Stara mapa.

Europe and the East. Decade of the Eastern Partnership

Crimea and the Tatars: a bridge between Eastern Europe and Southern Caucasus

Publication: 31 March 2023

NO. 35 2019



Crimean Tatars have for centuries been the key link between Eastern Europe and the Southern Caucasus, two regions today covered by the Eastern Partnership programme. The Crimean heritage is important for Europe and even for the world as a whole.


When in 2009 the countries of Eastern Europe (Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova) and the Southern Caucasus (Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan) were included in the EU Eastern Partnership initiative, one opinion quickly emerged that the two regions had little in common from a cultural and historical perspective. It was stressed that the South Caucasus in particular was very diverse internally, and that the only common heritage of the Eastern Partnership countries was the legacy of Tsarist Russia and the USSR. However, the relationship between the two regions is much older and stronger. For centuries, the Black Sea and the Great Steppe were important bridges between Eastern Europe and the Southern Caucasus, also connecting them with neighbouring regions, covering a large part of Moldova and Ukraine and then stretching along the Caucasus as far as Manchuria. Several nomad empires were created in the Caucasian territory, for brief periods directly or indirectly ruling over Eastern Europe and the Southern Caucasus. They included Scythians, Huns, Khazars, and especially Mongols and Tatars.

A very important role in establishing relations between Eastern Europe and the Southern Caucasus before the Russian conquest, and then in sustaining them in the Tsarist and Soviet times, was played by smaller nations scattered from Grodno to Baku, especially Armenians, Jews, and Tatars. Tatars, being Muslims, at first glance are the odd man out in the cultural heritage of Eastern Europe and the South Caucasus, since the vast majority of the inhabitants of the Eastern Partnership countries are Christians. Religion is regarded by many columnists, politicians, and researchers as an important feature distinguishing the Eastern Partnership from the countries of the Southern Neighbourhood, overwhelmingly inhabited by Muslims. The Eastern Partnership is presented as the European neighbours of the European Union (Christians) and of Europe (Muslims, Africa, and Asia). However, it is worth recalling that the vast majority of Muslim inhabitants of the South Caucasus are Azeri. Moreover, until the beginning of the 19th century, a large part of Eastern Europe had been under the rule of Muslim states for 500 years (the Golden Horde, the Crimean Khanate, the Ottoman Empire). These areas (the southern territories of Ukraine and Moldova) were then mostly inhabited by the followers of Mohammed. From the end of the 15th century until the end of the 18th century, the Black Sea was an “Ottoman lake.” Between the end of the 16th and the first half of the 18th century, the Ottomans often ruled over the entire Southern Caucasus and a large part of Eastern Europe. For over 350 years (15th-18th century), the Crimean Khanate, a fief of the Ottoman Empire, was the most powerful country with the centre located in the lands of today’s Eastern Partnership.[1] As the most important peninsula of the Black Sea, a unique blend of mountains, sea, and steppes, Crimea was predisposed to play the role of a binder connecting the plains of Eastern Europe with the mountainous Southern Caucasus. This status of the peninsula as a bridge is best illustrated by the Iron Gate in the palace in Bakhchysarai, symbolising the statehood of the Crimean Khanate. There is an inscription on it stating that it was built for the Sultan of two continents (Europe and Asia) and the Khan of two seas (Black and Caspian) between which the Caucasus mountain range runs.[2]

To realise the bridging role of Crimea in the history of the Caucasus and Eastern Europe and its European and global dimensions, we need to rectify the negative stereotypes about the Khanate which often appear in historiographies of the EaP and EU countries (e.g. Poland) most connected with both regions. These are mainly due to the fact that the Crimean Khanate was heir to the Golden Horde and Genghis Khan, and for over 250 years its inhabitants often engaged in slave hunting and plundering of lands to the north and east of the Black Sea. The range of the Crimean-Tatar throngs was impressive. The Tatar troops reached Vilnius in the north, Kazan in the east, Baghdad in the south, and Vienna in the west. The Tatars sometimes fought against the people of Eastern Europe and the Southern Caucasus, but sometimes they were their comrades in arms.

