The View From Here: Talking Turkey

Volodymyr Kish.

Some months ago while surfing through the prolific content that Netflix offers through its video streaming services, I stumbled across an interesting Turkish historical drama series titled “Dirilis: Ertugrul” (Resurrection: Ertugrul). Because it had English subtitles, and I have a lifelong passion for history, I decided to give it a go.

Ertugrul was a 13th century “Bey” or tribal chieftain of the Oghuz Turkic Kayi tribe, who had fled their homeland in eastern Iran to escape the savage onslaught of the Mongols. They settled in Anatolia, now modern-day Turkey. Ertugrul is important in Turkish history because his son Osman is generally acknowledged as the founder of what we know as the Ottoman Empire.

The series is a well-crafted and well-acted historical drama that depicts early Turkish history, as the inhabitants of that time struggled with both European Crusader invasions from the west as well as Mongol incursions from the east. It is unabashedly nationalistic and presents that history from a very Islamist point of view. Needless to say, both the Crusaders and the Mongols are portrayed in a most unflattering way. I found this series fascinating, as it provides a useful counterpoint to the histories we have been taught about those events that obviously have been biased by a very European and Christian perspective. Whether we realize it or not, most histories are written from the biased perspective of the writer of those histories, and often paint a quite distorted picture of what actually happened. As the old adage goes, history is written by the victors.

This series has been wildly popular in Turkey in the past few years as it has undergone a strong nationalist re-awakening under populist conservative and Islamist strongman President Erdogan. There is certainly a strong nostalgia for the heyday of the Ottoman Empire which was one of the most powerful states in the world for many centuries.

As we all know, the Ottoman Empire also played a major role in Ukrainian history as well. After the Golden Horde swept into Kyiv-Rus, a khanate was established in what is now Crimea and southern Ukraine. The Mongols who settled there became intermingled with the local ethnic groups such as the Cumans, Goths, Pechenegs, Kipchaks, and others, and eventually became the ethnic group that we now call the Crimean Tatars. As the power of the Mongols waned, the Crimean Tatars became vassals of the rapidly expanding Ottoman Empire.

Between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries, there was frequent conflict between the expansionist Ottomans and their northern Slavic neighbours, namely the Ukrainian Kozak state, the Poles and the Russians. For centuries Tatars would raid their northern neighbours, primarily to feed a thriving slave trade that flowed through Crimean ports to the big cities of the Ottoman Empire. The Ukrainian Kozaks would, in retaliation, stage major raids on Ottoman centers along the coasts of the Black Sea.

I was reminded of all this in recent weeks, because newly elected Ukrainian President Zelenskyy paid a state visit to Turkey for talks with President Erdogan. Turkey is important to Ukraine, not only because it is a major trading partner, but also because it is a strategic neighbor, and could play a significant role in Ukraine’s problems with Russia. Because of the history described earlier, Turkey has always had a strong relationship with Crimea’s Tatars, and at the time strongly condemned Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. Ukraine would dearly love to have Turkey strongly on its side in its dealing with Russia.

During the recent state visit, President Erdogan did reinforce his county’s position that the Crimean takeover was illegal. However, Erdogan has also been playing a bigger geopolitical game that is worrisome for Ukraine. Since crushing his opposition and consolidating his power through strong-arm tactics that have dismayed his NATO allies, Turkey has been much criticized by Europe and the west for its human rights abuses, leading to sanctions and a significant drop in foreign investment. In response, Erdogan has brazenly been trying to re-establish warmer relations with Putin and Russia. This is a game that could have serious consequences for Ukraine.

It would seem that all those conflicts from all those centuries ago are still having an impact on modern day politics.