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Crimean Tatars: The swallows that always return

18 May 2023

Tamila Tasheva, a Ukrainian activist and politician, talks to our Media Officer Anna Alboth about the centuries’ long history of human rights violations against Crimean Tatars. Tasheva serves as the Permanent Representative of the President of Ukraine in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea. She was born in today’s Uzbekistan to a deported Crimean Tatar family and lives in Kyiv.

The 18th of May is the Day of Remembrance of the Genocide of the Crimean Tatar People. It commemorates a crucial day in 1944. Everything that happened started at around 3am. What do we know about this day?

The operation involved 32,000 NKVD (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs) officers. The deportees, Crimean Tatars, were given just a few minutes to half an hour to pack, and were allowed to take personal belongings, dishes, household equipment and provisions up to 500 kg per family. In reality, people managed to collect an average of 20-30 kg of clothes and food, while the vast majority of property was left behind and confiscated by the state. During the following two days, Crimean Tatars were taken to the railway stations of Bakhchisarai, Dzhankoy and Simferopol, from where they were sent on trains eastwards in groups.

How many people are we talking about?

During 18-20 May, 180,014 people were deported. In addition, 6,000 Crimean Tatar young people mobilized by military commissariats in April and May were sent separately to the Main Department of the Reserve Formation in Guryev (Atyrau, Kazakhstan), Kuibyshev and Rybinsk (in Russia), and another 5,000 Crimean Tatars were sent to work in the camps of the Moskovugol trust (also in Russia).

In total, 191,044 people were expelled from Crimea in the first two days. Besides that, 5,989 people accused of collaborating with the Germans and other ‘anti-Soviet elements’ were arrested during the deportation. They were sent to the Gulag and were not included in the general data on exiles.

What was the official reason to get rid of 191,044 people in just two days?

The Soviet operation to expel the Nazi occupiers from the Crimean peninsula began on 8 April 1944 and finished on the night of 13 May. Even before the end of the fighting, on 22 April, in a memo addressed to Lavrentiy Beria (who was head of the NKVD), Crimean Tatars were accused of mass desertion from the Red Army. On 10 May, in a letter to Joseph Stalin, Beria repeated the previous accusation, adding ‘the treacherous actions of the Crimean Tatars against the Soviet people’ and ‘the undesirability of the Crimean Tatars’ further residence on the border outskirts of the Soviet Union’. The letter also suggested that the entire Crimean Tatar population should be deported to Uzbekistan.

The next day, on 11 May 1944, a top secret State Defense Committee Decree No. 5859ss ‘On Crimean Tatars’ was adopted. It cited preliminary claims against the Crimean Tatar people, such as mass treason and collaboration, which served as a justification for the deportation. In fact, there is no evidence of any ‘mass defection’ by Crimean Tatars, and the vast majority of collaborators were killed on the battlefield or individually convicted.

What happened to those who were not deported?

During the June deportations of Bulgarians, Armenians, Greeks and ‘foreign subjects’, an additionaly 3,141 Crimean Tatars were evicted among those who had been lucky enough to escape in May. The total number of indigenous people expelled from Crimea was as follows: 183,000 people were sent to general special settlement, 6,000 to the camps of the Reserve Department, 6,000 to the Gulag, and 5,000 became a ‘special contingent’ for the Moscow Coal Trust. A total of 200,000 people. Among the adult special settlers were also 2,882 Russians, Ukrainians, Roma people, Karaites and representatives of other nationalities who were evicted because they were in mixed marriages.

Immediately after the Nazi defeat, the total demobilization of Crimean Tatars from the Soviet army began. During 1945-1946, 8,995 soldiers were sent to labour camps in Siberia and the Urals, and only some years later were they allowed to reunite with their families in exile. A similar fate befell outstanding soldiers – even twice proclaimed Hero of the Soviet Union Amet-Khan Sultan was not allowed to return to Crimea. By the way, his fate was depicted in the film called ‘Haytarma’ directed by the Ukrainian filmmaker of Crimean Tatar origin Akhtem Seitablaev.

