Editor’s note: This article is part 1 of a 2-part series exploring the Tatar deportation and Crimean history. The full report can be read at VOC’s website.
The Crimean Tatars are a Muslim Turkic people originating on the Crimean peninsula, a part of southern Ukraine, but the territory has been under Russian occupation since February 2014. While the Crimean Tatars are sometimes described as “descendants of the Golden Horde” or “arriving” on the peninsula in the thirteenth century in Soviet sources, their formation as a group is historically much deeper: the Crimean Tatars have pre-Mongol origins in the ancient peoples of the peninsula. The Crimean Tatars are therefore considered one of the indigenous peoples of the peninsula.
To understand the Crimean Tatars as victims of Communism, it is important to realize they were at the center of a very different world in the Middle Ages. Early in the fifteenth century, the Crimean Tatars established an independent state, the Crimean Khanate, which existed as an Ottoman protectorate, but remained an important power in Eastern Europe until 1783 when Crimea was annexed by Empress Catherine II.
Having survived not only the annexation by Imperial Russia but subsequent Russification, Soviet collectivization, repression of intellectuals, famines, and mass deportation, the Crimean Tatars were in the process of reestablishing their rights in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea before the Russian takeover of the peninsula early in 2014. A new phase thus began in the lives of the former deportees, which will be covered in a separate paper. Significant numbers of Crimean Tatars also live in places of former exile such as Uzbekistan, as well as large diasporas in Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Germany and the US.
Bringing Crimea Under Communist Rule
Mustafa Jemilev, Deputy of the Ukrainian Supreme Rada and President of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis summed up the Communist experience saying, “The Soviet authorities, under the Communist regime, began committing crimes against Crimean Tatars from the time they got control of Crimea” (Interview, 2008). This control, however, was by no means easy to establish: after the 1917 Revolution, control of Crimea shifted from the Crimean Tatars, Germans, Russian Kadets, Bolsheviks and the Whites under Generals Deniken and Wrangel before the Red Army finally established definitive control in late 1920.
The February 1917 Revolution resulted in an activation of national movements across the Soviet Union. Crimean Tatars, under the name of Milli Firka(National Party), had participated in the earlier revolutionary events of 1905 alongside Russian revolutionaries, seeing the overthrow of the monarchy as a primary goal and the first step toward national revitalization. When the Russian Empire began dissolving in 1917, many peoples were thinking about how they would proceed in the new conditions. Crimean Tatars were prepared for action and convened a Kurultay or congress in the Crimea. The Kurultay drafted a constitution and elected a Mejlis or executive committee with Noman Çelebicihan as the head. The Kurultay was designed to be an elected body based on universal suffrage. This first Kurultay had a tragic fate: in 1918 some members of the Mejlis were executed by the Bolsheviks and the Kurultay was destroyed.
The protracted process that brought Crimea under Bolshevik rule included state-sponsored brutality. During the third and final attempt to solidify Bolshevik rule, the Soviet regime sent Bela Kun, chief of the Chekha (Bolshevik secret police) to eliminate oopposition. He worked with Nikolai Bystrykh, who headed a special section of the Crimean Chekha. (i) Operating from the forests, Crimean Tatars organized to oppose Kun and Bystrykh. Eventually, the Soviet regime called upon Sultan Galiev, a Volga Tatar Communist leader, to make a recommendation. Galiev suggested making Crimea into an autonomous Soviet republic, and bringing Crimean Tatars into party and leadership positions. This strategy became part of the Bolshevik attempt to establish an institutional base that would be attractive to nationalities and yet also serve to unify the state. The Sovnarkom (Soviet Committee of Nationalities) announced the formation of the Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR) on October 18, 1921.
The Crimean ASSR (1921-1941)
At the beginning of the Crimean ASSR, the government did not reflect Crimean Tatars’ goals, aspirations, or sensibilities. In fact, by seizing almost half of the cultivatable land on the peninsula to create collective farms, the initial government laid the groundwork for famines (described below) that followed.
Beginning in 1923, however, the Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic experienced a brief “Golden Age” under the leadership of Veli Ibrahimov, a Crimean Tatar Bolshevik. While a communist, he also had strong Crimean Tatar nationalist tendencies.
Ibrahimov’s leadership of the Crimean Central Committee and Chairmanship of the Crimean Council of Peoples Commissars enabled him to revitalize Crimean Tatar cultural and political life. Ibrahimov worked to bring Crimean Tatars into all levels of the Crimean government, including members of the previously outlawed Milli Firka (National Party). Veli Ibrahimov also played a decisive role in returning previously confiscated lands to former owners. Finally, he is remembered for establishing a policy of Tatarization that facilitated the reopening of Crimean Tatar national schools, scientific institutes, museums, theatres and more. (ii)
This flowering came to an abrupt and brutal end in 1928 when Stalin put an end to the New Economic Policy and Ibrahimov himself. Ibrahimov was accused of being a ‘bourgeois nationalist’ after standing up against Moscow with regard to the displacement of Tatar and Russian families to make room for Jewish families from Belorussia. He was executed on May 9, 1928.
