The Pirates of Steppes. The story of Crimean Khanate

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Tatar Dance. Drawing by Carlo Bossoli

The story of the Crimean Khanate takes us back to the middle of the 15th-century when Golden Horde saw its decline and was split into several smaller khanates. Then there was an internal rivalry on the Crimean peninsula between the Tatar clans. Eventually, the most successful of them was the founder of Giray dynasty – Hacı I Giray, who with the help of the Lithuanian Grand Duke Vytautas took over the peninsula. However, the path of Hacı Giray to the control of Crimea was very rocky. Until his eventual reign and the foundation of the Crimean Khanate, he had to suffer several losses and setbacks, including being a hostage of another Grand Duke of Lithuania – Sigismund Kestutaitis.

Despite all the efforts of Hacı Giray, neither he nor his descendants had absolute power over the khanate. It was at times a relatively chaotic state, as the lack of control over beys (local nobles) created a headache for the khan. Crimean beys constantly led the raids to the neighboring lands and captured thousands of people (esir – that is how they called the captives) every year to make a great profit in the slave trade and ransoms. Khan got his share of profit, but most of these raids were held without his permission. Even if the Crimean khan had an agreement with the attacked state, beys did not care much about that. However, both sides understood that there is no need for internal conflict. To keep his position safe, khan had to balance between his wishes and the wishes of beys.

Slave trade dominated the Crimean economy for several reasons. One of them was their origin – they were nomads, skilled horse riders and raids were simply part of their lifestyle. Farming was not as a respectable thing to do and it was not as profitable as slave trade. This kept raids alive for several centuries and most of the captured people were sold in the Ottoman administrated trade center Caffa that was located on the coast of the Black Sea. Up to 20 000 slaves were sold every year and the total number of captured people might be even twice bigger, as only the strongest captives could stay alive until they were sold. Those, who were too weak or slow, simply got killed on the way to Caffa.

While being a vassal state, Crimean Khanate remained largely an independent state. Depending on the political situation in the region, Crimeans occasionally had alliances with the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Zaporozhian Cossacks. However, that still did not stop their raids that also was kind of a tool to keep the balance of power and prevent one or another neighboring country to become too powerful. Crimean khans feared that allowing one specific country to dominate the region would eventually lead to the end of their Khanate. Because of this concern, at some point, they stopped raids to Polish-Lithuanian lands to hold the influence of growing Muscovy.

Tatar house in the village of Alupka. Drawing by Carlo Bossoli (1856)
Tatar house in the village of Alupka. Drawing by Carlo Bossoli (1856)

Regarding the Ottoman Empire, khans were always sly and they managed to keep the influence of Ottomans somewhat limited. Crimean warriors were often involved in the conflicts that the Ottoman Empire had in Balkans, Moldavia and Poland, but overall Khanate remained autonomous for the most time. There were cases when Ottomans tried to put too loyal to their Empire khan in power in Crimean Khanate to increase their influence. However, in most cases, this turned out to be a disastrous move. Local nobles were angered by such interventions and Ottoman-supported khan eventually had to step back. Beys preferred to see in power a khan that they respected.

The decline of the Crimean Khanate started in the early 18th-century. Russia was then led by the ambitious Peter the Great, who saw Crimea as one of the potentially significant regions in his plan of creating a powerful navy. Peter’s Azov Campaigns allowed conquering some of the Tatar fortresses and gaining access to the Azov Sea. The following series of the Russo-Turkish Wars strengthened the positions of the Russian Empire and Crimean soon raids became a history.

In 1774, Crimean Khanate formally gained independence from the Ottoman Empire that had to sign the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca. Three years later, the Russian Empire backed Şahin Giray became a khan. He was an educated man, who had studied abroad and his plans to modernize Crimean Khanate and bring it closer to the condition of European states brought him a lot of headaches. Local nobles were strongly against him due to their conservative nature and the fact that the Russians put khan in power. The series of riots started on the peninsula in 1781 and Şahin Giray had to flee to Russia. In 1783, he returned to Crimea and with the help of the Russian army that was led by the famous military leader Alexander Suvorov, riots were soon suppressed and many of khan’s opponents executed.

At that point, Crimean Khanate was in a poor condition – almost bankrupt, weakened by riots and with an unpopular khan in power. The same year Şahin Giray returned to Crimea, he stepped down as a khan and Russian Empress Catherine the Great signed a manifesto that included the Crimean Khanate in the Russian Empire. By that time, Suvorov’s army already held all the key points in Crimea and Şahin Giray had no other option than to peacefully give away his throne. The longest-living Turkic khanate became a part of the Taurida Oblast in the Russian Empire.

The story of the Crimean Khanate shows that a state caught between powerful empires could still be an important player in the political games on the European map. Crimeans never had any friends or enemies; they always had their own interests. It was a simple principle to follow. They were smart enough to keep themselves in a respectable position for 300 years, even though Khanate kept their conservative nomadic habits and opposed the reforms. There are some similarities between the Crimean Khanate and Zaporozhian Cossacks who in a similar manner retained their autonomy for a long time and influenced the course of European history.

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