According to a decision of the Soviet government in January, these settlers enjoyed all the rights of the citizens of the USSR. However, in reality, they did not have the right to leave the special settlements defined for them. Heads of families were required to register at their local police station on a monthly basis, and all changes in their families had to be reported to the police within three days.

Deportation had catastrophic consequences for the Crimean Tatars in their places of exile. Over a year before the end of the war more than 30,000 Crimean Tatars died from hunger, disease and exhaustion.

And additionally, after the deportation, the Soviet regime resorted to leveling the historical memory of Crimean statehood and Crimean Tatars. On 25 June 1946, Crimea was deprived of its autonomous status and turned into an ordinary oblast of the Russian Soviet Republic, and over the next two years, more than 80 per cent of the original Crimean place names were replaced with standard Soviet names.

Your family was deported too. You were born in Uzbekistan. Have you talked with your grandparents about 1944?

Of course, this was discussed. But the key topic of conversation was not the deportation. The key topic of conversation was Crimea: the beauty of its nature, its mountains, its sea, its steppe. And of course, they mentioned the home that was taken away by the Soviet authorities, describing in detail where it was and what was in it. Stories about Crimea were the main topic of conversations and memories. Along with them, their love for Crimea was passed from parents to children. Through these conversations, the younger generations of Crimean Tatars, including those born during the deportation, absorbed the love for Crimea and the desire to return. They kept the memory and faith in the possibility of returning to their homeland. This helped them to survive the most difficult times.

Coming back to Crimea was also not easy…

Everyone who was the first to return from deportation had problems, and these problems were common. First of all, it was the lack of resources, lack of housing, Soviet narratives that ‘Crimean Tatars are enemies’ and difficulties with employment. Crimean Tatars did not return from deportation to their own homes, from which they or their families were deported, as they had long since been nationalized and transferred to other people. They were forced to wander, often sleeping in the open air, sometimes even living in dugouts until they found a place to build or buy a house.

All this persecution that forced Crimean Tatars to leave Crimea in 1944 didn’t appear from nowhere. How did the lives of Crimean Tatars look like in the past?

Crimean Tatars are the indigenous people of Ukraine, centred on the Crimean peninsula. They are a people with their own history, language, culture, traditions and customs. Almost until the end of the 18th century, the Crimean Tatars had their own state, the Crimean Khanate but were conquered by the Russian Empire and lost it in 1783. Since then, the people have been struggling for their existence and to preserve their national identity. The over a century-long period of Russian rule in Crimea had a profoundly negative impact on all aspects of the indigenous people’s lives. Deprived of self-government, persecuted as potentially ‘disloyal subjects’, Crimean Tatars emigrated en masse to lands that remained under the rule of the Ottoman Empire (modern Turkey mostly). By the early twentieth century, Crimean Tatars were already a minority of the peninsula’s population.

During the revolution of 1917-1919, the national flag and anthem were approved and are still in use today. The Qurultay, the national representative body of the Crimean Tatars, was revived in 1991 and functioned successfully until it was banned by the occupying administration, following the illegal occupation of Crimea that started in 2014.

The Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic lasted only a quarter of a century as part of Soviet Russia. During the first years of its existence, the history and culture of the indigenous people of Crimea, the Crimean Tatars, were actively studied. However, starting in the second half of the 1920’s, the Stalinist authorities carried out repressive measures under the slogan of fighting local ‘nationalism’ and the clergy.

Seventy years later, in 2014, the occupation and persecution return. Was it a surprise how Crimean Tatars were treated?

One could hardly expect anything else from the current Russian government. The whole world has seen how Russia behaves wherever it goes to war. The first and second Chechen wars, the war in Georgia and the occupation of part of its territory gave us an idea of what to expect from the occupiers. This is one of the problems that the world turned a blind eye and did not notice the terrible crimes committed by Russia against other countries. None of the perpetrators of those crimes have been punished. So, could we assume that they would behave differently here? Most certainly not. Their standard methods are terror and intimidation of the disloyal, as well as attempts to create absolutely controlled structures.

