More Than a Year After Annexation, Crimean Tatars Need Allies

05/07/2015 04:07 pm ET | Updated May 07, 2016

Amidst all the media frenzy surrounding Putin's nefarious destabilization efforts in Eastern Ukraine, other issues of vital importance have gone ignored. Take, for example, the plight of ethnic Tatars, a group which is predominantly Sunni Muslim and traces its roots back to Turkic and Mongol tribes. Physically, Tatar men are distinguished by their distinctive hats and women by their headscarves. There are currently millions of Tatars spread out throughout eastern Russia and Ukraine. Tatars also inhabit the contentious Crimean peninsula, where they represent some 15 percent of the local population. Though Russians are the majority in Crimea, Tatars as well as Ukrainians make up a substantial minority and together represent about a third of the population.

Though life was far from ideal under Ukrainian rule, Tatars have had a much more difficult time since Russia annexed Crimea last year. Now more than ever, Tatars are in desperate need of support though allies are few and far between. That, at least, is the impression I get from speaking with experts during a research trip to Kiev late last year. Tetiana Bezruk, a researcher at the Congress of National Communities of Ukraine, has a bit of historical perspective when it comes to the Tatars. A native of Kherson, a city lying just outside Crimea, Bezruk later pursued her studies on the peninsula. Currently, she and her organization help internally displaced refugees by finding new homes and employment for migrants.

A Difficult Return

Typically, Tatars' education level has tended to be high, and many young folk travel to Turkey where they obtain university degrees. Later, many enter the business world and some have even achieved a certain degree of success while working in cities like Kiev. Despite such qualifications, however, most Tatars wind up laboring in agriculture, construction and the service sector. From 2007 to 2011, Bezruk observed the material conditions of Tatars while studying in Crimea. "I lived in a dormitory," she tells me as we speak in a local Kiev café. "I lived on the third floor, but on the first floor you had Tatars who had come back from the earlier deportation."

Bezruk is referring to Josef Stalin's fateful 1944 decision to deport all 200,000 Tatars from Crimea to the east when the peninsula formed part of the old Soviet Union. Stalin justified his horrific decision by falsely claiming the Tatars had collaborated with the Nazis. About half the Crimean Tatar population died during or as a result of the deportations, and those who managed to survive were deprived of their possessions. The Tatars were only allowed to return to Crimea in 1988, at which point many sought to reclaim their ancestral lands.

Kiev's Mixed Record on Crimea

Reportedly, the Tatars immediately embarked on a building spree as people began to resettle. However, in the midst of repatriation efforts, Tatars encountered discrimination within the wider society. Bezruk meanwhile says those Tatars who she came into contact with had jobs, though their material circumstances left something to be desired. "The families and children had nowhere to go," Bezruk reports, "and so they had to live in the dormitory. It was painful to see grandmothers having to cook in the student kitchen."

In the post-Soviet era, conditions facing Tatars remained challenging, though the group's status gradually began to improve. Indeed, Bezruk says Kiev was tolerant toward local mosques and Muslim Tatars. Reportedly, Ukrainians and Tatars enjoyed a kind of peaceful co-existence after Kiev achieved independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. According to the New Republic, Tatars even supported the Kiev government when Ukrainian politicians deliberately held up resolution of land claims and calls for greater autonomy.

Nevertheless, according to Bezruk many Tatars lacked Ukrainian passports and the state failed to encourage sufficient efforts at cultural self-expression. "In 2009," she remarks, "I was doing some research about Tatar efforts to preserve their language. At that time, we only found pre-schools where Crimean Tatar was being taught and spoken. The children learned some songs and poems, but they did not use their language in everyday life and instead spoke Russian."

