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An Ethnic & Religious Patchwork

The Crimea’s Jews, Christians and Muslims strive to restore their homeland

photographs by Petro Didula
with text by Matthew Matuszak


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“Soviet soldiers came and forced five or six families, each with lots of kids, onto a truck,” recalled Khatidzhe Zhurayeva, a Crimean Tatar. “At first, we didn’t believe they were really sending us away for good. But when we finally reached the border, one old man pulled himself up so he could see where we were. When he saw, he started to cry. And then all of us began crying.”

The beauty of the sun-drenched Crimean peninsula belies its recent gloomy history. Connected to the European mainland by tiny strips of land, the Crimea juts into the Black Sea from its northern coast and is home to a bewildering number of ethnic groups, including Armenians, Greeks, Karaim, Tatars, Russians and Ukrainians.

A strategic outpost, the Crimea has been contested for millennia. Persians and Greeks, Khazars and Rus’, Byzantines and Mongols, Ottomans and Russians, Soviets and Nazis have all waged war to possess its sunny but rocky shores. In 1954, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev transferred administrative control of the peninsula from Soviet Russia to Soviet Ukraine, citing its close cultural, economic and geographic ties to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.

Unwittingly, the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 set up the likelihood of a Crimean conflict involving the U.S.S.R.’s successor states today. Tensions between Russia and Ukraine escalate daily, as each exercises brawn and bravado to subdue the peninsula. But the end of the Soviet Union also gave the Crimea’s ancient Jewish and Muslim communities the chance to regain some of what was lost, to rebuild literally and figuratively and to live in harmony with those who now inhabit their ancestral homeland — if only for the seasonal sun.

Ironically, Crimean Jews (Karaim) and Muslims (Tatars) consider themselves descendants of the same Turkic tribes that moved from Central Asia to the Crimean peninsula in the Middle Ages. These tribes eventually adopted Judaism, Christianity or Islam, though the latter became the dominant faith of the community by the 15th century.

The Tatar’s powerful state, or khanate, once included the Crimea, surrounding areas and the Caucasus for more than three centuries. Annexed by Russia’s Catherine the Great in 1783, the Crimea’s Jewish and Muslim populations declined in significance as other groups, particularly Slavs, settled in the newly acquired territory.

By the dawn of the 20th century, the Crimea’s Tatar community consisted of some 250,000 people. Numbers vary for the Crimea’s Karaim, who forbade intermarriage and refused converts, but probably they did not include more than 15,000 people.

While most Karaim and Tatar men of fighting age served the Soviet Union as members of the Red Army or as anti-Nazi partisans, a minority aided the Nazis. As punishment for this collaboration, Stalin in 1944 deported to Soviet Uzbekistan all the peninsula’s Tatars — regardless of age or state of health. Nearly half of those deported died of exposure, malnutrition and disease. The Karaim, who after World War II numbered just 6,357 souls, eventually assimilated with the Slav population or immigrated to Israel or elsewhere.

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Tags: Ukraine Muslim Jews Soviet Union Crimea