And then, February 2022 came and the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine. How did this affect Crimea and Crimean Tatars?

During the first stage of the invasion, everyone in Crimea who supported Ukraine watched what was happening with concern. For many people living under occupation, Ukraine was their only hope for liberation and a normal life. That is why since February 2022, we have recorded hundreds of public actions of ordinary Ukrainian citizens in Crimea in solidarity with mainland Ukraine and against the war. Usually they cannot avoid the persecution for that, but that does not stop people from expressing their support.

In the meantime, Russians who illegally moved to Crimea after its occupation and groups of locals who support Russia’s aggressive policy were openly celebrating, but that did not last long.

The second stage, since the beginning of April 2022, when Russian troops were driven out of Kyiv, Chernihiv and Sumy regions after a strategic defeat in northern Ukraine, the situation has changed radically. This demonstrated that it was possible for Ukraine to defeat a much more powerful aggressor. From that moment on, Crimean residents, including the indigenous Crimean Tatar people, realized the possibility of a general victory for Ukraine and the liberation of all temporarily occupied territories.

The sinking of the flagship of the Russian Black Sea fleet,  the ‘Moskva’ missile cruiser, the attack on the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea fleet, explosions at the military airfield in the village of Novofedorivka near Saky, explosions at military warehouses in the village of Mayske, and the blowing up of the so-called Crimean Bridge finally made all Crimean residents, without exception, believe that the arrival of the armed forces of Ukraine on the peninsula was inevitable. This was evident, for example, from the fact that in the middle of summer 2022, there was a repeated request from local residents to the occupation administration to prepare shelters, which at that time were in a neglected or inadequate sanitary condition. Closer to the autumn, even the occupation administration changed their official rhetoric from ‘Crimea is not in danger’ to ‘we will guarantee the safety of Crimeans,’ which also indicates an understanding of the lack of alternatives and fear.

And the third stage? Mobilization?

Yes, the third was after the Russian authorities announced mobilization in Russia and the temporarily occupied Crimea last autumn and massive distribution of summonses, including in places of residence of Crimean Tatars. Precisely this stage was the most painful for Crimea and the Crimean Tatars. Hundreds, if not thousands of our compatriots were mobilized into the Russian army for the war against Ukraine, against their own state. Tens of thousands were forced to leave Crimea to avoid mobilization and avoid fighting with their own compatriots who are defending Ukraine on the other side of the front. The range of the exodus is very wide, from Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey to almost all European countries and a large number of countries around the world.

Some have left and are gathering abroad, renting housing with their last savings, just to avoid being part of the Russian army in this war. Some came to the territory controlled by Ukraine, and some even joined the ranks of the Ukrainian armed forces. The already small Crimean Tatar people are scattered around the world once again and will return to Crimea after the war is over. We are often compared to swallows that always return, so we will return again. Hopefully, this time for good.

How differently does the Russian mobilization affect Crimean Tatars compared with Russians in Crimea?

The Russian mobilization is a terrible crime of the Russian regime, especially in the context of local residents of Crimea. We all know that the involvement of local residents of an occupied territory in the armed forces of an occupying power is a war crime, but Russia consciously ignored these legal norms and decided to conduct mobilization on the territory of Ukraine that it has temporarily occupied since 2014. This is a crime against all residents who legally resided in Crimea. As for the Russians who moved to the peninsula, they are accomplices in the illegal occupation and we treat them as such.

