Vienna, May 20 – Beginning 65 years ago this week, Stalin deported more than 200,000 Crimean Tatars to Siberia and Central Asia accusing the entire nation of collaboration with the Nazis. But even though many of them have been now returned, most believe that the many unresolved problems their community faces mean that their nation’s deportation continues.
“Even their children, who were born in Crimea,” those who managed to survive Stalin’s persecutions say, “remain de facto deported as well since up to now their rights have not been fully restored and neither they nor their parents and grandparents have been formally rehabilitated” (islam.com.ua/articles/actuality/reviews/445/).
And the lack of resolution on that point, Refat Chubarov, the first deputy head of the mejlis of the Crimean Tatar people says, is “the greatest problem which is slowing the resolution of all the other problems” that nation faces, including questions involving land, language, education, culture and religion.
Over the course of three days in May 1944, on orders from Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, units of the Red Army and forces of the NKVD deported approximately 190,000 Crimean Tatars from their homeland. To their number were added a little later Crimean Tatars who were fighting in the ranks of the Red Army. They were deported on their return from service.
Of those deported, between 25 percent (the government figure) and 46 percent (that of the National Movement of the Crimean Tatar People) died, as a result of the inhuman conditions under which they were forced to live and the brutality of the Soviet officials who dealt with what these officials viewed as “enemies of the people.”
Beginning almost immediately upon their arrival at their place of exile, Crimean Tatars launched their struggle for return. Sometimes this took dramatic and at other times tragic forms. As a result, many activists were thrown into Soviet prisons, where they languished for decades, or even driven to suicide.
Only in Gorbachev’s time were the Crimean Tatars able to begin to return to their native language, but obstacles put up first by the Soviet government and then by the Ukrainian one mean that there are still some 60,000 to 100,000 Crimean Tatars living in the places to which they were deported.
But, according to their leaders, Vladimir Pritula writes on the Islam.com.ua portal this week, “the overwhelming majority of the 270,000 [Crimean Tatars] who have returned or even have been born in Crimea consider that the deportation [begun by Stalin 65 years ago] continues to this day for the entire Crimean Tatar people.”
Crimean Tatar historian Gulnara Bekirova told Pritula that “such a prolonged deportation has destroyed practically all the nation’s infrastructure—theaters, newspapers, schools, universities, scientific institutions, a large part of the archives, and religious structures were liquidated and destroyed.”
Moreover, she says, besides this and “democratic losses,” what has been equally important is “the moral aspect” of the situation, “the continuing denigration of the entire Crimean Tatar people … and also the “ethno-cultural aspect – the erosion of Crimean Tatar culture and language and the almost complete destruction of Crimean toponymy.”
And despite almost two decades after having returned, the Crimean Tatars have not been able to make up any of these losses. For most of the time, they have not been permitted to declare their nationality in official documents. And what is especially serious for the future, they have not been able to reestablish a network of native language schools.
As a result of the deportation, Pritula notes, “hundreds of Crimean Tatar schools were closed. Now there are only 15 schools (out of 650) on the peninsula offering any instruction in Crimean Tatar, and of those, 13 offer it only in the first three grades. As a result, Crimean Tatar educator Safure Kodzhametova says, younger Crimean Tatars do not know their language.
Equally serious have been the efforts by Ukrainian and ethnic Russian officials there to prevent the Crimean Tatars from rebuilding their Islamic institutions. Mufti Emirali haji Ablayev says that the government has blocked the construction of traditional mosques even though it has allowed non-traditional Muslim groups to operate.
The mufti, who heads the Muslim Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of the Crimea, says that it is his view that the authorities have taken these steps because they want to play up religious divisions within the Crimean Tatars in order to weaken the community relative to the Slavic majority there.
More familiar to outsiders are the fights between returning Crimean Tatars, on the one hand, and Russians and Ukrainians, on the other, for control of land. Most of the repatriants were former urban residents, but they have been pushed into rural areas because Russians and Ukrainians have taken over their properties in towns and cities.
For all these reasons an, although it is seldom commented upon, “land for the Crimean Tatars is more than simply a piece of ground,” Pristula notes. It is at the core of who and what the nation is and whether it will have the resources necessary to survive. Crimean Tatars see the land of their ancestors not just as personal property but as “part of the culture of their people.”
But as important as land is, there is another more important political question. Up to now, 65 years after the deportation, the Crimean Tatar nation has not been rehabilitated politically. Its members do not fall under “a single Ukrainian law concerning the restoration of the rights of people suffering from the actions of the Soviet regime or its vassals.”
Since the 1990s, the Ukrainian parliament has had various bills before it about the restoration of the rights of those deported on the basis of nationality, but none of these has passed. According to Chubarov, if Kyiv adopted these laws, that would go a long way to integrating the Crimean Tatars into the Ukrainian state.
But more important still, until such laws are passed and until they and other measures restoring the rights of the Crimean Tatar nation are fully implemented, the deportation of1944 will not be an event in histoyr but rather a continuing tragedy, one that will fester for many years to come even if those who now ignore it assume that they can make it disappear.