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The Counteroffensive: Crimean Tatars are observing this Ramadan in exile

March 14, 2024 5:55 PM 7 min read
Crimean Tatar muslims pray in the Big Khan Mosque in Bakhchisaray in Crimea, Ukraine, on Oct. 4, 2014. (Max Vetrov/AFP via Getty Images)
Alessandra Hay
Alessandra Hay
Journalist at The Counteroffensive
This audio is created with AI assistance

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Editor’s Note: This article was published by the blog “The Counteroffensive with Tim Mak” on March 14, 2024, and has been re-published by the Kyiv Independent with permission. To subscribe to "The Counteroffensive," click here.

Dilaver Saidakhmetov's grandfather wasn’t a practicing Muslim, but that didn’t stop him building a mosque.

After decades of Soviet authorities burning Islamic literature and shutting down Islamic schools, Crimean Tatars were deported in the hundreds of thousands to Central Asia and Siberia in 1944. So almost none of the Crimean Tatars who returned to Crimea in the 1970s were very devout Muslims.

But that didn’t stop them building mosques, and slowly trying to regain their heritage. “When Crimean Tatars returned, they built mosques wherever they could,” said Dilaver.

The story of Crimean Tatars and how they used Islam to protect their heritage and culture is one chapter in a wider story of how people in Ukraine are protecting and preserving their identity and heritage against Russian aggression.

The month of Ramadan, which began this week, is the holiest month in Islam, and it is especially significant for Crimean Tatars. For decades, Soviet policies prevented Crimean Tatars from being able to study their language or practice their religion openly. So for many, private religious rituals conducted in the home and away from the reach of the Soviet government, like the fasting of Ramadan, enabled them to preserve Crimean Tatar culture.

And the mosques were built less out of religious devotion, and more to root themselves in the land they had been forced from decades before. For many Crimean Tatars, Islam was important as an identity and expression of their culture and community, in addition to being a set of religious beliefs.

Crimean Tatar muslims pray in the Great Khan Mosque in the city of Bakhchisaray in Crimea, Ukraine, on Oct. 4, 2014. (Max Vetrov/AFP via Getty Images)

The Counteroffensive went to Kyiv’s only mosque to speak with Dilaver, the leader of a Ukrainian Islamic organization, on the first day of his fast.

Despite his naturally cheerful disposition, it is difficult to mark such a significant celebration outside of his homeland and without his fellow Crimean Tatars: “Crimean Tatars don’t understand how not to live in Crimea. Even for me this is very difficult,” said Dilaver, who is in exile in Kyiv, where he has been since Russia annexed his homeland in 2014.

Dilaver emphasizes how important this month of Ramadan is for Crimean Tatars, a unique ritual grounded more in identity and a longing for home than a strictly religious ritual.

“Most Crimean Tatars have not been practicing Muslims, but basically all Crimean Tatars have always, well for the most part, fasted during Ramadan, almost as if it is an entirely separate thing,” he explained. “This is something that really only Crimean Tatars understand.”

Through fasting during Ramadan, Crimean Tatars were able to hold onto their religion without formal, public places of worship – a private, quiet echo of historical religious traditions.

Today, mosques in occupied Crimea like the one Dilaver’s grandfather built are regularly infiltrated with spies and their Friday prayers are monitored by Russian occupying authorities, while Crimean Tatars are subjected to house raids and arrests on made-up charges, often with a spurious religious basis.

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After Crimean Tatars were deported from Crimea in 1944, they were banned from returning until the 1970s and subject to policies of Russification, which ordered Crimean Tatar books to be burnt and their mosques to be destroyed. The Soviet government then brought Russians to resettle in Crimea.

When the Crimean Tatars returned, life was not as the same as before the deportation – many Crimean Tatars had died before they could return and the people that did survive saw their homeland completely changed. In 2014, after the Russian annexation of the peninsula, around 10,000 Crimean Tatars, Dilaver being one of them, fled Crimea again.

