“The Train of Death” by Rustem Eminov is dedicated to the memory of Crimean Tatar women, men, and children who did not survive the brutal state-organized expulsion from Crimea in 1944. Source: may18.net
Imperial nostalgia against the memory of victims
In June 2017, a month after the 73d anniversary of Sürgünlik (the deportation of Crimean Tatars), the Russian occupation authorities of Crimea initiated the prosecution of activists who laid flowers at the two monuments to its victims in Dzhankoy (north Crimea). According to the so-called police, they “violated” the Russian law on mass rallies.
In May 1944, the Kremlin stigmatized the whole Crimean Tatar people as “traitors” and launched the eviction of nearly 200,000 women, men, and children from Crimea to Central Asia and the Ural mountains in cattle wagons. Tens of thousands of them died en route or in the first years in the new places, which were often unsuitable for normal life.
Until the last Soviet decade, Moscow authorities forbade Crimean Tatars to return to their historical homeland and live there. When in the late 1980s, they were finally allowed to return, they established a tradition of honoring those who had not survived the genocidal deportation. The ceremonies of laying flowers on May 18, the day of Sürgünlik, have been held for nearly three decades, says Ruslan Kurtseitov, one of the Dzhankoy activists who are now facing the trial.
Only the commemorative events led by occupation officials are allowed. Crimean Tatars mostly boycott them, while their requests for public mourning actions meet with bans and threats.
Remarkably, this very symbol of Soviet dictatorship, which Crimean Tatar public figures demanded to dismantle during the Ukrainian Revolution of Dignity, became a cornerstone of the reactionary ideological policy of the new Kremlin-installed authorities. In 2014–15, the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) forged a case of the so-called “Right Sector terrorists,” who allegedly plotted the blowing of the monument. The Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, whom the FSB assigned the role of their “leader,” was sentenced to twenty years in Siberian jail.
Although the calls for replacing the standard bronze Lenin with a fountain were heard in Simferopol after the annexation, occupation city mayor Gennadiy Bakharev flatly stated in May 2017 that the monument to the Bolshevik leader was inviolable. According to Bakharev, no one was allowed even to speak about its replacement because “it is our history… our mentality.” Instead, the municipal administration decided to make Lenin part of a new “imperial” landscape of the Crimean capital.
One of the persons detained near the Lenin monument in Simferopol on 18 May was Server Karametov, a 76-year-old activist who is suffering from Parkinson’s disease. His only “offense” was standing in the square with a Crimean Tatar flag and the photos of his relatives deported from Crimea in 1944.
In the Crimean town of Feodosia on the same day, the police temporarily detained Suleyman Kadyrov, a member of a local Crimean Tatar mejlis (self-governance organ), for his attempt to lay flowers. Prior to that, he had already been under investigation and figured on the Russian “federal list of extremists and terrorists” for a Facebook post challenging the occupation.
It is worth noting that Russian authorities, while banning independent mourning events, are trying to appropriate the memory of 1944. Sometimes occupation officials manage to refer to May 18 but not mention Crimean Tatars, masking their phobias with euphemisms like “the deportation from Crimea.” The Kremlin-controlled Crimean government also promises to allocate as much as 500 mn Russian rubles ($8,4 mn) for the construction of a new grandiose memorial to the victims of the tragedy near the medieval capital of the Crimean Khanate, Bakhchysarai. The winner of the project competition is Putin’s semi-official sculptor Salavat Shcherbakov, whose recent works celebrate Russian rule over Crimea.
In particular, his sculpture unveiled a year ago in Simferopol features an idillia of the 2014 military invasion of the Ukrainian territory with the figure of a Russian soldier greeted by a Crimean girl.
Sherbakov also authored a 17,5-meter monument to the Great Prince Volodymyr (or Vladimir in modern Russian transcription) near the Moscow Kremlin. Prince Volodymyr reigned in Kyiv and died in 1015, more than 130 years before Moscow was first mentioned in a historical document. However, the monument explicitly serves to strengthen the myth of the present Moscow ruler, Vladimir Putin, and makes an allusion to his Crimean gamble. Like Putin, the myth implies, his namesake the Great Prince conquered the Byzantine city of Chersonesus in south Crimea (in the territory of contemporary Sevastopol) in the late 10th century; like the great prince, who baptized himself in Chersonesus and Christianized Kyiv, Putin allegedly brought the “spiritual revival” from annexed Crimea to Russia.
