Crimean Tatars, According to Gustav Radde—Part 1

Nov 1, 2014 by

(The following post deviates from the usual style of this blog in that it is an overview of one particular book, Gustav Radde’s Crimean Tatars, originally published in Russian in 1856-1857.* Given the group’s centrality to the current events, it is interesting to examine what Crimean Tatars were like, or at least appeared like to a foreign traveler, before their Sovietization in the 1920s and 1930s, their deportation of 1944 and subsequent return to Crimea after 1991, and the recent annexation of Crimea by Russia. The quotes below are reproduced from the 2008 reprint of the book, in my translation.)

Gustav_RaddeGustav Radde, author of Crimean Tatars, was an interesting character. Born in 1831 in the German-speaking city of Danzig (then part of Prussia, today Gdańsk, Poland), Radde ended up being one of the tens of thousands of ethnic Germans who settled in Russia.  The primary reasons for his immigration were scientific rather than economic, as Radde was driven by his fascination with Russia’s diverse landscapes, ecosystems, and peoples. A boy of curious disposition who studied local flora and fauna and collected butterflies, he grew up to be an intrepid naturalist and explorer of international renown. When he was twenty years of age, Radde received a small stipend from Danzig Naturalist Society and a visa to Russia. He then bravely embarked on a solo expedition to Crimea, where he spent the following three years, till the beginning of 1855. His visit largely overlapped with the Crimean War, which lasted from October 1853 through February 1856. Radde described what he called “the horrors of war” in his (unfinished) autobiography:

“Everyone blindly submitted to the general enthusiasm; and if anyone shrugged his shoulders or shook his head in doubt, he was immediately declared an enemy of Russia. But then everything changed quickly. … Everyone grew quiet, afraid. Caravans of wounded are brought to town, but nothing there is ready; volunteers help somewhat but it is not enough. … Only extraordinary measures prevented a massive flight of Simferopol’s residents and with the governor at their head. Everywhere help was needed but there was nowhere for it to come from.”

After his Crimean trip, Radde traveled to eastern Siberia, visited Lake Baikal and the Amur River region in Russia’s Far East, and explored the upper Yenisey and upper Ob’ areas of southern Siberia. The photo on the left shows him during his 1857 Amur River expedition. In 1860, Radde decided to move to Russia permanently and received Russian citizenship and a position in Saint-Petersburg Zoological Museum. In the summer of the following year, he traveled to Finland, which was at the time part of the Russian Empire, where he admired “all the beauties of the northern landscape with its forests, lakes, granite outcroppings and waterfalls”. In 1862, Radde went to the Caucasus, also part of the Russian Empire at the time, which he later called his “dear and beautiful second motherland”. There too he found himself in the midst of a war, as Russia was making its final stand against the Circassians. In February 1864, Radde was officially hired to conduct a bio-geographical exploration of the Caucasus, just as the Circassians were being expelled from their homeland. Subsequently, he traveled to Armenia, Northern Khorasan (in Central Asia), India, Indonesia, Ceylon, the Mediterranean, northern and northwestern Africa, and elsewhere. Several of his trips were to accompany Russian royals, the Grand Duke Alexander and Sergei (grandsons of Nicholas I), and later Grand Duke George (son of Emperor Alexander III).

Radde’s monograph Crimean Tatars was published in 1856-1857 in two issues of the Vestnik of Russian Imperial Geographical Society. Later, especially in the Soviet period, this work was essentially forgotten and never reprinted. After the fall of the Soviet Union several excerpts were reprinted in other ethnographic publications, and in 2008 the book was reprinted in its entirety, together with Radde’s unfinished autobiography, by the Ukrainian publishing house Stilos. This book, with its high quality color images, both reproductions of 19th century engravings and contemporary photographs, is a real gem. The text itself is interesting for a number of reasons. On the one hand, it is a classical work of the 19th-century ethnography genre, dealing with the predefined set of topics including the emergence of the ethnic group, customs and traditions, religion and education, clothing, “ethnic character”, and more. (Surprisingly, Radde had nothing to say about the Crimean Tatar language, another traditional item in the 19th-century “prix fixe menu” of topics in an ethnographic work. This gap probably stems from Radde’s apparent lack of interest in language in general: he made little if any effort to learn the languages of the peoples he encountered in his travels. See also note at the end of this post.)

Although it has all the requisite components of a scholarly ethnography tome, Crimean Tatars reads not as a purely scholarly monograph but more as a travelogue; I can almost see it as a script for a Travel Channel show… “On the Road with Radde”, or some such! The book’s subjectivity is hard to miss: now and again, Radde interrupts his narrative with poetic descriptions of the landscape that are more characteristic of Romantic 19th-century literature than of scholarly discourse. It is also clear that the book is written by a non-Russian traveler: Radde points out numerous things that are peculiar to him as a German but which a Russian traveler would not have found noteworthy. Similarly, Radde’s many mentions of “our” customs are meant to refer to the practices of the Germans.


As is the case with any serious ethnographic work of that time, Radde’s description of Crimean Tatars begins with their physical appearance in “racial” terms. He describes them as “Mongoloid” in appearance: “short and stooping stature; yellowish and dark facial color, often shading into dark-red; dark eyes; small and almost always flattened nose; black hair and thin beard”. But Radde also notes that the three geographically distinct groups of Crimean Tatars—those living in the steppes of Northern Crimea, the mountain Tatars, and those living on the southern shore of the Peninsula—have distinct physical appearance, with the abovementioned “Mongoloid type” being most characteristic of the steppe Tatars. Those living in the mountains are described as “tall and well built, facial color is lighter, closer to the Caucasian people, eyes big and dark, hair and beard thick and black”. (It is not clear whether Radde’s “Caucasian people” means those living in the Caucasus or the Caucasians in the racial sense, the “white people”.) The inhabitants of the southern shore of Crimea have the most “Greek blood” and look more European; they are described as “tall and stocky, their facial color is dark but not yellow [as with the northern Crimean Tatars], the face is oval and nice; nose is straight, often similar to that of the Greeks and Romans; hair and eyes black”.

Curiously, some of the physical characteristics that Radde takes note of are described as being not inborn but acquired. For example, their ears are said to stick out away from the head at the top due to the Crimean Tatars’ habit of wearing heavy lambskin hats. Women are described as having paler skin “than what is found among Caucasian women of lower classes”—which is ascribed by Radde to their tradition of covering their faces when outdoors or otherwise in public. This observation is followed by a curious departure from the racialist views prevalent in ethnography and anthropology of his day—namely that the darker facial color of Crimean Tatar men “does not depend on the presence in their skin of a coloring pigment, but is a consequence of the influence of climate and air”.


*Given that most of Radde’s other works were written in German, I assume that Crimean Tatars was also written in German. This is particularly likely since Radde admitted in his autobiography that he knew not a word of Russian when he first came to Russia in 1852 and had a hard time communicating during his stay in Crimea, except with the educated elites (who spoke German and/or French) and the Yiddish-speaking Jews. It is, therefore, hardly likely that he could write a specialized monograph in Russian shortly after his Crimean trip. However, I am not able to find information about the book being translated from German into Russian. The 2008 edition that I have merely notes that the editors changed the old, pre-Revolutionary orthography of the mid-19th century publication, retaining “the author’s stylistics and 19th century toponyms”.


(To be continued…)



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