However, unfortunately, it is true that the mobilization affected Crimean Tatars more than Russians. The occupiers issued summonses, in particular, in places of Crimean Tatar residence. In villages, for example, the head of the village council went with the district inspector, in some places representatives of law enforcement agencies did it. So yes, they handed out these summonses en masse. This can be called revenge against the Crimean Tatars for their pro-Ukrainian position, for the most part. The mobilization announcement led to a mass exodus of mostly Crimean Tatars. The occupiers pursued two aims: the first was to remove the ‘undesirables’, because they were perceived to be a disloyal part of the population. The second point is propaganda: look, you claim that Crimean Tatars love Ukraine so much, but they are fighting in the Russian army.

And one more thing is, of course, the threat to demography. The indigenous Crimean Tatar people are small in number. There are only 250-300,000 Crimean Tatars in Crimea, including the elderly and children. The mobilization of a large number of representatives of the people can lead to irreparable consequences for the recovery of the community following the crime of deportation.

How have the culture and identity of Crimean Tatars been affected by all the changes in the region?

In fact, the situation is ambiguous. On the one hand, Russia’s aggression since 2014 has brought a lot of grief to Ukraine, Crimea and, of course, the Crimean Tatars. Hundreds of people have been subjected to politically motivated criminal prosecutions; dozens of enforced disappearances and murders have been linked to the occupying state; the Mejlis (parliament) of the Crimean Tatar people has been banned; thousands have been forced to leave Crimea because of the threat of persecution; and dozens of Crimean Tatar soldiers have been killed defending Ukraine with arms. Historical monuments are being destroyed in Crimea, including the most prominent monument of Crimean Tatar architecture – the Khan’s Palace in Bakhchisarai. Dozens of monuments have been destroyed as a result of the construction of the so-called ‘Tavrida highway’.

On the other hand, what has been the effect within the Crimean Tatar community itself?

At the same time, in these difficult conditions, people have united and continued their national formation. Cohesion and a common position on Russian aggression have led to the strengthening of the political consciousness of the people. During the temporary occupation, the status of the Crimean Tatar people as the indigenous people of Ukraine was first enshrined in the national legislation of Ukraine, the strategy for the development of the Crimean Tatar language for 2022-2032 was approved, and a draft law on the status of the Crimean Tatar people is being developed. The national religious holidays of the Crimean Tatars are enshrined at the state level.

How should cultural heritage be protected in the middle of a war?

After the occupation of Crimea by Russia in 2014, the peninsula has repeatedly been at the centre of cultural and legal scandals, including illegal archaeological excavations and vandalism under the guise of reconstruction of monuments.

Unfortunately, we have to admit that the occupiers are little affected by publicity, sanctions and the decisions of international courts. Russia has been a ‘prison of peoples’ since the days of the Moscow Tsardom and the Russian Empire and has pursued a policy of destroying the national identities of colonised peoples. The essence of their policy is to destroy any form of national consciousness and to force the enslaved peoples to consider themselves ‘an integral part of the great Russian people,’ to force them to speak Russian, to make them proud of the ‘great’ Russian history, not their own. Therefore, we consider that the only way to preserve cultural heritage and national identity is to liberate Crimea from Russian occupation and end Russia’s influence.

What is the situation with the language? The Crimean Human Rights Group has done research on this topic.

The information published on the website of the occupying Ministry of Education, Science, and Youth of the Republic of Crimea often contradicts the real situation with education in native languages. Thus, in the 2018/2019 academic year, the Crimean Human Rights Group conducted its own monitoring of the situation with mother tongue education in Crimea. During the monitoring, 24 schools were visited, and interviews were conducted with the administration, teachers and parents. All the schools visited were described as schools with Crimean Tatar as the language of instruction. In fact, the monitoring found that in all of the schools, the education is partly in Crimean Tatar and partly in Russian. In some schools, the Crimean Tatar language is taught as a separate subject only up to ninth grade.

The occupying administration is trying to demonstrate the supposed increase in the number of students studying the Crimean Tatar language, but the proportion of students studying the Crimean Tatar language compared with the total number of students remains the same.

The culture is in danger; the language is in danger. What about ‘the beauty of its nature, its mountains, its sea, its steppe’ that your grandparents told you about? What about the environment of Crimea?