Ukrainians, Tatars and Historical Controversy

In an effort to gain more insight into inter-ethnic relations in Ukraine, I catch up with Josef Zissels, General Council Chairman of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress in Kiev. Historically, he says, Ukrainian Jews have had good relations with Crimean Tatars and "we haven't had any problems with them." On the other hand, some believe that Ukrainians may have a long way to go in the furtherance of a truly multi-ethnic perspective. Rather than celebrating ethnic differences, Kiev has displayed a somewhat monolithic and static view of history.

So says Denis Pilash, a left-wing political activist based in Kiev. Ukrainian history, he remarks, "is just based on the view of one ethnic group and nation building. It's all about Ukrainians, hardly anything about Jews, Crimean Tartars, Poles or Armenians." To this day, contentious historical controversies have dogged efforts at inter-ethnic understanding. For more than 300 years, from the middle of the 15th to the end of the 18th centuries, Tatars had their own state in Crimea called the Crimean Khanate. At times, Tatars came to the aid of their neighbors the Ukrainians, for example in the seventeenth century when they assisted a Cossack horde which succeeded in driving out local Polish overlords.

However, the Tatars later deserted the Ukrainians, who were obliged to request Russian assistance. Yegor Stadny, a higher education policy analyst at Kiev's Center for Society Research, is well versed in such historical debates. "The image of the Crimean Tatars is very bad," he tells me as we sit in a local Kiev café. "From the 8th to 10th grade," he adds, "students are taught that Crimean Tatars betrayed Ukrainians. How can you incorporate the Tatars into the state if schools teach that the Crimean Khanate was detrimental toward Ukrainian attempts to construct the state in the first place?"

Russian-Tatar Relations and Maidan

Despite these historic problems, it seems fair to say that Tatars have enjoyed much better historic relations with Ukraine than Russia. At one time, the Tatars ruled Crimea and their armies as well as those of the Mongols sacked Moscow in the 14th and 15th centuries. In 1783, it was payback time when Catherine the Great took Crimea from the Turks and the Tatars came under Russian rule. To this day, many Tatars have unfavorable memories of the Russian imperial legacy, and as a result some have undoubtedly perceived Ukraine as a possible guarantor or buffer. If anything, Moscow's subsequent crackdown on Tatars during the Soviet period carries even worse associations.

In light of such acrimonious history, it is no surprise that the Tatars opposed former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. According to Bezruk, Tatars consistently voted against Yanukovych, a politician who failed to encourage local autonomy and sought to move his country into Moscow's orbit. When protests erupted in Kiev against Yanukovych, Tatars moved to support the burgeoning EuroMaidan movement and some even participated in demonstrations. At Maidan Square, protesters brandished blue and yellow Ukrainian flags, European Union flags, blue Crimean Tatar flags, and even a curious hybrid EU-Crimean Tatar flag [for more on flags and symbolism at the Maidan, see my previous article here]. Meanwhile, an improvised Tatar band played music onstage at Maidan square.

In Crimea itself, Maidan protests took on a distinctly anti-Russian character amidst signs that Moscow might annex the peninsula. The Russian majority in Crimea is comprised of people who moved to the area after World War II. Reportedly, the Russians strongly identify with the Soviet and earlier Czarist imperial narratives. Not surprisingly then, local protests pitted pro-Maidan Tatars against pro-Kremlin supporters who denounced Kiev demonstrators as "bandits." Nervously, Tatars brandished their own pale blue flag while shouting "Ukraine! Ukraine!" while Russians, some of them Cossacks dressed in traditional clothing, retorted "Crimea is Russian!" Anti-Maidan Russians later played religious songs via amplifiers set up at a local church [ironically enough, as my earlier article illustrates, Ukrainians are also fond of their own Cossack tradition, and some EuroMaidan protesters held ties to the Orthodox Church].

