There is no Crimean Tatar for whom the day of May 18th does not evoke strong emotions. This year, May 18th commemorates seventy-eight years of their mass deportation; almost 200,000 Crimean Tatars were torn from their beds in the middle of the night, and forced into cattle wagons.¹ Accused of collaboration with the Nazis by Joseph Stalin, they were declared the traitors and enemies—despite many of the male Tatars serving in the Red Army and receiving medals for their military bravery. As Crimean Tatars arrived in the remote regions of Central Asia, nearly 2,000 miles from home, many had perished from overcrowding and starvation aboard the wagons. In total, almost half the population died in the labor camps from hunger, unsanitary conditions, disease, and fatigue.² Those who defied odds and lived through the harsh conditions of exile, committed to return to their homeland Crimea and rebuild their lives.
As a researcher of the national movement for self-determination, what always strikes me when speaking with Crimean Tatars, whether young or old, is how vivid and personal the collective memory of the deportation remains; as though it happened yesterday and was experienced by all. Nearly eight decades later, the community continues to grieve the deportation.
Why does this traumatic event persist like an open wound inflicted on every generation of Crimean Tatars?
One explanation is that the Crimean Tatars had never had an opportunity for formal retribution from their perpetrators. Although they were officially rehabilitated by the Khrushchev government in 1967, they were still not allowed to return to Crimea and fought vigorously to prove their innocence.
The second explanation is that eighty years after the tragedy the community still has no protection from the real threat of re-deportation. With a new wave of the brutal Russian invasion of Ukraine, entailing mass displacement and abduction of half a million Ukrainians, the threat of the repeated deportation is at an all time high.
Without tackling the issue of retribution, Crimean Tatars will neither be safe from threats of deportation nor will they truly heal from the intergenerational trauma that May 18th signifies.
The Absence of Retribution, Reparations, or Recognition of Guilt
Unlike other survivors of genocide, Crimean Tatars cannot heal from the 1944 deportation because they never had their day in court. There was no Nuremberg Trial with commensurate punishments. Short of juridical punishment, there were also no official reparations or repatriation of appropriated properties, nor even a symbolic recognition of guilt officially issued by the Russian Federation or Crimean authorities.
Returning to Crimea in the early 1990s after almost forty years of nonviolent resistance, Crimean Tatars found themselves living alongside the perpetrators and their descendants. From NKVD officers, directly responsible for the deportation, to Russian settlers, who came to occupy the Crimean Tatar property after 1944, to local officials, who fought intensely to prevent the return of “Tatar traitors,” the Crimean Tatars have been surrounded by people who neither recognized nor atoned for the violence they committed.
Reluctant to recognize the imperial past of the Soviet Union, the Crimean authorities and local Slavic settlers have perpetuated the colonial relations in the post-Soviet context. They have been contesting the right of the Crimean Tatar for self-determination in Crimea as indigenous peoples. Only 30% of college-age respondents in Crimea regarded the deportation in 1944 as unfair and criminal.³ The survivors of the deportation recounted numerous stories of settlers who denied them the mere opportunity to visit the houses where they or their ancestors had lived prior to dispossession.
Blatant racism and Islamophobia against the Tartars is presented as “ethnic tension” as if it is some “civilizational” difference that prevents the groups from living peacefully side by side. In fact, the evidence of bullying and violence against both the Crimean Tatar children and adults in schools, workplaces, streets, and markets is overwhelming. The mechanisms of institutionalized racism have worked perfectly to prevent the Crimean Tatars from rising economically and participating in political processes. The common refrain across segments of Crimean society—that “Crimean Tatars are only capable of selling vegetables at the market or driving marshrutkas [public transport]”—sums up the unchecked discrimination that is meant to keep Tatars as second-class citizens.
The Threat of Re-Deportation
With Russian imperialism left unchecked, it is only a matter of time until the children of perpetrators walking streets with impunity after the first deportation will be ready to repeat past crimes. In 2014, Russian civilians, for example, had painted red crosses on the homes of Crimean Tatars, anticipating their exile and hoping to occupy their homes.
For eight years now, the Russian Federation occupying Crimea has been putting deliberate efforts to suppress the Crimean Tatars’ culture, language, and identity with Russification. From denying the right to learn the native language to harassing the Crimean Tatar religious institutions and banning the self-governing bodies, the Russian authorities have been waging what some Crimean Tatars call “hybrid deportation.” Under the unfounded charges of “terrorism” and “extremism,” Crimean Tatar activists now regularly receive up to 20-year-long prison sentences in the far off territories of the Russian Federation. Under the suspicion of “terrorism,” Russia has banned any commemoration of the deportation.
Toward Intergenerational Recovery: Ukrainian Efforts at Reconciliation
Although both Russian and Ukrainian actors have committed violence against Crimean Tatars (Crimea was part of the Ukrainian SSR since 1954 and part of independent Ukraine since 1991), only Ukraine has taken concrete (if incomplete) steps toward reconciliation. In 2014, Verkhovna Rada legitimized Crimean Tatars’ self-governing bodies (Mejlis and Kurultaj), as well as established a new position of Plenipotentiary Representative of President in the matters of Crimean Tatar people. Crimean Tatar representation in Ukrainian politics has also increased, with inclusions such as Emine Dzhaparova, who is a Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs of Ukraine, and Rustem Umerov, an MP and lead negotiator in the Ukraine-Russia peace talks. Symbolically, Ukraine recognized the 1944 deportation as genocide and declared May 18 as the Day of Crimean Tatar’s struggle for their rights. While more radical steps, such as the recognition of Crimea as a Crimean Tatar autonomous region, remain to be addressed, it is clear that Ukrainian governance offers the possibility of ending Crimean Tatars’ fear of re-deportation and fostering a political situation that can promote intergenerational healing. Along this road to recovery, the return of Crimea to Ukraine should also enable Sevastopol, the “city of Russian glory,” to serve as the stage for Crimean Tatars—after seventy-eight long years—to finally have their day in court.
¹ Bazhan, O., S. Blaschuk, et al. [Eds.] Krym v umovakh suspil’no-politychnykh transformatsiy (1940-2015): Zbirnyk dokumentiv ta materialiv. Kyiv: Instytut istorii Ukraiiny NAN Ukraiiny, 2016, p. 14. ² Ibid ³ Dzhemilev, M. (2004) Report by Mejlis chair for III session IV Kurultai, 10–12 September. Simferopol, Odzhaq.
Mariia Shynkarenko is a PhD Candidate in Politics at The New School for Social Research, a Visiting Scholar at the Center for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Toronto, and a Visiting Scholar at the Jordan Center for the Advanced Study of Russia at NYU.