Why is there Antagonism between Russian Nationalists and Crimean Tatars?

This text is based on a talk I gave on 6 March 2015 as part of a discussion hosted by Research Turkey on “Ukrainian Crisis and the Atrocities in Crimea: The Never-Ending Persecution of Crimean Tatars”.


Based on the fieldwork I conducted in Crimea in 2012 and 2013, I wanted to offer a historical perspective, or at least a pre-annexation perspective, on why antagonism from Russian nationalists within Crimea might be directed towards Crimean Tatars. Here I argue antagonisms pre-existed in the organisations (such as Russkaia Obshchina Kryma/Russian Community of Crimea [ROC] and Russkoe Edinstvo/Russian Unity [RE]) that were key in facilitating Crimea’s annexation in 2014, given the pre-eminence of key figures within these organisations (most prominently Sergei Aksenov, as head of RE) during and after Crimea’s annexation.

As Liana Fix and I argue, in a report for the German Council on Foreign Relations, Crimea should not be seen as a “fait accompli” or a realist situation to be dealt with by drawing lines in the sand, because there are real concerns about the deteriorating situation for, and heightening repression of Crimean Tatars since Russia’s annexation of the peninsula in 2014. I want, therefore, to reflect on how and why Crimean Tatars might be the object of such repression since 2014.

Speaking to Crimean Tatars pre-annexation

Khan's Palace, Bakhchysarai
Khan’s Palace, Bakhchysarai

During fieldwork, I was able to conduct some interviews also with Crimean Tatars about how their position within Crimea. This was not a comprehensive study, since my focus was primarily on meanings attached to Russian identity, and others have researched Crimean Tatars, far more than me (e.g. Greta Uehling and Andrew Wilson’s OSCE report). However it still provided useful insights into Crimean Tatar perspectives and a fascinating contrasts with the Russian nationalist organisations I was focusing on.

In terms of identification, it was evident from those I interviewed they felt both as Crimean Tatar and as Ukrainian citizens. In fact, they rejected even identifying as Crimean (Krymchanka) on the basis that this was a “Soviet expression” (“sovok”). But those I spoke to retained strong ties to the land, reinforced by their sense of return to Crimea, and their ability to return to the land of “their ancestors” and the land from where their parents had been deported. That is to say, Crimean Tatar identification was strongly linked to the cultural memories, if not experiences, of deportation and return, since all I met had returned to Crimea from Uzbekistan in the preceding years and decades.

What was most striking, and reflecting on events post-2014, was a consensus that the situation, socially, politically and economically, had got better for Crimean Tatars in Crimea and Ukraine. They had already “experienced the worst years” (2012) and no longer subject to the same discrimination, seeing themselves as able to get jobs in peninsula, which previously had been difficult.

Хайтарма (Haytarma)

Хайтарма / Haytarma – The History of a Nation

My 2013 visit to Crimea coincided with the release of the first Crimean Tatar film Хайтарма (Haytarma, which can be watched online in Russian). Travelling to a small village beyond the outskirts of Simferopol to watch it in a Soviet-style Cultural House, I was (probably) the only non-Crimean Tatar person in the room watching the film. By the end I was the only person who left the room not in tears. Of all my memories in Crimea, this remains one of the most poignant.

Haytarma combined the story of deportation alongside the story of a Soviet hero, Amet-Khan Sultan who himself was half Crimean Tatar, and it was this combination that made the film so potent and controversial. Arriving in Simferopol in late May 2012, coinciding with Crimean Tatar protests outside the Russian consul in Simferopol following the order by the Russian Consul, Vladimir Andreev, for his delegation not to attend the premiere because it “distorts the truth about the Great Patriotic War” by failing to “reflect the mass betrayal of the Crimean Tatar people”. Alongside the protests against this rhetoric, and the observation about the potency of the idea of Crimean Tatar collaboration, the Russian Foreign Ministry seemed to want to lock the story down: the Russian Consul was promptly advised to resign, on the basis that the Russia, officially, did not want to seem to be endorsing this extreme opinion.

This contention, between Consul and Ministry, struck me at the time as interesting by demonstrating the Russian MFA’s willingness to scold its consuls; Russia, in an official capacity, seemed not to want to endorse the discourse of Crimea’s Soviet betrayal/collaboration, which in itself was quite surprising, and an interesting point of reflection given Russia’s willingness to suppress Crimean Tatars post-annexation.

