Crimean Tatars, According to Gustav Radde—Part 2

Nov 2, 2014 by

(This post is part 2 of my overview of Gustav Radde’s Crimean Tatars, originally published in Russian in 1856-1857. Part 1 can be found here. The images in this post are from EncyclopediaOfUkraine website.)

The introductory chapter of Gustav Radde’s book on Crimean Tatars, which deals with physical appearance, is followed by a chapter on their religion and “degree of education”, which is to be understood more as “social mores”. Crimean Tatars are historically Sunni Muslims, more precisely followers of the Hanafi legal school (madhhab) of Islam. Unlike some of the other Muslim groups in Russia, such as the Circassians, the Crimean Tatars emerge from Radde’s description as rather devoted Muslims, even if some of their beliefs and customs depart from those of Muslim Arabs and other ethnic groups. The word “diligent” appears all too often in Radde’s description of Crimean Tatars’ religious life. They were said to “pray diligently” 3 times a day, using a rosary and saying up to 540 individual prayers daily (presumably, they actually prayed 5 times a day). Special services were held in mosques, which were built to include a minaret or at least a tall ladder from which the muezzin called the believers to prayer. Such mosques existed only in larger, richer villages; most everyday prayers were said at home or outdoors, sometimes in the middle of the steppe. Interestingly, Radde noted that holiday services in mosques included a prayer for the health of the Russian Emperor and his family, just as services did in Orthodox Churches. It thus appears that Crimean Tatars were quite loyal to the Russian Empire. (Yet, elsewhere, in his autobiography, Radde mentions that during the Crimean War, the Tatars were easily seduced by the propaganda by Turkish agents.)

Other important Muslim traditions—charity, fasts (including that of Ramadan), and pilgrimage to Mecca (which took a year and a half and could be afforded only by the richest Crimean Tatars)—were also strictly and diligently observed. However, not all Muslim practices were given equal attention. For example, Radde informed his readers that Crimean Tatars drank vodka and a low-alcohol homebrew, but not wine. Some of the more devout Crimean Tatars considered even the consumption of grapes to be forbidden. Yet, wine-making was widely practiced, even if the wine was immediately sold to non-Muslim inhabitants of Crimea: Russians, Armenians, Greeks, Jews, Germans, Gypsies, and others, whom Radde calls “settlers”. Furthermore, Crimean Tatars abstained from consuming pork. Radde documented a curious local legend as to why pork is forbidden: apparently, the prohibition was not thought of as connected to Islam. Instead, it was said that in earlier times, a Crimean Tatar mullah and a Russian walked through the steppe and were struck by thirst, but no well was to be found. The Russian touched his walking stick to a stone and extracted fresh, cold water for the two of them to drink. The mullah was envious that the Russian could commit such a miracle and he decided to surprise the Russian by seemingly creating an even greater miracle. He got a bag made of bull skins, filled it with water and dug it into the ground. The idea was to “extract water” from it the next day, but when the two returned, they found pigs had already found the bag of water and made a mess of it, jumping around in the newly-created puddle. Enraged, the mullah allegedly put a curse of the pigs and all their descendants through the generations—and since then pork has been forbidden as food. Like Muslims and Jews, Crimean Tatars abstained from consuming animal blood. They did, however, eat camel meat and even horsemeat; the latter was typically consumed in the form of dried jerky, especially in northern Crimea.

Unlike some other religious traditions, which were followed “diligently” and “stringently”, others seem to have been ignored. For example, gambling, playing cards and dice were considered acceptable and indulged in widely. Many Crimean Tatars, Radde observed, were addicted to gambling and impoverished themselves and their families through the habit.

As for education, Radde maintained that Crimean Tatars had no scientific training of any kind. Except for those few Crimean Tatars who left the traditional way of life and received education in Russian institutions, the majority of these people supposedly could not even count. The only type of education available to them was religious study; and even that was available only for the well-off and only for men. Crimean Tatars, according to Radde, practiced only traditional agricultural practices and crafts, making no improvements over generations and particularly not using any modern technological innovations. Unlike many other “oriental nations”, Crimean Tatars were described as being virtually cut off from international trade. (The image on the left is mid-19th century painting by G.F. Pauli.)

As Radde relates, the civil law of the Crimean Tatars was based on the Quran. Polygamy was considered acceptable and commonly practiced; unlike other Muslims who can marry only up to four wives, Crimean Tatars “prefer the number seven”, wrote Radde. Still, only the richest men could afford that many wives, as each wife was “to be provided with her own room and her own table”. (Elsewhere in the monograph, Radde noted that Crimean Tatars used tables only for food preparation and nothing else; eating was not done at a table, unlike “the European custom”.) Most Crimean Tatar men had only two, rarely three, wives. Throughout the book, Radde described the many aspects of the subjugated position of women in the Crimean Tatar society of his day. For example, as is standard in Islam, daughters inherited only half of what sons inherited from their fathers. Widows did not inherit their husband’s property and were left at the mercy of their husband’s male relatives and local judges, whom Radde characterized as “persecutors”. Women did all the hard housework; in the winter, the man would stay in the warmth of the house and the women would have to go out to tend to the animals. Divorce, although practiced quite freely, was initiated mostly by men; the only situation in which a wife could leave her husband and ask for a divorce was if the husband mistreated her. However, based on Radde’s description of “normal” marital relations, it is hard to imagine what might have counted as such mistreatment, except for physical violence.

