The population of Crimea does not belong to one specific ethnic group, although the Crimean Tatar language and culture is indicating that they have Turkish ethnic roots. Crimea is at a geographic location where many roads intersect. There have therefore been many interactions and settlements from groups of the same kin or completely different societies. The current language of the region is Ukrainian and Russian, but Crimean Tatar is also a recognised regional language.
The Kuman Turk occupation over Crimea lasted from the 10th century until the 13th century and resulted in great transformations and developments in the country’s culture. Crimean, Turkish and Russian societies were living together in Crimea. However, the Mongols invaded Crimea in 1237. Genghish Khan, changed the destiny of Crimea and Georgia. The Crimean either fled across the Black Sea to the Muslim Anatolian Greek land ruled by the descendants of Kilic Aslan (The Second Seljuk Sultan), or escaped to the mountains with their families and belongings.
The Turkish rooted Crimean locals are today called the “Crimean Tatar” or “Turk Tatar”, because Crimea was eventually a heritage left to the Turks from the Mongols. The actual “Tatars” were people from an old Mongol community. Yet, it is worth noting that most of the Turk/Crimean people earlier refused to call themselves “Tatar”. Possibly due to the bad memories the Mongols left them with through their assault in history.
Crimea was ruled with an uninterrupted Muslim sovereignty for about 5 centuries. However, the prince Haci (pilgrim) Geray from the Genghis Khan lineage seized control over most of Crimea as conflict increased between the leaders of the Empire over acceding to the throne. Geray founded the great Crimean Khanate State around the first quarter of the 15th Century. The Crimean Khanate became a key element in Eastern European politics and formed a strong alliance with the Ottoman Empire in 1475, hence began to be ruled under the Ottoman patronage.
The 1768-1774 war between Russia and the Ottoman Empire over Crimea caused a lot of destruction to the country, and the Ottomans got defeated. The Ottomans did not have a chance but to sign a peace agreement with Russia, due to the pressure of the European countries. The “Küçük Kaynarca” peace treaty was signed in 1774, and Crimea’s independence was announced.
The Russian occupied Crimea in 1783 by breaking the Küçük Kaynarca agreement. The Ottomans and Russian had numerous other battles after this action. Many people migrated to Anatolia, Bulgaria, and Romania, and the migrations lasted even during the 1800’s. When 98% of Crimea’s population was Turkish in 1783, it reduced to 35% in 1897. Ukrainians, Germans, Rum and Jews settled in the abandoned villages. The intensity of the migrations to Anatolia increased in the 19th and 20th centuries due to the pressure of the Russian Soviet Unity.
The Crimean Muslim Tatars named the 100 years of Russian Soviet occupation in Crimea “The Dark Century”. They faced social, cultural and educational decline, and waited their turns to migrate. Nevertheless the Crimean reformist Ismail Bey Gaspirali (1851-1914) contributed in the formation of a modern national Crimean Tatar identity in Crimea. Many teachers from Turkey, with Crimean Tatar origins, went back to Crimea to provide education for the Crimean Tatars, and many young people were sent to Istanbul for educational purposes.
After the liberation of Crimea from Nazi occupation, in May 1944, the USSR State Defence Committee invaded Crimea and ordered the removal of a majority of the Tatar population, including the families of Crimean Tatars serving in the Soviet Army – in trains and boxcars to Central Asia, primarily to Uzbekistan. Many destructions and deaths were caused. Everything related to the Crimean Tatars were burnt down, buildings from the Ottoman era were destroyed, the Muslim graveyards were demolished, the Tatar books were burnt, and all road names were changed.
In 1967, some Crimean Tatars were allowed to return to Crimea, and in 1989 the USSR Parliament condemned the removal of Crimean Tatars from their motherland as inhumane and lawless. Today, Crimean Tatars are a minority in Crimea. There remains a large diaspora of Crimean Tatars in Turkey and Uzbekistan.
My great great grandfather also migrated from Crimea to Rize (town in the eastern black sea region of turkey). He apparently even dug up his parents’ graves and brought them to out village Balikçilar Köyü in Rize, which I visited three years ago. The gravestones are written in Ottoman (with the Arabic alphabet that changed to the Latin alphabet after Turkey became a republic). My grandfather says that his grandfather was a fisherman who sold his fish to the Russian ruler Nicholas I. The dates more or less match the period of Nicholas reign; this must have been in the early adulthood of my great great grandfather’s life. This is all I know about our family history related to Crimea according to my grandfather’s personal account. Also, that our surname is ‘Azak’; from the Sea of Azov / ’Azak Denizi’ located on the north-eastern side of Crimea.