By Greta Uehling
The Crimean Tatars are a Muslim Turkic people originating on the Crimean peninsula, a part of southern Ukraine, but the territory has been under Russian occupation since February 2014. While the Crimean Tatars are sometimes described as “descendants of the Golden Horde” or “arriving” on the peninsula in the thirteenth century in Soviet sources, their formation as a group is historically much deeper: the Crimean Tatars have pre-Mongol origins in the ancient peoples of the peninsula. The Crimean Tatars are therefore considered one of the indigenous peoples of the peninsula.
To understand the Crimean Tatars as victims of Communism, it is important to realize they were at the center of a very different world in the Middle Ages. Early in the fifteenth century, the Crimean Tatars established an independent state, the Crimean Khanate, which existed as an Ottoman protectorate, but remained an important power in Eastern Europe until 1783 when Crimea was annexed by Empress Catherine II.
Having survived not only the annexation by Imperial Russia but subsequent Russification, Soviet collectivization, repression of intellectuals, famines, and mass deportation, the Crimean Tatars were in the process of reestablishing their rights in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea before the Russian takeover of the peninsula early in 2014. A new phase thus began in the lives of the former deportees, which will be covered in a separate paper. Significant numbers of Crimean Tatars also live in places of former exile such as Uzbekistan, as well as large diasporas in Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Germany and the US.
Bringing Crimea Under Communist Rule
Mustafa Jemilev, Deputy of the Ukrainian Supreme Rada and President of the Crimean Tatar Mejlissummed up the Communist experience saying, “The Soviet authorities, under the Communist regime, began committing crimes against Crimean Tatars from the time they got control of Crimea” (Interview, 2008). This control, however, was by no means easy to establish: after the 1917 Revolution, control of Crimea shifted from the Crimean Tatars, Germans, Russian Kadets, Bolsheviks and the Whites under Generals Deniken and Wrangel before the Red Army finally established definitive control in late 1920.
The February 1917 Revolution resulted in an activation of national movements across the Soviet Union. Crimean Tatars, under the name of Milli Firka(National Party), had participated in the earlier revolutionary events of 1905 alongside Russian revolutionaries, seeing the overthrow of the monarchy as a primary goal and the first step toward national revitalization. When the Russian Empire began dissolving in 1917, many peoples were thinking about how they would proceed in the new conditions. Crimean Tatars were prepared for action and convened a Kurultay or congress in the Crimea. The Kurultay drafted a constitution and elected a Mejlis or executive committee with Noman Çelebicihan as the head. The Kurultay was designed to be an elected body based on universal suffrage. This first Kurultay had a tragic fate: in 1918 some members of the Mejlis were executed by the Bolsheviks and the Kurultay was destroyed.
The protracted process that brought Crimea under Bolshevik rule included state-sponsored brutality. During the third and final attempt to solidify Bolshevik rule, the Soviet regime sent Bela Kun, chief of the Chekha (Bolshevik secret police) to eliminate oopposition. He worked with Nikolai Bystrykh, who headed a special section of the Crimean Chekha. (i) Operating from the forests, Crimean Tatars organized to oppose Kun and Bystrykh. Eventually, the Soviet regime called upon Sultan Galiev, a Volga Tatar Communist leader, to make a recommendation. Galiev suggested making Crimea into an autonomous Soviet republic, and bringing Crimean Tatars into party and leadership positions. This strategy became part of the Bolshevik attempt to establish an institutional base that would be attractive to nationalities and yet also serve to unify the state. The Sovnarkom (Soviet Committee of Nationalities) announced the formation of the Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR) on October 18, 1921.
The Crimean ASSR (1921-1941)
At the beginning of the Crimean ASSR, the government did not reflect Crimean Tatars’ goals, aspirations, or sensibilities. In fact, by seizing almost half of the cultivatable land on the peninsula to create collective farms, the initial government laid the groundwork for famines (described below) that followed.
