Crimea´s Tatars: Caught in the Crossfire

March 27, 2014

The Tatars, a minority ethnic group in Crimea, face an uncertain future now that Russia has annexed the peninsula. Russia gave Crimea to Ukraine in 1954.

Will history repeat itself?

That´s the fear of the Tatars, the Turkic ethnic group who may have the most to lose following Russia´s official annexation of Crimea last week.

The majority of Crimea´s inhabitants are pro-Russian, as was reflected in the outcome of the March 16 referendum in which 97 percent of those who cast ballots voted to break away from Ukraine and join the Russian Federation. Five days later Russian President Vladimir Putin signed the measure into law.

The Tatars, who make up a mere 12 percent of the population, have been ill at ease ever since Russia stepped up military presence in the peninsula, claiming it was defending Crimea´s ethnic Russian population. Tensions rose further after Ukraine´s pro-Russian president was ousted from power in early March, a move supported by most Tatars who also favor a stronger allegiance with Western Europe.

Distinctive in cultural heritage, religion, and language, the last thing the Crimean Tatars want to do is relive their entangled history with Russia. Fear of repression by Moscow´s government has already prompted hundreds of Tatars to flee the peninsula and relocate in western Ukraine.

Meanwhile Christians in both Ukraine and Russia are steadfastly praying for peace. Ukrainian ministry leaders say they will continue their efforts to share the gospel in Crimea while the door of opportunity is open to them.

A pattern of conquest and persecution

The Tatars are of Turko-Mongol ancestry and consider Crimea to be their homeland. In the 15th through the mid-18th centuries, the Crimean Khanate state was one of the strongest powers in Eastern Europe. Crimea also became one of the cultural centers of Islamic civilization in the region.

Following Russia´s defeat of the Ottomans in the Russo-Turkish War in 1774, the Treaty of Kucuk Kaynarca established Crimea as an independent state. However, Catherine the Great violated the treaty in 1783 by annexing the peninsula and making it Russian territory. Many of the Tatars were killed or exiled to Siberia as Russian colonization spread into Crimea. Waves of emigration from their homeland continued throughout the 19th century as the result of the Crimean War and other conflicts.

Historical drawing depicting Tatar culture.

The Tatars who remained declared Crimea an independent democratic republic when the Russian Empire collapsed during the Bolshevik Revolution. Their sovereignty was short-lived, though, when the peninsula was reorganized as the Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic in 1921.

Communist policies contributed to the starvation of an estimated 100,000 Tatars, while tens of thousands fled to Turkey or Romania. Thousands more were deported or died during the collectivization in the late 1920s. Another shortage of food created more suffering in the early 1930s. Between 1917 and 1933, about half of the Crimean Tatar population died or was forced to leave their homeland.

Other non-Russian ethnic groups were also removed from the area as part of Joseph Stalin’s suppression of minorities. As non-Russians were moved out of Crimea and eastern Ukraine, Stalin imported millions of ethnic Russians into the region.

In May 1944 the entire Tatar population still residing in Crimea—some 200,000 people—were forcibly expelled to Central Asia and the outer reaches of Russia. Such drastic action was viewed as Stalin´s collective punishment of the Tatars for allegedly collaborating with Nazis against the Soviets while Germany occupied Crimea during World War II. More than 40 percent of the cast out Tatars died of malnutrition and disease. Some were re-located to Siberia to provide labor in the gulags.

Even after a Soviet decree removed the charges against the Tatars in 1967, the government did not permit resettlement in Crimea. Only after Perestroika began in the mid-1980s did the Tatars gradually return from exile. Their numbers catapulted from 38,000 in 1989 to nearly 300,000 a dozen years later.

The Crimean Oblast was transferred from Russia to Ukraine in 1954, when Nikita Khrushchev, a native Ukrainian, was the leader of the Soviet Union. When Ukraine gained sovereignty in 1991 following the breakup of the Soviet Union, Crimea once again became a point of contention. The next year Crimea nixed plans for independence and agreed to remain a part of Ukraine.

Based on the 2001 Ukrainian census, 58 percent of Crimea´s population is comprised of ethnic Russians. Now that Crimea has rejoined Russia, the Tatar minority worries that oppression and even deportation could happen again.

About 150,000 Crimean Tatars live in Uzbekistan and other countries in Central Asia. There is a large diaspora also found in Turkey, Romania, Bulgaria, Western Europe, and the Middle East.

Ministry outreach continues despite crisis

Whatever the political outcome, there is a great need to share the love of Jesus Christ among the Tatars. Most are Sunni Muslim, with some vestiges of ancestral spirit worship incorporated into their celebrations.

Sadly, one reason the Tatars have not welcomed Christianity is due to attempts at forced conversion by the Russian Orthodox Church in the 19th century. Mosques were frequently burned. When the oppression ended, many “converts” returned to their Islamic beliefs.

According to Joshua Project, translation of the Bible into the Tatar language began in the 1970s. The New Testament was completed in 2001.

Indigenous missions are seeing a growing openness to Christianity among the Tatars, but many more gospel workers are needed. Christian Aid Mission assists two Ukraine-based ministries that currently have 30 missionaries serving in Crimea.

Last week Christian Aid received an encouraging report from one of these courageous and dedicated missionaries. Oleksandr (name changed) is a husband and father who previously lived in western Ukraine. Despite pleas from their parents, Oleksandr and his wife decided to follow God´s call to serve in Crimea—regardless of the potential dangers.

Christian Aid Mission assists a church-planting ministry that works with the Tatars in Crimea.

“How can I run away when I preach to people living in the Crimea that God is our defense and that He is able to keep us at any time and under any circumstances? What will people think about me? And what will God think?” said Oleksandr.

“When I told this to my wife, she said to me: ‘You are quite right. Nothing is impossible for God. If you remain here in Crimea, our kids and I will stay, too.’”

After praying, Oleksandr and his wife experienced God´s peace in their hearts.

The situation in Crimea is volatile, and much prayer is needed for faithful believers, like Oleksandr, who are committed to taking the message of true peace through Christ to Tatars, Ukrainians, Russians, and other ethnic groups in the region.

“For as the rain comes down, and the snow from heaven, and do not return there, but water the earth, and make it bring forth and bud, that it may give seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth; it shall not return to Me void” (Isaiah 55: 10-11a, NKJV).