Forced to Choose

Putin's subsequent annexation of Crimea has placed minorities in a complex political bind. The Tatars largely boycotted Putin's referendum which led to outright Russian annexation of Crimea. Later, the mejlis or main Tatar governing body refused to recognize official Russian rule. Nevertheless, the Guardian of London notes that "many Crimean Tatars have decided that, unwilling to leave their homeland, it is better to find a modus vivendi with Russia rather than be in permanent opposition." In an effort to sway the local population against Kiev, Putin has reportedly invested in housing and support for Crimean Tatars.

Meanwhile, Kiev hasn't made its case to the Tatars very persuasively. Myroslav Marynovych, Vice-Rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, recently wrote a mildly critical column about Kiev's handling of the Crimea situation. Even as the Tatars called out for help, he notes, Ukraine proved to be tone deaf and moved to pull its forces out of Crimea, thus "leaving the Tatars to fend for themselves." Marynovych adds, "They [the Tatars] supported us on the Maidan, and we abandoned them to the mercy of the Russian occupiers. The loss of their trust in Ukraine is a psychological wound that will take a long time to heal."

Legal Limbo

On a rather sober note, Marynovych remarks that "the Crimean Tatars now have no good options." Those Tatars who have opted to stay in Crimea must abide by the terms of Russian rule, that is to say they must accept Russian passports. But the new measures place Tatars in a bind, since anyone filing for Russian citizenship must give up their Ukrainian passports. Indeed, Russian law has criminalized undeclared dual citizenship and imposes fines on those individuals who fail to inform authorities that they have obtained such citizenship in another country. In effect, however, the new measures are a moot point for Crimean Tatars, since Kiev prohibits dual citizenship in any case.

Refat Chubarov, a Tatar leader, feels caught in a strange catch-22. Speaking to Reuters, he remarked "The people may be forced to become citizens of the country that forced this situation on them, as well as being citizens of the country that was unable to defend them." Perhaps, Marynovych laments, "Ukraine could have made an exception to its ban on dual citizenship for Tatars, which would have made the practicalities of life much easier and would have signified that the Ukrainian state is sensitive toward them." Unfortunately, however, Kiev has not been proactive, and though the Ukrainian parliament recently recognized Tatars as the native people of Crimea, such "recognition came much too late, causing nothing but frustration and disappointment."

A People in Need of Allies

For those Tatars who choose to stay in Crimea, life remains a daily challenge. A local Tatar TV channel has come under significant pressure by the Russian authorities, and Tatar leaders have been subject to deportation, threats and even kidnapping. Hoping to escape Russian rule, thousands of Tatars have fled Crimea and spread into Ukraine. To its credit, the western Ukrainian city of Lviv has hosted such refugees, though reportedly some are unhappy with the newcomers. Bezruk, who monitors hate crimes throughout Ukraine, tells me that Tatars arrived in Lviv without any jobs. Mostly, she adds, the migrants spoke Russian, which marked them as outsiders in a city known for its Ukrainian nationalism. Bezruk adds that Muslim women migrants in headscarves have been attacked in Lviv, though the assailants remain unidentified.

Facing persecution by the Russians, and lacking strong political allies in Kiev, the Tatars are in dire need of valuable allies. Unfortunately, such support has not been very forthcoming. One might expect the international left, such as it is, to make common cause with the Tatars. Yet leftist pundits have failed to answer the call, preferring instead to pursue their own peculiar ideological proclivities. As I've written, some writers are so critical of U.S. imperialism that they wind up apologizing for "Russian interests" and Putin's Kremlin agenda. In the not too distant future, then, it will fall to the small and independent left in Russia and Ukraine, as well as more sensible leftists on the international circuit, to offer strong support to the Tatars in their hour of need.

Nikolas Kozloff is a New York-based writer who conducted a research trip to Ukraine late last year.

Postscript: Debating Tatars and Controversial History in the Midst of War

As some recent comments on this piece demonstrate, the politicization of history continues unabated. With the war in Ukraine still smoldering, all sides in the conflict have a vested interest in appropriating history for their own ends. Who were the victims, and who were the victimizers in World War II? In the current political and online milieu, such questions may assume disproportionate influence. Moreover, specifically casting doubt on the Tatar cause may prove politically expedient for Russia. Simply put, the Kremlin does not wish to lose the public relations war over its actions in Crimea.

