Headlines across the globe on March 2 announced that Vladimir Putin's Russia had invaded the Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, a region dominated by ethnic Russians that juts southward into the Black Sea. This is Moscow's greatest act of international aggression since it (under Soviet leadership) invaded Afghanistan on December 25, 1979. We'll see how this latest provocation compares to that blunder, which cost the Soviets 14,000 soldiers' lives and ultimately spawned Al Qaeda and the US invasion of the Afghan "Graveyard of Empires."
As in Afghanistan of the 1980s, there is a Muslim component to the Crimea that few outsiders are aware of. As it transpires, the indigenous population of the Crimea is not Russian, but Crimean Tatar (11-12 percent of the population). The Crimean Tatars are an ancient ethnic group whose roots in the peninsula go back to the Middle Ages. In ancient times Germanic Goths, Greeks, Italians and pagan Turkish nomads settled in the Crimea. These various groups were then all conquered by the Mongol armies of Genghis Khan's son Batu in the early 1200s. Over time these various groups amalgamated with the pagan Mongols, converted to a mystical frontier version of Islam known as Sufism, and became known as Tatars.
For hundreds of years the indomitable Tatar horsemen ruled the southern Ukraine (a land whose name means "Frontier" with the Tatar nomads). Their fierce riders kept the Slavic Russians off the open plains of southern Ukraine, which had been dominated by nomads since time immemorial. Long after the Mongols had been forgotten in other parts of the world, the Tatar riders continued their ancient ways.
Then, in 1783, the Crimean state known as the Crimean Khanate was conquered by Catherine the Great's imperial Russia. The Crimean Tatars were horribly repressed by the Russians who confiscated their land in the sunny, coastal south. They also destroyed their mosques and sent Cossack troops to attack them during time of war. To escape the Russians, hundreds of thousands of Tatars fled to the Muslim Ottoman Empire following the Crimea War. Through the process of mass emigration, this people became a minority in their Russian-dominated homeland.
But worse was to come. Under the subsequent Communist regime, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin brutally deported this entire race to the deserts of Central Asia in 1944 under false charges of having collaborated with the Nazi invaders of the USSR. One third of the Crimean Tatars died in this act of genocide which saw this ancient race with a rich folk culture scattered across Uzbekistan and other republics. For almost fifty years the survivors and their descendants languished in exile working as a race of despised helot workers. It seemed as if Europe's last Mongols were destined to disappear from the pages of history.
Then the unexpected happened. First the Gorbachev political thaw when the false charges of collective treason were lifted, then the collapse of the totalitarian Soviet state in 1991. With the collapse of the Soviet Union the banished Tatar exiles organized themselves and began a messianic return migration to their cherished Black Sea homeland in the Crimea.
It was with the goal of experiencing this historic event that I traveled to Uzbekistan in 1997 to live with exiled Crimean Tatar families who were packing up and planning to return to the Crimea after half a century of exile. Against the odds, the Crimean Tatars had maintained their collective identity and links to their cherished motherland during the long exile years. The new generations born in exile were taught that the Crimean Peninsula, the "Green Isle," was their home, not the deserts of Central Asia. Now they were returning to their cherished "Zion" on the Black Sea.
Later in that year, I traveled to the Crimea itself to witness the return of this exiled nation of half a million Tatars (ultimately only 250,000 Crimean Tatars made it to the Crimea). It was an occasion that was both joyous and tragic as Crimean Tatars (especially the elderly who had childhood memories of this land that had been forbidden to them for half a century) wept and fell on the soil of their beloved homeland, but were forbidden from returning to their ancient stone houses which had been occupied by Christian Russians in their absence.
As it turns out, the Soviet government had flooded the Crimea with Russian settlers after the Tatars had been exiled and these new inhabitants strongly resisted the return of the peninsula's native inhabitants. To compound matters, all the ancient Tatar place names had been given Russian names in their absence, ancient Tatar mosques and cemeteries had been bulldozed, and most signs of the peninsula's indigenous habitants had been eradicated.
I myself lived in a simple samozakhvat (self-seized) settlement with a wonderful Crimean Tatar family known as the Shevkievs who had returned from Uzbekistan. I still recall the joy of eating mouth-watering chiborek pastries, hearing ancient folk songs of the Crimean mountains, and being welcomed with open arms by this impoverished, but resilient people.
Conditions in our settlement outside the Crimean capital of Simferopol were primitive. Many of the returning Crimean Tatars had built simple stone houses on patches of land where there was no running water or roads or electricity. Jobs were scarce, anti-Tatar/anti-Muslim discrimination among the local Russian population was rampant, and many returnees found that they were in a worse predicament than they had been in exile in Uzbekistan. But the sorrow that came with these setbacks was tempered by the fact that exiles were once again in their beloved Vatan (Homeland).
And what a homeland it was. I have spent time in the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Georgia, Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan and I must say the Crimea truly was the most beautiful land I visited in the former Soviet sphere. The Crimean had beautiful beaches, forested mountains, and a warm climate compared to the rest of the Soviet Union. It had previously been an All Soviet Union tourist resort and known as the "Gem of the USSR." In 1954 it was transferred in a (at the time!) purely symbolic internal gesture from the Russian Soviet Federation to the Ukrainian Soviet Republic, but over 60 percent of its inhabitants were still Russians.
But not all was beautiful in the Crimea. While in the peninsula, I saw constant signs of Russian discrimination against the native Tatars. Russian hooligans had sprayed swastikas on newly constructed mosques (built to replace the ancient ones bulldozed by the Soviets during the exile) and destroyed their newly built grave sites. But the Crimean Tatars felt hopeful at that time the Ukrainian government would protect them from the peninsula's Russian majority which saw the Crimean Tatars, who are actually quite moderate, secular and Sovietized, as a long banished Mongol Muslim "jihadi" threat to their beloved Crimean home.
With the headlines speaking of a Russian invasion of the Crimea, I fear for the ancient Tatars who warmly welcomed me to their communities and hope they don't find themselves again facing repression at the hands of their historic oppressors, the Russians. One hopes that this long suffering people, Europe's last vestiges of the ancient Mongols, will not undergo further repression at the hands of the Moscow-based state that brought them close to extinction in the Tsarist and the Soviet eras.
For photos from Dr. Williams' travels among the Crimean Tatars see here.
Professor Brian Glyn Williams is author of The Crimean Tatars. The Diaspora Experience and the Forging of a Nation (2001), The Last Warlord. The Life and Legend of Dostum, the Afghan Warrior who Led US Special Forces to Topple the Taliban Regime (2013), Predators. The CIA's Drone War on Al Qaeda (2013),and Afghanistan Declassified. A Guide to America's Longest War.