Crimean Tatars, who were unjustly deported en masse from their homeland by Soviet authorities in 1944, have the right to live in their homeland in peace, free of political, social and economic prejudices against them. We look forward to the day when the indigenous people of Crimea can live without poverty on their ancestral land, maintaining their own cultural identity and traditions, and speaking their native language.
A brief history of Crimean Tatars
The Crimean Tatars, a Turkic Muslim people who are the largest ethnic minority in Ukraine, have inhabited the Crimean peninsula for over eight hundred years. They are a mixture of the descendants of the Golden Horde (the western part of the Mongol empire of Genghis Khan) and the many ethnic groups of Crimea. They are considered the indigenous people of Crimea.
The Crimean Tatars established a state, the Crimean Khanate, and ruled Crimea from the 14th to the 18th century until it was annexed by the Russian Empire in 1783. At that time there were over six million Crimean Tatars inhabiting Crimea, and they constituted 98% of the population. However, they were systematically pushed out of the peninsula by the oppressive Russian regime. By the time of the Russian Revolution in 1917, there were only 300,000 Crimean Tatars left in Crimea.
After the Russian Revolution, the suppression of the Crimean Tatar people was lifted and a brief flowering of their culture occurred between 1921 and 1927. Crimean Tatar language was made the official language of the peninsula along with Russian.
However, Stalin’s repressive policies soon ended this “Golden Age” and resulted in further devastation of the Crimean Tatar people and culture, culminating in their overnight mass deportation on May 18, 1944. This tragic event led to what many historians believe was the Russian desired final solution – Crimea without Crimean Tatars.
The deportation of the Crimean Tatars—an act of genocide
On May 18, 1944, at the time of WWII, Soviet security forces carried out Josef Stalin’s order and deported the entire Crimean Tatar population from their historic homeland of Crimea. Forced at gunpoint out of their homes in the middle of the night, the Crimean Tatars were told they had fifteen minutes to pack their belongings, were taken to the nearest railway station and herded into cattle cars, and then transported to remote parts of the Soviet Union – Siberia, the Urals, and what is now Uzbekistan.
The Crimean Tatars traveled for several weeks in the cattle cars with little food and water, an untold number dying along the way, their bodies thrown onto the railroad tracks without burial. The forced deportation, the inhumane conditions of the confinement in resettlement camps from 1944 to 1956, as well as famine, epidemics, deprivation and repression, caused the mass deaths of Crimean Tatars, most of them the elderly, women and children. In total, nearly a quarter million Crimean Tatars were evicted from Crimea. Of these, more than 110,000 people died as a result of the deportation, roughly 46% of the population.
To remove the memory of the Crimean Tatar people from the Crimean peninsula following the Deportation, the Soviet authorities renamed all historic towns and villages from the Crimean Tatar language to Russian. They prohibited the study of the Crimean Tatar language and the practice of cultural and national traditions. All Muslim cemeteries and mosques in Crimea were demolished. And for more than 50 years following the deportation, the ethnonym “Crimean Tatars” was removed from academic, legal and official use in Crimea.
At the time of the Deportation, the majority of Crimean Tatar men were in the ranks of the Soviet army in the war against Nazi Germany. As they had with other deported peoples, the leadership of the Soviet Union, in order to justify the deportation of the indigenous people of Crimea, accused the Crimean Tatars of collaborating with the Nazis during the German occupation of Crimea. The punishment was leveled on the entire Crimean Tatar people – the elderly, women and children, regardless of age.
Unlike other deported peoples, after the war the Crimean Tatars were not allowed to return to Crimea, the place they had called their homeland for hundreds of years. Officially forbidden to leave their places of exile, the Crimean Tatars initiated a national movement to force the Soviet government to allow them to return to their homeland. Only after immense difficulties and obstacles were some of the Crimean Tatar people able to return to Crimea in the late 1980s. More Crimean Tatars were able to return only after the fall of the Soviet Union. Today more than 300,000 Crimean Tatars live on the peninsula, constituting 12% of the population. They have developed a vibrant culture of mosques, museums, artisans, a library and a performance theater.
Recognition of the 1944 Deportation as an act of genocide against the Crimean Tatar people
The Deportation of the Crimean Tatars is now recognized as an act of genocide against the Crimean Tatar people. On November 12, 2015, the Ukrainian Parliament adopted a resolution “On the recognition of the genocide of the Crimean Tatar people, “according to which the Day of Remembrance of the Victims of the Crimean Tatar People Genocide was established as May 18th.”
