Cover Image for De-occupying Crimea in the Western Mind

De-occupying Crimea in the Western Mind

Rory Finnin
Issue 2 (2024)

Exploring the legacy of Crimean Tatar autonomy in the aftermath of World War I and its progressive governing body, the Qurultay, Rory Finnin releases the history of the Black Sea peninsula from the grip of Kremlin obfuscations, and envisions a future, free Crimea within Ukraine.


In August 2022, six months into the full-scale invasion, President Volodymyr Zelensky recorded a video address from his desk on Bankova Street in Kyiv.[1] Flanked by two furled flags, he spoke to his fellow citizens with a forthright but intimate style that has become his trademark. His subject was Crimea. ‘This Russian war against Ukraine and against all of free Europe began with Crimea’, he said. ‘And it will end with Crimea — with its liberation’.

Zelensky’s bold prediction was also an urgent reminder. Crimea is the ground zero of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, the largest and most dangerous armed conflict in Europe since the Second World War. In February 2014, Russia’s war began with the military seizure of Crimea; in February 2022, it escalated with a full-scale invasion launched in part from Crimea. At an unbearable cost, the people of Ukraine have since withstood an avalanche of Russian war crimes and countered the Kremlin’s neo-imperialism with acts of defiant resistance and self-defence that have gripped the world. Today the Ukrainian Armed Forces are fighting metre by metre to expel from Ukraine’s sovereign territory Russian occupiers tasked with genocide. Kyiv is also doing something that many Western pundits thought improbable or even impossible only months ago: striking strategic Russian military assets across Crimea and shattering, once again, our conventional wisdom.


Crimea and the strategic port of Sevastopol have long been a site of security for Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. No longer. To date, Kyiv has destroyed roughly 40% of the tonnage of the Black Sea Fleet and forced a relocation of most of its maritime assets to Novorossiisk, in internationally recognised Russian territory. This remarkable development largely escapes global media attention, which is in the sway of establishment groupthink about Russia’s purported military might and ‘red lines’. The point needs to be emphasised: Ukraine’s armed forces and Ministry of Defence are actively de-occupying Crimea by force.

The ultimate outcome of this military de-occupation campaign remains to be seen. What is clear is that the work of cognitively de-occupying Crimea in the Western imagination has only just begun. On our mental maps, Crimea remains a political and cultural space captive to Kremlin mythologies and vague platitudes about its ‘sacred’ place in Russian history and memory. Scholars, analysts, and journalists focus little on the bitter legacy of centuries of settler colonialism and ethnic cleansing on the peninsula, which the poet Maksimilian Voloshin summarised in 1926 as a history of Russia ‘trampling on a Muslim paradise, cutting down forests, desecrating ruins, and looting and plundering the land’. Today we yield too often to the brash but insecure Russian meme that emerged during the Kremlin’s annexation operation in 2014 to frame the Black Sea peninsula as an object of desire, conquest, and control: KrymNash, ‘Crimea Is Ours’.

For the Crimean Tatars, however, Crimea is not an object. It is not territory to be taken and possessed. For the peninsula’s largest Indigenous people, a Sunni Muslim, Turkic language-speaking nation, Crimea is part of their collective subjectivity — not ‘Crimea Is Ours’, but ‘Crimea Is Us’. The intimate bond between the Crimean Tatars and their ancestral homeland gives the lie to claims that ‘Crimea is perennial Russian land’, as Putin defensively insists. It is why Russian and Soviet leaders have sought to neutralise and eradicate the Crimean Tatars through deliberate campaigns of marginalisation, oppression, and genocide. This assault continues today, as Russian occupiers systematically target Crimean Tatar families with arbitrary arrest and draconian imprisonment and push the limits of a longstanding pacifist Muslim national movement with brutal provocations.

But this intimate bond between the Crimean Tatars and their ancestral homeland is also why, in a future free Crimea within Ukraine, the Crimean Tatars should be accorded national-territorial autonomy on the peninsula. As human rights activist and civic leader Myroslav Marynovych argues, amending Ukraine’s constitution to grant this autonomy is ‘the key to restoring justice on the peninsula’.


We have seen this Crimean Tatar autonomy before, which is why we should welcome it now. It led to the first liberal democratic government in Crimea’s history.

In the aftermath of the World War I, nearly a dozen non-Russian nations pursued projects of self-determination amid the rubble of the Russian Empire. Most of these projects were short-lived in practice, but lasting in principle — none more so than the Crimean Tatar Congress or Qurultay, which took its name from the ancient assemblies of the Crimean Tatar khanate (1441–1783). In 1917 the Qurultay made an indelible mark as the most progressive political body in the history of the Muslim world.

The leaders of the Qurultay found inspiration in a familiar place: revolutionary Kyiv. In July 1917, roughly a month after members of Mykhailo Hrushevskyi’s Tsentralna Rada (Central Council) declared autonomy for Ukraine, a Crimean Tatar delegation visited Kyiv looking to follow in their footsteps. Among their number was Cafer Seydamet (1889–1960), who considered an ‘inspection of the Ukrainian national movement a necessity’. Seydamet and his colleagues not only asked their Ukrainian counterparts ‘to support their aspirations for the establishment of Crimea’s autonomy’. According to the Simferopol-based newspaper Golos Tatar (Voice of the Tatars), they ‘expressed a desire for the territorial annexation of Crimea to Ukraine’ (my emphasis). Seydamet found a ‘playful-eyed’ Hrushevskyi receptive to their cause; Volodymyr Vynnychenko strangely inscrutable, ‘off in his own world’; and Symon Petliura ‘the sincerest of all’.