On the other hand, the number of “captives of the Horde” is exaggerated in the historical memory of the inhabitants of Eastern Europe and the Southern Caucasus. Identical or similar “economic activities” of Christian actors are seen as very limited. Superimposed on this image is a vision of an alleged eternal “clash of Muslim and Christian civilisations,” separated by a wide chasm – a vision which has been gaining in popularity in recent years. However, the history of Crimea, the Tatars and their relations with their neighbours provide numerous examples of syncretism and unprecedented cultural diffusion. Both Eastern Europe and the Southern Caucasus are often presented in the history of Europe as peripheral due to their location in the “Far East” of the continent. However, a glance at the history of Crimea and the Tatars is enough to make us understand that they played a very important role in the history of Eurasia.

Crimean syncretism

For centuries, Crimea served as a borderland between the Mediterranean world and the Great Steppe. It was here that the ancient historian Herodotus, for the first time in the history of the world, described the encounter of Greek colonists, who built cities and were engaged in agriculture and trade, with nomadic Scythians, an Iranian people living in the steppes of Eurasia. Their interaction, based on coexistence and conflicts, led to the creation of a syncretic culture of a borderland between the sea and the steppe. This syncretism lasted for centuries under Roman and Byzantine rule. Over the centuries, successive Great Steppe peoples settled in Crimea: Sarmatians, Huns, Bulgarians, Khazars, Pechenegs, and Cumans as well as Tatars. These last two groups merged to form a community of Crimean Tatars. Crimea, located on the Black Sea at the mouth of the Dnieper River, one of the most important rivers crossing the Euro-Asian landmass from north to south,  attracted Europeans from the Baltic Sea and the Mediterranean for centuries. In the third century, Germanic Goths settled in Crimea, who came from Scandinavia through Eastern Europe. A few hundred years later, the Vikings came from the north to the Black Sea and contributed to the creation of Kievan Rus’. According to European travellers, the Goths’ language survived until the 18th century. The importance of Crimea in the Byzantine world is best illustrated by the fact that it was probably there that Vladimir the Great, the ruler of Kievan Rus’, was baptised in 988, launching the process of Christianisation of the ancestors of Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Moldovans and many other people living with them.

Since antiquity, Jews settled in Crimea, while in the Middle Ages they were joined by Armenians and Karaims (Karaites), followers of a monotheistic religion that, to put it simply, can be called Judaism subject to strong Islamic influences. In the 13th century, Italian merchants appeared in Crimea, as well as in Georgia and Moldova, mainly from Genoa, that won the Black Sea trade war against the Venetians. Through Crimea, the Genoese traded with nomadic peoples of the Great Steppe and along the Silk Road with China. The Black Death, the biggest epidemic in the history of mankind, reached Europe via Kaffa in Crimea. In just a few years, it led to the death of between 30 and 60 percent of all Europeans, transforming the history of the continent.

The Genoese laid the foundations for slave trade in the Black Sea and Mediterranean regions. Caucasian Cumans and the Caucasian Circassians, who went down in history as Mamelukes, were sent by them to Egypt through Crimea. They ruled in Egypt from the mid-13th to the beginning of the 19th century, and from the early 16th century under the dominion of the Ottomans. They are the ones who drove the Crusaders out of the Middle East and stopped the Mongol expansion. In Crimea, the Genoese created an economic and cultural symbiosis with the Golden Horde, a Tatar state created as part of a break-up of the Mongolian Empire. At the beginning of the 14th century, the Tatars adopted Islam, which they also received through the Crimea from Seljuk Turkey. The ruins of the Golden Horde gave birth to the Crimean Khanate at the beginning of the 15th century. Together with Crimean Tatars, Genoese cities unsuccessfully tried to stop the Ottomans from conquering the peninsula. However, the Genoese did not disappear from Crimea after it was subjugated by Istanbul. They served as diplomats for the Crimean Khan until the 17th century. In the first half of the 16th century, for example, Zacharias de Ghisolfi, a half-Genoese and half-Circassian and a descendant of Caucasian princes, and his son Vincenzo, held key positions in Crimean diplomacy.[3]

For over 250 years, slaves captured by the Tatars in the Caucasus and in Eastern Europe were sent to Crimea. Their fate was definitely better than that of black slaves working on plantations in the Caribbean at that time. Many slaves in Crimea were freed or even given spectacular careers in the Khan’s palace without changing their status.

