History of the Tatar people, Russia’s second-largest ethnic group

3 min readMar 7, 2021


Photo by Viktor Talashuk on Unsplash

The Tatar people are Russia’s second-largest ethnic group, with their homeland located in Tatarstan, a region of Russia near the border with Kazakhstan. Russia is home to more than 5 million ethnic Tatars, with countries like Uzbekistan, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Turkey, also being home to a large Tatar population.

The Tatar people see their origins in Northern China in the lands of the Gobi Desert. Ancient Tatars shared close links with Ancient China and Mongolia, but are considered a Turkic ethnic group.

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The Tatar people arrived in Russia through Central Asia, while spreading their influence through modern Iran, Afghanistan, and Turkmenistan. The Tatar people also continued to share close links with the Mongols, who had begun an invasion of Eastern Europe. In Russia and Ukraine, all Muslims of Turkic origin were called “Tatars.”

As they settled parts of Eastern Europe, the Tatar people separated into two main groups, the Crimean Tatars and the Volga Tatars. There were also other Tatar groups, such as the Astrakhan Tatars, Lipka Tatars, Dobrujan Tatars, Mountain Tatars, and Dagestan Tatars, among others, including Siberian and Altay Tatars.

The Volga Tatars are those that live primarily along the Volga River, which is the largest river in Russia, in the regions of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan. Volga Tatars also separated into multiple distinct groups, the largest of which are the Kazan Tatars, named after the capital of Tatarstan; Kazan. The Kazan Tatars form the bulk of the Volga Tatar population.

Along the agricultural lands of the Volga, the traditions of the Tatar population there became tied to the climate. Festivals honoring the agricultural cycle began to appear. After famines in the 19th and early 20th centuries, many Volga Tatars migrated westward, into Moscow, Finland, and Azerbaijan. A large Tatar population moved to Brazil.

Further west, the large population of Crimean Tatars took over the Crimean Peninsula and began to develop it into an independent Muslim state. They also developed their own language, called Crimean Tatar, and built some of the largest mosques in Europe.

In the 15th century, the Khanate of Crimea established diplomatic ties with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which had conquered large parts of Belarus and Ukraine, and was nearing Tatar lands in Crimea. In the 16th century, the Khanate of Crimea joined the Ottoman Empire. Some Tatars migrated to Turkey, and the Turks stopped Crimea from joining Lithuania.

In the 17th century, Crimean Tatars helped Cossacks in Ukraine gain independence from Polish-Lithuanian rule, and in the early 18th century, Crimean Tatars fought a brutal war against the Russian tsar, Peter the First. By the 1770s, Russia had gained control of the entire Crimean Peninsula.

After the war, many Tatars from Crimea had moved to Turkey, and the exodus grew during the Crimean War. The French and British armies helped to assist the Tatars into the lands of the Ottoman Empire, increasing tensions with the government in Moscow.

After famines in the early history of the Soviet Union, some Crimean Tatars fled the peninsula for Romania. During World War Two, many Crimean Tatars suffered brutally, as Germany occupied Crimea. Under Stalin’s policies, some Crimean Tatars were also exiled to Uzbekistan.

After the end of Stalinism in the Soviet Union, life essentially stabilized for the Tatar people, and many achieved great success in the Soviet Union such as film director Vadim Abdrashitov, actor Talgat Nigmatulin, and composer Nacip Cihanov.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, many Crimean Tatars moved back to Crimea, causing a real estate boom. Since the end of Soviet rule, Tatars in the former Soviet republics continued to make great achievements, such as Rinat Akhmetov, who became the richest person in Ukraine. In many parts of Russia, Tatar languages and cultures became embraced and became the co-official languages of many regions. To teach more people about Tatar culture and history, share this story with your friends.




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