18 May 2023
For the anniversary on 18 May, Aleksandr Murtazaev, a Memorial volunteer, talks about the deportation of Crimean Tatars and his own family history
The deportation of the Crimean Tatars began on 18 May 1944, as day broke. Over the course of three days, NKVD men and soldiers removed from 238,000 to 423,100 people, according to various estimates—primarily women, the sick, the elderly, and children, since most of the men were at the front—from Crimea on troop trains. Stalin’s order of 11 May 1944 accused the entire Crimean Tatar people of collaborating with the Nazis and preparing for the “violent seizure of Crimea from the Soviet Union,” despite the considerable number of Crimean Tatars who had fought in Red Army ranks.
Soldiers burst into homes, waving their guns, rousing those sleeping, and driving people out on the street with curses and blows. People were given five to fifteen minutes to collect their things, and in the panicked confusion that the soldiers’ threats, swearing, and violence confused even more, far from everyone understood what would be most practical to take along. The terrified people driven onto the main squares of the towns and villages were then loaded onto trucks, taken to train stations, and pushed into cattle cars.
The Crimean Tatars were removed on troop trains to the countries of Central Asia (then republics of the Soviet Union)—Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and also Siberia and the Urals. During the loading, family members were intentionally separated, put into different cars, so that relatives couldn’t help each other. En route, the deportees were given neither food nor water, or they were given salted fish, which only made their thirst worse. In the tightly sealed, crowded cars, the old, the infirm, and pregnant women and small children took turns sitting amid the lice and dirty straw. The bodies of those who died were thrown out of the cars as the train was moving and left by the tracks so that they didn’t decompose in the burning hot cars. According to official data, 191 people died in transit, but these figures are obviously greatly understated. According to data collected by the Crimean Tatars themselves, about 7,890 people died—no less than 4.1% of the entire population.
The deported Crimean Tatars were forcibly attached to industrial centers and plants, where they were required to work. In the foreign land, those who survived the journey faced extreme exhaustion, hunger and thirst, disease, lack of sanitation, no access to medical assistance, and the hostility of the locals, whom the regime had already informed that “horned devils” and “traitors to the homeland” were coming. People had to live in dugouts, sheds, and stables. Entire communities were intentionally broken up. The inhabitants of a single village and family members were often settled in different districts without the possibility of visiting each other or attending funerals. Under special settlement rules, travel by the Crimean Tatars under surveillance was limited by the commandant’s office, and leaving of one’s own accord was equated with escaping and punished with a prison camp term.
According to historians’ calculations, during the transport and the first six months after the displacement, nearly 110,000 people perished—46% of the entire people. These are the facts of Crimean Tatar activists on the basis of a self-conducted census in the 1960s. There are official data for the period from 1 July 1944 to 1 July 1945 (this was the most difficult period) and only for Uzbekistan, where 22,355 Crimean Tatars died.
The special settlement rules were rescinded by decree of the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Council only after the XX Congress of the CPSU [Communist Party of the Soviet Union], on 28 April 1956. However, Crimean Tatars were not allowed to return to Crimea or to recover the property they’d left behind in Crimea. In Khrushchev’s speech condemning the mass deportations of the Stalin era, there is no mention of the Crimean Tatars, nor is there of the other deported peoples—the Volga Germans and the Meskhetin Turks. The Crimean Tatars and Meskhetin Turks were refused return, and the Volga Germans were unable to restore their autonomy.
The accusation of “betrayal of the Homeland” was officially lifted from the people only in 1967, by a decree whose very title rejected the Crimean Tatars’ right to their land: “On citizens of Tatar nationality who previously resided in Crimea.” At the same time, the official lifting of the accusations did not mean that Soviet citizens were informed of this. In the press, on the radio, and in the school curriculum, Crimean Tatars remained, as before, “traitors” and “the Fascists’ accomplices.” The same decree asserts that the “Tatars” have already “put down roots in new places,” especially those who were born in deportation and had never seen Crimea.