The intermingling of cultures and ethnic groups became a house specialty in Crimea. Examples of Crimean syncretism are the gates in the port of Yevpatoriya (Tatar name: Gezlev): in this Muslim city, antique sculptures (torso, female bust, head) were incorporated in the gates. Another example is the fortress in Prekop featuring a stone gallery with antique sculptures built into the walls. In Sudak you can still visit a temple of five religions, which throughout the period of 600 years was a mosque, a Roman Catholic church, again a mosque, an Orthodox church, a Lutheran church, and an Armenian church. Above the mihrab indicating the direction of Mecca, frescoes have been preserved with a cross, the coat of arms of Genoa, and Latin inscriptions such as “In the name of Christ. Amen.”[4] Another symbol of métissage are coins minted by Crimean Khans in the 15th century with the Genoese coat of arms (the Cross of St. George), the tamga, that is the Pre-Muslim Tatar coat of arms of the Giray dynasty (today it is the coat of arms of Crimean Tatars), and Arabic inscriptions.

It is no coincidence that in the Middle Ages an original architectural style based on Seljuk art was created in Crimea. As Oleksa Gaivoronski, a Ukrainian historian from Crimea, emphasises, the Seljuk style itself, “which absorbed Armenian, Iranian and Turkish influences, spread so widely among the peoples of the peninsula that Seljuk ornaments were used to decorate Crimean-Tatar mosques, foundation plaques of Genoese fortresses, Armenian monasteries and palaces of Crimean rulers of the Goths’ country in Mangupa without any involvement of Seljuk Turks.”[5] This style also influenced Eastern Europe, especially through Armenian trade colonies. The best example of this is the magnificent Armenian cathedral in Lviv with its numerous elements of Seljuk style, built in the second half of the 14th century by an Italian architect from Crimea known as Doring.

The links between Muslim Crimea and Italy did not disappear even when the Black Sea was transformed into an “Ottoman lake.” At the beginning of the 16th century, the magnificent Khanate palace Devlet-Saray in Salachik was built by the Italian architect Aloisio the New, who is probably the same as Venetian sculptor Alevisio Lamberti da Montagno. Aloisio was later sent to Moscow, where his works included the Cathedral of the Archangel, the necropolis of Moscow rulers. Devlet-Saray Palace (descriptions and drawings suggest that it closely resembled the Doge’s Palace in Venice) became the summer residence of the Khans after the construction of a new palace in nearby Bakhchysarai several decades later. Unfortunately, Devlet-Saray did not survive to today, as it was destroyed in the 1830s by the Russian army. Only the magnificent carved Renaissance Iron Gate survived, which was moved to the new palace in Bakhchysarai. Devlet-Saray was a unique monument in the Islamic world. At the beginning of the 16th century, Muslim rulers often used the services of painters, craftsmen, and engineers from Christian Europe, but usually did not invite Christian architects to design such important buildings as palaces. Acceptance of Renaissance Venetian art in Crimea did not mean that it was necessary to build bridges over the great cultural chasm. As Deborah Howard excellently showed in her work Venice and the East, in the 15th and 16th centuries Venetian architecture was under great influence of Muslim art from Egypt, in that era the most important trading partner of Venice.[6]