The Three Sergeis and Andreev L-R: Sergei Tsekov (ROC), Vladimir Andreev (Russian Consul, Simfeorpol), Sergei Aksenov (RE), Sergei Shuvainikov April 2013

However, what I observed also were Andreev’s (the Russian Consul in Crimea) close informal ties to key actors in ROC and RE, demonstrating the highly developed relations that existed between Russia and local pro-Russian organisations, who themselves were key also in endorsing the idea of Crimean Tatar collaboration. I would add the idea of collaboration was supported only in the minds of the most heavily nationalistic; this was not a mainstream discourse among non-Crimean Tatars that I interviewed, who instead praised, often, Crimea as a multi-cultural peninsula, where people enjoyed this ethnic diversity, and the different experiences it presently, culturally, rather than pathologised this diversity.

Grievances of Russian nationalists towards Crimean Tatars

These Russian nationalists, who were often members of ROC and RE (and/or more extreme groups) which in themselves were key actors in Russia’s annexation, focused both on pre-Soviet and post-Soviet/contemporary grievances.

Sure enough, pre-Soviet grievances focused on the idea that the deportation of Crimean Tatars was justified by their collaboration, that they were “evicted, we say rightly because so many of them during the occupation during the war, worked on the side of Nazi Germany” (2013). This was combined, and strengthened, by post-Soviet grievances which maligned not only that Crimean Tatars felt they were returning to their “indigenous land”, but that this return threatened (according to this extreme position) the situation of ethnic Russians in Crimea. As one respondent described the “difficulty of being Russian in Crimea” was one where Crimean Tatar “nationalism […] leaves no room for Russians in Crimea, by considering that this is only the birthplace of Crimean Tatars” (2012). Here there was a clear “discursive inversion” through the portrayal by the majority as a threatened community (although a minority component of this majority) and the minority of Crimean Tatars as a malign threat to the status of this majority (even though it was the minority who themselves suffered greater discrimination and socioeconomic problems relative to the majority ethnic Russian community in Crimea).

Here they framed their organisations, such as ROC, as “legal” and “registered”, vs. the Mejlis (the council of representatives of Crimean Tatars) as “illegal” because they “did want to register” (2012), without recognising there were barriers, on the Ukrainian side, that had inhibited the Mejlis from being able to register. This ambiguous legal situation made it easier for post-annexation authorities, under the order of Aksenov, to argue Mejlis to be dissolved because it had never registered. 

A common structure built by Crimean Tatars involved in land claims (Source: http://www.rferl.org/content/ukraine-crimean-tatars-ethnic-cleansing/25306118.html)

The last important issue was the role these individuals and organisations took on the issue of land disputes in Crimea. In visiting Crimea, the presence of small structures (above) constructed by Crimean Tatars involved in land disputes was common. As one respondent explained (affiliated not with ROC but with another organisation), on the more extreme end of those aligned with Russian nationalist organisations and sentiments, they were active in arranging “Slavic pickets” alongside Cossack organisations to “prevent squatting” of “radical” Crimean Tatar organisations. On this basis, they were instrumental in furthering ongoing land disputes with Crimean Tatars, even when the Ukrainian state and its local authorities in Crimea were treading their feet in recognising Crimean Tatar land claims (hence the temporary structures).

2015: an ongoing and heightening repression

It becomes clear that Russian nationalist individuals and groups held grievances towards Crimean Tatars, portraying themselves as a threatened majority vis-a-vis an extremist minority (even if the reverse was closer to the truth) and of these, a minority were participating in more militaristic acts against Crimean Tatars. It is, therefore, less surprising when it is these elements of Crimea that have formed the post-annexation regime in a local context within Crimea.

However, this is also a shocking reality that should make us remember precisely who has taken power in Crimea and the sentiments they hold, that continue to indicate Crimean Tatars will face a precarious, if not threatened, existence in Crimea, shown most recently by the ATR raid (the Crimean Tatar TV channel) on 26 January 2015.

It is these elements that should compel us not to admit Crimea’s annexation as a “fait accompli”, nor in realist terms as facts on the ground that cannot be changed. A regime, that seized power illegally, is now trying to justify its oppression of a threatened Crimean Tatar minority not only to shore up its legitimacy but, on a symbolic level, to appeal to the interests of their support base, and to act on the grievances they held pre-annexation.


My co-author of the DGAP piece, Liana Fix, has also written an article as a follow-up for the one year anniversary of Crimea’s annexation: In Crimea, Time for Pressure

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