Crimean Tatars under Stalin: Ethnic cleansing or an act of genocide?

By Kumush Suyunova

Kara-gun (dark day) – May 18, 1944 was a day when the Crimean Tatars learned the full horror of the sanitized term “deportation” as part of Stalin’s ethnic cleansing program. [1] Under the slogan “Za Rodinu”- “For the Motherland” less than a week ago, they fought in the ranks with their multinational compatriots in The Great Patriotic War.

Rifle units of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs surrounded all Tatar suburbs and drove the frightened residents to several specially designated transit points. The mentally injured Tatars were given less than an hour to collect some belongings. Accused of treason, they coped with injuries, death, inadequate living conditions, poverty, lack of community support, even their names were removed from official documents. The authorities wiped their homeland off the map, abolishing the Crimean Autonomous Republic and making Crimea a province. [2] The offensive on the cultural roots of the Crimean Tatars took place after the dispatch from their homeland.

If we refer to the origins, in his masterpiece Axis Rule in Occupied Europe R.Lemkin – the father of the term “genocide”, stated: “genocide … is intended to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups… The objectives of such a plan would be the disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups…”. [3]

A. Jones argues that in the case of the Crimean Tatars intention of genocide implied in its design of phased and general destruction of the nation, rather than in specific and clear desire of killing, as the mass death of the victims had taken place during the transit and after arrival at the place of exile as a side effect. [4]

In the history of forced resettlements, it was during transportation that the death rates were very high. In the 40s, given the situation of infrastructure and vehicles as a result of a long trip to Central Asia (mainly to the Uzbek SSR), the high death rate could certainly be predicted. It is estimated that from 190 thousand Crimean Tatars 70-90 thousand died on the way or in the first years of exile. [5]

As John Quigley argues that forcing a group out of its home area, as well as its forced assimilation arguably destroys it. As a result of threats or legal prohibitions, a group’s members may refrain from speaking their language, or from practicing their religion or customs, which can lead the group to cease to be identifiable as such. He considers two possible ways of intending to destroy a group: an intent to injure, but short of killing; and an intent to destroy the group’s social identification, like it was planned in the case of Crimean Tatars. [6]

Furthermore, N. Naimark notes that the Genocide Convention did not include crimes against social and political groups, only in order for the USSR to join the Convention. The scientist writes that “according to any objective understanding of international law, Stalin’s violence against the Soviet people could have been included in the Genocide Convention” and that researchers cannot exclude these cases from the study of genocide based on the politically motivated provisions of the Convention. [7]

William A. Schabas argues that genocide as well as ethnic cleansing may have the same goal of removing an undesirable group from a particular place of residence. He admits that ethnic cleansing, called “deportation”, remains a punishable crime against humanity and a war crime. Ethnic cleansing is also a warning sign of the coming genocide. Genocide is the last resort for disillusioned ethnic cleansing. [8]

Only after the death of Stalin in 1956 the Crimean Tatars were released from administrative supervision, but without the right to end the banishment and recovery of forfeit property. In 1967, the Supreme Soviet of the USSR eliminated the treason charge, but this decision was purely hypocritical. When Crimean Tatars tried to return to Crimea, they were sent back, as the ban on their return continued to apply.

Until 1989, no significant measures were taken. The “Declaration on the recognition of illegal and criminal repressive acts against peoples subjected to forced relocation and ensuring their rights” adopted in 1989 became the first official confirmation of victimization of the Crimean Tatars under Stalin. According to Article 2 of the Law of the RSFSR of 26.04.1991 N 1107-1 (ed. from 01.07.1993) “On rehabilitation of repressed peoples” Crimean Tatars were included in the list of repressed people under the Stalinist regime. However, their forced resettlement was mentioned as an act of genocide very vaguely and ambiguously. [9]

It is interesting to note that the question of the fate of the Crimean Tatars, seemingly, received due attention after the events of 2014. The political response by Ukraine to the annexation of Crimea by Russian Federation was the declaration of May 18 as the “Day of remembrance of the victims of the Crimean Tatars genocide”. Following Ukraine, in 2019, the parliaments of Latvia and Lithuania, as well as Canada, recognized the forced resettlement of Crimean Tatars as an act of genocide.

