By Thomas M. Prymak University of Toronto 

The question of ethnicity, which is closely related to the idea of nationality, and somewhat more loosely related to the idea of “race,” is presently of great concern to many people in North America. This generally includes not only those of European, African, or Asian ancestry, but also more particularly, even to those of east European and Ukrainian ancestry. However, questions of ethnicity and indeed “racial” mixing are not only of import in contemporary poly-ethnic and multi-racial North America, but in the case of the Ukrainians, also go back quite far into Ukrainian history, and in particular, are closely bound up with this traditionally Christian country’s relations with its neighbour to the south, Muslim Turkey.

suliemaney.  Roxelana
The great Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent and his Ukrainian wife Roxelana,

As is well known to archeologists and linguists, Ukraine most likely formed at least part of the original homeland of the famous and somewhat controversial “Indo-European” people, whose language was carried west and south to form the basis of the Greek, Germanic, Romance, Slavic, Celtic, and other linguistic groups, and east and south to form the basis of the Iranian and North Indian groups. But linguistic science later became tied to racial theories, and, as is universally known, eventually was misused by the Nazis in the 1930s (in the so-called “Aryan” theory of racial hierarchies) so that it became difficult to talk about the very real linguistic and the possible ethnic relationships without a certain amount of negative emotional and ideological baggage. In fact, modern Ukrainians are probably not only true descendants of the ancient peoples, who at one time inhabited the Ukrainian Steppe, but also of many other peoples who migrated to or through Ukraine from the very beginnings of history.

Thus as many historians, beginning with the reputed Father of History himself, the Greek Herodotus, noted early on, Greeks, and Iranians such as Scythians and Sarmatians, inhabited Ukrainian territories in the centuries before Christ, and as other historians have noted since, various Central Asian peoples, including Central Asian Turks with what some people think of as “slanted eyes,” came to Ukraine repeatedly thereafter. These peoples included Huns in classical antiquity, Pechenegs and Polovtsi in early medieval Kievan Rus’, Mongols in the thirteenth century, and then Tatars and Turks in early modern “Cossack” times from the fifteenth century on.

Indeed, the word “Cossack” itself (‘Kozak’ in modern Ukrainian language and orthography) is undoubtedly of Turkic origin, probably mediated into English through Polish and then French, which wrote it “Cosaque.” In fact, there are about 4,000 current Ukrainian words of Turkic origin, about the same as the number of Arabisms in modern Spanish. Moreover, the Ukrainian family names “Tataryn,” “Turchyn,” and their variants, are not particularly unusual, even in North America. For example, in addition to the common surname “Tataryn,” Forvyn Bohdan’s dictionary of Ukrainian surnames in Canada lists the following from “Tatar”: Tatarchak, Tatarchuk, Tatarchyn, Tatarenko, Tatarikov, Tatarko, Tatarnyk, Tatarniuk, Tataryniv, and Tatarynsky, and there are probably even more variants currently existing in the United States among the descendents of Ukrainian immigrants in that country. Thus the Indo-European legacy in Ukraine, while very real, is complicated by the recurring mixture of the ancestors of the Ukrainian people with various peoples speaking Turkic languages originating in Central Asia.

The situation in modern Turkey is both similar and different. The territory that is today Turkey (Asia Minor and eastern Thrace) was once the homeland of Hittites, Phrygians, Greeks, and Armenians. The successor to ancient Rome in the eastern Mediterranean, Byzantine civilization, which was also based in Thrace and Asia Minor, greatly influenced Kievan Rus’. The Turks from Central Asia invaded this land too in medieval times and in 1453 conquered the great city of Constantinople, which was called ‘Tsargrad’ (City of the Caesars) in Old Slavonic and is called Istanbul today.

About the same time, the descendants of Genghis Khan founded the Crimean Khanate on the north shore of the Black Sea and began their raids into the steppe interior. Thus arose the concept of “Ukraine” as a “borderland” between the settled areas of Eastern Europe (or Christendom as it was called at the time) and the Lands of Islam to the south. In fact, the east Slavic word “Ukraina” is often literally translated into western languages as “borderland.” As to historians in general, as early as the 1960s, the distinguished American “world” historian, William H. McNeill, considered Ukraine to be one of the largest and most important parts of what he called “Europe’s Steppe Frontier.”

But both Turks and Tatars were soon mixing very intimately with Ukrainians. In their raids into Ukraine, the Tatars carried off many thousands of Ukrainian men, women, and children to serve as slaves in their homes, fields and galleys, or alternatively, to be sold off to the Turks to perform similar functions for them. However, Islamic slavery was never quite the same as plantation slavery in the ancient world or in America.

In Islam, all true Muslims are thought of, not as “Children of God,” but rather as “slaves of God” (“Abdullah,” meaning “slave of God” in Arabic is actually a rather common Muslim personal name in the western half of the Muslim world, while “Bande-Khoda” meaning the same thing in Persian, is sometimes used in the eastern half of the Muslim world), and the concept of liberty itself varied considerably from the Christian model. Indeed, it was often partly replaced by ideas of “justice” and “equality.” Also, there is no colour-bar in Islam, and manumission of slaves was greatly encouraged. So in Islamic law, the children of Muslim masters and their European and other non-Muslim concubines were completely free and had equal inheritance rights with the master’s other children. Thus integration and assimilation were not the exception, but rather the rule, and in modern Turkey, and among the present-day Crimean Tatars, there is most certainly a good dose of Slavic and Ukrainian blood, though, following Muslim custom, lineage is always traced along the paternal line.

