History, Crimean Tatars deportation

76 years since the deportation of the Crimean Tatars by Stalin

In 1944 Stalin ordered the mass deportation of the Crimean Tatars. Half of them died of starvation or disease. The USSR allowed them to return in 1989, but today they are still persecuted by Russia.

This May 18 marks the 76th anniversary of the start of the mass deportations ordered by Stalin against the Crimean Tatars, whose population was forcibly forced to migrate to parts of Central Asia of the Soviet Union: a journey of thousands of kilometres in which about half of them died.

Turkey, culturally, ethnically and historically related to the Tatars -who also profess Sunni Islam– for their common history in the Ottoman Empire, painfully recalled this fact through a message issued by the Foreign Ministry: “Turkey continues today, as in the past, supporting the Crimean Tatar Turks to overcome the unfair treatment they have received and to live safely and peacefully, preserving their identity.”

The text, which reiterated its support for the territorial integrity of Ukraine and also mentioned the anniversary of the genocide against the Circassians also committed by Russia, recalled that 76 years ago the Tatars, “the native people of Crimea, were forcibly removed from their homeland and deported in inhumane conditions.”

Stalin accused the Tatars of collaborating with the Nazis

The deportation of the Tatars began on May 18, 1944 in all inhabited localities on the Crimean peninsula, then part of the USSR and where Tatars historically constituted the majority of the population in many areas, especially on the southern coast of the peninsula. Crimea was part of the Ottoman Empire until its conquest in the late 18th century by the Russian Empire.

The soldiers entered the houses of the Tatars, gave them 15 minutes to collect a few belongings, and they were taken to cattle train cars: 60 people were piled inside each one. They were sent to various areas of Central Asia and Russia, thousands of kilometres away from their homes, on a journey in which thousands of them died of disease and starvation. Survivors claim that those who died on the trip were thrown from the cars “like garbage.”

The order to deport the Tatars was given by Stalin on the pretext that they had collaborated with the Nazis when they occupied Ukraine during World War II, although today it is known that the alleged documents that demonstrated that collaboration were falsified by the propaganda of the Soviet regime.

It is true that many Tatars -who were considered an inferior race by the Nazis- initially welcomed the Germans as “liberators” from Stalin’s oppression, but their effective collaboration with the Nazis was limited to a few hundred soldiers; there were many more -tens of thousands- who fought the Nazis as partisans or in the Red Army, events that the Soviet Union silenced.

200,000 Tatars were deported from their homeland

In fact, all the Tatars collaborating with the Nazis were evacuated to Germany when the Germans withdrew from Ukraine upon the advance of Soviet troops; so, when Stalin ordered the deportation of the Crimean Tatars as a kind of “collective punishment“, he was actually doing it on the population that had not helped the Nazis or even had fought them.

Modern historians argue that this move was actually part of Stalin’s plans to secure territory for access to the Black Sea and the strategic Dardanelles Strait, and even to acquire territories in Turkey, a war-neutral country.

The mass deportation of the Tatars led to the abandonment of 80,000 houses and 360,000 acres of land in Crimea, where Stalin sought to eradicate any vestige of the existence of the Tartars, and for years promoted Russian emigration to completely alter the demographics of the region.

There are no exact figures because the documents are still classified, but it is estimated that between 20 and 50% of the approximately 200,000 Tatars deported by Stalin, who were sent mainly to Uzbekistan and Siberia, died on the way or later on reaching their destination due to hunger or disease because of the harsh conditions they endured, since Soviet propaganda branded them as “traitors” and therefore they also suffered rejection and persecution by the local population.

Only with the fall of the USSR the Tatars were able to return to Crimea

It was not until decades later, during perestroika, that the already dying Soviet regime recognised in 1989 that the deportation of the Tartars had been an illegal and criminal act, and allowed them to return to their homeland in Crimea, which some 260,000 did. Although they would no longer be the main ethnic group in Crimea after decades of Russian immigration encouraged by Moscow, they became a significant minority, constituting 12% of the population.

Despite allowing them to return decades later to their homeland, the Tatars had to do so on their own: the Soviet authorities did not provide them with any kind of help, nor did they offer them any compensation for the property they had lost. After the fall of the USSR, its heir Russia followed the same policy, refusing to offer any compensation or to investigate and prosecute those responsible for the deportation.

The Tartars are still fighting today for their rights to be recognised, and for the mass deportation ordered by Stalin from their native Crimea to be recognised internationally as genocide, something that the Ukrainian parliament officially did in 2015.

Decades after his deportation by Stalin, the situation for the Crimean Tatars is again serious due to the unilateral annexation that Russia carried out in 2014 of this strategic peninsula of Ukraine, alleging that it defended the rights of its ethnic Russian population. Loyal to the Kiev government, the Tatar minority faces new persecutions and unsolved murders of its leaders, and is subject to discrimination in the new Russian Crimea.