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As if all the official manifestations of reverence—including the announcement of the new Sürgünlik memorial—were a mockery, on 18 May 2017, Russian police tried to block the approach to a modest plaque in Bakhchysaray where flowers had been annually laid. On the same day, the police drew up a report on the “unauthorized motor rally” regarding the five Bakhchysarai drivers who attached Crimean Tatar flags to their cars.
Legal aspects of memory suppression
The Constitution of Ukraine establishes a notification procedure for organizing peaceful public events and excludes the possibility of their extrajudicial prohibition.
The Constitution of Ukraine, which de jure has never ceased to be valid in the occupied territory, establishes a notification procedure for organizing peaceful public events—in contrast to a permitting one in the Russian Federation. The Ukrainian Constitution clearly excludes the possibility of their extrajudicial prohibition. The cases of unjustified restriction of the freedom to carry out commemorative actions on May 18 by the de facto officials of Crimea have the signs of a crime under Article 340 of the Ukrainian Criminal Code, which is punishable by correctional labor for up to 2 years or imprisonment for up to 5 years.
Deformation of memory of Soviet crimes in the Kremlin-controlled territories
The regional governments within the Russian Federation, as well as the puppet authorities of the Russian-occupied territories, have carried out alarming efforts to “tame” or simply erase the memory of the crimes committed by the communist regime, including the organization of genocide. For instance, in August 2015, the self-proclaimed legislature of the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic” decided to demolish the memorial signs to the victims of Soviet-era famines and political repression in the occupied East Ukrainian town of Snizhne. The resolution was hailed as an act of “restoration of historical justice.” The “embarrassing” memorial signs were said to be replaced with monuments to the members of Russian-backed military units fighting against Ukraine.
In 2015–16, the independent center for the history of political repressions Perm-36 ceased to exist in Russia after the authorities recognized it as a “foreign agent.” This happened contrary to the promises President Putin had given to the institution. The center was in charge of a unique memorial museum, which was located in the territory of the only Gulag zone preserved in the post-Soviet space. Perm-36 aspired to be included in the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Since the start of the Russian aggression in Ukraine, the enemies of the museum overemphasized that the exposition devoted to the victims of repression allegedly glorified the “Banderites,” that is, the Ukrainian dissidents Vasyl Stus, Ivan Hel, and Levko Lukyanenko, who had served their sentences in Perm-36 in the Brezhnev era. Eventually, it was replaced with a new state institution: the museum of the Soviet prison system and its officers.
Back in 2008, the authorities of the Russian republic of Chechnya made an attempt to get rid of the memorial to the victims of the deportation of the Chechen people in the regional capital, Grozny. This complex was unveiled in 1992 on the site where Soviet secret police (NKVD) headquarters had been located in the past. The first Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudayev, who had proclaimed independence from the Russian Federation, supported the construction of the memorial. In 2008, the attempt to dismantle it failed thanks to the vocal public outrage. The human rights activist Natalia Estemirova played a significant role in its preservation; she was killed a year later.
Over time, the rampant tyranny of the current Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov took the offensive in the memory battle, making the genocide victims hostages of the demonstrative revenge on the post-Soviet opponents of the Kremlin. In 2010, the memorial was fenced all around and became not only inaccessible but even invisible from the outside. It was finally eliminated in February 2014, on the eve of the 70th anniversary of the Chechen deportation—and a few days before the Russian military invasion of Crimea.
The gravestones from cemeteries desecrated after the deportation, which the Chechens had been bringing to the memorial from all over the republic in the 90s, were moved to a complex with a completely different meaning. The latter is dedicated to the Russian policemen killed in North Caucasus and located in the place where Akhmad Kadyrov Avenue passes to Putin Avenue. During the First Chechen War, Russian federal forces blew up Dudayev’s presidential palace, which had stood there in the early 90s.
On condition of anonymity, a number of Chechen public figures called the demolition of the memorial a treacherous act, saying that “the people will not tolerate this” and that it would be sooner or later restored in its initial place. However, almost nobody dared to openly protest in 2014.
Kadyrov prescribed the Chechens to celebrate joyfully the day when the NKVD had evicted their parents and grandparents from their homes.
