Pro-Ukrainian demonstration in SimferopolPro-Ukrainian demonstration in Simferopol (Ukrainian flag on the left, Crimean Tatar flag on the right) during the Russian military intervention in Crimea, March 2014. Devlet Geray, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Callista Gingrich, Washington, DC

The persecution and perseverance of the Crimean Tatars continues. The war in Ukraine will determine whether their culture and identity survive.

For nearly two months, Russia’s war on Ukraine has taken the lives of thousands of innocent victims, upended the livelihoods of millions, and placed the nation’s sovereignty at dire risk. Reports of mass grave sites, unspeakable violence against civilians, and the emergence of so-called “filtration camps” evoke brutality reminiscent of the Stalin era.

The Ukrainian people have waged a defiant and remarkable resistance, which President Vladimir Putin was not expecting. As Ukraine wages an existential struggle for its survival, the Crimean Tatars, an indigenous Muslim ethnic group who are no strangers to Russian oppression and brutality, have pledged their support for Ukraine.

The formation and emergence of the Crimean Tatars as a unique people took place over the course of four centuries, beginning with the arrival of the Kipchaks in the 11th century and followed by the Mongol conquest of Crimea in the 13th century. The Mongol Golden Horde, or Kipchak Khanate, was established by the grandson of Genghis Khan and included Crimea and Russia. After its disintegration in the 15th century, the Crimean Khanate was established and ruled by the Tatars of the Crimea.

More than 300 years later, in 1783—the same year that America formally won its independence from the British—the Russian Empire annexed Crimea. In the period following the invasion between 1784 and 1790, nearly 300,000 Crimean Tatars, about one-third of their population, fled for the Ottoman Empire.

The mid-century Crimean War, fought by Russia against Britain, France, the Ottoman Empire, and later, Sardinia, prompted another wave of exile. During Stalin’s campaign against the kulaks from 1929 to 1931, thousands of Crimean Tatars were deported to Northern Russia and the Urals. The Crimean intelligentsia was persecuted and executed. By 1944, Russification and dekulakization had reduced the population of Crimean Tatars on the peninsula significantly.

Nor was the plight of the Crimean Tatars over. Stalin feared the remnants of this population would come to represent a Turkish fifth column in a strategically sensitive region, and thus, in 1944, issued a decree ordering the deportation of all Crimean Tatars from the Crimea to Uzbekistan.

All Tatars are to be exiled from the territory of the Crimea and settled permanently as special settlers in regions of the Uzbek SSR.

The entire remaining population was forcibly transferred in a massive operation, supervised by Stalin’s henchman Lavrentry Beria, to “special settlements” in Uzbekistan on the false accusation of having collaborated with the Nazis. The three-day operation, known as the “Sürgünlik, or “exile,” saw at least 180,014 Crimean Tatars deported from the peninsula. Women, children, and the elderly were loaded onto cattle cars to make the deadly journey to the settlements, while thousands of young men were sent to labor camps and slave construction battalions. As the scholar J. Otto Pohl has written, “To this day [the Sürgünlik] remains one of the most rapid and thorough cases of ethnic cleansing in world history.”

Nearly half the Crimean Tatar population perished. The majority died from illness and malnutrition. So appalling were these atrocities that the Verkhovna Rada (or parliament) of Ukraine and the Russian government under Boris Yeltsin alike recognized the forced deportation as a genocide. Indeed, it is one of the most clear-cut cases of genocide in the 20th century. As the scholar Greta Uehling writes,

The systematic erasure of the Crimean Tatars was holistic in nature. Crimean Tatar place names were changed to Soviet ones; mosques were turned into movie theaters (or worse); homes, livestock and gardens were given away; and mention of Crimean Tatars was deleted or abbreviated in reference works. Crimean Tatars were not allowed to reside in, or speak of, their homeland. It wasn’t even possible to preserve a Crimean Tatar identity in personal documents. In Central Asia, before efforts to assimilate the survivors were underway, Crimean Tatars lived in a Special Settlement regime in which tens of thousands died of malnutrition, dehydration, and disease. They were also demonized. To give but one example, Crimean Tatars describe how children’s heads were checked for horns by their Central Asian school teachers.

It was not until Nikita Khrushchev’s destalinization campaign that the Crimean Tatars were liberated from the special settlement regime. They were still, however, prohibited from returning to their homes in Crimea, an exile that would last another 45 years.

