Last Friday, November 2, mosques throughout the northern Caucasus commemorated the 75th anniversary of the mass deportation of the Karachays to Central Asia by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. Between November 2 and 5, 1943, some 70,000 Karachays, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group in the North Caucasus, were deported in cattle train cars to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan for allegedly collaborating with Nazi Germany. About a quarter of those deported perished, among them 22,000 children.
The Karachays were one of eight non-Russian national minorities that were deported from their homelands during World War II for allegedly collaborating with Nazi occupiers. Balkars, Chechens, Crimean Tatars, Ingush, Kalmyks, Meskhetians, and Volga Germans faced the same fate as the Karachays. They were all exiled to Central Asia and Siberia, where they suffered from negligence and brutality. The deportations were a result of the Soviet Union’s extreme concern with secure borders and a legacy of suspicion towards border peoples forcedly annexed by czarist Russia, according to Aleksandr Nekrich in his seminal The Punished Peoples.
Most of these people were allowed to return to their homelands after the death of Stalin in 1953. The Crimean Tatars, though not allowed to return, have since been exonerated. Upon the return of surviving Karachays in the 1950s, the Karachay-Cherkess Autonomous Oblast was reconstituted. On November 17, 1990, the area was proclaimed a republic.
On November 2 of this year, Rashid Temrezov, head of Karachay-Cherkess, Prime Minister Aslan Ozov, and parliament speaker Aleksandr Ivanov issued a joint statement, calling the deportation of Karachays “a monstrous injustice that lasted 14 years.” Preserving memories of the deportation is part of Karachay efforts to preserve their dignity and culture. Yet the deportations remain one of the most contentious issues in Russian historiography. There have, as such, been no efforts by the central government to help the Karachays and other peoples erect memorials and otherwise recognize the crimes against humanity committed against them. In fact, President Vladimir Putin has attempted to wipe out these efforts in what geographer and historian Pavel Polyan calls “historiomor,” a war on history for current purposes.
Nevertheless, the municipality of Karachayevsk, capital of the Karachay-Cherkess republic, managed to erect its own monument in 2005, with funding from the Agha Khan Foundation. Designed by architect Sultan Yusufovich Aybazov, the memorial commemorates both the forced deportation of the Karachays, as well as their triumphant return to their native lands. At the center of the memorial complex is a 40-feet high octagon symbolizing the “inner strength” of the people. Inside the octagon is a large cube of red granite representing the fire in the home hearth. Cutting through the hearth is a line of black granite, representing the black days of deportation. One side bears an inscription commemorating the 69,267 people who were deported and 43,247 who perished; the other side is carved with the Karachay symbol for the universe.
Whether Putin wants it or not, the Karachay people are dedicated to keeping their history alive and, with it, the memories of the crimes committed against them by the Russian state.