On the 9th of May 2019 the Seimas of Latvia recognized the deportation of the Crimean Tatar people in 1944 as an act of genocide. The document emphasizes that a number of historical sources undoubtedly prove the fact of a targeted genocide of the Soviet government against many peoples and ethnic groups residing in the Soviet Union and in its occupied territories, particularly the Crimean Tatars.
Modern Crimean Tatar struggles
In March 2014, Russia annexed and occupied Crimea, an Autonomous Republic of Ukraine. Russian government subjects Crimean Tatars to extreme repression, exiling political leaders and closing media outlets, banning Crimean Tatar Mejlis (elected representative body), and arresting and detaining activists without trial. Illegal searches of private homes and businesses continue, property is confiscated, and individuals run the risk of being kidnapped or even murdered. Thousands of Crimean Tatars have been forced to leave their native land and become Internally Displaced People (IDP) in Ukraine.
U.S Department of State: 2019 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Ukraine – Crimea BUREAU OF DEMOCRACY, HUMAN RIGHTS, AND LABOR
CRIMEAN TATARS AND RUSSIA’S ANNEXATION OF CRIMEA by Filiz Tutku Aydın, a Lecturer at the Department of Political Science at University of Toronto, Canada.
- November 1920. Bolsheviks consolidate control over Crimea.
- October 1921. Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was created.
- September – November 1941. German army captures most of the Crimean peninsula.
- May 1944. Soviets recapture Crimea. Stalin issues the notorious decree 5859ss, “All Tatars are to be exiled from the territory of Crimea….”
- 18-20 May 1944. Stalin’s government deports over 183,000 Crimean Tatars to Siberia and Central Asia. Another 11,000 Crimean Tatar men mobilized into forced labor brigades.
- 20 July 1944. Soviet forces massacre Crimean Tatar villagers remaining on the Arabat Strip.
- August 1944. Soviet authorities allow the settlement of 50,000 Russians and Ukrainians in Crimea to replace the deported Crimean Tatars.
- December 1944. Soviet government ordered the replacement of all Crimean Tatar, German and Greek place names in Crimea with Russian ones.
- June 1945. The Crimean ASSR is officially dissolved.
- November 1948. Soviet government made the exile of Crimean Tatars and other deported nationalities permanent.
- April 1956. After Stalin’s death in 1953, Crimean Tatars were freed from restrictions, but cannot return to Crimea. They report that 45% of the Tatar deportees die within two years in exile.
- March 1966. A delegation of 65 Crimean Tatars delivered a 33-page petition with over 130,000 signatures attached to the 23rd Congress of the CPSU.
- May 1966 – November 1986. Over a period of two decades, Mustafa Jemilev is sentenced six times, serving time in Soviet prisons and labor camps for anti-Soviet activities.
- September 1967. Soviet authorities issued decree 493, lifting charges of treason leveled against the entire Crimean Tatar population in 1944.
- September 1967 – July 1968. Over 12,000 Crimean Tatars return to Crimea, but very few people (18 families and 13 individuals) are able to obtain residency permits, and the rest are expelled.
- March 1968. Petro Grigorenko’s famous speech to Crimean Tatars, urging them to take an aggressive stand and demand the right to return to Crimea.
- May 1968. KGB rounds up and expels from Moscow over 300 Crimean Tatars, seeking their rights to return to homeland Crimea.
- January 1974. Andrei Sakharov, Soviet scientist and dissident, appeals to Kurt Waldheim, UN Secretary-General, about the plight of Crimean Tatars.
- May 1975. Mubeyyin Batu Altan, Fikret Yurter and Emmanual Stein in New York conduct a five-day hunger strike in front of the UN.
- 1975. Mustafa Jemilev stages the longest hunger strike known in the history of the human rights movement, lasting 303 days, but survives due to forced feeding.
- June 1978. Protesting the move to deport him from homeland Crimea once again, Musa Mamut commits suicide by self-immolation.
- July 1987. Over 2,000 Crimean Tatars demonstrate in Red Square, Moscow, drawing the world’s attention to their demands to repatriate.
- May 1989. The Organization of Crimean Tatar National Movement (OKND) was founded, and Mustafa Jemilev was elected chairman.
- November 1989. The permission to return to Crimea finally comes with the publication of a Soviet decree “On Recognizing the Illegal and Criminal Repressive Acts Against Peoples Subjected to Forcible Resettlement and Ensuring their Rights.”
- 1989-1994. Over 220,000 Crimean Tatars return to Crimea, the number of repatriates eventually reaching nearly 300,000.
- March 2014. Russian Federation occupies and annexes Crimea in response to Euromaidan demonstrations in Kyiv and Ukrainian revolution (November 2013-February 2014).
Additional readings: The Crimean Tatar Resource Center: History of Crimean Tatars