Crimean Tatars mark mass 1944 deportation by Stalin

By Vivian Sahner
June 5, 2023

The Crimean Tatar people have fought for centuries to defend their national rights as a people, since they were conquered and subjugated by Czarina Catherine II in 1783.

May 18 marked the 79th anniversary of the forced deportation of Crimean Tatars by Moscow. Joseph Stalin, smearing them as Nazi collaborators, ordered the roundup of the entire Tatar population — over 200,000 men, women, and children. They were forced into boxcars and transported deep into Russia to Uzbekistan, Siberia and the Urals. More than 40% perished during the journey or in the first months of exile.

Crimean Tatars are the indigenous people of Crimea, with their own history, language, culture and traditions. Those who returned to their homeland after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 found Russification meant their land and property had been taken, and they faced increased persecution after Moscow seized the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014.

Tatars mobilized by the tens of thousands against the seizure, and the Russian Federal Security Service and other police forces responded by raiding homes, mosques, schools, and shutting down Tatar language newspapers and the only Tatar-language TV channel. Some 30,000 Tatars left Crimea for mainland Ukraine.

The Mejlis, the Tatar national council, and its leaders, including longtime head Mustafa Dzhemilev, were banned, part of Moscow’s crackdown on all opposition.

Dzhemilev was less than a year old when his family was deported to Uzbekistan. He became a leading opponent of Stalinist repression and was repeatedly imprisoned, serving a total of 15 years in the Gulag. The Militant was part of the international campaign fighting for his release. Dzhemilev continues to speak out for the Tatar people from Kyiv.

Leading up to and since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, repression has increased. While less than 13% of the peninsula’s population of 2 million, Tatars have been served more than half of the Russian military’s draft notices. By targeting Tatars, Dzhemilev told the Wall Street Journal, the Vladimir Putin regime aims not only to generate manpower for the war, but also to thin out the Tatar population.

In September 2022, a Russian kangaroo court sentenced Nariman Dzhelyal, the senior Mejlis officer remaining in Crimea, to 17 years in prison on fabricated charges of “sabotage.” They also sentenced cousins Asan Akhtemov and Aziz Akhtemov to 15 and 13 years behind bars. The only evidence was “confessions” coerced by torture that they described in court and statements by three “secret witnesses.”

At the sentencing hearing, Dzhelyal wore a T-shirt with the colors of the Ukrainian and Tatar flags, saying, “Two flags, a united people.” Asan Akhtemov’s T-shirt said, “We will lay down body and soul for our freedom,” words from the Ukrainian national anthem.

In April, 21-year-old Appaz Kurtamet, a Ukrainian Tatar language teacher, was sentenced to seven years in a Russian prison after visiting Crimea and lending a friend less than $14 in July 2022. He was framed up on charges that his loan was to support an illegal armed group after his friend joined the Ukrainian “Crimea” volunteer battalion, a group of Tatars who fought to defend Kyiv in the early months of the war.

A 17-year sentence was handed down May 18 against Oleksandr Sizikov, a blind man who could not have read the books that the Russian police planted in his home as “evidence” of his involvement with the banned Muslim Hizb ut-Tahrir. The group is legal in Ukraine. Fellow prisoners Alim Sufianov, who wore a T-shirt at the sentencing reading, “Hard times give birth to strong people,” and Seiran Khairedinov, whose T-shirt read, “We are your prisoners, but not your slaves,” were given 12-year sentences.