Cultural syncretism also concerned the linguistic sphere: a linguistic osmosis emerged on the basis of the Crimean-Tatar language. The result was dialects or languages very similar to the Crimean-Tatar languages used by other people living in Crimea. Many Jews began to speak Krymchak, related to the Tatar language roughly as Yiddish is related to German. Armenians were simply called Tatars, and their Turkic language, today called Armenian-Kipchak, was often simply described as Tatar. Karaims spoke Karaim, a language closely related to the Crimean-Tatar language. Karaims used to call their language Ismaelic, that is Muslim. Islam was identified with Turkishness. Crimean Greeks also created their own Turkic language on the Crimean-Tatar foundation, and as heirs of Rome they called it urum, or Roman. In Crimea, the Tatar language was also adopted by numerous Goths and Genoese. As a result, Turkic languages in Crimea were written in Arabic, Greek, Cyrillic, Latin, Hebrew, and Armenian alphabets, and even the Uighur alphabet (based on ancient Aramaic writing) used on the Great Steppes.

Kurultai and free elections

The Crimean Khanate played an important role in the transfer of numerous elements of Muslim culture to Poland. In the 16th century under the Polish-Lithuanian Union, Sarmatism, a new original political and cultural trend, emerged. As Janusz Tazbir wrote about it, “Sarmatism turned out to be extremely susceptible to oriental influences. The traditional costume of the nobility came from the East. Europeans saw Sarmatians as representatives of one more variety of oriental culture. However, the territory of the Republic of Poland was also influenced by the Baroque, which tied the country to the mainstream of European culture. Nevertheless, the areas were Sarmatian ideology reigned were very different from Western countries. In no other epoch has Poland created such an original and distinct cultural form, but also never departed so far from pan-European culture.”[7] Although Sarmatism is considered in Poland to be the most “domestic” trend in Polish culture, but copyright to it can legitimately be claimed by other nations of Eastern Europe as well: Belarusians, Moldovans, and Ukrainians. The Crimean Khanate also played a very important role in transferring the tradition of the Janissaries, an elite infantry armed with muskets and sabres, from the Ottoman Empire to Ukraine. The very word Cossack, meaning a free man, a rebel, has Tatar roots. As the Ukrainian historian Natalia Yakovenko emphasises, the emergence of the Cossacks is closely connected with the centuries-long existence of the borderland between the steppe and the forest, Tatars and Ruthenians.

In the middle, in the no-man’s-land between the nomadic and agricultural civilisations, there is a zone of inter-ethnic contacts subject to its own laws, developed by crazy adventurers from both sides. The people of this belt did not care about ethnic and religious prejudices, mixing costumes and food, languages and customs, military habits and ways of thinking. For example, Ukrainian-Tatar bilingualism was quite common among Cossacks. The fact that Cossacks and Slavs borrowed customs from Tatars is also convincingly demonstrated by their external appearance and the change of names of everyday objects. The Russian sword was exchanged for a crooked Tatar sabre, the Russian goose for bagpipes, trousers for shalwar, and Slavic long hair for chupryna. Young servants were called not otroki (boys), but ciury (camp followers), and small armed bands became watahy (packs); such Turkish terms as esałuł (Cossack cavalry officer), mace, buńczuk (horse-tail standard), taraban, surma (type of trumpet), tabor (camp), and maidan entered the military terminology.[8]

