Molly Guinness

Remembering the decimation of Crimea’s Tatars

Crimea’s Tatars are nervous after Russia’s annexation of the territory. The Tatars, Sunni Muslims who account for 12 per cent of Crimea’s population, boycotted Sunday’s referendum worried that the Russians would impose repressive and discriminatory laws on them. Reading Bohdan Nahaylo’s 1980 article, Murder of a Nation*, you can see why.

First, Stalin deported the entire Crimean Tatar nation.

‘In the early hours of 19 May 1944, some 238,000 people were abruptly awoken by units of the Soviet security forces and within minutes herded into cattle trucks. Sealed in without food or water, they were transported several thousand miles eastwards and eventually dispersed in Soviet Central Asia. Denounced before the local population as traitors who had collaborated en masse with the Germans, the Crimean Tatars were left to fend for themselves in the harshest of conditions. Their losses were appalling. The Crimean Tatars estimate that they lost 46 per cent of their population as a result of the deportation and the privations that followed.’

Twenty three years later, the Soviet authorities acknowledged that the Tatars had not in fact collaborated en masse with the Germans, but they still weren’t allowed to return to Crimea. Thousands tried, and thousands were expelled. By the late 1970s, barely one per cent of Crimean Tatars had been allowed to register as resident there. They were forcibly evicted, their houses sometimes destroyed, and activists were imprisoned.

In 1980, Ayshe Seytmuratova was the Crimean Tatars’ only representative outside the Soviet Union. ‘A small, attractive human dynamo’, she’d only been allowed out of the country because she’d threatened to burn herself in front of the Kremlin. ‘Unknown to me, only a few days earlier, Musa Mamut [a 46-year-old father of three] had burnt himself to death in the Crimea,’ she said.

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