The precise results of these deliberations are not entirely clear. Any record of them has become a casualty of political turbulence. What did emerge from the July meeting was a ‘Congress of the Enslaved Peoples of Russia’ hosted by the Tsentralna Rada in Kyiv in September 1917. On its first day, Seydamet paid tribute to the hosts and wished ‘success to the Ukrainian movement’. His compatriot Amet Özenbaşlı (1893–1958) proclaimed in a passionate speech that, ‘just as the khans forged alliances with Ukrainians, we free sons of the Tatar people extend our hand to you’.

Verse never seemed far from the lips of Crimean Tatar activists at this time. One poem in particular would become the national hymn of the Crimean Tatars, a song later sung in KGB basements and prisons: ‘Ant etkenmen’ (I Have Pledged). Its author was Noman Çelebicihan (1885–1918), who accompanied Seydamet and Özenbaşlı in Kyiv and returned to Crimea determined to exorcise the long history of Russian settler colonialism on the Black Sea peninsula.

His ambition was breathtaking. In forming the Qurultay, Çelebicihan and his colleagues foregrounded the Crimean Tatars as the titular nation of Crimea but sought to represent the interests of all inhabitants of the peninsula, no matter their ethnic, religious, or linguistic background. They committed to the rights to ‘freedom of identity (svoboda lichnosti), speech, press, conscience, assembly, housing’ and much more. Promoting the rights of women was a special concern. Qurultay member Şefiqa Gaspıralı (1886–1975) — educator, journalist, and daughter of famed Crimean Tatar leader İsmail Bey Gaspıralı — spearheaded efforts to give women full voting rights and integrate them into all aspects of public life (well in advance of suffrage in the United Kingdom). In the photo below, taken in December 1917 at the first meeting of the Qurultay, she can be seen at the centre in a large marama shawl standing near Çelebicihan, the two of them with hands clasped at their waists.

Participants of the First Kurultay of the Crimean Tatar People in 1917. Creative Commons.

Moments before the photo was taken, the assembled Crimean Tatar activists read aloud Çelebicihan’s poem ‘Ant etkenmen’, casting its solemn words across the grounds of the hansaray, the ancient palace of the Crimean Tatar khan in Bağçasaray (Bakhchysarai). As Crimea’s chief religious authority, Çelebicihan crafted the poem with the confident, compassionate tones of the Koran. His last stanza speaks of the ultimate sacrifice:

Ant etkenmen, söz bergenmen millet içün ölmege,
Bilip, körip milletimniñ köz yaşını silmege.
Bilmey, körmey biñ yaşasam, Qurultayga han bolsam,
Kene bir kün mezarcılar kelir meni kommege.

(I have pledged and given my word to die for the nation,/ And knowing and seeing my nation’s tears, to wipe them away./ Even if I live a thousand years, even if I become khan to the Qurultay,/ One day the gravediggers will come to bury me all the same.)

Çelebicihan fulfilled this pledge. In the first months of 1918, Bolshevik forces invaded Crimea, forcing the Qurultay to disband and scatter. They arrested Çelebicihan and took him to Sevastopol’s ‘Quarantine Bay’, where ships were traditionally held before passengers came ashore. There he was tortured and shot, his clothes and belongings looted, his body dumped in the Black Sea. His murder presaged what would become an entire epoch of violent dispossession at the hands of the Soviet regime

Marking the legacy of the men and women behind the Qurultay helps us release the Black Sea peninsula from the grip of Kremlin myths and obfuscations. It is one step toward de-occupying Crimea in our minds. It is also a view to a long history of Ukrainian-Crimean Tatar solidarity, which has been never more evident than today. In September 2023, President Zelensky tapped Crimean Tatar businessman, activist, and public servant Rustem Umerov as Ukraine’s Minister of Defence. Like Zelensky, Umerov is no stranger to bold predictions. Addressing Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, Umerov declared: ‘As a child, I lived through the hardships brought about by Russian colonialism, which sought to make the Indigenous Crimean Tatar people feel as though they were aliens on their own land. They did not succeed back then, and they will never succeed’.



[1] This essay has been adapted from material in Rory Finnin, Blood of Others: Stalin’s Crimean Atrocity and the Poetics of Solidarity (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2022).


Rory Finnin is Professor of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Cambridge. He launched Cambridge Ukrainian Studies in 2008. He is former Head of the Department of Slavonic Studies (2014–18) and former Chair of the Cambridge Committee for Russian and East European Studies (CamCREES) (2011–18). His book, Blood of Others: Stalin’s Crimean Atrocity and the Poetics of Solidarity (University of Toronto Press, 2022), has won eight international book awards, earning distinctions in the fields of Ukrainian Studies, European Studies, Slavic Studies, nationalism studies, and genocide studies.


Image: Emine Ziyatdinova, The Crimean blockade, 28 November 2015. 

Cover Image for Crimean Tatars: Eighty Years of Remembrance and Resistance

Crimean Tatars: Eighty Years of Remembrance and Resistance

Issue 2 (2024)

For the eightieth anniversary of the Soviet deportation of Crimean Tatars, the London Ukrainian Review dedicates its second issue of 2024 to the Russia-occupied Crimean peninsula and its Indigenous people’s ongoing fight for justice.

Sasha Dovzhyk
Cover Image for The Long Exile: A History of the Deportation of 1944

The Long Exile: A History of the Deportation of 1944

Issue 2 (2024)

The mass deportation of Crimean Tatars in May 1944 is rooted in Russian settler colonialism which Martin-Oleksandr Kisly traces to the subjugation of Crimea by Catherine II. Eighty years after the grievous crime against the Indigenous people of Crimea, Crimean Tatars are under Russia’s occupation and banned from marking this historic date.

Martin-Oleksandr Kisly, trans. by Larissa Babij