Deportation, genocide, and Russia’s war against Crimean Tatars

Deportation of the Crimean Tatars. A painting by Crimean Tatar artist Rustem Eminov

Deportation of the Crimean Tatars. A painting by Crimean Tatar artist Rustem Eminov 

2016/05/19 • Analysis & Opinion, Crimea, History

Why are the Crimean Tatars a minority in their native Crimea? It’s a story of Russia not letting the indigenous population get in the way of its geopolitical ambitions, starting from the first annexation of the strategic peninsula in 1783.

On May 18, Ukraine marks the anniversary of the deportation of Crimean Tatars from Crimea that took place in 1944. The forced eviction was ordered by Joseph Stalin, who called it punishment for collaboration with the Nazi occupation regime during 1942–1943. This reason for the collective reprisal was purely nominal, because collaborators were found in all occupied USSR territories regardless of their nationality, but the majority fought against the Nazi invasion. 5 Crimean Tatars were awarded as Heroes of the USSR; they too, along with women and children who were evacuated from Crimea and could not physically collaborate with Nazis, were evicted. However, the history of the Crimean Tatars sufferings began earlier – in 1783 when the Russian Empire captured the Crimean Khanate and brought it under its power.

Who are the Crimean Tatars?

The Crimean Tatars are the indigenous people of Crimea. Their ethnicity was formed in the process of synthesis of many Turkic and non-Turkic speaking tribes which inhabited Crimea centuries ago.  They appeared in the Crimean Peninsula around 1241, when Batu Khan, a grandson of Genghis Khan, conquered the region. At that time Crimea was part of the Mongol empire. By the 15th century, the region appeared as the Crimean Khanate that fell under the loose protection of the Ottoman Empire in the latter part of the century. The Khanate ruled until 1783 when, after a war against the Ottoman Empire, Empress Catherine II annexed the peninsula as part of her vast expansion of the Russian Empire.

The Crimean Tatars under Crimean Tatar flags at a rally in Kyiv, Ukraine

The Crimean Tatar language, which is also known as Crimean or as Crimean Turkish, is the native language of the Crimean Tatars. It is spoken in Crimea as well as in the Crimean Tatar diasporas, concentrated in Turkey, Romania and Bulgaria. The main religion of the Crimean Tatars is Islam. As Muslims, they are Sunnis of the Hanafi school. The Crimean Tatars adopted Islam during the X-XII centuries and it became the state religion in the Crimean Khanate. However, during the Stalin era, hundreds of mosques were closed, the  clergy were executed, and celebrating Muslim holidays was banned. Crimean Tatars nevertheless resisted the repression of religion.

The Crimean peninsula has been home to the Tatar community for over 1,000 years, during which it had been governed by many rulers. Crimean Tatars have lived as part of the Russian Empire, as a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire, as a region of the Soviet Union, as an autonomous republic of Ukraine. On 16 March 2014, Crimea was illegally annexed by the Russian Federation in a referendum that was unrecognized by the vast majority of the world’s countries. Nowadays the Crimean Tatars constitute nearly 13% of the peninsula’s population.

Russia’s first annexation of Crimea in 1783

During the Russian-Turkish War that lasted from 1768 to 1774, the Russian Empire had been destabilizing the Crimean Tatars for years until the Ottoman Empire was finally defeated by Russian forces. The Peace Treaty of Kϋϛϋk Kaynarca marked the end of the Russian-Turkish War and benefited Russian interests. By the terms of the treaty, the Ottoman Empire relinquished control of the northern coast of the Black Sea and left the Russian Empire in possession of the lower reaches of the Dnieper River and the Bug River. Russia obtained the right to maintain a fleet on the Black Sea. The Crimean Khanate was acknowledged to be independent of the Ottoman Empire in all except religious matters. Moreover, the Russian Empire gained official status of a protector to Orthodox Christians living in the Ottoman Empire. 70 years later, this was used as a reason to conquest new territory, triggering the Crimean War in 1853. This incident resembles the Russian rhetoric nowadazs, when the Russian Federation occupied a part of Ukrainian territory, explaining it by protection of Russian-speaking people’s interests.