Beginning in 1923, however, the Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic experienced a brief “Golden Age” under the leadership of Veli Ibrahimov, a Crimean Tatar Bolshevik. While a communist, he also had strong Crimean Tatar nationalist tendencies.
Ibrahimov’s leadership of the Crimean Central Committee and Chairmanship of the Crimean Council of Peoples Commissars enabled him to revitalize Crimean Tatar cultural and political life. Ibrahimov worked to bring Crimean Tatars into all levels of the Crimean government, including members of the previously outlawed Milli Firka (National Party). Veli Ibrahimov also played a decisive role in returning previously confiscated lands to former owners. Finally, he is remembered for establishing a policy of Tatarization that facilitated the reopening of Crimean Tatar national schools, scientific institutes, museums, theatres and more. (ii)
This flowering came to an abrupt and brutal end in 1928 when Stalin put an end to the New Economic Policy and Ibrahimov himself. Ibrahimov was accused of being a ‘bourgeois nationalist’ after standing up against Moscow with regard to the displacement of Tatar and Russian families to make room for Jewish families from Belorussia. He was executed on May 9, 1928.
The Sovietization of Crimean society was multi-faceted. Educational institutions were given new leadership and editorial boards of newspapers and journals were changed. The directors of Crimean Tatar national theaters were dismissed, and writers and poets were removed from their positions. Virtually anyone prone to independent thought, and thus dissent, was vulnerable. Thus began the elimination of clergy, writers, and artists, which became a ubiquitous theme under Soviet rule. Mustafa Jemilev therefore stated, “According to our sources, about 10,000 of the best Crimean Tatars were killed during the years of repression. In terms of the population of the Soviet Union, this number may not seem large, but for the Crimean Tatars, with a population of half a million, this number is very significant” (Interview, 2008).
Another serious blow was delivered when the Crimean Tatar language, which had been written in Arabic script, was Latinized. This effectively cut new generations off from their intellectual heritage. Latinization was an instrument of political control: it was the government that had discretion over what could be translated from the Arabic script to be read by the younger generation.
The attacks on the Tatar intelligentsia debilitated the Crimean Tatar people, reducing the likelihood of resistance to Soviet policies. Between 1917 when the Communist regime gained ascendancy and 1933, when the Great Purges began, approximately 150,000 or half the Crimean Tatars had either been compelled to leave Crimea or been physically destroyed. (iii)
Great Purges of 1933-1939
The wholesale Sovietization of Crimea entailed the destruction of the Crimean Tatar native cultural and political elite. The pattern over these years became painfully clear: charges like “bourgeois nationalist,” “anti-Soviet,” “counterrevolutionary,” “kulak,” and “Trotskiite” were brought against individuals perceived to be disloyal, and they were arrested and either executed or deported.
The Pedagogical Institute was an early target: many Crimean Tatar intellectuals were targeted. At about the same time, the Faculty for Tatar Language and Culture in the Tavrida University was destroyed: historians, Turkologists, professors of medicine, journalists and poets were all eliminated. Then the efforts to destroy the Tatar intelligentsia shifted to the Muslim clergy, who were forced to leave the peninsula. Finally, Soviet authorities directed their efforts toward eliminating the Tatar contingent within the Crimean Communist party. Stalin is reported to have commented at the Eighth Congress of Soviets that it would be “illogical” to raise the Crimean Republic to the level of a Union republic because the Crimean Tatars are a minority. The demographics he was referring to were, however, an outcome of first Russian, and then Soviet policies.
Bekir Çobanzade, a poet and professor of Turkic languages, is a classic example of what the Crimean Tatars lost as a result of Stalin’s purges. Çobanzade was eliminated in the middle of a productive academic career. He was arrested by Soviet authorities for allegedly subversive activities against the state, given a 20-minute trial, and condemned to death. He was executed on October 13, 1937, at the age of 44. Some twenty years after his death, in response to an appeal from his wife, a military court reversed the decision against him and declared that the charges against Çobanzade were baseless.