As the Soviet Union began to collapse in 1989, the Crimean Tatars were at last allowed to return to their homes. By 2004, their numbers had grown to make up 12 percent of the peninsula’s population. Within ten years, in 2014, Russia illegally invaded and occupied Crimea once again. The invasion marked the beginning of another wave of severe repression. It continues to this day.

No family of Crimean Tatars on peninsula was left untouched by the violence perpetrated during the Sürgünlik. Many lost loved ones. The scars of this suffering and hardship have been passed down through the generations.

In 2017, the political scientists Noam Lupu and Leonid Peisakhin published the results of their survey of more than 300 Crimean Tatar families in the peninsula. The sample included three generations of respondents. “We found,” they wrote,

that the legacies of violence are remarkably persistent within families. With each additional family member lost during the harsh resettlement, the grandchildren in that family tended to identify more strongly as both Crimean Tatars and as victims. And they were more likely to see Russia as a persistent threat.

Exercising authority over religion is an essential component of Putin’s so-called “Russkiy Mir,” or “Russian World” ideology. As former US Ambassador to Ukraine John Herbst puts it,

The Russian World concept bundles Russian Orthodoxy, the Russian language, and Russian culture to make the argument that Russia has produced a unique civilization. It uses this to strengthen the legitimacy of President Putin’s regime at home–to reduce the attractiveness of Western life and values–and to make ethnic Russians and Russian speakers outside of Russia supporters of Russia.

Putin’s persecution of the Crimean Tatars serves not only severely to limit their religious freedom, but to minimize their dissent. Crimean Tatars were, for obvious reasons, openly and vociferously opposed to Russia’s illicit annexation of the peninsula in 2014. Putin, like Stalin, clearly sees the Crimean Tatars as a threat to be subdued, and he has taken a heavy hand to the task. Russian politicians again targeted the Mejlis, the Crimean Tatars’ representative body on the peninsula, as a pro-Turkish Trojan horse.

To punish the opposition and disrupt mobilization efforts, Russia thus declared the Mejlis to be an “extremist organization.” In 2016, Crimea’s so-called prosecutor banned the body entirely. Under Russian occupation, the Crimean Tatars and their supporters have been subject to harassment, intimidation, detention, forced disappearance, home and mosque raids, and  beatings. Their media outlets, such as the popular TV station ATR, have been shuttered. Russian media meanwhile perpetuates abhorrent narratives about Crimean Tatars designed to evoke fear, suspicion, and bigotry.

Russian officials in Crimea impose oppressive Russian laws on the peninsula. For example, Hizb ut-Tahrir is a legal Muslim political organization in Ukraine, but banned in Russia. Those suspected of affiliation with Hizb ut-Tahrir, including Crimean Tatars, are targeted and punished. Many have been thrown in prison for their alleged affiliation with Hizb ut-Tahrir.

Mustafa Jemilev, a Soviet-era dissident who campaigned for the right of Crimean Tatars to return to Crimea, describes the new occupation as a “regime resembling one we fought against for decades, resembling the 1950’s under Soviet rule,” but “even worse.” Under Soviet rule, he said, “dissidents were put to prison but there was a clear procedure. Now people just vanish.”

The horrific treatment of the Crimean Tartars has caused thousands to flee to Ukraine. Now, as Russia wages another illegal invasion, Crimean Tatars have thrown their support behind Kyiv. On February 27, the World Crimean Tatar Congress called upon the world to assist Ukraine:

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is clear banditry, and the whole world must fight against this banditry together. With this aim in mind, the World Crimean Tatar Congress invites all Crimean Tatar civil society organizations and Crimean Tatar people in the world, and the honorable and conscionable people of the world to fight against this immoral attack of Russia in all the ways they are capable.

As Fevzi Mamutov, the leader of the Crimean Tatar community in Odessa, said of invading Russian forces, “If they come, we are prepared for them.”

The war on Ukraine is not just a fight for territory, resources, or power. For those on the receiving end of Russian aggression, the stakes are much higher. This war will determine whether the culture and identity of the Ukrainian people and the Crimean Tatars survive.

Ambassador Callista L. Gingrich is President and Chief Executive Officer of Gingrich 360, a multimedia production and consulting company based in Arlington, Virginia. She was the Ambassador of the United States to the Holy See.

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