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Stanford Humanities Center International Visitor Q&A: Hakan Kirimli

Hakan Kirimli has been studying the history of Crimean Tatars for a long time. An associate professor of international relations and the Director of the Center for Russian Studies at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey, Kirimli spent the month of April 2016 at Stanford as the Aron Rodrigue International Visitor 2015-2016 at the Stanford Humanities Center, and co-sponsored with the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. Kirimli was nominated by the Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies.
 
Kirimli is a leading scholar of the history of Crimean Tatars and their relations with neighboring Turkic peoples and imperial Russia. His first book,  National Movements and National Identity among the Crimean Tatars, 1905-1916 (Brill Publishers, 1996), is the first scholarly work to closely examine the formation of the modern identity of Crimean Tatars. Kirimli filled many lacunae on the subject by bringing to light previously unexamined archival materials. His most recent book, Crimean Tatars and Nogai Village Settlements in Turkey (2012), is a seminal work on Crimean and Caucasian diaspora communities in Turkey. His work includes themes of deportations and diaspora, migration studies, Russian imperial policy (particularly towards Muslim populations), borderlands, memory, and cultural and political networks.
 
Kirimli holds a BA in economics and an MA in history from Hacettepe University in Ankara, Turkey, and a PhD in history from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
 
During his time at Stanford, Kirimli gave the talk “Ottoman Empire and the Crimean Khanate: A Symbiotic Alliance or Veiled Rivalry?” sponsored by the Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies and the Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies.
 
Here, Kirimli shares some insight into his research.
 
How did you become interested in devoting your research career to the study of Crimea and the history of Tatars? 
The first response is that this is the study of my heritage – as my last name makes clear, I am the descendent of Crimean Tatars who fled Crimea for Turkey in the early-mid 20th century. But far more important than this heritage link, what drew me to studying the history of Crimean Tatars is the fact that this is a vitally important topic that is grossly understudied, under-researched. This is particularly the case regarding historical studies of the Crimean Tatars from their own perspectives and points of view. The field is filled with lacunae; my scholarship is an effort to make an intervention into some of those gaps in our historical understanding. 
 
 
What are people most surprised by when you tell them about your research, or what has been an especially surprising finding you have discovered about the region or about the Crimean Tatars as a people?
I find that most people – particularly in the West but even in the region itself – lack even basic historical understanding about the region and the Crimean Tatars as a people. This is due in no small part to how regional politics have played and continue to play out. But the sheer existence of Crimean Tatars comes as a surprise to many, and their history is largely unknown – as if they were some “lost people” akin to Atlantis or another location of the mythical past. This is true even as Crimean Tatars have literally been at the center of centuries of political events of deep and widespread significance – events that continue today, and whose stakes play out across empires, nations, and millions of people. 
 
People in Turkey, for example, may know a bit more about Crimea and Crimean Tatars than most people living in the West but only by a bit. People who hear I am a historian often expect my topic to be something familiar or mainstream. But what I find tantalizing and worth investigating are the narrow corridors of the unknowns. I love my profession, and what I love most about it is this process of exploring the unknown, the undiscovered or overlooked, the misrepresented.  The history of Crimean Tatars is simultaneously of tremendous historical significance and marked by overwhelming lack of understanding about events and history.  Many people don’t even know that Yalta is in Crimea, for example. People may have now heard of Crimea because of recent events in the region, but they don’t know how to contextualize what is happening, how to place it in the context of its wider historical unfolding, or even who the native people of that country actually are. 
 
 
Why do you think it is valuable, in today’s age and current global atmosphere, to study the history of Crimea, the Ottoman Empire, and the alliances and rivalries from that region?
Crimea is, unfortunately, yet again the latest target for Russian expansion – a repeat of history. Crimea has played the role of a hub, sometimes the linchpin, for regional politics for a long, long time – this is true both economically and politically. Crimean Tatars, as a people, have been shaped and formed by waves of historical events over centuries. Without Crimea, there can be no Crimean Tatars. Their existence is at stake in what continues to happen there now; this is the place they are from and the place they have been shaped by. Even after countless mass deportation and migrations, Crimea is the place that shapes and will shape them. 
 
Crimean Tatar presence in the Crimea dates back a thousand years; they are the descendents of the Khazar kings and Kipchak Turks (not the Mongolian hordes as many think), and their civilization predates the Vikings, early Rus. They witnessed and lived through the establishments, expansions, and changing contours of the Russian and Ottoman empires, alongside all the many others who have swept through and around the region over the past millennium. In the 14-15th centuries, this was one of the critical locations of Islamic civilization worldwide, for example. There is so much that has taken place here, and so much of it is little known to those outside. 
 
Since 1783 Russia has been occupying the land – countless times – and presents it as a historical Russian land. To understand the designs and motivations of current Russian policy and practice in the region, we have to know how to contextualize it within this history. It has long been the first step of Russian expansion in the region – and that step is always followed by other steps and leaps.
 
 
How do you conduct your research?
I conduct my research through working in archives; I have worked in archives in Turkey, Russia, Ukraine, Crimean, Germany, the UK, and other parts of the former Soviet Union. The resources here at the Hoover Library at Stanford have been like a nirvana for me. In general, I examine the letters of politicians, commanders, intellectuals, and others, mainly Russian but also coming from dozens of other nationalities.
 
 
Can learning about past diasporas and deportations help us navigate the current refugee crisis?
If we are talking about Crimean Tatars, these are a people who have lived through many attempts to wipe them out; Crimean Tatars survived several forced emigrations to the Ottoman Empire under tsarist Russia in the 19 and 20th centuries. the peak of their plight was the 18 May 1944 mass deportation from Crimea to Soviet Central Asia by Stalin, as a consequence of which they lost 46 % of their entire population. The Soviet regime did everything to erase all traces of their millennium-old material culture in Crimea. The Crimean Tatars have survived and lived though every kind of political and religious persecution. And in the present day they are, once again, confronted with grave threats to their very existence in the form of Putin’s occupational regime. It is, I’m afraid, very difficult to find rosy parts in recent Crimean Tatar history. This is what emerges when examining this history.