Firstly, not only was this memorial eliminated: a cattle wagon, symbol of the deportation, installed just several months before in the Alley of Glory in Grozny (on the opposite end of Putin Avenue), also suddenly disappeared in February 2014.
Secondly, President of the Assembly of the Peoples of Caucasus Ruslan Kutayev, who was known for his role in the preservation of memory of the Chechen deportation, was arrested in those days. He was then sentenced to four years in prison in the case recognized as politically motivated by human rights watchdogs.
The third fact, which is particularly indicative, is that Ramzan Kadyrov did not limit himself to clearing the memorial landscape. Earlier he started to remodel the calendar as if it were a building kit. In 2011, he ordered to move the Day of Remembrance of the Victims of the Deportation from February 23, the actual date of the Chechens’ expulsion from their homeland, to May 10, the anniversary of his father’s funeral.
The “foot soldier of Vladimir Putin,” as Kadyrov Jr. proudly called himself, prescribed the Chechens to celebrate joyfully the day when the NKVD had evicted their parents and grandparents from their homes—after all, for Russia it was the “Day of the Fatherland’s Defender,” a fete of the great-power militarism inherited from the Soviet era.
Kadyrov’s policy of amnesia could not change the minds of people in the short term, but its strategic outcomes may become apparent with the passing of generations.
“I used to tell and will tell my pupils that the deportation had taken place on February 23,” a Chechen teacher said in an interview with the anthropologist during the action in Grozny on 10 May 2013. “I have a father who remembers much of his childhood, and my mother is also alive. What should I tell my pupils? That we had been deported in May ever since we got such a luminary as Ramzan Kadyrov?”
Conclusion: Crimea in the Chechen mirror
The suppression of the memory of 1944 threatens to affect basic cultural codes binding individuals and generations into the contemporary post-genocidal nations.
Of course, given the evidence of multiple human rights violations (illegal arrests, torture and ill-treatment, abductions, and killings) taking place both in North Caucasus and Crimea, the fate of monuments and historical dates may seem far less important. However, one should bear in mind that the suppression of the memory of 1944 threatens to affect basic cultural codes formed in the times of deportations and exile. These codes work as social ties binding individuals and generations into the contemporary post-genocidal nations.
The efforts of contemporary Russian authorities to curb the public commemorations of those events aim to drive the manifestations of national consciousness into the Procrustean bed of imperial superstructure and deprive them of any emancipatory tendencies. Such efforts contradict the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which proclaims the right of the latter to observe and pass their traditions and customs from generation to generation, particularly to visit their cultural sites and use their ceremonial objects.
This is especially true of the Crimean Tatars, who were forcibly kept outside the historical homeland until the end of the Soviet era and whose very existence as a specific nation was denied. Moreover, unlike in Chechnya, the banned freedom of mourning for the Crimean Tatars deceased due to the deportation clearly fits into the framework of the current policy of ethnic discrimination and intimidation carried out by the de facto Crimean authorities, of which dozens of documented crimes against personality are part.
As we saw above, there are not just illegal restrictions of the right of the indigenous people to respect their traditions or the right to freedom of assembly, but also an absurd and cynical persecution of individual Crimean Tatar activists for their wish to honor the memory of their ancestors. In carrying out this persecution, the Russian authorities once again demonstrate their disregard for the call for “sympathy, understanding and recognition for […] sufferings” of the victims of communist dictatorships and their family members, as stated in the resolution of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe 1481 (2006).
In the summer of 2015, an elderly Crimean Tatar activist, former participant of the Euromaidan revolution Server Karametov (who was only four years old when Stalin expelled his people from the homeland), came from the occupied Crimea to Kyiv despite his Parkinson’s disease. He saw his goal in reminding Ukrainian statesmen and civic society of Crimea as an integral part of Ukraine and of its residents, who were under the rule of the aggressor state. On 18 May 2017, Russian police temporarily detained him in Simferopol for an individual picket with the portraits of his deported family.
Hopefully, Ukraine and the international community would not forget about the need to protect the right of this man (who is seventy-six now) and the entire Crimean Tatar people to observe their tradition, in particular, to express sorrow, which today’s Russian rulers of Crimea tend to either appropriate or prohibit.
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