The First Annexation of Crimea. Catherine II

In 1777, the Crimean Tatars raised a revolt against Shagin-Girey Khan who came to power through support of the Russian Empire. Russians sent a military unit to Crimea to appease the revolt. Meanwhile, internal struggles between Crimean Khans were ongoing. In the spring of 1782, anti-Khan revolts spread through the peninsula, and resulted in Shagin-Girey’s escape to the Russian Empire. However, the Russian Empress Catherine II provided military support to the Khan. He returned to the Crimea, and started terrorising his opponents. But the Russian Empire was preparing for a direct annexation of Crimea and had no more need for the Khan. Under pressure of the Empire, Shagin-Girey abandoned the throne.

1783 was a crucial year for Crimean Tatar history. On 8 April 1783, Catherine II issued a manifest titled “On taking the Crimean peninsula, the Taman Island, and the Kuban region under rule of the Russian Empire.” This manifest prohibited elections of the new Crimean Khan. On 10 February 1784, Catherine II renamed the Tatar town Akhtiar into Sevastopol (“town of glory”). Terror of the Russian military forces and anti-Tatar politics of the Russian Empire forced Crimean Tatars to emigrate to the Ottoman Empire. Another migration followed the Crimean War, which ended in 1856. The Crimean Tatar population, which was estimated to be over five million during the Crimean Khanate rule, decreased to less than 300,000 and became a minority in their ancestral homeland.

Changes in proportions of Crimean Tatars and Russian population in Crimea. Image: RFE/RL

Crimean Tatars under the Soviet Authorities

The peninsula was the last holdout of the White Army during the civil war that followed the murder of the last tsar and the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. However, the decades that followed were marked more by repression than by resistance.

When the Soviet Union was first established, the Crimean Tatars were recognized as the indigenous people of the Crimean peninsula, and the Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was established. Under this administration, Crimean Tatars enjoyed cultural autonomy and the promotion of their culture, as the Crimean Tatar language had co-official language status along with Russian. However, under Joseph Stalin, the official policy of the Soviet government turned to repressions. The Crimean Tatars were not spared the forced collectivization of the Soviet regime and the Holodomor of the 1930s. A number of the Crimean Tatars were deported to Siberia and the Ural Mountains while all their property was expropriated.

Crimean Tatars in World War II

In September 1941б the German Army and troops from the Romanian Army entered the Crimean Peninsula and started the Crimean Campaign of the World War II. By November, they controlled the entire peninsula except for Sevastopol. After a siege lasting for months, Sevastopol also fell and the peninsula was occupied by the German and Romanian Armies.

On 2 January 1942, the German government authorized the formation of “self-defense battalions” by the Crimean Tatars, and by 15 February, 1,632 Crimean Tatars had already been recruited into these troops. The total number of Crimean Tatar men who joined these battalions was around 2,000. The motivations of Crimean Tatar men who joined these battalions varied. Some were members of the defeated Army and had been taken as prisoners of war by the German Army. They joined the battalions to avoid the harsh conditions in the prisoners’ camps in Simferopol and Mykolaiv. Some aimed to protect their villages from the activities of Soviet partisans. However, 15% of the adult male Crimean Tatar population remained in the ranks of the Red Army.

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Deportation of the Crimean Tatars in 1944

After the Crimean peninsula was liberated from Axis forces by the Soviet Army on 13 May 1944, the NKVD (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs) issued an order “On Measures to Clean the Territory of the Crimean Autonomous Republic of Anti-Soviet Elements.” This brought about the most tragic events of the Crimean Tatars` history.

