Meskhetian Turks are a Turkish group that has traditionally lived in south-southwestern Georgia to the south of Meskhetian mountain range. In November 1944, after being denounced as “enemies” of the people” by Stalin, they were rounded to and deported to Central Asia (mostly Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan). About 155,000 Meskhetian Turks from 200 villages in the Meskhetia region of southern Georgia were deported.
Meskhetian Turks have received some attention for the way they adapted their traditional culture and lifestyle from the western Caucasus region to Central Asia. The two areas could not be more unalike. The western Caucasus is well-watered, mountainous and mostly Christian. Central Asia is flat dry and mostly Muslim. The traditional way of life of the Caucasus was of little use to the Meskhetian Turks in Central Asia and their modern identity has been shaped by how they dealt with this change.
The traditional homelands of the Meskhetian Turks has since been taken over by Georgians and other ethnic groups who are adverse to te idea of giving the land back to the Meskhetian Turks. The Georgian government said Meskhetian Turks could return under the condition that they replace their Turkish names with Georgian ones. Proud of their Turkish identify, most refused. The issue o resettlement is still being debated to this day.
History of Meskhetian Turks
Meskhetian Turks are also known as Meskhetians. They speak a language classified in the Qoghuzic subgroup of the Turkic family and were first identified in southern Georgia between the 11th and 14th centuries, a period marked by invasions of Turkic groups such as the Seljuks and the Timurids and fighting between the Ottomans and Persians. The Meskheti area had few natural barriers and the mix of these Turkic groups with the local population created the Meskhetian Turks. They in turn mixed with a group of Armenian-speaking, light-skinned Catholics, called the Franks, thought to have been the remnants of a stranded group of European Crusaders.
Meskhetian Turks lived in homogenous villages and villages with other groups such as Georgians, Armenians and Kurds under both Christian Georgian and Muslim Turkish rule. During much of their existence they lived under Georgian rule and were able to maintain their identity and prosper through trade with the Georgians. The Meskhetian Turks produced bountiful harvests using irrigation with wooden and ceramic conduits and were known for producing much sought-after tobacco and honey.
The Meskhetian were forcibly exiled from southern Georgia to Central Asia, mostly Uzbekistan, by Stalin during World War II. Unlike other groups that were deported from the Caucasus, the Meskhetian Turks didn’t return to their homeland after Stalin died. They made permanent homes for themselves in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. It was thought that since the Meskhetian Turks were Turks and spoke a Turkic language like Uzbek, Kazakh and Kyrgyz and were used to living among different ethnic group they would do well in Central Asia. But that didn’t happen.
Meskhetian Turk Culture and Life
Meskhetian Turks are fairly devoted Muslims. Among the pre-Islamic customs that have endured is the custom of bringing a fire to the graves of the dead after a funeral, attempting to induce rain by rattling pebbles in a brass basin, healing people and animals with “moon water” (water left outside on a clear night) and the custom of breaking an egg on the head of an oxen before plowing.
Marriages have traditionally been arranged between people considered to be blood relatives (but this also includes relatives of godparents and others who are not genetically related). Godmothers symbolically adopted infant children of friends by placing the naked infants through an opening in her clothes to simulate giving birth. Traditionally, arranged marriages were worked out when the couple was quite young. The wedding involved the payment of a bride price (half which was traditionally returned during preparation for the wedding), an Islamic ceremony and a large colorful and lively feast, finishing with a procession to a house newly built for the newlyweds.
Living in Central Asia changed the Meskhetian Turks in many ways. They adopted Central Asian homes and some Central Asian style clothing. In Azerbaijan, where many of them live, there has been rebirth of Meskhetian Turkish culture.
Discrimination Against Meskhetian Turks
Many of the estimated 200,000 Meskhetian Turks outside Georgia sought to return to their homes in Georgia after 1990, as the Soviet Union was breaking up. Many Georgians argued that the Meskhetian Turks had lost their links to Georgia and hence had no rights that would justify the large-scale upheaval resettlement would cause. However, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze argued that Georgians had a moral obligation to allow this group to return. [Source: Glenn E. Curtis, Library of Congress, 1994 *]
Meskhetian Turks were at the center or some ethnic disturbances including the one in 1989 in the Fergana Valley (See Below). Many have since left Uzbekistan, settling in Azerbaijan and almost all the former Soviet republics except Georgia. Many ended up in Krasnodar in southern Russia near the Black Sea, where they have been subjected to harassment and worse by Cossacks (See Cossacks, Russia).
