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Russia’s imperial crackdown on the memory of indigenous victims of deportations

“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:
Russia’s imperial crackdown on the memory of indigenous victims of deportations
Article by: Ihor Vynokurov
Edited by: Alya Shandra
In restricting the right of Crimean Tatars to commemorate their greatest national tragedy, the Kremlin-installed administration of Crimea follows the steps of the Chechen leadership, which crossed out the very day of the Stalinist deportation of Chechens from the calendar. For many reasons, the policing of remembrance in Crimea may lead to more serious consequences—as it is an integral part of the Crimean occupation authorities’ policy of incitement to ethnic hatred and repression of Crimean Tatars.

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 Dzhankoi (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.

Watch: Haytarma: the film about Stalin’s deportation of the Crimean Tatars Russia doesn’t want you to see


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 Dzhankoi 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.
On 18 May 2017, Russian police seized several Crimean Tatars in the central Lenin Square of Simferopol, the capital of Crimea. Since its annexation in 2014, the law enforcers have prevented people from laying flowers at the memorial stone to the deportation victims near the Simferopol railway station. Only the commemorative events led by occupation officials are allowed across the peninsula. Crimean Tatars mostly boycott them, while their requests for public mourning actions meet with bans and threats from the local authorities. On this year’s anniversary, some Crimean Tatar activists demonstratively went into the square in front of the Crimean government. Russian propaganda media immediately reported on the detention of “members of an extremist organization” near the Lenin monument.

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.

Read more: Moscow deaf to 3 years of international outcry to free imprisoned Ukrainian filmmaker

Long before the annexation of Crimea, a promo action of the movie Everybody Will Die But Me was held near the Lenin monument in Simferopol, parodying the Soviet slogan “Lenin lived! Lenin is alive! Lenin will live!” There is indeed a bitter irony in its ability to survive and dominate the public space now, when the political terror is unleashed in Crimea and even the commemoration of Soviet-era victims becomes punishable. Photo: LiveJournal

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.

Read also: Crimean history: what you always wanted to know, but were afraid to ask

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.

Russian police detain Server Karametov near the Lenin monument in Simferopol, 18 May 2017. Photo: Krym.Realii

Read also: I survived genocide: Stories of survivors of Crimean Tatar deportation

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.

Read also: Moscow’s claims of ‘historic right’ to Crimea don’t stand up, Popov says

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.

Salavat Shcherbakov with a model of his monument to the Russian invaders of Crimea. Photo:

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.

Read also: Putin and history – a dangerous combination

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.

The Constitution of Ukraine establishes a notification procedure for organizing peaceful public events and excludes the possibility of their extrajudicial prohibition.
Obstacles put by the occupation authorities in the way of actions to commemorate the victims of the deportation of the Crimean Tatars constitute a gross violation of the right to freedom of assembly stipulated by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.

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.

Read also: Human rights violations in Crimea to be investigated as war crimes

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.

Read also: History, identity and Holodomor denial: Russia’s continued assault on 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.

Perm-36 is the last extant “island” of the Gulag archipelago that once covered the Soviet empire. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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.

Read also: Moscow closed GULAG museum because it doesn’t want a ‘territory of freedom’

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.

Initial view of the memorial to the Chechen victims of the Stalinist deportation with dozens of old gravestones and the slogan: “We won’t break down! We won’t sob! We won’t forget!” Photo:

Read also: Punished peoples fight Putin’s war on history with monuments to their deportations

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.

Read also: On 73rd anniversary of deportation, Chechnya and Ingushetia divide on Stalin and his crimes

Kadyrov prescribed the Chechens to celebrate joyfully the day when the NKVD had evicted their parents and grandparents from their homes.
From what has been said, one may get the impression that the memorial in Grozny suffered out of a direct connection with the memory of the deportation. Its link to the modern Chechen secession in the minds of the Kadyrov government and the public definitely played a substantial role in its destruction. However, several facts suggest that it was not a single reason.

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 commemoration of all historical losses in Kadyrov’s Chechnya revolves around the splendid museum of the leader’s father killed in 2004. Photo:

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.
In Chechnya and occupied Crimea, we observe similar processes when the local policies of memory of the Soviet past are subordinated to the conservative paradigm of the Moscow center, which does not hide its romantic sentiment towards the Stalinist period of history. In the both cases, the authorities turn into action their irritation with the existing commemorative traditions established against their will and beyond their control since the early 90s.

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.

Read also: Remembering the nations the Soviets deported in whole or in part

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.

Memorial plaque to the Crimean Tatar victims of the deportation in Koreiz (south coast of Crimea) vandalized in October 2015. Photo: Krym.Realii

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.

Read also: Deportation, genocide, and Russia’s war against Crimean Tatars

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.

Server Karametov on 18 May 2017. Photo: Krym.Realii

Read also: Remember the Crimean Tatars jailed for resisting Russian occupation

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.

Edited by: Alya Shandra
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