May 01, 2014

Crimean Tatars: Remembering Russia’s Deportation in 1944

Recent events have made it clear that Russia has little sympathy for Crimean Tatars, who fear that the annexation of their homeland to Russia will once again shake their community.

Below is an article published by The New Yorker:

“Step by step, we have led Crimeans to realize their dream of returning home to Russia,” Vladimir Konstantinov, the speaker of the breakaway Crimean legislature, told his colleagues recently, as they hastily voted in a new, Russia-friendly constitution. The dream was not universally shared, of course. During the March referendum to rubber-stamp the peninsula’s annexation by Russia, the region’s long-oppressed Tatar minority had launched a boycott. On the eve of the vote, a Tatar man was abducted and tortured to death, presumably by pro-Russian thugs. It was a warning―perhaps an intentional one―of the violence and provocation now occurring in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian paramilitaries are increasingly active, with the apparent connivance of the Kremlin. Last week, the Tatars’ historic leader, Mustafa Dzhemilev, who spent years in Soviet prisons for agitating on behalf of his people, went to Ukraine in an attempt to meet with Joe Biden; on the way home, he received papers informing him that he was barred from reëntering Crimea until 2019. The Kremlin and the regional government have denied the ban, and he was eventually let through. But it was a clear sign that the Russian-backed authorities have little sympathy for the Tatars. The acting Prime Minister, Sergei Aksyonov, a former gangster, noted on Twitter that any Tatars who were unhappy with the new order in Crimea should “leave if they don’t like it.”

For the second time in seventy years, the Crimean Tatars are forced to confront a complete upending of their lives. The Tatars, Muslim descendants of Genghis Khan’s Golden Horde, saw virtually their entire community―some two hundred thousand people―uprooted in May, 1944, after Stalin’s forces took Crimea from the occupying Nazis. Stalin justified the occupation by pointing out that some Tatars had fought alongside the Nazis in the war―even though others had fought in the Red Army. Nearly half of the Tatars are thought to have died in the harsh conditions of their deportation and the early years of their exile.

In the late nineteen-eighties, as the Soviet Union opened up a bit, Tatars were allowed to return, and a trickle began coming back from Central Asia. Those who could afford it returned to their villages, but few provisions were made for their reintegration into Ukrainian society, and there was no compensation for the properties they had lost. Many ended up squatting on public lands, where they remain. Known as the “original inhabitants” of the peninsula, Crimea’s Tatars now constitute twelve per cent of the region’s population. They are the poorest and least educated section of society, and the least represented in local government. For all the rhetoric emanating from the Kremlin―and from Kiev―they are effectively the Ukraine’s Lakota Sioux.

In the early days of the Russian takeover, the Crimean Mejlis, the Tatars’ ruling council, urged them to refrain from public remarks, so as to avoid confrontation, but as the tensions deepened it had become more difficult. One evening, I met with a group of Tatar men at a mosque in Simferopol, as they sat in a circle after prayers. The imam, Ciran Zaetaf, said: “We have seen the soldiers of another country, the one that borders us, appear on the streets of our communities. As fathers and husbands, this is not acceptable to us.” Ismailov Khailu, a local leader, said that the community was in a state of anxiety, and that elderly people, especially, feared a “second deportation.” The Tatars weren’t thinking of fleeing, though. “Whatever happens, we will stay here,” one of the men said. “We have no other motherland.”

One of the main Tatar settlements is the ancient town of Bakhchisarai, situated halfway between Simferopol and the coastal city of Sevastopol, where Russia’s Black Sea Fleet is moored. The town is built around the Hansaray―the sixteenth-century palace of the Crimean Khan dynasty, with its harem quarters and mosque and moated gardens. The palace holds a special place in Russia’s literary and historic imagination. Alexander Pushkin’s poem “The Fountain of Bakhchisarai,” written after a visit in 1820, evokes a particularly beautiful dove-gray marble fountain, dedicated to a Polish harem girl whose death broke the heart of the last of the Crimean khans.

The fountain is still there, and still delights visitors. But the Hansaray stands as a bittersweet symbol of defeat and occupation. The Tatars in Bakhchisarai live alongside the region’s previous wave of occupiers: Russian settlers who took up residence in their homes during the half century when they were forced into exile. It is a difficult story, but there are still old people around who can tell it. One of them, Ludyia Yacoubova, spoke to me one night at a neighbor’s house. A fine-featured woman with carefully combed long hair and clear blue eyes, she told me that she was born in 1938 and grew up downhill from the Hansaray, on the flatlands where the trains run past on their way to Kiev. In January, 1944, her father was shot by German troops, who suspected him of helping the Soviets. He left behind his wife and a houseful of daughters. “We were seven girls,” Yacoubova told me. “The oldest was sixteen, the youngest was two.” Her father’s execution devastated the family, but the worst was yet to come.