The interpenetration of the Crimean Khanate and their neighbours did not only concern art and the military, but also the political sphere. According to Dariusz Kołodziejczyk, a Polish expert on the Ottoman Empire, a political osmosis based on mutual inspiration developed over the centuries between the Polish-Lithuanian Union, the Zaporozhye Cossacks and the Crimean Khanate. Caucasian and Romanian countries and Transylvania can be included as well. Kołodziejczyk subscribes to the claim of the British historian W.E.D. Allen, who wrote about the political “Black Sea culture” on the northern shores of the sea from the Caucasus to the Carpathians. As Kołodziejczyk stated, “the decentralised structure of the Crimean society, headed by a weak elected Khan ruling under the constraints imposed by the kurultai, in which powerful Tatar feudal families held sway, encountered surprisingly similar political and social structures in the country of its northern neighbour.”[9] In his letters to the Khan, John III Sobieski encouraged the Tatars to shed their dependence on the Ottomans, saying, “Slaves [that is, Ottoman viziers] should no longer rule over a free, courageous and ancient [Tatar] nation.” He also called on the Khan to “remain free with all his hordes, as desired by the smallest bird and animal.” However, in the 18th century some Tatar aristocrats called their country the Republic (meaning the Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania). In Lithuania and Poland, Tatars were not considered just as savage nomads, but sometimes also as role models. According to Natalia Królikiewicz, Michael the Lithuanian (probably a Russian boyar, Mikhail Tyshkevich), author of the famous treaty “De moribus Tatarorum, Lituanorum et Moschorum” [On the customs of Tatars, Lithuanians and Muscovites], when describing the Tatars he “admired the simplicity and speed of trial and execution proceedings, which were devoid of legal catches and loopholes.” The idea of equality for all before the law was also praised by the deputy. In a word, the author presented the Tatars, those godless idolaters, as a role model for the citizens of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and juxtaposed the imperfect laws of his homeland to the excellent Tatar solutions. It should be noted that Michael was not the only Christian to praise the law abiding habits of the Crimean Tatars. Forty years afterwards, Polish deputy Marcin Broniewski, secretary to King Stefan Batory and author the first detailed European description of Crimea and its Tatars, was also delighted with how law abiding the Khan’s subjects were.[10] He also made maps of the northern coast of the Black Sea, including Crimea. These unique maps are an outstanding achievement in the history of European cartography.

Precursors of modernisation

For Crimea, the 18th century marked an unprecedented opening to Western influence. In the early modern period, the Crimean Khanate created conditions which enabled local Tatars to play the role of precursors to the modernisation among Muslims. Apart from the ethnic-religious mix, the key factors were the partly “secular” legal system and the relatively high social status of women. The law of the Khanate was based on the Sharia, but also on the customary law rooted in the Tatar-Mongolian tradition and the jarłyk (“decrees”) of the Khan. The local version of the Sharia, the Hanafi School, was the most flexible and pragmatic. Elements of the legal systems of non-Muslim minorities, Jews, Armenians, Greeks, Karaims, Genoese, and others were also incorporated into the legislation of the Khanate. Although minorities remained second-class subjects, Tatars generally treated them well. As a result, in the 19th century the legal system of the Crimean Khanate was idealised by some European observers and perceived as belonging to European civilisation. German traveller August von Haxthausen wrote about it in the 1840s: “The fundamental law of the Khanate is primarily reminiscent of the Germanic-Romanesque nations […] and has nothing to do with the so-called Eastern despotisms. […] The reason for the resemblance was the contact between these two worlds (Christian and Muslim – AB).”[11] The justice system applied by religious judges (kadi) of the Khanate was subordinate to Istanbul, which fostered autonomy among the Khanate authorities. Political pluralism and administrative decentralisation hindered the establishment of theocracy or subordination of religious structures to a strong central government. Such a character of political institutions and the social structure based on strong clans, rooted in the steppe culture, contributed to the development of unorthodox mystical Islam. One manifestation of this were the very influential, also among the elites, mystical fraternities (tarkiat), often characterised by syncretism and combining Islam with Christian and shamanistic elements. For centuries, the coexistence of Tatars with non-Muslim minorities was conducive to religious métissage. In the accounts of travellers visiting the Khan’s court we can find information about the cult of Christian Orthodox icons among Muslims and about the Khans visiting Orthodox monasteries, where they lit huge votive candles.

The high position of women in the Tatar society is evidenced by the fact that Tatar princesses regularly exchanged letters with foreign correspondents and received legations. Tatar women sometimes even took part as warriors in expeditions to capture slaves. Historian Marcin Bielski, describing the Tatar invasion of 1524, wrote without much surprise: “They were slightly beaten near the town of Pruchnik, and women were found among them, who had pruned their hair and walked in men’s clothing.”[12]

The opening of the Tatars to Western influence on an unprecedented scale was initiated by Khan Crimea Giray, who ruled in 1758-1764 and 1768-1769. The Khan was interested in Western art to a degree not found in the Islamic world at that time. He collected paintings and sculptures, and became a fan of Western music and theatre. An orchestra and a French theatre troupe were permanently employed at the palace. It staged Molière’s plays in the original language, and the Khan received translations prepared specially by the secretary of King Louis XV of France. Crimea Giray went down in history as an outstanding patron of the arts.[13] He built two palaces: one in today’s Moldova and the other in Crimea (none of them have survived to this day) and thoroughly rebuilt the palace in Bakhchysarai. Describing these architectural projects as Crimean Rococo was not unfounded.