The Soviet policies prohibiting Islamic education and teaching led to the loss of what Dilaver calls "traditional Islam" in Crimea, or the Islam that was native to Crimean Tatars in earlier times. This opened the door for Islamic missionaries from Turkey and Saudi Arabia, which has led to the rise in the numbers of different types of Islam in Crimea in the present day.

“(When Crimean Tatars returned from deportation) the level of religious knowledge was practically zero. The memory of that religious tradition that we had before was actually lost. Therefore, people tried to get this religious knowledge from somewhere else. And these influences from Saudi Arabia, from Turkey, from Egypt, from some other countries, they penetrated the Crimean community, so to speak,” Dilaver explains.

Islam as an identity, rather than a set of beliefs, became the way that many Crimean Tatars saw themselves in relation to others.

“When I was little, you know how we differentiated people? We thought that... everybody who is Muslim is a Crimean Tatar and everybody who is not Muslim is automatically Russian, but of course they were not all Russians, there were Ukrainians, etc. But, to us, the distinction was purely religious,” Dilaver laughed again and continued to explain.

Muslims celebrate Maghrib and Iftar in a mosque in Kyiv, Ukraine, on March 12, 2024. (Adri Salido/Anadolu via Getty Images)

The significance of Islam to the Crimean Tatar identity is rooted in history: Islam played a key role in uniting the different ethnic groups in Crimea under the Crimean Khanate which ruled in the 15th century.

The Crimean Tatars are the result of over 30 different ethnic groups blending together over centuries; these groups included the Cumans, Tavri, and Scythians, according to Mavile Khalil, a researcher whose work currently focuses on Crimean Tatar identity.

The multicultural history of Crimea has also shaped how Crimean Tatars worship, Dilaver explains: “Crimean Islam has specific features... pluralism and tolerance of other people’s views.”

Although Dilaver says that religious tradition native to Crimea was lost with the deportation of Crimean Tatars, a culture of pluralism is something that still shapes their religious rituals.

It is traditional for Muslims to make food before the first day of the fast of Ramadan and make enough to give to one another. But, Dilaver said, pluralism is integrated into the Crimean tradition, and they give food to anyone regardless of their religion.

Dilaver’s parents, who were born in Uzbekistan, did not pray five times a day and did not attend the mosque on Fridays, however Islam and its rituals are still woven into so many of Dilaver’s happy childhood memories. He recalls vividly the first time he saw his parents fasting for Ramadan.

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“I remember that it was winter, it was snowing and it was cold. I remember how my mom woke up in the middle of the night and was cooking some food for her and my dad. And then well, it starts to happen every day, you realize that something is off right? And then, we had the first conversation about Ramadan, and… we, as children, asked, ‘Can we fast too?’” Dilaver smiles and laughs warmly.

In his childhood Dilaver remembers asking his mother why, during Ramadan, Crimean Tatars always eat yantiks and chebureks, a flour flatbread with a filling, folded in two and made in a pan.

Firstly, yantiks can keep you full for a long time and they are quick and easy to make, but his mother also explained that it was a tradition that began when they returned to Crimea after deportation and life was hard. Many of them were not able to find work but they always had flour and with a few other ingredients you can make a yantik.

“This is really an image from my childhood, the yantiks, the morning, the dark outside the window, your parents’ preparing something and eating in the kitchen, you listening to their conversation. You, of course, have to make sure that you have your coffee before sunrise, without coffee Crimean Tatars…” Dilaver waves his hand, as if to say "you don’t even want to know."

Dilaver will not be eating yantiks in Crimea to break his fast, but he does not give up hope that one day he might.

“Ten years have passed (since Crimea was occupied), but then I remember my grandfather, who lived without it for 33 years, and I have as an incentive for patience that I hope that someday it will change,” he said, adding a common Muslim phrase meaning ‘if God wills it.’


Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in the op-ed section are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the views of the Kyiv Independent.

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