This month, Crimean Tatars marked one of the darkest periods in their history. On May 18, 1944, Josef Stalin deported Crimea’s Tatar population en masse to Central Asia. The forced relocation displaced around 200,000 Tatars, and killed half the population.
Last week, on Monday, May 18, Tatars gathered in Kyiv, Ukraine to commemorate the event. The Ukrainian government had recently declared the date a national Day of Commemoration of the Crimean Tatar Deportation. The gathering also served as an occasion to mourn a more recent event – the displacement and killing of Tatars during Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014.
The event, dubbed “I Am A Crimean Tatar,” was held in Holossivskiy Park. Survivors of the 1944 deportation spoke about their anguish and despair alongside those who suffered in 2014. Those who had recently been displaced were far from home, and had little sense of when they might be able to return.
An ethnically Turkic group, Tatars have inhabited Crimea for centuries, but have rarely been embraced by their regional neighbors. As practicing Muslims, they have oftentimes found themselves at odds with the Russian state, which has historically had strong links to the Russian Orthodox Church. Communist rule did little to improve the Tatars’ situation, even before Stalin came to power. Vladimir Lenin reportedly said of the Tatar population, “We will take them, divide them, subjugate them, digest them.” The fall of the USSR and Crimea’s transfer to Ukrainian control in 1991 brought little real change, but did briefly protect the Tatars from Russian animosity.
The recent Tatar exodus from Crimea is no minor incident. Before their first expulsion from the peninsula, Tatars comprised about one-fifth of the Crimean population. Many lived in exile until 1988, when they began returning during the USSR’s final years. According to current estimates, approximately 12-15% of Crimeans are Tatars, making them a sizeable minority in the territory.
After the recent Russian takeover, those Tatars who remained in Crimea faced serious obstacles in commemorating the 1944 deportation this year. Indeed, Crimean Tatars attempting to mark these events in Simferopol, Crimea’s capital, were detained and brought to a police station for questioning. Tatars in other parts of the peninsula faced similar challenges. A statement released by the U.S. government also noted that the Russian occupation had complicated commemoration efforts. “This year…under Russian [rule], the Tatars have been banned from marking the occasion [of the deportations] with their traditional memorial demonstration,” the statement read.
Russian control of Crimea has meant more than just limits on public Tatar events. Newly passed laws have targeted mosques and public schools, in what Russia claims is an effort to crack down on Islamic militants. These regulations have, however, restricted the ability of Tatars to practice their religion. Russian solders have removed Islamic literature, including the Qur’an, from Tatar homes. Tatar-language news channels have also been shut down en masse, in what Luke Coffey, a Eurasian expert writing for Al Jazeera described as “cultural vandalism.”
Limitations on political representation are widespread as well. Russian troops have barred Refat Chubarov and Mustafa Dzhemilev (the current and former chairmen, respectively, of the Mejlis, the Crimean Tatarian executive representatives) from entering Crimea. The deaths of two Tatar activists, Reshat Ametov and Edem Asanov, have also been linked to the Russian government, to say nothing of numerous other disappearances.
Various governments have condemned Russian treatment of the Tatars, including Turkey, which has refused to acknowledge Russia’s claim to Crimea. There has also been general, widespread condemnation from the international community about Russia’s violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and annexation of Crimea.
But, little has been done to ensure Crimea is restored to Ukraine (and, by extension, that the expelled Tatars can return to Crimea), and their situation is rapidly deteriorating. Despite the clear discrimination the Tatars of Crimea are experiencing, there have been no efforts to address the problem. Russia continues to infringe upon Ukrainian sovereignty while solidifying its hold on Crimea. Regional pressure from European nations has done nothing to curtail the Kremlin’s ambitions.
The Tatars themselves remain dispersed. Seventy-one years after Stalin vowed to rid Russia of its Tatars, it seems little has really changed for the better. It is this reality that continues to shape the experience of Tatars in Crimea and beyond.