In this regard, at one time, the Ukrainian historian, Yaroslav Dashkevych, actually argued Ukraine’s legal right to the disputed Crimea on the basis of the largely Ukrainian origins of the modern Tatar people, who lean towards Ukraine anyway because of their fear of aggressive Russian nationalism, proved quite real by the illegal Russian occupation of the peninsula in 2014, and the subsequent Russian ill-treatment of the Tatars resident there. As well, the historian of Ottoman Turkey, Victor Ostapchuk, believes that what some people consider to be common Ukrainian facial characteristics can still be often spotted among the population of modern Turkey, though such identifications are often a very tricky thing.

These interactions between Ukraine and Turkey have played a large role in the formation of modern Ukrainian culture, in which the Cossack era is so prominent. In the sixteenth century, the famous polemicist, Michael the Lithuanian, who was in fact probably a “Ruthenian” (Belarusan or Ukrainian) nobleman, praised the Tatars to embarrass his countrymen into better behaviour, but also described in great detail the sad fate of Ukrainian captives in the Crimea, while in the early eighteenth century, the pioneering Romanian historian of the Ottoman Empire, Demetrius Cantemir, noted the relative value of Ukrainian slaves on the Istanbul market. (They were rated below the Circassians but above west Europeans.)

Meanwhile, in Ukraine itself, the epic songs called “dumas” described the fate of Ukrainian captives in striking terms and often brought to tears those who heard them sung by the stringed bandura and kobza players, who, as wandering minstrels, long preserved the traditions of old Ukraine. Thus the Cossack historian Dmytro Yavornytsky tells us that his friend, the Russian/Ukrainian painter Ilya Repin, cried “more than a single tear” when he heard these songs.
Krymsky  Pritsak

          Left: Ahatanhel Krymsky (1871-1942), polyglot, orientalist scholar, and specialist in the Turkic peoples, and in 1918, co-founder of the Pan-Ukrainian Academy of Sciences.

Right: Omeljan Pritsak (1919-2006), orientalist and Turkic specialist, originally from the interwar University of Lwów, then briefly Krymsky’s student in Kiev, and finally, in the early 1970s, co-founder of the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute.

There remains some question, however, as to whether the Ukrainian folk tradition of which the dumas were a part is always perfectly accurate. Certainly, Turkish captivity was not the same thing as American slavery and some east European captives like the Grand Vizier Sokullu (Sokolsky), the great architect Sinan (non-Turkish name unknown), or the Ukrainian wife of the great Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent, Roxelana, were people of substance and influence. In Ukraine, in particular, the legend of Roxelana, which is reflected in the well-known ‘duma’ about Marusia Bohuslavka, has acquired an almost mythical status.

Historians generally agree that while the raiding process was cruel and terrifying, if the captive could make it safe and secure to a pious Muslim household, his or her prospects suddenly greatly improved and manumission, though not return to the Slavic homeland, became a real possibility.

Indeed, the entire question of the Black Sea Slave Trade, which seems to have been a very big business, is little explored by historians and deserves further investigation. Such investigation may, in fact, have certain geopolitical implications and substantially alter the very negative stereotypes of Turks and Tatars that were incumbent upon historians writing in the Soviet era. These stereotypes often filtered down to the population at large, although they are beginning to disappear today.

Finally, it should be mentioned that the Turko-Tatar presence in Ukraine still pops up in various places outside of purely historical discourse. Thus the former Ukrainian diplomat, Yury Kochubei, who bears a famous name of Tatar origin, for a long time was active in revising traditional stereotypes in Ukrainian culture about the Turks and Tatars. The co-founder of the Pan-Ukrainian Academy of Sciences, Ahatanhel Krymsky, who, as indicated by his surname, was actually of Crimean Tatar origin, is now an almost iconic figure in Ukrainian scholarship, and his onetime student, Omeljan Pritsak, a Turkic/Central Asian specialist of note, was one of the pioneers of Ukrainian scholarship in the United States and co-founder of the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute. In turn, his students, Orest and Maria Subtelny, Victor Ostapchuk, and others continue to play a role in academic life on this continent.

Thus the mixture of Ukrainians, Turks, and Tatars, which historians have not always emphasized, has implications not only in the present “racial” mixtures of Ukraine and Turkey (and is reflected in the occasional curiosity of Ukrainian Americans and Ukrainian Canadians about from where some of them got their “peculiar” eyes), but also has certain cultural and political ramifications; these ramifications are often overlooked, but to this day affect North Americans who are concerned about where their ancestors came from and how their heritage ties in with that of other cultures.

Adapted from an article of the same name published in The Ukrainian Weekly (Jersey City), no. 43, October 23, 2011, p. 8



  1. Woe, I’ve always wondered about this , although nobody in my family even spoke about it. I thought it had something to do with the mongol invasion – my handle on history here is weak at best- and thought that their invasion did not reach into western Ukraine.

  2. Bill Tatarnic

    This is interesting and I always suspected some connection to the Tatars. My grandfather is from Ternopil in western Ukraine, last name being Tatarniuk.

  3. Judy Titarniuk

    We are Titarniuk but suspect it has been misspelled over the years. My husband is a Titarniuk. We live in Winnipeg.

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