Famine and Collectivization
Under Communism, Crimea and the Crimean Tatars experienced two major famines. The first famine was from 1921-22. Publically, the Bolshevik government attributed the famine to drought and economic disruptions associated with the Civil War. The main reason, however, was the mandatory requisitioning of grain and foodstuffs, which left no reserves for the rural population. In Crimea, the local government shipped thousands of tons of grain out of Crimea, to supposedly “more important” central regions, leaving the residents with inadequate food supplies. An estimated 100,000 people died of starvation and 60% of them are believed to have been Crimean Tatars. (iv)
The second famine began in 1931 and was a direct result of the Soviet policies of collectivization and industrialization. (v) Known as the Great Famine of 1932-33, this disaster is a clear example of one of the ultimate outcomes of Communism. The Soviet Union aimed to improve agricultural productivity by eliminating individually owned plots and creating a system of collective farms. In a scenario that was repeated across the Soviet Union, planners sought to generate resources needed for industrialization by converting agricultural products, primarily grain, into foreign currency on world markets.
In Ukraine as a whole, the scheme is believed to have taken the lives of 6-7 million people. Crimea suffered acutely, and, as a rich agricultural area, was particularly hard hit. The Soviet attack on what was referred to as “bourgeois nationalism” was thus not limited to cultural and political life described above, but concerned all layers of Crimean society. Some 35,000 to 45,000 peasants and farmers, labeled “wealthy” and thus “enemies of the people,” were removed from the Crimea in two years. (vi) The authorities then extended control over the remaining population by forcing them into collectivization. While foreign currency flowed to Soviet industrialization, people in the impoverished countryside faced malnutrition and death from starvation.
Thus by the beginning of World War II, the surviving population of Crimea had endured Russification, collectivization, and witnessed the deportation or execution of their clergy, poets, teachers, writers, and political leaders. In 1941, the invading German army encountered a population that had been decimated and demoralized by Soviet rule. As Jemilev stated, “From the perspective of the Crimean Tatars, the history of the peninsula is understood in terms of a battle of two aggressive and imperialistic regimes” (Interview, 2008). It was thus a debilitated Crimean population that encountered the worst tragedy: deportation.
The culmination of the policies aimed at the destruction of the Crimean Tatar people came with Sürgün or deportation. As Mustafa Jemilev has stated, “The most terrible crime was committed on May 18, 1944. The whole of population of Crimean Tatars were deported even those men in armed forces, who were fighting for this regime. Not a single government in the world exhibited such betrayal by deporting and killing those who defended their country” (Interview, 2008).
The Crimean Tatars were deported according to State Defense Committee Decree No. 5859ss which alleged the Crimean Tatars had “actively collaborated with the German occupation authorities” in a range of capacities. While the Decree presents the deportation as a humane event, survivors recount a very different journey.
Victims the 1944 deportation describe how armed officers of the NKVD (soviet state security police and precursor KGB), armed with machine guns, knocked on their doors and told them to “get ready” before dawn on May 18, 1944. They were given some 20 minutes before being taken by car and truck to central collection areas where they were loaded onto trains that had been previously been used for livestock. Since most of the able-bodied men were serving in the Soviet armed forces, the majority of deportees consisted of women, children, and the elderly. The inhumanity of the operation is clear if we consider how quickly, and without warning they were forced to leave their homes and gardens, as well as most of their personal possessions behind. Women gave birth and people died in the crowded trains. They traveled for weeks in what have since been called “crematoria on wheels.”
In the course of this operation, according to documents of the NKVD, 191,044 were loaded onto the trains bound for Soviet Central Asia and the Ural Mountains. Once in exile, large numbers died from malnutrition, dehydration, and disease. The accurate number of victims, however, is disputed. Official documents suggest that 44,887 people died from 1944-1947 (not including those who passed away during the deportation). (vii) Ediev estimates that 18 percent perished between 1944 and 1952. (viii) However, NKVD documents, inherently political, present only one side of the Crimean Tatar story.