The Khan’s interests also included Western science. He conducted experiments with instruments and machines brought from Vienna. According to reports of Western travellers visiting Bakhchyserai, the Khan also showed knowledge and fascination with Montesquieu’s work. Crimea Giray introduced unprecedented economic reforms (monetary and fiscal), which contributed to a significant increase in agricultural production, especially of grain.[14] Crimea Giray began preparations to transform the Ukrainian steppes into a granary of Europe through increased settlement and plans to build a port on the Dnieper through which grain was to be exported on a large scale to Turkey and the Mediterranean countries. His plans were implemented at the beginning of the 19th century by Tsarist Russia, colonising southern Ukraine and building ports in Odessa, Kherson, and Mikolajov. Crimea Giray also launched geological research in the mountains of Crimea and the Caucasus in pursuit of raw materials and precious stones. He planned to build industrial and military manufactories thanks to the profits from their extraction.

Modernisation based on the western model was greatly accelerated during the reign of Şahin Giray, grandson of Crimea, who began his career under the reign of his grandfather. Şahin Giray was the last Khan of Crimea (1777-1783). He went down in history as a tragic, controversial and pioneering figure. Şahin undertook radical reforms, all of them unprecedented in the Muslim world and some of them unique even on a global scale. Şahin Giray, like the last Polish king Stanislaw August Poniatowski, hoped that these reforms could be carried out thanks to the protection of “enlightened” Russia. His biography undermines the claim about a clash of civilisations and the abyss separating them. Şahin Giray lived in Thessaloniki and Venice as a young man, where he learned Greek and Italian and attended “Ghiaur” schools. He also stayed for several months in St. Petersburg, and its monuments, including the Rococo palace in Tsarskoye Selo, a work by Italian architects, delighted him. When he ascended the throne, he tried to build a version of it in Crimea. Şahin Gerei attempted to transform the Crimean Khanate into an enlightened absolute monarchy – a political model dominating in Europe at that time. To carry out his plan, he invited numerous foreigners to Crimea, including his closest Ukrainian neighbours: Poles and Cossacks. He introduced a hereditary monarchy, and began to build a centralised bureaucratic administration and a unified tax system. He also largely limited the powers of the kurultai and the privileges of aristocratic clans. In addition, he began to build a regular army based on drill, hierarchy, uniforms, and Western-style armaments instead of a levy en masse. Therefore, construction of the first manufactories producing weapons and uniforms began. The Khan also started to create police forces, and Western fashion, cuisine, furniture, and customs appeared in the Khan’s court; it was a shock for the Tatars to see the wigged young Khan riding in a coach. His attempt to introduce a secular legal code equalising the rights of Muslims, Jews, Karaims and Christians was unprecedented on a global scale.

Şahin’s reforms were decades ahead of the times; he tried to make a gigantic leap towards modernisation in just a few years.[15] However, for various reasons his radical reforms met with strong resistance from Tatar society and were not supported by Russia. Like in the case of Poland, St. Petersburg used the internal conflicts in Crimea to smother its independence, rather than oversee its modernisation. Despite the failure of the Şahin’s reforms and the loss of independence, his concept of building a modern state based on separation of religion and state, taken up for the first time in the Islamic world, directly or indirectly became an important source of inspiration for various reformers of later decades, starting with the Ottoman Tanzimat, Muhammad Ali, the father of modern Egypt, and then the Young Turks and Ataturk.

