Photo credit: Jiri Flogel / Shutterstock.com
This year, May 18 commemorates 78 years since almost 200,000 Crimean Tatars were torn from their beds in the middle of the night and forced into cattle wagons. The Crimean Tartars, a Sunni Muslim Turkic ethnic group, have lived in Crimea since the Middle Ages. In 1944, accused by Joseph Stalin of collaboration with the Nazis, they were declared the traitors and enemies, despite many male Tatars serving in the Red Army and receiving medals for their military bravery.
As displaced Crimean Tatars journeyed into the remote regions of Central Asia, nearly 2,000 miles from home, many perished from overcrowding and starvation. Almost half the population died in the labor camps from hunger, unsanitary conditions, disease, and fatigue. Those who defied odds and lived through the harsh conditions of exile committed their lives to return to their homeland Crimea and rebuild their lives.
As a researcher of the national movement for self-determination, what always strikes me when speaking with Crimean Tatars—young or old—is how vivid and personal the collective memory of the deportation remains, as though it happened yesterday and was experienced by all. Nearly eight decades later, the community continues to grieve the deportation.
The Crimean Tatars had never had an opportunity for formal retribution from their perpetrators. Although they were officially rehabilitated by the Khrushchev government in 1967, they were still not allowed to return to Crimea and fought vigorously to prove their innocence. For forty years, they petitioned, protested, clandestinely published, and repeatedly returned to Crimea—only to be deported again. Unlike other survivors of genocide, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Crimean Tatars never had their day in the courts. There was no Nuremberg Trial with commensurate punishments. Short of juridical punishment, there were also no official reparations or repatriation of appropriated properties, nor even a symbolic recognition of guilt officially issued by the Russian Federation or Crimean authorities.
Returning to Crimea in the early 1990s after almost 40 years of nonviolent resistance, they have found themselves living alongside their perpetrators and their descendants. From NKVD officers directly responsible for the deportation, to Russian settlers, who came to occupy the Crimean Tatar property after 1944, to local officials, who fought intensely to prevent the return of “Tatar traitors,” the Crimean Tatars have been surrounded by people who neither recognized nor atoned for the violence committed by them personally or in their name.
Reluctant to recognize the imperial past of the Soviet Union, Slavic settlers in Crimea have perpetuated the colonial relations in the post-Soviet context and contested the right of the Crimean Tatar for self-determination in Crimea as indigenous peoples. In 2004, only 30 percent of college-age respondents regarded the Crimean Tatar deportation in 1944 as unfair and criminal. The Crimean Tatar survivors of the deportation recounted to me numerous stories of settlers who denied them the mere opportunity to visit the houses wherein they or their ancestors lived prior to dispossession.
Since the early 1990s, blatant racism and Islamophobia were presented by the Crimean authorities as “ethnic tension” as if it was some “civilizational” differences that prevented the groups from living peacefully side by side. In fact, the evidence of bullying and violence against both the Crimean Tatar children and adults in schools, workplaces, streets, and markets abound. The mechanisms of institutionalized racism worked perfectly to prevent the Crimean Tatars from rising economically and participating in political processes. The common refrain across segments of Crimean society—that “Crimean Tatars are only capable of selling vegetables at the market or drive marshrutkas [public transport]”—sums up the unchecked discrimination that meant to keep Tatars as second-class citizens. 80 years after the deportations, the Crimean Tartar community has yet to find protection from the threat of re-deportation. With a new wave of the Russian brutal invasion, entailing mass displacement and abduction of half a million Ukrainians to the Russian territories, this threat is at an all-time high.
In this culture of discrimination and imperialist impunity, past crimes are readily repeated. In 2014, for example, Russian civilians painted red crosses on the homes of Crimean Tatars, anticipating their exile and hoping to occupy their homes afterward.
For eight years now, the Russian Federation occupying Crimea has deliberately suppressed the Crimean Tatar identity, from denying the right to learn native language to harassing the Crimean Tatar religious institutions and banning the self-governing bodies, enforced by what some Crimean Tatars call “hybrid deportation.” Under the unfounded charges of “terrorism” and “extremism”, Crimean Tatar activists now regularly receive up to 20-year-long prison sentences in the far-off territories of the Russian Federation. Under the suspicion of “terrorism”, Russia has banned any commemoration of the deportation.
Although both Russian and Ukrainian actors have committed violence against Crimean Tatars (Crimea was part of the Ukrainian SSR since 1954 and part of independent Ukraine since 1991), only Ukraine has taken concrete (if incomplete) steps toward reconciliation. In 2014, the Ukraine parliament Verkhovna Rada legitimized Crimean Tatars’ self-governing bodies Mejlis and Kurultaj, and established a new position of Plenipotentiary Representative of President in the matters of Crimean Tatar people. Crimean Tatar representation in Ukrainian politics has also increased, such as Emine Dzhaparova, who is a Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs of Ukraine, and Rustem Umerov, an MP and lead negotiator in the Ukraine-Russia peace talks. Symbolically, Ukraine recognized the 1944 deportation as genocide and declared May 18 as the Day of Crimean Tatar’s struggle for their rights. Such measures are the beginning of addressing intergenerational trauma: with the inclusion of more radical steps, such as the recognition of Crimea as a Crimean Tatar autonomous region, Ukrainian governance in Crimea could end Crimean Tatars’ fear of re-deportation and promote political healing. Along this road to recovery, the return of Crimea to Ukraine should also enable Sevastopol, the “city of Russian glory” that is the cornerstone of the Russian colonial mythology and a military base, to serve as the stage for Crimean Tatars—after 78 long years—to finally have their day in the courts.
Mariia Shynkarenko is a PhD Candidate in Politics at The New School for Social Research, a Visiting Scholar at the Center for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Toronto, and a Visiting Scholar at the Jordan Center for the Advanced Study of Russia at NYU.
An earlier version of this essay was published in Democracy Seminar on May 18, 2022.