honor of Hero of the Soviet Union.
Stalin declares Tatars traitors
Yet upon the peninsula’s reconquest in 1944, Stalin declared the Tatars traitors and ordered the entire population deported — a national trauma known in the Tatar language as the Sürgün, or exile.
Within 10 days of the order, virtually every Tatar was loaded onto overcrowded, unsanitary cattle trains and transported to remote regions of Uzbekistan and Russia. Of the over 191,000 deported, nearly 8,000 died in transit. Survivors faced not only deadly working conditions with little food or medical care, but were categorized as “special settlers,” prohibited from leaving their place of deportation.
Crimea was stripped of its autonomous status and subject to mass resettlement by Russians, who moved into the Tatars’ abandoned homes.
Although their “special settler” status was lifted after Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev’s repudiation of Stalin in 1956, the deportees still could not return to the peninsula, which was by then transferred to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.
Unlike other deported populations, the Crimean Tatar identity had been officially erased and its people grouped with the Central Asian Tatars whose homeland was Russia’s region of Tatarstan. Those who did return to Crimea found it difficult to obtain residency permits or find housing.
It was only after the rise of an organized Crimean Tatar movement and several high-profile self-immolations protesting the ongoing injustice that the Soviet government officially allowed the Crimean Tatars’ return in 1989, shortly before its collapse.
By 1991, about 150,000 Tatars had come home. Over the decades, the Tatar movement had forged strong links with other dissidents and national movements and, given their history under Russian rule, overwhelmingly decided their future lies with Ukraine.
When Crimea voted with the rest of Ukraine’s regions in the 1991 independence referendum, the Tatar vote was instrumental in attaining a narrow pro-independence majority. More Crimean Tatars returned over the next two decades, raising the population to more than a quarter million. And though they faced bureaucratic obstacles, discrimination by Russian-speaking locals, and government dysfunction, they began to rebuild their communities and institutions like the Mejlis council, officially recognized by the Ukranian government as the Crimean Tatars’ representative body in 1999.
Russian occupation stops progress
Russia’s illegal annexation in 2014 has put a sharp brake on this cultural revival. Under the occupation, the Mejlis has been outlawed, mosques and schools have been shuttered, and public gatherings are banned.
Tatar citizens face arbitrary detention, surveillance, and killing at the hands of Russian authorities, as well as conscription into the Russian armed forces. Thousands have fled to unoccupied parts of Ukraine. In 2014, the Ukrainian Parliament recognized Crimean Tatars as an Indigenous people of Crimea commemorates the Sürgün as a genocide.
Thousands have fled to unoccupied parts of Ukraine, whose government now recognizes the Tatars’ Indigenous status and commemorates the Sürgün as a genocide.
And while the majority of Crimean Tatars remain in the occupied peninsula where their culture is suppressed, the presence of two national minorities among Ukraine’s top military leadership is a reminder of the diverse heritage now threatened by Russia’s unprovoked invasion.