One man told the Washington Post he and 37 other men were rounded up while working in a tomato fields and held for hours, and having their passports seized. The man said, “They were told to go away; ‘we don’t want you her.’ They said we had no right to work; we are foreigners.”
A woman told the Washington Post that militiamen in camouflage uniforms broke into her house and demanded she turn over her television.
Krasnodar locals don’t consider the Meskhetian Turks to be citizens of Russia although many of them were in the area when the Soviet Union collapsed and therefore should be granted citizenship. Today, there are about 20,000 Meskhetian Turks in the Krasnodar. They live in a kind of legal limbo. They are unable to get residency permits or buy land because of anti-immigration regulations enacted by local authorities and enfored by police and ultranationalist Cossack vigilantes.
Meskhetian Turks and the Fergana Valley Ethnic Conflict in 1989
In 1989, ethnic animosities came to a head in the Fergana Valley, where local Meskhetian Turks were assaulted by Uzbeks, and in the Kyrgyz city of Osh, where Uzbek and Kyrgyz youth clashed. In Andijan, Uzbekistan, Jews and Armenians were chased out of neighborhoods and their houses were burned down. In Tashkent and mostly in the the Fergana Valley around the same time the Meskhetian Turks, a small minority, were attacked by Uzbeks. When the dust cleared hundreds of Meskhetian Turks were dead or injured (150 deaths were reported) , nearly 1,000 properties were destroyed and tens of thousands of Meskhetians become refugees. Disputes over land in the crowded Fergana Valley and high unemployment, particularly among young men were blamed for the ethnic violence.
Uzbekistan, specifically the fertile and populous Fergana Valley, had been the principal destination for Meskhetian Turk deportees in the1940s. Despite the hardships associated with their internal exile, many Meskhetian Turks in Uzbekistan had attained a relative measure of prosperity, proving themselves industrious agricultural producers. Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s economic and political liberalization policies contributed greatly to the anti-Meskhetian Turk outburst, lifting the lid on simmering nationalist sentiment among Uzbeks. Overcrowded conditions in the Fergana Valley, combined with widespread poverty, also fueled interethnic hostility. [Source: Open Society Foundation ***]
By May 1989, the tension was such that a supposed misunderstanding between an Uzbek and a Meskhetian Turk in a Fergana market led to a fight, which sparked countrywide rioting. The loss of life and property might have been much greater if the Soviet army had not been dispatched to protect and then oversee the enforced evacuation of many Meskhetian Turks. ***
Saifadin Tamaradze, a 54-year old farmer who now lives in the Sabirabad region of Azerbaijan, recalled: “As late as May 1, we had no reason to expect that there would be any problems. Then we began hearing rumors that something bad might happen.… After the incident [in the farmer’s market], Uzbek crowds appeared on the streets and they were throwing stones and threatening people. We tried as best we could to defend ourselves.… We became very afraid when we heard that in other places they [Uzbeks] were burning houses and killing people, so we fled to a collection point, where the Soviet military was protecting us.… We left in such a hurry that we had no time to collect any possessions. We didn’t even take our documents.… It was devastating to leave. With hard work people had built a nice life, and we had to leave with nothing.” ***
Many of the estimated 70,000-plus Meskhetian Turk evacuees from Uzbekistan settled in Azerbaijan. Others went to various regions of Russia, especially Krasnodar Krai. Still more resettled in neighboring Central Asian states, primarily Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. The physical separation of what had been a relatively compact Meskhetian Turk community in Uzbekistan, compounded by the demoralization of sudden loss, dealt the repatriation efforts a blow from which it has yet to fully recover, according to some Meskhetian Turk leaders. They are quick to proffer conspiracy theories, asserting that Soviet authorities feared the Meskhetian Turk leadership in 1989 was on the verge of achieving repatriation goals, therefore the Kremlin intentionally stirred events that would keep Meskhetian Turks divided, and hence pliant. “The Fergana events of 1989 were specifically manipulated by the KGB and other power structures in order to weaken our movement,” said Yusuf Sarvarov, the leader of Vatan, a Meskhetian Turk advocacy organization that spearheads the repatriation effort. Whatever the source of the Fergana events, Meskhetian Turks are still struggling to find the cohesiveness that would facilitate repatriation. The legacy of the riots also has an ongoing impact on the search for human security. ***