This attempt to avert a collective return failed, as did the Soviet regime’s attempts henceforth to “implant” Crimean Tatars in Uzbekistan. Even those who had never seen Crimea learned about their lost home both from their relatives and thanks to the efforts of activists in the national movement, and they understood that Crimea was their homeland, which had been taken away by force.
After decades of unceasing efforts by the Crimean Tatars to return to Crimea, despite the repressions against activists, the restrictions on residence permits, and forcible removals, Perestroika was the moment when the flow became impossible to stop. In 1989, a census of the population in Crimea showed more than 38,000 Crimean Tatars, and in the following years more and more of them arrived. The returned spontaneously, like an avalanche—as fast as they could, at whatever cost, on any terms, even if to empty land, but to their home. Home.
My dad is a Crimean Tatar born in Uzbekistan. I grew up in Moscow, and until 2014 I only really saw myself as Crimean Tatar somewhere in the background of my identity, where I kept the important questions about myself that I had not yet dealt with. It is not that I did not know anything about the Crimean Tatars, but that this knowledge was something I took for granted.
I first heard about the deportation as a child, on a visit to my grandparents in Crimea, in the living room of their little white house on the outskirts of Ak’yar [Sevastopol], in which carpets hung on the walls. I cannot quite remember now what they told me that day exactly. I have a much clearer memory of the dream I had that night. It was as if something deep down in my young mind, having processed the new information, had placed a marker on it, highlighting it in red so that I would never lose sight of it.
I dreamt of a monster covering my house in shadow with its wings. The monster gave me 15 minutes to pack, and in the rush and confusion I grabbed some random clothes. Exactly 15 minutes later, which seemed like an instant, the monster picked me up on his back and soared up into the sky. Its scales were cold and slippery, and I slid closer to the edge with every beat of its wings, in the certain knowledge that I would not survive. I felt my feet slipping off the scales and I floundered, but then woke up terrified when my forehead hit the bedroom wall.
In the morning, on hearing of my dream, Dad said to me matter-of-factly, “Well, that’s quite understandable, what, with us telling you yesterday about the deportation”.
For Crimean Tatars, the memory of the deportation and persecution that followed is at once part of both family history and the people’s history, a connection and an open wound that becomes more inflamed with each new round of modern-day repression in Crimea. Every family has its own story of deportation, and the more you learn of them, the more tightly the family memory is woven into the overall picture of the tragedy.
The brother of my great-grandmother, shot on the spot for attempting to resist deportation. My great-grandfather, who returned from captivity in 1945 to a deserted Crimea, which he was not allowed to enter. His long search for his family across Uzbekistan, force-feeding those who survived with army rations. The children who died of starvation, about whom my grandfather cannot speak without shedding a tear. Secretly studying the Crimean Tatar language. My dad and my uncle hiding on the balcony as children while the house was searched by the KGB. It took me a while to connect the evidence passed down through the family with the scale of the genocide (Crimean Tatars are calling for the deportation to be recognised as genocide, as Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, and Canada have already done, and the Czech Republic plans to do). That is why the Alexander Lavuta fund, with which I worked in Memorial’s archives, has been so very important to me: the documents relating to the Crimean Tatar national movement and the evidence of popular resistance have allowed me to see where my family and my personal history fit into it all.
After the deportation, the Soviet authorities did everything they could to wipe all trace of the Crimean Tatars off the face of the Earth. Crimea had to be made into a “new Crimea, with a Russian way of life”, and the space and memory recast for themselves. Crimean Tatar cemeteries were desecrated, cultural monuments – closed mosques and ancient neighbourhoods – were torn down, and books in the Crimean Tatar language were destroyed.
1,406 place names in Crimea were changed by three decrees of the Supreme Council of the RSFSR (1944 to 1948). All Crimean Tatar names were changed to Russophone and more Soviet-type ones. For example, Kurman-Kemelchi became Krasnogvardeyskoye, Ak-Sheikh became Razdolnoye, and Karasubazar became Belogorsk.