Four months later, a knock came at the door before sunrise. “Outside were two soldiers with machine guns,” Yacoubova said. “They said we had five minutes to collect our things.” She paused, and then resumed calmly. “We didn’t have time to get our clothes―and it was cold that 18th of May.” The family, along with all of the other inhabitants of Bakhchisarai, found themselves being herded at gunpoint onto trucks. The trucks took them to the railway station. “The Russians said we were enemies of the state, traitors,” she said. “We were almost all women, children, and the elderly. The men had all been made to go fight in the war. We were put on trains immediately.” The train was made up of windowless cars, with small holes for air. “It was not a train for people but for cattle.”

The train began moving and kept rolling for twenty days, stopping once a day to allow the passengers to drink a bowl of dried-fish soup. “Soldiers would open the doors and ask if there were any dead inside, and they would pull them out and throw them by the track,” Yacoubova said. Her grandfather died as the train rolled on, and at the next stop his body was thrown from the car.

Finally, the passengers arrived in Uzbekistan, where a committee had been gathered to heckle them. “When the train doors opened, and they saw who we were and the state we were in, they took pity on us and led us to water, where we could bathe.” Later, they were taken to a collective farm, where everyone was made to work in the fields. “Those who worked were given two hundred grams of bread a day,” she recalled. “Children were given a hundred grams.” The heat was relentless, and one of her older sisters died of sunstroke; a younger sister, like many of the captive workers, died of dysentery.

In the autumn, they were taken to work in a silk factory. They lived in hostels with three or four families crammed into each room. Eventually the Tatar men who had survived the war began to arrive, dispatched to Uzbekistan to join their families. As “specially transported people,” Yacoubova and all the other Tatars had to register with the police every month, and were prohibited from straying beyond their house or the factory.

Gradually, the strictures began to ease. In 1957, Yacoubova was authorized to marry a young man who had been deported from a village near her own, and to build a home. She had gone to school until seventh grade, the highest grade the local school offered, but she dreamed of becoming a doctor, and, because the factory needed health workers, she was allowed to go to night school to study nursing. After two years, she graduated, and went to work as a nurse in the factory; she told me proudly that she had stayed there for thirty years.

Finally, in 1987, the Soviets set up a committee to study the requests of displaced Crimeans who wanted to go back home. Yacoubova and her surviving sisters applied, and were approved. “All of us returned,” she said. “But now there are only two of us left.” When Yacoubova arrived in Bakhchisarai, her family home had other people living in it. She and her husband bought another house with the money they had made from selling their house in Uzbekistan. Their new home was much smaller, but it was fine, she said. Bakhchisarai was no longer the place she had left: it has four Russian-language schools, and one for Tatars. When I asked her how she felt about Russians, Yacoubova replied cautiously, “I am happy to be back in our homeland, but the current situation makes us anxious. We live in peace with our Russian neighbors.” Asked what she thought of the Russian government, she was silent for a long time, and then said, “We feel a sense of forgiveness for them. But pity, too.” Another Tatar man joined the conversation and spoke more boldly. “We see that Russians have all the rights,” he said. “They know there is only a small group of us, but there are a lot of them. We know that there will be cheating.”

A few days later, I spoke with a leader of the Mejlis, Ahtem Chiygoz, in an office overlooking the town’s statue of Pushkin. Chain-smoking black Sobranie cigarettes, Chiygoz talked angrily about the new politics of Crimea, which he described as a Russian occupation. “In the twenty-five years since we have returned, the Mejlis has supported the independence and unity of Ukraine,” he said. “We followed the Western path to democracy. There were difficult international agreements signed. Ukraine got rid of its nuclear weapons, in return for guarantees from Europe and the U.S. Now it seems the Western countries just invented these democratic principles for themselves, and everyone else had to fight for them.” Chiygoz grew more emphatic as he spoke. “We have been calm and not allowed the situation to explode,” he said. But the strategy of avoiding confrontation had done little for the Tatars. “We are asking the U.S. and Europe to help us,” he said. “We don’t need to wait for blood, because there will be a river of blood here. Experience has shown us that everywhere the Russians appear, there will always be blood.”