Seeking to muddy the waters, one commenter has implied that Stalin may have been justified in deporting the Tatars in 1944. "And why where the Tatars deported by Stalin? You say that 'allegedly' Tatars fought with the Nazis against the Soviets in Crimea. Sure. Not 'allegedly.' There were at least two thousand Tatars who fought in Nazis-organized battalions. They killed Russians and aided the Nazis in the extermination of Jews in Crimea."

So what's the truth? For answers, I conducted a bit of research. Writing in the Encyclopedia of the World's Minorities, Carl Skutsch notes that "Tatar collaboration with the German regime is one of the most controversial topics in Soviet history." Initially, he says, the Tatars viewed the Nazi invasion as a "sign of hope." For years, they had been subjected to persecution under both Czarist and Soviet authorities and erroneously believed the Germans might help to ameliorate their plight. It's all rather disappointing to be sure, though Skutsch adds that "the extent of the Tatars' anti-Soviet behavior is a topic of ongoing dispute."

In seeking to justify its clampdown, Moscow charged that the Tatars had fought against Soviet partisans; had participated in German self-defense battalions, and had provided intelligence to the Nazis. The total number of Tatars who assisted the Germans was 20,000 or ten percent of the population at the time. On the other hand, Skutsch adds that," it has since been recognized that Crimean Tatar participation was not necessarily voluntary, often being secured at gunpoint." Independent scholar Otto Pohl notes that German military authorities in Crimea rounded up Tatar POWS in January 1942 and formed the latter into self-defense battalions. The Tatars volunteered on the condition that they would be released from prison camps and given better rations.

In light of the history, it seems a little debatable whether the Tatars "collaborated" with the Nazis or were coerced into servitude in the face of starvation or even death. Moreover, Russian apologists who impugn the Tatars today are following in an earlier tradition of Soviet scholars who sought to blacken the Tatars' reputation. The historians ignored the fact that perhaps 50,000 or more Tatars fought in the Red Army against the Nazis. Such Tatar contributions are all the more remarkable when one considers that Soviet partisan units led by Russians and Ukrainians led a scorched earth policy against Tatar villages and civilians. Pohl notes that "this activity frequently had more to do with Slavic animosity towards the Crimean Tatars than any real [Nazi] collaboration by the victimized villagers."

In light of such history, should we dismiss age-old accusations against the Tatars? Not entirely. Yitzhak Arad has carried out some disturbing research suggesting that some Tatars weren't entirely innocent during the occupation. In his book The Holocaust in the Soviet Union, Arad notes that the Nazis eliminated the entire Jewish community in the Crimea between November, 1941 and March, 1942. "In cooperation with the village heads and the active participation of local police forces," Arad writes, "the Einsatzgruppen did not miss a single rural settlement, even those with a minute Jewish community." Arad adds that "other groups involved in the murder of Jews in the Crimea consisted of companies of Tatar volunteers. In January 1942 a company of Tatar volunteers was established in Simferopol under the command of Einsatzgruppe 11. This company participated in anti-Jewish manhunts and murder actions in the rural regions."

Though certainly horrible, such atrocities don't imply that all Tatars were somehow guilty, let alone justify mass deportations. Pohl remarks that the self-defense units "became the basis behind the slanderous charge by the Stalin regime that the entire Crimean Tatar nation actively collaborated with Nazi Germany against the Soviet Union. Despite an official recognition of the falsehood of this charge by the Soviet government in 1967, it is still repeated by some Russian chauvinists today."

World War II is long over, and yet historical controversies and passions surrounding the event seem to have flared once more. In light of the ever intensifying conflict in Ukraine, it seems likely that all sides will hark back to history in an effort to justify their public relations efforts.