The article about the Crimean Tatars disappeared from the Great Soviet Encyclopaedia, which put out the facts established by the Soviet Union. The people were even denied the right of self-designation. In a decree of 1967 that exonerated the Crimean Tatars of treason, they were called “citizens of Tatar nationality who previously lived in Crimea”.
Quoting the Crimean Tatar People’s Petition to the 23rd Congress of the CPSU, dated March 1966, “everything was done so that (…) each Crimean Tatar would be ashamed to call himself a Crimean Tartar, (…) to prove to each representative of that nation that neither he, nor his children, nor those of his descendants yet to be born, had any future”.
The Soviet Union’s destruction of the people’s memory of itself was one of the component elements of the genocide. Not surprisingly, the preservation and transmission of memory, including memory of crimes by the regime, became one of the key instruments in the struggle for Crimean Tatar rights after deportation.
This transmission of memory was maintained as such by parents telling their children of their lost home or through students’ secret reading of Crimean Tatar poetry but also, in an organised manner, in mass protests, commemorative actions and the collection of signatures for petitions to CPSU congresses. In response to the regime’s attempts to distort reality and rid it of any mention of the Crimean Tatars’ right to their native land, the people used every possible means to preserve their memory of their home and the idea of their inevitable return.
So, my grandmother taught the Crimean Tatar language, travelling into the countryside with friends and hiding from the militia. So, on 18 May in the 1960s–1970s, activists hung out mourning fabric in the towns, recalling the date of the deportation. So, the accused in trials incensed the judges by insisting they were Crimean Tatars, natives of the former Crimean ASSR. So, in telling me when I was little about the deportation and the lives of my forebears in Crimea, my parents continued the tradition, themselves perhaps not even thinking of it as an act of resistance.
The black shadow of genocide continues to lie over Russian-occupied Crimea. On 16 May 2014, the Russian regime banned the holding of mass gatherings in Crimea. The traditional memorial meetings the Crimean Tatars had been holding in Crimea since the early 1990s were banned. Along with the ban on veteran of the Crimean Tatar movement Mustafa Jemilev entering Crimea, no clearer message could have been devised and from 2014 onwards the repression of the Crimean Tatars began once more to gather pace.
According to the figures of the Crimean Tatar Resource Centre, 195 out of the 286 political prisoners from Crimea, sentenced since 2014, are Crimean Tatars. Russian judges hand down prison terms, reminiscent of those under Stalin, to those accused of involvement in the activities of Hizb ut-Tahrir, which Russia has declared a terrorist organisation and banned. Activist Jamil Gafarov died in pre-trial detention in February although it would be more accurate to say that he was murdered: 60-year-old Gafarov had a history of kidney disease and heart attacks and the detention centre administration denied him medical assistance.
I often hear about a “second deportation” – forced emigration from Crimea where life has become impossible through the efforts of Russian security operatives. Almost every week on the news, I see a new monstrous jail term for a Crimean Tatar, new searches and arrests, a new raid on a mosque. Partial mobilisation has also played its part. In Crimea it had a disproportionate impact initially on the Crimean Tatars and many had to abandon their homes to avoid it. My relatives too are among them and, when my father talks about their leaving for Uzbekistan, it is with a bitter laugh. In addition, the persecution of Crimean Tatars has become more active against the backdrop of the ongoing war. They are accused of links to the Noman Celebicihan Volunteer Battalion. The Supreme Court designated it a banned terrorist organisation in June 2022. In the territories of Ukraine occupied since the full-scale invasion of 2022, Russian soldiers hound Crimean Tatars with links to the Mejlis.
18 May is remembrance day for the victims of the Crimean Tatar deportation but also the day that commemorates the struggle for the rights of the Crimean Tatar people. In photos, three dates can often be seen on the t-shirts of convicted activists: 1783, 1944, 2014. Occupation and genocide are not yet over for the Crimean Tatars but nor is the resistance thinking of coming to a halt.
Crimea. The street near Sevastopol that was home to Aleksandr Murtazaev’s grandmother and grandfather.