The environmental situation in the region after the beginning of the temporary occupation of Crimea is also characterized by a colonial attitude. In particular, it has deteriorated as a result of: the construction by the occupying state of infrastructure facilities designed to demonstrate the ‘greatness of Russia’ rather than to meet the needs of the people (for instance, the construction of the ‘Taurida’ highway and the ‘Kerch bridge’ caused significant damage to natural processes and led to the deterioration of the natural environment across large areas); uncontrolled use of the peninsula’s resources (during the temporary occupation, the occupiers issued more than 2,500 ‘subsoil use licenses’); intensive withdrawal of groundwater by the occupation administration, which often resulted in the disappearance of water in the water table; use of Crimea as a military base (hundreds of military exercises every year, including live-fire exercises, both on land and in the water ); activities of chemical industry enterprises without proper control and regulation; destruction of nature reserves, including through mining on their territory or in close proximity to them (e.g., on the Bakal Spit, Karkinit Bay, etc.).

All this, combined with the occupiers’ ruthless and irresponsible attitude to the Crimea’s natural resources, has led to a terrible environmental situation, the consequences of which will take decades to overcome.

Currently, we are aware of at least 182 politically motivated cases against Ukrainian citizens in Crimea. Most of them are Crimean Tatars – 116. What is the situation of media and journalists? Are they able to report on what is happening?

The right of media to report freely in the temporarily occupied Crimea was destroyed after 2014 by various means. Currently, there are no free and independent media outlets in temporarily occupied Crimea, and citizen journalists and bloggers highlighting the oppression of the occupying administration become targets of persecution and face false charges of alleged terrorism or other violent crimes they did not commit. As of now, 16 journalists, citizen journalists and bloggers are convicted and sentenced to very long prison terms; 11 of them are Crimean Tatars.

In Soviet times, Crimean Tatars were accused of collaboration with the Nazis, now they are being called as ‘extremists’: is there a pattern to this use of false labels?

The Soviet and now the Russian authorities, in order to deal with a group of people, have always tried to brand them as criminals, and as criminals who would be condemned by everyone around them and isolated. Here the strategy is the same although the words for marking people are different.

The occupiers failed to ‘win over’ the Muslim communities of Crimea. Given that the Crimean Tatars practice Islam, we see how actively Russia persecutes them, in particular because of their religion, and promotes the poisonous narrative that Muslims are terrorists. The occupiers often boast about the construction of a mosque on the outskirts of occupied Simferopol. And it looks all the more cynical: they are building a Muslim place of worship while persecuting Crimean Tatars and destroying their cultural heritage.

However, in areas where Crimean Tatars live, Muslim communities organize dua (prayers) in support of illegally imprisoned Ukrainian citizens and their families. We also know of Crimean Muslims who have joined the ranks of the Ukrainian armed forces to fight for the freedom and independence of their country.

How are Ukrainian attitudes to Muslims?

In 2020, the President of Ukraine issued a decree instructing the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine to consider granting official status to religious holidays, including Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha.

It has become a tradition for top state officials to congratulate Muslim communities in Ukraine, including the Crimean Tatars, on the relevant religious holidays. This year, for the first time in history, the President of Ukraine held a joint Iftar with the Muslim community during the holy month of Ramadan. Ukraine’s policy on religion is a policy of respect in a multicultural and multi-confessional environment.

What should people around the world know about Crimean Tatars?

That we are an indigenous people who have been struggling for our existence for centuries, have lived through the Second World War, the crime of deportation, almost half a century of wandering, and finally returning to our homeland. Struggling with the post-Soviet reality, debunking anti-national narratives, and hopes for a peaceful life and development. But in 2014, the occupation of Crimea, further harassment, the ban on representative bodies, and war again. This is the path of our people in just over a century.

Therefore, we urge everyone, if not to study, then at least to take an interest in the history of the people, to understand the essence and aspirations, and to support all those who have suffered from Russian repression and their families if possible.

