Crimean Tatars: ‘We did not reject Russia, Russia rejected us’

On May 18, 1944, Joseph Stalin deported more than 180,000 Crimean Tatars to Uzbekistan. Once again this community faces major challenges. Today, 230,000 Crimean Tatars, who are mainly Sunni Muslims, represent about 12 percent of Crimea’s population. Virtually all of Crimea’s Tatars opposed Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014 and refused to vote in the bogus referendum rubberstamping it.

Now Crimeans must accept Russian citizenship to vote, hold public office, or obtain social services. But the Kremlin subjects the Crimean Tatars to special measures. Mustafa Jemilev, the leader of the Crimean Tatars, was barred from Crimea for five years, and Ahtem Ciygoz, another leader, was arrested in January. There are suspicions that the Russians were involved in the deaths of two activists, Reshat Ametov and Edem Asanov, and in the abductions or disappearances of at least nineteen others in 2014. All Crimean Tatar TV, radio, or print media have been shuttered or forced to leave. Mosques and schools now labor under far more restrictive Russian laws simply to operate. Last year during the 70th anniversary of the Crimean Tatar (“Surgut”) deportation, troops blocked 40,000 people from their usual commemoration site. As in most of their tragic history, almost all Crimean Tatars have reacted with calm dignity to their recent setbacks. They are also determined to overcome these obstacles.

While Russians comprise the majority in Crimea today, the Tatars were there first. Genghis Khan’s grandson, Batu, conquered Crimea in 1241 and Crimean Tatars descend from his line. Catherine the Great’s army defeated two million Crimean Tatars in 1783 and thousands of Russians—and their new Black Sea fleet—soon arrived. After being accused of collaboration with the Turks and British in the Crimean War from 1853 to 1856, thousands of Crimean Tatars fled to Turkey, where several million remain. But in Crimea, their culture flourished, led by religious scholar Ismail Gaspraly who founded Jadidism, a modernist school of Sunni Islam. He edited Russia’s first Muslim newspaper, Vatan Khadimi (The Motherland’s Servant), set up hundreds of modern Muslim schools in the Russian empire, and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

The Crimean Tatars had a brief window of relative independence from 1921, when the Crimean Autonomous Republic was founded, until 1928 when Stalin introduced his Five-Year Plan. Then the Crimean Tatar language was banned and hundreds of mosques and Muslim schools were closed. From 1928 to 1939, Soviet authorities jailed or deported up to 40,000 Crimean Tatars, particularly Gaspraly’s followers.

Nazi Germany conquered Crimea in 1941 and held it for three years. On May 12, 1944, the Red Army recaptured Crimea. Six days later, Stalin accused Crimean Tatars of collaborating with the Nazis and ordered their mass deportation. More than 183,000 Crimean Tatars were sent to Uzbekistan, the Urals, and other remote areas in the Soviet Union. Deportees were given fifteen minutes to pack and jammed into cattle cars. Crimean Tatars estimate that 47 percent of deportees died in transit—parents had to throw their dead children onto railroad tracks—or perished in the Sverdlovsk gulag.

But the Crimean Tatars weren’t the only group that Stalin deported. From 1941 to 1949, some 3.3 million—primarily six Muslim ethnic groups and ethnic Germans—were sent to Siberia and Central Asia; nearly half died.

In the 1950s, the Tatars’ fate improved. Crimea was made part of Ukraine in 1954 under Soviet First Party Secretary Nikita Khrushchev. The 20th Party Congress in 1956 condemned the mass deportations, rehabilitated the Crimean Tatars, and lifted their special police controls. Crimean Tatars were offered but refused autonomous districts in Uzbekistan. By 1967, the Communist Party told the Crimean Tatars they could live anywhere in the USSR—except Crimea. But by 1968, 10,000 Crimean Tatars had moved back to Crimea and were being evicted again.

The Crimean Tatars organized the Soviet Union’s first protest movement. Over decades they sent thousands of letters and petitions to the Soviet authorities asking for permission to return home. By the early 1960s, Crimean Tatar activists received long prison camp terms for “anti-Soviet agitation” and “anti-Soviet slander.” Despite repressions, 120,000 signed an appeal to the 1966 Party Congress. In 1969, they held a rally in Moscow’s Red Square to protest the arrest of Gen. Pyotr Grigorenko, their early Moscow advocate, who spent five years in psychiatric detention as a result of his advocacy. That same year, Crimean Tatars helped establish the first Soviet human rights movement, the Initiative Group for the Defense of Human Rights in the USSR, providing the first international dissent vehicle.

In a desperate act of protest, Crimean Tatar activist, Musa Mamut, immolated himself in 1978. Ten years later, former political prisoner Ayshe Seitmuratova testified on her people’s plight before the US Helsinki Commission and brought the issue congressional attention. Finally in 1989, the Crimean Tatars were given permission to return to Crimea. Tens of thousands of Crimean Tatars returned, although thousands still live in Uzbekistan and other areas to which they were deported.

The United States should consider how best to amplify Crimean Tatar voices. As Ayshe Seitmuratova has rightly observed, “We did not reject Russia, Russia rejected us.”

Catherine Cosman is a Senior Policy Adviser at the US Commission on International Religious FreedomThe views expressed here are her own. 

Image: Crimean Tatars and local residents light candles during a memorial ceremony in Kyiv marking the 70th anniversary of the deportation of Tatars from Crimea on May 17, 2014. The Mejlis, the Crimean Tatars' main representative body, had planned to hold a rally in regional capital Simferopol on May 18, the date Soviet deportations of Tatar families began in 1944. Many of the more than 180,000 deportees died on their way into exile. REUTERS/Konstantin Grishin