Marriages among Crimean Tatars, as described by Radde, often involved an older groom and a younger, typically teenage, bride. “Men,” Radde writes, “rarely commit to such an important matter before the age of thirty, but the brides are sometimes as young as 15, even 13”. Marriages were typically arranged. After the agreement between the groom and the father of the bride (the mothers were never consulted) was made—typically, the terms of such an agreement revolved around the amount of the kalym, the ransom to be paid by the groom to the father of the bride—the couple was not to meet until the wedding, which could be a year later. Another common tradition, especially if the groom did not like his future father-in-law’s terms, was to “steal” the bride. A “decent” bride was supposed to call for help three times, and only then could the groom throw her on his horse and carry her over the steppe to his house. The wedding, accompanied by a three-day feast, was to follow.

Another set of distinct traditions among the Crimean Tatars, described by Radde in great detail, concerns their burial practices. Unlike Christians—Russians or Germans—Crimean Tatars buried their dead in a sitting position, in graves that were up to 8 feet deep and only 3 foot long. Once the body was hand-placed in the grave, wooden planks were positioned diagonally, from the head to the feet, in order to leave air-filled room for the dead to “breathe”; other items considered necessary for the departed, such as bread, water, smoke pipe, tobacco, and flint, were placed in that space as well. Again, unlike Christians, Crimean Tatars placed stone piles as grave markers.

Tatar boys had to pass the rite of circumcision, which Radde claimed to have been borrowed from the Jews and “not prescribed by the law of Muhammad”. (This and other claims by Radde reveal his poor understanding of Islam.) However, unlike Jewish boys who are circumcised at the age of 8 days, Crimean Tatar boys were circumcised at the age of 5-9 years.

Besides weddings and circumcision feasts, there were three other holidays observed by Crimean Tatars: the end of the Ramadan, the day marking the sacrifice made in Mecca, and the New Year, celebrated a week after “our” Easter (it is not clear whether Radde meant Catholic or Protestant, or perhaps even Eastern Orthodox, Easter). Only men were to participate in the festivities associated with the former two holidays, while the New Year celebration was the time for men and women to socialize together.

Radde’s monograph also contains detailed descriptions of Crimean Tatars’ houses, clothing, and everyday objects and lifestyle. The part I find the most fascinating—and the most brazenly non-PC, in our modern understanding—is the chapter that deals with the “ethnic character” of Crimean Tatars. Most of his description appears to me to be driven by a foreigner’s enthrallment by the exotic aspects of another group; at times, Radde does not seem to realize just how much like the Russians, or even the Germans, the Crimean Tatars were in their habits, attitudes, and demeanor. The main feature of their “ethnic character”, which Radde stressed over and over, was their “unusual calm and indifference” and “laziness”. Crimean Tatars “rarely provide for their future… a piece of dark bread, milk, cheese, and tobacco is all that they need, and as soon as a Tatar has all of those things for the coming few days, he stops working and gives himself to laziness”, he wrote. Radde emphasized their “unusual talkativeness” in leisure hours, which appeared excessive to him . When working or praying, Crimean Tatars are described as “taciturn and silent”, focused solely on their work or prayer, yet “when the work is done… they get together and happily chat about various things”—but didn’t Germans and Russians (in fact, don’t we all) do just that? The word “unusual” is used very often, but unusual with respect to what? Radde’s standards are unclear.

Beside “laziness” and “talkativeness”, which miraculously combines with excessive “taciturnity”, Radde pointed out three major “ethnic character traits” among Crimean Tatars: the “special care about cleanliness of their homes and bodies”, their “honesty among themselves” (but not towards non-Tatars, from whom “they steal horses, sheep and cattle very often”), and the hospitality that they provide for all who come to their villages and their homes.

A final trait of their “ethnic character”, which Radde described with unconcealed joy and delight, concerns the demeanor of Crimean Tatar women. Radde described them as exhibiting excessive “curiosity”, but by this word he meant not the desire to explore the world, but more of a joy that the women felt when they had a chance to break out of the confines of their homes (or rather the women’s part of the home). I will conclude this post with the following passage, which not only presents Radde’s objective description of Crimean Tatars’ social customs with respect to women, but also reveals his personal, highly subjective, at times even poetic, writing style.

“Being restrained by law in the close confines of the home life, they [= Crimean Tatar women] seek all possible means to penetrate into public life, which serves to them as the object of surprise and some sort of special beauty, so that they spend days peaking out of the window into the curved and narrow street, in order to dispel the unbearable boredom of forever home-bound life. Every stranger, arriving at the semi-open door of the house, will see some red fez hats, decorated by golden coins, from under which curl numberless little braids, but before he can make five steps inside, the hazy apparition disappears into the depths of the house, and the astonished European can only imagine in his dreams the beauty of oriental women. If, on occasion, Crimean Tatar women visit Christian women, they can’t help being surprised endlessly; everything in the rooms attracts their attention; when it comes to outfits, their astonishment can be so deep, that they stand motionless and merely whisper over and over “Allah! Allah”.”






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