Crimea’s Tatar minority is one group particularly wary of Russian incursion. With the threat of a full-scale Russian invasion hanging over the peninsula, individuals in the Crimea are confronting difficult choices about whether to support or oppose such an event, or whether to simply keep their head down and hope for the best.
The Tatars may be fearful of Russian interference today, especially given their recent history of Stalinist-era eviction from their homeland and the suspicions regarding their Islamism. However, it is often forgotten that it was the Russians who were once deadly fearful of the Tatars.
In the 15th century, remnants of the Mongol horde that had descended upon Eastern Europe some three centuries earlier established a Crimean Khanate, encompassing parts of modern-day Russia and Moldova in addition to the Black Sea peninsula. Ultimately a vassal of the burgeoning Ottoman Empire, the Crimean Tatars made frequent incursions into Russian territory, much of which was only loosely controlled by the Grand Duke of Muscovy (later the Tsar).
These incursions reached an apogee during the 1570s during the Russo-Crimean Wars. In 1571, an army of 120,000 (mostly Tatars and some Turks) rampaged northwards, burning and pillaging en route. Having routed the Russian Army and sent the remaining military remnants and civilians on the retreat, the Crimeans put Moscow to the flame. Virtually the entire city was devastated and the Russians narrowly avoided complete capitulation to the Ottomans the following year.
Anthony Jenkinson, an employee of the English Muscovy Company who visited Ivan the Terrible in Moscow, detailed in 1572 the ‘woeful state of Russia’ brought about by the Tatar raids:
A valiant nation of Tatars, in the latter end of May last, invaded this realm, gave the prince an overthrow in the fields, caused him to retire, burnt and consumed all the country before them, and came to the city of Moscow, set fire to the same, not leaving one house standing, and few people are now escaped.
The number of those that were burnt, besides such as were carried away captives by the said Crimeans, is thought to be about three-hundred thousand. A just punishment of God for such a wicked nation. (Jenkinson, p.306)
Jenkinson, clearly not enamoured with the Russians, predicted further Tatar invasions. He would be proved right. Although never exerting such devastation on the Russian people as they had in 1571,the Tatars of the Crimean Khanate would prove a constant nuisance to the Tsars until their annexation by the Russian Empire in 1783. (Even then, many Tatars fought for the Ottoman Empire against the Russians during the Crimean War).
The boot by then, as it is now, was firmly on the other foot. Whether the Crimean Tatars would summon the spirit of their ancestors to defy a Russian invasion may be a nugatory question. It is clear, however, that they have welcomed their return to the Black Sea under Ukrainian authority and they are unlikely to be cowed without some form of resistance.
We may not have seen the last clash between Moscow and Crimea’s Tatars.
Jenkinson A, Early Voyages and Travels to Russia and Persia, by Anthony Jenkinson and other Englishmen (Hakluyt Society, 1886)