Activists in the Crimean Tatar national movement who carried out a census to measure the demographic consequences of the deportation dispute these figures. The results of their polling suggest that as many as 109,956 Crimean Tatars, or 46.2 percent of the population died between 1944 and 1947. (ix) As Jemilev has described it, “The conditions under which Crimean Tatars were forced to live in exile aimed at eliminating our nation, through hunger and hard labor. Within two years after deportation, more than 46 percent of the population died, and this provides clear evidence for the genocide of Crimea Tatars” (Interview, 2008).
Ethnic Cleansing and Genocide
While we may never know the exact numbers, the intention to eliminate an unwanted ethnic or religious group is clear. As Mustafa Jemilev put it, “There is no doubt that it was ethnic cleansing. For example, in 1944 while the authorities were deporting the Crimean Tatars, partners in mixed marriages (Slavic wives or husbands) were allowed to file for divorce in order to stay in Crimea. We can clearly trace the policy of ethnic cleansing in the deportation of Crimean Tatars. Furthermore, our people were eliminated at the places of deportation. They were afraid of going to the hospital even with a minor illness because there was a strong suspicion that they would not come out alive. In order to be certain of systematic liquidation at hospitals, one should investigate such cases and exhume bodies. Of course, no one has attempted to do this. But the truth is that Crimean Tatars were determined to stay at home out of the fear that they might not survive in the hospital” (Interview, 2008).
Conditions in exile were indeed terrible. The Crimean Tatars were considered “special settlers” and lived in a setting that limited their freedom of movement and required them to check-in, like prisoners, with the kommadatur. Once this system was dismantled, they were forced to work for meagre wages in collective farms and factories, and forbidden from commemorating Crimea, or even put the designation “Crimean Tatar” in their passports.
Another event that reveals the enormity of the deportation concerns a small community of some 300 persons living on the Arabat Spit, a narrow strip of land on the northeast side of the Crimea, that was left behind. Realizing the “mistake,” Soviet authorities went back, rounded the villagers onto barges, and drowned them in the Azov Sea. There are living witnesses of the event, which, owing to its sheer brutality, occupies a prominent place in the memory of the people. Today, many scholars agree that the treatment the Crimean Tatars received at the hands of the Soviets could also be called genocide, in the sense of “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group” provided by the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.
While collaboration with the Germans was the official reason given for the deportation and there is certainly evidence, this fails to fully explain why the Crimean Tatars were deported, or their subsequent fate. After all, owing to a complex range of factors, members of every ethnic group collaborated with the German occupation and yet many groups were not deported. Furthermore, the Crimean Tatars who collaborated were not the ones who were punished – these persons were evacuated with the German army and, in a few symbolic cases, tried in Soviet courts. Thus it was primarily innocent residents of the Crimea; women, children and elderly, who were deported. Their guilt was neither investigated, nor established. In today’s terms, under Geneva Conventions of 1949 this is “collective punishment,” a war crime.
“Detatarization” of Crimea
As the Crimean Tatars were scattered across Soviet Central Asia and the Urals, the Soviet authorities embarked on a policy of “detatarization” of the Crimean peninsula. Books that were either written about the Crimean Tatars, or by them were removed from library shelves and, according to some witnesses, burned. Minarets were removed from mosques, which were converted into storehouses or movie theatres. Crimean Tatar grave markers were removed for use in building roads and foundations and graves were desecrated. Traditional toponyms, which reflected centuries of habitation by multiple ethnic groups, were also Sovietized.
To rebuild the economy of Crimea, Russians and Ukrainians were relocated to live in Crimean Tatar homes and tend Crimean Tatar gardens and livestock. These newcomers were told that the Crimean Tatars were a traitorous nation. The status of the peninsula was also changed. The Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was turned into an oblast (an administrative term meaning region) as part of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic by a decree of both the presidium of the Supreme Soviet of USSR and the Supreme Soviet of RSFSR. In 1954, the status changed again when Khrushchev transferred Crimea to the Ukrainian SSR.