At the turn of the 20th century, Crimean Tatars again became precursors of modernisation based on Western models in the Islamic world, but preserved their own culture and religion. This time it was not to be imposed from above by an enlightened autocrat, but to result from grassroots work of a civil society believing in democracy. Crimean Tatars were predestined to play the role of the avant-garde because they enjoyed one of the highest levels of literacy among the worshippers of Allah. At the end of the 19th century, nearly 30% of Crimean Tatars were able to read, only slightly less than ethnic Russians (a few decades earlier the literacy level of Tatars was higher than that of Russians) and more than Belarusians, Ukrainians, Moldovans, Georgians, and Armenians. Reading and writing skills were radically higher among Crimean Tatars than among almost all Muslim nations. Moreover, the female illiteracy rate among Crimean Tatars was just slightly higher than male, unlike for Russian or Ukrainian women. So it is not surprising that at the end of the 19th century the Crimean Tatar Ismail Gaspirali became one of the most important thinkers promoting modernisation based on Western patterns in the Islamic world – especially among the Turkish peoples, from the Turks to the Uzbeks. Gaspirali not only wrote articles and manifestos, edited magazines and published books, but also travelled around Europe and Asia promoting his progressive views.[16] He laid the ideological groundwork for the establishment of an autonomous Crimean People’s Republic within the framework of democratic Russia in 1917 (three years after his death), and then the Crimean National Government, which was destroyed by the Bolsheviks. The Autonomous Crimea was the first democratic secular republic in the Islamic world to introduce equality between men and women before the law. In November 1917, Tatar women took part in the elections to the local parliament, in which they constituted more than 5% of the deputies. At the time, the vast majority of women in Europe did not have political rights. It is worth remembering, however, that Crimea was not an independent state with at least partial international recognition, and Muslims constituted only about 35% of the population. Therefore, the Crimean Tatars “compete” for first place in introducing equality between men and women in the Islamic world with the Azerbaijani Democratic Republic (ADR), which declared independence in 1918 and was inhabited by a large majority of Muslims. However, this “rivalry” is only apparent because many key Tatar leaders of autonomous Crimea were involved in the establishment of the ADR. Interestingly, many of them came from Belarus.

The Crimean diaspora

Ismail Gaspirali considered the Lipcani, the Tatars living in the former Grand Duchy of Lithuania (GDoL), as a main source of inspiration and role model for Muslims all over the world. His admiration for them stemmed from the fact that they adopted many elements of Western culture, but remained Muslims. The Lipcani belonged to the Crimean ethnic mix which moved to Eastern Europe. Not only Tatars, but also Armenians, Greeks, Italians, Karaims, Georgians, Turks, Circassians, and other inhabitants of the Black Sea basin migrated from or through Crimea and the Black Sea Steppes to the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Some of them returned or often travelled to Crimea, or vice versa. Many of them came to Eastern Europe as merchants or mercenaries. They often had a significant, mostly un-noted or unappreciated influence on the shape of the cultures of Eastern Europe. As a Muslim minority, the the Lipcani were a unique case in the Western civilisation for several centuries. In the 19th century, the Tatars in the GDoL, although not very numerous, formed one of the best educated communities in the Russian Empire. Gaspirali visited the the Lipcani communities in Eastern Europe, and as a young man he was unhappily in love with a Tatar woman from the GDoL. One of his closest friends was Mustafa Davidovich, the long-time mayor of Bakhchisarai, who was a Lipcani. Thus, it should not be surprising that in 1917-1918 the Lipcani became intensely involved in the establishment of an autonomous Crimea. For example, General Suleiman Matcey Sulkevich became Prime Minister and Head of the Foreign Ministry and War Office, while Minister of Justice Alexander Achmatovich became Minister of Justice. After the conquest of the Crimea by the Bolsheviks, many Tatars from the GDoL fled to Azerbaijan. But relations between the Lipcani and Azerbaijan had started earlier. One of the representatives of the Azerbaijani family of oil magnates Tağıyev married a Tatar woman from the GDoL. This family played a great role in the modernisation of Azerbaijan. For example, the Tağıyev family founded the first secular school for girls in the Muslim world. Its director for eight years was a Lithuanian Tatar woman, Miriam Sulkevich. In the ADR, General Sulkevich, who was related to Miriam, became the chief of staff of the army.[17] Leon Naiman Krychynsky, who previously held this position in Crimea, was appointed head of the Prime Minister’s office. His brother Algirdas became Deputy Minister of Justice of Azerbaijan and represented ADR at the South Caucasus Conference in Tbilisi. During the meeting, he proposed that territorial disputes between Caucasian nations be resolved through arbitration by Poland. At that time, Poland tried to create a united front of the countries of Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and the Baltic states fighting for independence against the Red and often also the White Russia. This concept of joint struggle for the freedom of nations conquered by Russia was defined as Prometheism in the interwar period. It referred to the Greek mythological hero Prometheus, chained by gods to the rocks of the Caucasus for stealing fire. Sources of Prometheism can be found at the turn of the 18th century, when Ukrainian hetmans Ivan Mazepa (probably of Circassian origin) and Pylyp Orlyk (coming from the Belarusian Ashmyany) launched a scheme to cooperate against Russia with, among others, the peoples of the Caucasus and the Crimean Khanate. Orlyk even considered Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars as family. Two hundred years later, in the interwar period, Poland became the centre of the Promethean emigration movement, in which Ukrainian, Belarusian, Georgian, and Azeri politicians and leaders of other nations captive in the USSR became involved. Crimean Tatars and the Lipcani clearly dominated among the Promethean activists. Prometheism can to some extent be regarded as a harbinger of the Eastern Partnership, but above all we need to notice the much older cultural heritage that underlies it.


