Moscow tightens grip on occupied Crimea

By Seth Galinsky
February 20, 2023
From May 18-20, 1944, Stalinist regime in the USSR deported 200,000 Tatars from Crimea, slandering them all as Nazis.
From May 18-20, 1944, Stalinist regime in the USSR deported 200,000 Tatars from Crimea, slandering them all as Nazis.

Russian occupation forces have stepped up arrests in Crimea over the last several months, especially targeting Crimean Tatars for “crimes” such as singing songs in Ukrainian at their weddings. The assaults are fueling resistance to Moscow’s rule and the decadeslong struggle of Crimean Tatars for their national rights.

The Russian army seized the autonomous region of Crimea from Ukraine in February 2014, just days after the Ukrainian people overthrew the pro-Moscow regime of Viktor Yanukovych, following the Maidan uprising.

Moscow already had some 16,000 troops stationed in Crimea under a military treaty with Kyiv. Bolstered by at least 6,000 more, Moscow’s forces rapidly surrounded Ukrainian military bases with little resistance and arrested anyone who spoke out against their invasion, especially clamping down on Tatars.

Crimea has been the homeland of the mostly Muslim Tatar people for hundreds of years. Following the Bolshevik-led 1917 Russian Revolution, the Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was formed in 1921, ending the repression of Tatar culture and promoting its development. The new republic was welcomed as a voluntary part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics under the leadership of V.I. Lenin.

But these conquests were overturned after Lenin’s death by the counterrevolutionary regime imposed by Joseph Stalin. In 1944 Stalin proclaimed the Tatar people were Nazi sympathizers and forcibly deported the entire Tatar population — 200,000 people — deep into the Soviet Union. Crammed into rail cars, deprived of sufficient food and water, and sent to live in harsh conditions, more than a quarter of the Tatars died during the forced journey and first years of exile. Moscow sent tens of thousands of Russians to Crimea to take over their homes, farms and jobs.

In 1954 Crimea was transferred from the Russian Soviet Federation to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. It wasn’t until the death of Stalin that Tatars were permitted to return to their homeland. With the 1991 collapse of the Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union, the numbers returning grew.

By the time of the Maidan uprising, which was widely supported in Crimea, about 12% of the peninsula’s population was Tatar, 25% Ukrainian, and 58% Russian.

In March 2014 Moscow held a sham “referendum” under its military control that was boycotted by the Tatars and other Crimeans. It claimed people voted 97% for joining Russia.

To try to stabilize its rule, the Kremlin dissolved the Mejlis, the traditional governing body of the Tatar people, and banned many Tatar leaders from the country. When longtime Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemilev tried to return, border police would not let him in, despite the thousands who came to greet him.

Thirty-three Crimean Tatars were arrested Jan. 25 after showing up at a court hearing in Simferopol where six other Tatars were facing frame-up charges.

In April last year, teacher Susanna Bezazieva was dismissed from her job for telling students that Ukrainians are defending their homes, freedom and independence.

In October, Olha Valyeva, “Miss Crimea,” was fined and jailed for singing the Ukrainian patriotic song “Red Kalyna” from a balcony.

“We will never give up our struggle,” Tatar leader Dzhemilev told a Militant reporting team in Kyiv in June 2015.