The deportation of the Crimean Tatars began at 3 AM of 18 May and ended  by 20 May 1944. It is one of most rapid deportations in world history. 32,000 members of the NKVD participated in organizing the deportation. The Crimean Tatars were given only 30 minutes to gather the most necessary things. They even didn’t have a possibility to bid farewell to their homeland which most of them never saw again. All of them took only the most necessary property and a bit of food; the Soviet state confiscated the rest. The Crimean Tatars were taken by cars to the railway stations of Bakhchysarai, Djankoi, and Simferopol, from where they were deported to the eastern regions of the USSR. According to official Soviet statistics, during the main wave of the deportation 180,014 people were moved using 67 echelons. Nearly 6,000 incriminated in collaboration were arrested and sent to Gulags. Later, an additional 3,141 Crimean Tatars were deported together with representatives of other nations. The last echelon with the Crimean Tatars arrived to Uzbekistan on June 8. But  activists of the Crimean Tatar liberation movement say the number of those deported is higher – 238,500 people, of which 205,000 were women and children.  

Part of the Crimean Tatars was moved to Kazakhstan and to regions of Russia, including Ural and Siberia.

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Crimean Tatars Deported to Russia and Central Asia

The deportation was poorly planned and executed. Local authorities in the destination areas were not properly informed and did not receive enough resources to accommodate the deportees. The lack of accommodation and food, the failure to adapt to new climatic conditions and the rapid spread of diseases resulted in the death of 46.2% of the total population.

On 25 June 1946 Crimea lost its autonomy status. Only in 1956, many Crimean Tatars were released from the “Special Settlement Camps.” However, when thousands of Crimean Tatars attempted to return to Crimea in 1967, following an official decree that exonerated the Crimean Tatars from any wrongdoing during World War II, many found that they were not welcome in their ancestral homeland. Thousands of Crimean Tatar families, once again, were deported from Crimea by the local authorities.

Only in 1988 was the ban on returning lifted. When the Crimean Tatars returned, it was to an independent Ukraine.

Hidden reasons for deportation

Although the official reason for deportation was collaboration of the Crimean Tatars with the Nazi regime, the truth hides beneath the official documents. Official Soviet documents do not include numbers or names in regard of collaborationism or deserting from the Red Army. There are only common phrases with such accusations, meaning that there was no exact evidences, only a strong will of the Soviet authorities to erase “anti-Soviet elements.” The total number of collaborators is estimated at 6,000 to 20,000 of the Crimean Tatars, while more than 230,000 were deported.

Historians name another unofficial reason for the deportation. It was preparation for the future theater of war. Stalin considered Turkey as a potential military opponent, and thus cleared the peninsula of the Crimean Tatar population who were traditionally loyal to the country, leaving only people devoted to the Soviet authorities. This theory is supported by Stalin’s deportations of other Muslim small nations living in regions that bordered Turkey – the Chechens, Balkarians, Karachai and Ingush people. However, the military conflict never took place.

Erasing memory of genocide and ongoing repressions

The deportation of the Crimean Tatars is one more crime of the totalitarian regime committed because of political ambitions at the international arena. Today in Russia, with the cult of Stalin making a comeback, stories of deportation and repressions in the USSR are being hidden under the carpet. Although the Russian Federation issued an order to rehabilitate deported nations on 21 April 2014, it has routinely prohibited three commemorations of the deportation over the two years that have passed since the occupation of the peninsula, which the Crimean Tatars have defied each time. The 72nd anniversary of the deportation on 18 May 2016 was no different. Meanwhile, a commemoration plaque and even monument to Stalin have been unveiled on the peninsula.

Following the occupation and illegal annexation of Crimea, Russia has enacted repressive politics against the Crimean Tatars, who opposed the land grab most vocally. Recently, the Russia-appointed Procecutor General of Crimea criminalized activities of the Crimean Tatars Parliament Mejlis. Crimean Tatar media were also banned – 11 out of 12 of them have been closed. 15 Crimean Tatars activists are arrested because of political reasons, among them is Ilmi Umerov, Deputy Head of the Mejlis. A number of Crimean Tatar politicians and activists are barred from entering the peninsula, including Mejlis Head Refat Chubarov, and Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemilev. Persecutions of the Crimean Tatars were condemned by the United Nations and separate governments.

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Edited by: Alya Shandra

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  • MichaelA

    like stalin was georgian and killed plenty of georgians
    and brezhnev was ukrainian and killed plenty of ukrainians