Since the Fergana tragedy, many Meskhetian Turks have managed to recover from the trauma. But not all. In particular, Meskhetian Turks in Krasnodar are grappling with ongoing insecurity. Chauvinistic leaders in the southern Russian region are carrying out policies designed to make Meskhetian Turks feel unwelcome. The level of discrimination is such that Meskhetian Turk leaders, as well as international observers, warn about the possibility of interethnic disturbances that, for the third time since the 1940s, could culminate in the forced displacement of thousands of Meskhetian Turks. ***
There are significant populations of Tatars, a Turkic people that look more like Russians than Turks, in Central Asia as there are in Russia and most of the other former Soviet republics. Tatars began settling in Central Asia in the 19th century at the encouragement of the tsars. In the late Soviet period, numerous Tatars migrated to the Central Asian republics, in particular Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Large numbers of Tatars were exiled to Central Asia at the end of World War II.
The Tatars is a name used to describe several distinct groups of Muslim Turkic people who speak Turkic languages. Most are Sunni Muslims and are identified in association with specific areas in Russia and the former Soviet Union. There are four main groups of Tatars; 1) the Volga Tatars; 2) the Crimean Tatars; 3) the Siberian Tatars; and 4) the Kriashen Tatars. Tatars are also called Tartars.
The Tatar language belongs to the Kipchak group and has several regional dialects. The region of present-day Tatarstan was occupied by the Mongols when the Golden Horde swept across the middle Volga region in the early thirteenth century. When the Mongol Empire fragmented two centuries later, one of its constituent parts, the Tatar Kazan' Khanate, inherited the middle Volga and held the region until its defeat by Ivan IV. Shortly thereafter, Russian colonization began. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]
Forced Exile of Crimean Tatars
On May 18, 1944, towards the end of World War II, all of the Crimean Tatars—some 230,000 of them—were roused from their beds and rounded up in one night, under orders from Stalin, and forced onto trucks and rail cattle cars for the long trip to Central Asia (mostly to Uzbekistan) and the southern Urals. The Tatars were falsely accused by Stalin of collaborating with the Nazis— even though they supplied a large of soldiers to anti-Nazi units in the Red Army—and were exiled as punishment. The Tatars were one of a dozen or so ethnic groups accused by Stalin of collaborating with the Nazis.
One Tatar late told the Washington Post, "A Russian officer came with three soldiers and ordered us to leave. He said the Tatars were traitors to the Motherland. My father gave him documents showing that my brother was fighting the Germans in the Red Army, but [the officer] threw them aside. He said that meant nothing.”
The Tatars were locked inside the cattle cars. At stops some food and water was thrown in and dead bodies were removed. As many 100,000 of them died—nearly half their entire population— during the journey and the early days or resettlement. Those who survived lost their land, lost their identity and were subjected to crushing restrictions.
Crimean Tatars in Uzbekistan
The Tatars were settled in communities under tight supervision. They were prohibited from traveling or publishing in their language. One woman told the Washington Post, “In Uzbekistan, Tatars are being turned into Uzbeks and Russians. We're losing our languages, our culture and identity.”
The Tatars first lived in concrete huts set up on the steppes. Over time they built proper houses. After Stalin died, other groups were allowed to return to their homelands, but not the Tatars. Some historians believe this was because that Tatars might stir up anti-Soviet activity among other Muslim groups. Other historians have said the Soviet’s simply wanted the Tatars land and firmer grasp on the strategically important Crimean peninsula.
Back in the Crimea, Russians had moved into Tatars houses and farmed Tatar land and destroyed Tatar mosques and cemeteries. The Crimea was developed into an important military zone and a playground for the Soviet elite. In 1946, the Crimean Tatars ceased to officially exist as a distinct ethnic group, instead they were grouped in the broad Tatar category.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated April 2016