Tomorrow (May 18) marks the 69th anniversary of Joseph Stalin’s deportation of the Crimean Tatar nation from their homeland on trumped-up charges of collaboration with the Germans during World War II. And once again, Crimean Tatars and their friends around the world will mark that sad date with solemn meetings and public demonstrations. But this year, faced with a deteriorating situation in their homeland caused by Ukrainian and Russian officials, they will be holding their most important protests for the first time at Ukrainian diplomatic missions in Europe and presenting a petition demanding that Kyiv intervene to allow the more than 100,000 Crimean Tatars still in exile in Uzbekistan to return to their homeland and to resolve the problems facing those already there, including allowing them to recover lands that were taken from them, massive unemployment, education in their native language, and an end to widespread prejudice and discrimination by Ukrainian and Russian officials.
They are taking this step of refocusing their protests because in the words of Crimea’s Mufti Haci Emirali Ablaev, this week, the political and economic situation in Crimea has deteriorated to the point that it is “as bad, if not worse than it was in 1783 [when the Russian Empire absorbed Crimea] and 90 years ago [when Stalin imposed his brutal dictatorship on the people there. The reasons for his conclusion, entirely shared by Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Cemilev and the Mejlis (the executive body that represents the Crimean Tatars), which met to discuss the May 18 actions two weeks ago, are to be found in the attitudes and actions of Anatoly Mogilev, the prime minister of the Autonomous Republic of Crimean.
Mogilev has routinely violated human and civil rights of the Crimean Tatars and most recently has sought to block the work of the Crimean Tatar parliament and the commemoration of the May 18 anniversary. Those actions reflect his longstanding anti-Crimean Tatar attitudes. He has frequently referred to the 300,000 Crimean Tatars living in Crimea as “a diaspora,” and five years ago, he published an article defending Stalin’s deportation of the nation, calling its members “traitors and collaborators.” The year before that, as chief of security for the Autonomous Republic, he used force against Crimean Tatar businessmen in Ai Petri near Yalta, bulldozing their establishments. Crimean Tatars have regularly asked Kyiv to intervene against him on their behalf, but having failed in those attempts, they are now raising the stakes by organizing protests at Ukrainian embassies and consulates abroad (khpg.org/en/index.php?id=1368569483).
In Crimea itself, Crimean Tatars have already erected 12 billboards to mark the sad anniversary. Refat Chubarov, the first deputy chairman of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis, will also organize requiem evenings and other gatherings, which are expected to attract 7,000 Crimean Tatars. Hundreds of Crimean Tatars will gather in diaspora centers in Central Asia, Europe and the United States (qha.com.ua/v-simferopole-razmescheno-12-bigbordov-posvyaschennih-pamyati-jertv-deportatsii-foto-126124.html).
Stalin’s deportation of the Crimean Tatars was both brutal and thorough. Almost all those exiled to Central Asia were women and children—most Crimean Tatar men were serving in the Red Army and only on their return home were these “traitors” sent east—many died immediately on the way or of starvation and disease in the first months of their exile, and almost 50 percent of the 238,500 Crimean Tatars rounded up and put in boxcars died during the first two years in exile. In one especially infamous example, the Soviet secret police drowned the residents of three Crimean Tatar villages the authorities had missed during their May 18, 1944, roundup.
The Crimean Tatars were only able to return home in significant numbers after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But the Ukrainian government has done little to help them: it did not grant them automatic citizenship as it did to other Ukrainians who were out of the republic at the date the citizenship law went into effect and thus has made it far more difficult for them to return; it did not allow the Crimean Tatars to restore either their homes or their republic; and it dispatched officials like Mogilev who were openly hostile to the Crimean Tatars. Moreover, Kyiv has done little or nothing to oppose the anti–Crimean Tatar attitudes of Moscow and ethnic Russians living on the peninsula.
Many might expect that memories of the horrors of the deportation would have faded by this time, but the reverse is actually the case. The oppressive actions of the Ukrainians have reinforced them, as have the good works of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis and diaspora organizations around the world. But there is an additional factor at work: The Crimean Tatars were not the only people exiled from Crimea in 1944. Others included 97,000 other Tatars living there, 67,000 Bulgarians, 48,000 Greeks, 37,000 Gregorian Armenians, 12,000 Poles and 2,000 Serbs. All these groups include people who will not, in the words of the Crimean Tatar appeals this year, ever forget or allow anything to be forgotten (zvezdapovolzhya.ru/obshestvo/18-maya-godovschina-deportatsii-09-05-2013.html).