Muslim Tatars Say Our Loyalty is With Ukrainians, Not Russians: Gunmen Carry Sign “Crimea is Russia”

A reader and commenter asked where the Tatar Muslims stood in the Ukraine-Russian conflict underway today, and since I didn’t know, I went searching. It’s an interesting question about a segment of the world I’m not especially familiar with. Here’s what I found:

Ukraine, Looking at Kyiv (Kiev) across the Dnieper River Bridge (courtesy of CIA Factbook)

Ukraine, Looking at Kyiv (Kiev) across the Dnieper River Bridge (courtesy of CIA Factbook)

World Bulletin reported that a Tatar leader named Refat Chubarov, who appeared at the rally in Simferopol to appeal for calm, was drowned out by the pro-Russian crowd. “We have a long memory of what the Russians did to us Tatars,” Chubarov, who is president of the Crimean Tatar National Assembly, told Reuters. “We are now a minority in our own homeland because of them … We have fought alongside the Ukrainians more often than against them — our loyalty is with them.” Source: IBtimes

NEWS FLASH: A report out todays says that “gunmen wearing unmarked camouflage uniforms erected a sign reading “Crimea is Russia” in the provincial capital….” “Fighter jets screamed above the border….”

Ukraine is largely irreligious, but the largest section of organized religion is Eastern Orthodox Catholic, or Orthodox Catholic Church. According to the CIA World Factbook, 2001 census, the population of Ukraine is:

Ukrainian 77.8%, Russian 17.3%, Belarusian 0.6%, Moldovan 0.5%, Crimean Tatar 0.5%, Bulgarian 0.4%, Hungarian 0.3%, Romanian 0.3%, Polish 0.3%, Jewish 0.2%, other 1.8%.

According to this source, as of 2012, 500,000 Muslims live in Ukraine, 300,000 of them are Crimean Tatars.

The population of the Ukraine as of July 2013 is 44.6 million. The capital is Kyiv (Kiev), pronounced KAY-yiv (according to the CIA World Factbook). There are 24 provinces. Ukraine gained independence from the Soviet Union in August 1991. The CIA Factbook has not been updated since the February 2014 ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych, who took the office in January 2010.



Crimea is a peninsula of Ukraine on the northern coast of the Black Sea. The area has been conquered many times, the most recent transitions:

During the civil war that broke out in the wake of the 1917 Russian Revolution, Crimea was the scene of brutal fighting between Tsarist, Bolshevik and anarchist forces.  Following the Bolshevik victory, Crimea was made part of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR).

In 1944, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin deported the entire Crimean Tatar population to Central Asia and other parts of the Soviet Union for their alleged collaboration with the Nazis.

In 1954, the Soviet Union, now under the leadership of Nikita Khrushchev, transferred Crimea from the RSFSR to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.

After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Crimea became part of independent Ukraine, and Moscow and Kyiv agreed to divide up the former Soviet Black Sea Fleet.  Crimea’s port city of Sevastopol remains the base for Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.

Ethnic Russians account for 58 percent of Crimea’s population, while Ukrainians make up 24 percent.  Crimean Tatars, who began returning to the peninsula from exile after the fall of the Soviet Union, comprise 12 percent of its population. Source: Voice of America

A Russian poll shows that a majority of Russians (a State poll) saw Crimea as belonging to Russia:

Smaller numbers of those polled said they felt the same way about two of Russia’s Muslim regions – Dagestan (41 percent) and Chechnya (39 percent). (Source – See VOA link above)

The Tatars in Crimea are Sunni Muslims, speaking Crimean Tatar, Russian, Turkish and Ukrainian, and are considered “Descendants of the Golden Horde:”

The Crimean Tatars, as their neighbors dubbed them, had converted to Islam in the 1300s. In 1475, the Crimean Khanate became a protectorate of the Ottoman Empire, while itself still clinging to power over the expansionist (and virulently anti-Tatar) Duchy of Muscovy.  However, in 1480, the Muscovites threw off the “Tatar Yoke,” and began the unification of Russia under Slavic rulers.  By 1503, those rulers would declare Russia the Third Roman Empire, and take the title of tsar or Caesar…

World War I changed everything for the Crimean Tatars.  The Russian Empire fell to communist revolutionaries in 1917, and after centuries of decline, the Ottoman Empire fell just a few years later in 1922.  In the turmoil, the Tatars proclaimed the creation of a secular, democratic state called the Crimean People’s Republic on December 26, 1917.  After just one month, however, the Bolsheviks conquered the Crimean Peninsula and summarily executed the President of Crimea, Noman Celebicihan.