Translated from the Polish by Tomasz Bieroń


[1] Alan Fisher, The Crimean Tatars, Stanford 1978.

[2] Oleksa Gaivoronski, Kraina Krim, Kiev 2017, p. 83.

[3] O.A. Gavrilenko, O.M. Sival’nov, V.V. Tsybulkin, Henuezka spadshchina na terenah Ukrainy, Kharkiv 2018, p. 107.

[4] O.A. Gavrilenko, O.M. Sival’nov, V.V. Tsybulkin, Henuezka spadshchina na terenah Ukrainy, Kharkiv 2018, p. 107.

[5] Ibid., p. 305.

[6] Deborah Howard, Venice and the East, London 2006.

[7] Janusz Tazbir, Sarmatyzm a kultura europejska,

[8] Natalia Jakowenko, Historia Ukrainy od czasów najdawniejszych do końca XVIII wieku, Lublin 2000, p. 144.

[9] D. Kołodziejczyk, „Turcja i Krym,” [in:] Rzeczpospolita – Europa XVI-XVIII wiek. Próba konfrontacji, M. Kopczyński and W. Tygielski, eds., Warszawa 1999, p. 74.

[10] N. Królikowska, „Praworządny jak Tatarzyn? Stosunki prawne w Chanaci Krymskim na podstawie miejscowych ksiąg sądowych z XVII i XVIII wieku,”  Czasopismo Prawno-Historyczne 65 (2013), no 1, p. 121.

[11] Quoted in: V.E. Vozgrin, Istorija Krymskih Tatar, Simferopol 2013. p. 565.

[12] Quoted in: Leszek Podchorecki, Chanat Krymski, Warszawa 1987, p. 52.

[13] V.E. Vozgrin, op. cit., pp. 854-855.

[14] Oleksa Gaivoronski, „Ha hrani dvoh svietiv” holovni tendencji ta rushini sili politichnoho butja krimskoho hanatu”, Ji 90 (2018), p. 29.

[15] Alan Fisher, op. cit., pp. 62-64.

[16] Ibid, pp. 100-103.

[17] Leon Najman Mirza Kryczyński, Tatarzy Polski a Wschód muzułmański, Zamość 1930.

About authors

Adam Balcer

Programme Director at the Jan Nowak-Jeziorański Eastern Europe College, lecturer at the Centre for East European Studies, University of Warsaw, and country expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). He is the author of three books and numerous articles and reports in Polish, English and German on, among others, Polish foreign policy, the Balkans, Turkey, Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia.


Copyright © Herito 2020