As B. Glyn claims, Stalin used WWII as an opportunity to carry out ethnic cleansing. Already in 1943, Stalin began a series of surprise operations aimed at the destruction of entire national groups, including the Crimean Tatars, who were arbitrarily considered guilty of “mass collaboration” with the Nazis. The accusations of mass national treason were, in all probability, just a pretext for ethnic cleansing of the border areas of the Soviet Union from the non-Slavic, mainly Islamic, population. Stalin actually used the term “Chistit”-“clean” in his orders. [10]

According to Norman Naimark, Stalin may have had some reason for questioning the loyalty of the Crimean Tatars and genuine fears of a military-political nature in connection with the strategic vulnerability of the Crimean Peninsula. However, he believes, that the forced resettlement and persecution of national groups were caused primarily not by real threats of war and infiltration, but by Stalin’s general xenophobia and his pathological fear of losing power. [11]

As a result, the attacks on certain “enemy” nationalities, like in the case of Crimean Tatars took on genocidal characteristics. In 1944, during the war, the Muslim peoples from the northern Caucasus and the Crimea were sent to “spetsposeleniya” in Central Asia. In the process of deportation and resettlement a substantial percentage of those peoples, Crimean Tatars in particular, died. It was not an act of a direct blood purge, however, Naimark claims that at the very least, the attacks against the Crimean Tatars should be considered as attempted cultural genocide. [12]

After the deportation of Crimean Tatars and the re-formation of the Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic into a region in 1945, the Soviet government used enormous resources to eradicate any memory of the existence of an entire culture. Topographical names of historical origin were changed, for example, the area of Ak-Metzit (White mosque) became the Black Sea district, Alushta was renamed in honor of the Russian General Kutuzov, as Alexander Pushkin honored his visit to Bakhchisarai, it was renamed in his name, and so on. Most topographical names have become a reflection of Russian history, in contrast to the Crimean Tatar history. The cultural and administrative Russification of the Crimean Tatar homeland was accompanied by government-sponsored settlement of Russians from other regions in Crimea. [13]

Furthermore, textbooks of the Crimean Tatar language published in the 1920s were burned and many aspects of the centuries-old history of the Crimean Tatars on the Peninsula were destroyed, including religious and cultural architectural elements such as cemeteries, mosques, marble fountains, and other buildings with cultural elements. Large mosques in Crimea were re-registered for use as warehouses, museums or for other purposes, including Kuma-Kami, Kebir-Kami, Khan-Kami, and the Uzbek Khan mosque, while smaller ones were destroyed on the spot. [14]

The question remains open: whether an act of genocide took place or not in the case of Crimean Tatars under Stalin. However, the facts are that half of the nation died due to expulsion, their national identity was suppressed, their cultural and traditional values were destroyed, their historical, linguistic and religious heritage was demolished, and their textbooks and literary works were burned. In addition, they were exiled due to unjustifiably strained charges of treason and were not restored to their rights, were not compensated for any moral or material damage.


References

[1]  Brian Glyn Williams, The Crimean Tatars. From Soviet Genocide to Putin’s Conquest (London: Hurst & Company, 2016), 99.
[2] Adam Jones, Genocide: a Comprehensive Introduction (London: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 2017), 344.
[3] Dominik J. Schaller and Zimmerer Jürgen, The Origins of Genocide: Raphael Lemkin as a Historian of Mass Violence (London: Routledge, 2013), 5.
[4] Adam Jones, Genocide: a Comprehensive Introduction (London: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 2017), 343.
[5] Brian Glyn Williams, The Crimean Tatars. From Soviet Genocide to Putin’s Conquest (London: Hurst & Company, 2016), 109.
[6] John Quigley, Mark Findlay, and Ralph Henham, The Genocide Convention An International Law Analysis (Abingdon, Oxon: Taylor and Francis, 2016), 101.
[7] Norman M. Naimark, Stalin’s Genocides (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010), 4.
[8] William Schabas, Genocide in International Law: the Crime of Crimes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 234.
[9] N. V. Mikhailova, L. M. Savina, Crimean Tatars: Deportation and Rehabilitation, Bulletin of the Moscow University of the Ministry of internal Affairs of Russia, 2015, 32-37. Original title: Н.В. Михайлова, Л.М. Савина, Крымские Татары: Депортация и Реабилитация, Вестник Московского Университета МВД России.
[10] Brian Glyn Williams, The Crimean Tatars. From Soviet Genocide to Putin’s Conquest (London: Hurst & Company, 2016), 98.
[11] Norman M. Naimark, Stalin’s Genocides (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010), 84.
[12] Ibid, 135.
[13] Ibid, 111.
[14] Ibid, 112.

Picture Credits: National Bank of Ukraine, Flickr.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.