The Ukrainians immediately counter-attacked, seizing the Crimean Peninsula from the Soviets in the Ukrainian-Soviet War of 1917-22.  After years of bitter fighting, the Bolsheviks defeated the Ukrainians.  Ukraine, including the Crimean Peninsula, became the Soviet-dominated Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, one of the original states of the USSR.

Under the Soviets, the Tatars were a persecuted minority.  As many as half of the Crimean Tatars were either killed or deported to the gulag by the state between 1917 and 1933.  Nonetheless, when World War II broke out in 1939, an estimated 20,000 Crimean Tatar men joined the Red Army, out of a total surviving population of 218,000.

As with other oppressed minorities in the Soviet Union such as the Cossacks and Chechens, some Crimean Tatars joined the Nazi invasion force in 1941.  An estimated 6,000 to 7,000 Tatars fought for the Nazis over the course of the war.

Based more upon deep-seated traditional hatred of the Mongols than anything else, after the Soviets cleared the Nazis from Ukraine, Joseph Stalin accused the Tatars as an entire people of collaborating with the Germans.  He officially charged the entire ethnic group with treason against the USSR, and ordered the deportation of all surviving Crimean Tatars to Central Asia on May 18, 1944.  Families were given 30 minutes to gather their belongings, then NKVD troops herded them at bayonet point onto cattle-cars.

In the wink of an eye, about 195,000 Crimean Tatars were rounded up and deported, including eight Red Army veterans who were recipients of the “Hero of the Soviet Union” medal for bravery. The trip took three weeks, and the authorities only opened the train car doors every few days toremove the bodies of those who died along the way.

The largest group, approximately two-thirds of the Tatars, were sent to Uzbekistan.  Others ended up in Russian gulags or in Kazakhstan.  Local authorities were not notified that the deportees were coming, so had no food or housing prepared for them.  Homeless and starving in a harsh environment, about 46% of the deportees died of malnutrition or disease.

After Stalin’s death in 1953, his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, rehabilitated most of the deported ethnic groups, including the Chechens and Ingush, and allowed them to return to their homelands.  The Tatars, however, were not pardoned until 1967, and could not return to the Crimean Peninsula until after the Soviet Union began to totter in 1989 – 1991.  Today, they are concentrated in the less-desirable areas of Crimea; ethnic Ukrainians and Russians dominate the prime Black Sea coast lands.

Crimean Tatars call their deportation the Surgunlik, and consider it both ethnic cleansing and genocide.  At present, about 250,000 Tatars live in the Crimea, now part of independent Ukraine, but 270,000 are still in exile in Uzbekistan and other former Soviet republics. Source: Asian History @, read more here.

The Russian Republic of Tatarstan and Chechnya are competing for the honor of being the “Muslim center” of Russia. Tatarstan was home to the once-largest mosque in Europe and was led by Russia’s most powerful Muslim regional leader. Then the Kremlin appointed Ramzan Kadyrov as Chechen president in 2007. Kadyrov “has aggressively sought to present Chechnya as Russia’s new and up-and-coming Muslim region.”