Once people know, what should they do?

The de-occupation of Crimea and other temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine is the key thing that is needed now. For a long time, we have exclusively been pursuing the political and diplomatic path. International sanctions and courts, and the Crimean Platform were the key instruments for our advocacy. But, for example, the 2017 order of the International Court of Justice on the application of precautionary measures in the case of Ukraine vs Russia, which obliged Russia to abandon the ban on the Mejlis, has not been implemented. The situation can only be remedied by the complete de-occupation of the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine.

You have been fighting for justice for many years. First you created CrimeaSOS organisation and now you are the Permanent Representative of the President of Ukraine in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea. What was your path?

In fact, before the creation of Crimea SOS, I had been living in Kyiv for a long time. Sometimes I visited my parents in Crimea. But Russian aggression and the temporary occupation of the Crimean peninsula did not leave me indifferent. Observing what was happening, how those who openly opposed the occupation regime were being persecuted and needed help, how the state reacted to those events rather passively, I could not stand aside, so I decided to create the NGO CrimeaSOS.

Its activities are aimed at highlighting the illegality of the temporary occupation of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol, the repressive policy of the Russian Federation, documenting human rights violations on the territory of the Crimean peninsula, maintaining ties with citizens temporarily living under occupation, and consolidating Ukrainian society by protecting the rights, freedoms and interests of internally displaced persons and other victims of the armed conflict in Crimea.

And you couldn’t go to Crimea anymore…?

Since then, I have not visited Crimea to avoid putting myself and my family in danger, but I am doing everything in my power to be able to go there as soon as possible, to walk around in my native land, to hug my family at home. And this will happen after our victory.

Now I live in Kyiv and work as the Permanent Representative of the President of Ukraine in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea. This post reports to the President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and deals with the full range of issues related to the temporarily occupied territory of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol.

For me, it is quite logical to move from the public sector to the state sector, because if you have been lobbying the state for some time, it makes sense that the state gives you a chance to come and try to implement the values and policies you support at the national level. That is why I have been working in the public sector since 2019, and since 2022 I have been working directly as the Permanent Representative of the President of Ukraine in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea.

And what are your main tasks?

My main role is to make sure that the Mission of the President of Ukraine in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea is involved in all issues related to Crimea. This means developing strategic solutions for the peninsula after de-occupation, and constantly monitoring the current situation there. We are involved in the development of legislative changes aimed at regulating or simplifying certain processes for our citizens from Crimea. For example, we were directly involved in drafting and adopting a law on assistance to political prisoners and their families. We are implementing the President’s instruction to create solutions for work in the de-occupied territory of the Crimean peninsula. These directions of work are carried out jointly with other government agencies and experts.

The National Office of the Crimean Platform also operates on the basis of the Representative Office, meaning that we are directly responsible for the internal track of the Crimean Platform. We have ensured systematic cooperation with the all-party association Crimean Platform in the Verkhovna Rada (the parliament of Ukraine).

We are in constant communication with our citizens from the occupied Crimea. They usually share information or consult with us. They ask how they can leave the occupied territory, how to avoid criminal mobilization, how to restore certain documents. In 2022, we received over 2,000 requests. The full-scale war has significantly affected communication, but we remain in touch with our citizens and do our best to help those who need it.

In 2022, given the full-scale invasion and all its horrors, we tried to keep the issue of Crimea on the agenda of the international community. We constantly reminded our partners and colleagues that the war began in 2014 with the occupation of Crimea, and that it will end in a free Crimea. For 2023, we have decided that work with the countries of the Global South is our main priority in this area. President Zelenskyy emphasized the need to strengthen this area of cooperation.

What should I wish you?

You can wish victory for Ukraine and the entire democratic world. And, of course, travelling to liberated Crimea this year.

Photo: Tamila Tasheva, a Ukrainian activist and politician. Credit: Tamila Private Archive.