The Boot on the Other Foot: Moscow and the Crimean Tatars

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.

Crimea's Tatars face an anxious wait
Crimea’s Tatars face an anxious wait

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.

The Crimean Tatars carried on the Mongol legacy of expert cavalry
The Crimean Tatars carried on the Mongol legacy of expert cavalry

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)

Under the Kremlin’s Watchful Eye: can Ukraine follow Estonia’s break from Russia?


In September 1939, Estonia and the USSR signed a Mutual Assistance Pact based on:

Recognition of the independence of state and non-interference in internal affairs of either party; recognising that the peace treaty of February 2nd 1920 and the treaty of non-aggression and the peaceful settlement of conflicts (dated May 4th, 1932) continue to constitute firm basis of their mutual relations and obligations. (FO 371/23689)

The Pact would not ‘in any way infringe sovereign powers of the [the] contracting parties’.

By June 1940, Soviet troops had invaded Estonia. Using a clause in the Mutual Assistance Pact – which allowed for Soviet aerodromes and naval bases in Estonian territory – as a pretext for a military blockade of the independent state, Stalin easily made one of several successful territorial acquisitions at the beginning of WWII.

Although German forces ousted their Soviet foe from Estonia in 1941, embarking on their own three-year occupation, by the end of the war the Estonia Soviet Socialist Republic (ESSR) had been reestablished. It would remain in place until 1991.

The illegal incorporation of Estonia into the USSR was accompanied by an intensive programme of Russification
The illegal incorporation of Estonia into the USSR was accompanied by an intensive programme of Russification

Estonia had been independent during the inter-war years, boasting a population with Germanic, Nordic and Russian influences. Ukraine, meanwhile, having declared a short-lived People’s Republic in 1917, was by 1921 a state within the Soviet Union.

Having also been occupied by both Soviet and German troops during WWII, Ukraine was in a similarly-weak position to Estonia when it was re-incorporated into the Soviet sphere in 1944.

Ukraine was the scene of fierce fighting during WWII
Ukraine was the scene of fierce fighting during WWII

Whereas Estonia had cultural, linguistic and geographical ties with Baltic Europe and Scandinavia, Ukraine had for several centuries been subjected to strong Russian influence. This influence, as this year’s protests attest to, has been hard to shake off.

The overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych and the establishment of a pro-European interim government in Kiev has led to accusations from the Kremlin of an ‘armed mutiny’ backed by the West. Commentators fear a split between Ukraine’s pro-European and pro-Russian segments of the population that could lead to a fracturing of the state.

In February 1958, Estonian exiles in London celebrated the 40th anniversary of the founding of their state, which they refused to accept was a legitimate component of the Soviet Union. One point was made particularly clear:

The Republic of Estonia was invaded by the USSR in June 1940…To this day the Estonian people are kept in bondage by the Soviets and prevented from exercising their basic rights as an independent and sovereign nation. (FO 371/134617)

Since regaining independence in 1991, Estonia has turned abruptly away from its troubled Russian past, joining both the EU and NATO and making itself a popular business and tourist location for Westerners.

Ukraine, meanwhile, has retained a degree of the Russian ‘bondage’ that the Estonians bemoaned in 1958.

With an economy heavily dependent on Russian patronage and energy imports, a large demographic minority of ethnic Russians and extensive land borders with Russian territory, it will take more than the ousting of a Kremlin stooge for Ukraine’s sovereign integrity to finally be resurrected.

National Archive Sources

FO 371/23689 – ‘Soviet Relations with Baltic States’ (1939)

FO 371/134617 – ‘Non-Recognition by Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia of Annexation to Soviet Union’ (1958)

Other Sources

For more information of Estonia-Soviet Relations see: Davies N, Vanished Kingdoms: the History of Half-Forgotten Europe (2011)