Although he and his feared militia are widely accused of abductions and torture, Kadyrov also enjoys a measure of popularity at home for overseeing a massive reconstruction campaign following two devastating wars. Read More 

Jamestown Foundation Blog: Traditional Islam Does Not Mean What Moscow Thinks It Does (read more):

Under Vladimir Putin, the Russian government, the Russian Orthodox Church, and most leaders of Russia’s Muslim community have said that “traditional Islam” must be the dominant form of the Islamic faith in the Russian Federation. Although few define it, an examination of their statements makes clear that what the advocates of this kind of Islam have in mind mostly resembles what existed in Soviet times: an Islam largely confined to the mosque and to rituals and one that plays only the smallest role in public life.
But now Ildar Bayazitov, a mullah in Tatarstan, has taken up the challenge of using that term but giving it a very different meaning than the one many in Moscow would like. Writing in “Tatar Zamany” last week, Bayazitov notes that “traditional Islam” is today “one of the most discussed terms” among Russia’s Muslims, many of whom consider it to be some kind of “innovation”—one of the most damning words in the Islamic vocabulary.
According to the Tatar mullah, “traditional Islam is Prophetic Islam,” and the term itself had to be introduced in Russia relatively recently because there have appeared so many “sects and pseudo-Islamic doctrines” which have sought to use Sunni Islam for their own purposes. It does not mean “ethnic Islam”; indeed, that combination of words should not be used. Moreover, he says, “traditional Islam is scientific and enlightened Islam,” always contemporary and always involved with the most advanced educational and scientific work.
It is thus “a stimulus for development.” And “traditional Islam is social Islam,” invariably involved in the public sphere. “As never before,” Bayazitov writes, “social work has great importance,” including charity work, “the resolution of social problems, and the social integration of Muslims in the societies where they live.”
“It is obvious,” he continues, “that Muslims also must make a significant contribution to the resolution of social problems that have arisen in the country. For that reason too, social service is the obligation of each Muslim, from the ordinary member of a congregation to the imams and members of the ulema.”
Ukraine is bankrupt, hoping for a $35 Billion bailout from the EU and the U.S.

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  • nbamron

    First of all, Stalin was a Georgian, named Dzugashvili, not a Russian — he sent more Russians to their death than any czar before him. The Tatars were sent far from their roots because Stalin and his advisors decided that it was wise to prevent separatist tendencies by planting all areas with the seeds of racial discord — that way if one group got uppity, the Central Authorities could unleash the other ones to retaliate. It really is very simple and you see it at work in the US, this turning of sub-groups against one another.

    • nbamron, I knew nothing about the Tatars except that they were a Muslim population. When Kado asked his question, I was fascinated by what I found. The Tatars were treated egregiously. Do you know if they exhibited the behavior we find all too threatening from Muslims today, or was it just another ethnic cleansing? Do you see anything in this article that is not factual or needs revising.

  • Kado

    Gosh Maggie,what can I say but thank you for all this work you have put in to enlighten us.

    • Kado, I would have given you a h/t but didn’t know if you wanted that. Some readers do, some do not, but you asked a great question. Also, nbamron who also commented here on this story is a former diplomat and served time in Russia. She knows the background. Her blog is

  • GoneWithTheWind

    You can bet money that right now the Russians are making lists of names of the protesters for later “disappearing”. The Ukraine is about to undergo a purge. Putin is smart, he is implementing a slow invasion which will continue until the country is fully controlled. They are already looking for suitable remote sites for mass executions and burials. In six months to a year we will be reading stories from widows and mothers about missing husbands, fathers and children. They will have mysteriously disappeared in the night with no evidence to what happened. How many? Enough to send a strong message and break the back of the resistance. Here is what they should have done (and maybe did). They should have raided the police and military weapons stores and armed the resistance. They should have understood going into this that it was always going to end like this. They should have sought anti-tank and anti-air weapons. They should have prepared sniper nests and secured the highland. They should have done this from day one. Could they beat Russia’s military might? No. But they could have made Russia pay a price and make the coming occupation a living hell for Russia. For failure to do this Russia will make it a living hell for them.

  • nbamron

    I’m sure they were mistreated, but no worse than anybody else under communism. And of course the Russians felt the yoke for hundreds of years, so probably hard feelings on their part, as well. The Tatars have claimed part of Georgia, as well as wanting parts of Russia; I guess they think their claims will be better received in the EU Nanny State than in Russian-dominated Ukraine.

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