The Struggle to Return
Stalin’s death in 1953 initially raised hopes among the Crimean Tatars that they would be allowed to return. However, they were excluded from the processes of rehabilitation initiated by Khrushchev in 1956. Whereas most of the formerly deported regained their political rights and were authorized to return to their former homelands, Crimean Tatars, as well as Volga Germans and Meskhetian Turks, had to endure a more prolonged exile. Eventually, a 1967 Decree removed the charges of treason, but did not permit the Crimean Tatars’ return to the peninsula, nor reinstate their rights.
Practically, the 1967 decree changed little for the Crimean Tatars. While some Crimean Tatars families were inspired to return after the 1967 Decree, they were typically socially and economically disenfranchised, and in many cases deported outside the boundaries of the peninsula. The history of the Crimean Tatar National Movement that arose in places of exile attests to continued repression. Activists who attempted to bring attention to the ways in which the Soviet treatment of Crimean Tatars violated official Soviet Nationalities policy were put under surveillance, arrested, and imprisoned as documented by veterans of the national movement. When a letter campaign to Soviet officials failed to yield results, they turned to other forms, such as petitions and peaceful demonstrations.
The Crimean Tatars, who had been an important part of the human rights movement in the Soviet Union, found their way into popular consciousness when they challenged Glasnost by publically demonstrating in Red Square in Moscow. It was only with the disintegration of the Soviet Union, however, that the Crimean Tatars began returning en masse to their historic homeland in Crimean. Today, there are more than 250,000 Crimean Tatars living in their historic homeland. (x) They are actively engaged in overcoming the consequences of the years of repression and are fighting for the full restoration of their rights.
That struggle has been complicated by the change in the status of the peninsula. The new authorities have banned the past chairman of the Mejlis Mustafa Jemilev and the current chairman, Refat Chubarov, from residing in Crimea. Searches of schools, homes, and mosques have led residents of the peninsula to say they fear being labeled extremists. There is at long last a decree to rehabilitate the Crimean Tatars, (xi) but it is unclear if it will benefit the lives of ordinary Crimean Tatars.
Author bio: Greta Uehling teaches at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and is the author of Beyond Memory: The Crimean Tatars’ Deportation and Return (2004) and numerous scholarly articles.
This research was originally published by International Committee for Crimea, Inc. on January 10, 2015. Access the original essay here.
(i) Greta Uehling. 2004. Beyond Memory. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. p. 36.
(ii) Alan W. Fisher. 1978. The Crimean Tatars. Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, p. 140.
(iii) Fisher, p. 145.
(iv) James Minahan, 2000. One Europe, many nations: a historical dictionary of European national groups,p. 189.
(v) Cafer Seydahmet. 2005. “Famine in Crimea.”
(vi) Fisher, p. 142.
(vii) Bugai, N. F. 2002. Deportatsiia narodov Kryma: Dokumenty, fakty, kommentarii, [The Deportations of Crimean Peoples: Documents, Facts, Commentaries], Moscow: INSAN.
(viii) Dlakhat, Ediev. 2004. Demografisheskie poteri deportirovannykh narodov SSSR, [“The demographical loss of the Soviet deported peoples”], Naselenie I obshchestvo, [Population and Society], p. 79.
(ix) Aurélie Campana, Sürgün: The Crimean Tatars’ deportation and exile, Online Encyclopedia of Mass Violence, [online], published on 16 June 2008, accessed 18 June 2013.
URL: http://www.massviolence.org/Surgun-The-Crimean-Tatars-deportation-and-exile, ISSN 1961-9898.
(x) According to the first independent Ukrainian census in 2001. Current estimates are higher.
(xi) “Putin signs decree to rehabilitate Crimea Tatars.”