The Sovietization of Crimean society was multi-faceted. Educational institutions were given new leadership and editorial boards of newspapers and journals were changed. The directors of Crimean Tatar national theaters were dismissed, and writers and poets were removed from their positions. Virtually anyone prone to independent thought, and thus dissent, was vulnerable. Thus began the elimination of clergy, writers, and artists, which became a ubiquitous theme under Soviet rule. Mustafa Jemilev therefore stated, “According to our sources, about 10,000 of the best Crimean Tatars were killed during the years of repression. In terms of the population of the Soviet Union, this number may not seem large, but for the Crimean Tatars, with a population of half a million, this number is very significant” (Interview, 2008).
Another serious blow was delivered when the Crimean Tatar language, which had been written in Arabic script, was Latinized. This effectively cut new generations off from their intellectual heritage. Latinization was an instrument of political control: it was the government that had discretion over what could be translated from the Arabic script to be read by the younger generation.
The attacks on the Tatar intelligentsia debilitated the Crimean Tatar people, reducing the likelihood of resistance to Soviet policies. Between 1917 when the Communist regime gained ascendancy and 1933, when the Great Purges began, approximately 150,000 or half the Crimean Tatars had either been compelled to leave Crimea or been physically destroyed. (iii)
Great Purges of 1933-1939
The wholesale Sovietization of Crimea entailed the destruction of the Crimean Tatar native cultural and political elite. The pattern over these years became painfully clear: charges like “bourgeois nationalist,” “anti-Soviet,” “counterrevolutionary,” “kulak,” and “Trotskiite” were brought against individuals perceived to be disloyal, and they were arrested and either executed or deported.
The Pedagogical Institute was an early target: many Crimean Tatar intellectuals were targeted. At about the same time, the Faculty for Tatar Language and Culture in the Tavrida University was destroyed: historians, Turkologists, professors of medicine, journalists and poets were all eliminated. Then the efforts to destroy the Tatar intelligentsia shifted to the Muslim clergy, who were forced to leave the peninsula. Finally, Soviet authorities directed their efforts toward eliminating the Tatar contingent within the Crimean Communist party. Stalin is reported to have commented at the Eighth Congress of Soviets that it would be “illogical” to raise the Crimean Republic to the level of a Union republic because the Crimean Tatars are a minority. The demographics he was referring to were, however, an outcome of first Russian, and then Soviet policies.
Bekir Çobanzade, a poet and professor of Turkic languages, is a classic example of what the Crimean Tatars lost as a result of Stalin’s purges. Çobanzade was eliminated in the middle of a productive academic career. He was arrested by Soviet authorities for allegedly subversive activities against the state, given a 20-minute trial, and condemned to death. He was executed on October 13, 1937, at the age of 44. Some twenty years after his death, in response to an appeal from his wife, a military court reversed the decision against him and declared that the charges against Çobanzade were baseless.
Famine and Collectivization
Under Communism, Crimea and the Crimean Tatars experienced two major famines. The first famine was from 1921-22. Publically, the Bolshevik government attributed the famine to drought and economic disruptions associated with the Civil War. The main reason, however, was the mandatory requisitioning of grain and foodstuffs, which left no reserves for the rural population. In Crimea, the local government shipped thousands of tons of grain out of Crimea, to supposedly “more important” central regions, leaving the residents with inadequate food supplies. An estimated 100,000 people died of starvation and 60% of them are believed to have been Crimean Tatars. (iv)
The second famine began in 1931 and was a direct result of the Soviet policies of collectivization and industrialization. (v) Known as the Great Famine of 1932-33, this disaster is a clear example of one of the ultimate outcomes of Communism. The Soviet Union aimed to improve agricultural productivity by eliminating individually owned plots and creating a system of collective farms. In a scenario that was repeated across the Soviet Union, planners sought to generate resources needed for industrialization by converting agricultural products, primarily grain, into foreign currency on world markets.
In Ukraine as a whole, the scheme is believed to have taken the lives of 6-7 million people. Crimea suffered acutely, and, as a rich agricultural area, was particularly hard hit. The Soviet attack on what was referred to as “bourgeois nationalism” was thus not limited to cultural and political life described above, but concerned all layers of Crimean society. Some 35,000 to 45,000 peasants and farmers, labeled “wealthy” and thus “enemies of the people,” were removed from the Crimea in two years. (vi) The authorities then extended control over the remaining population by forcing them into collectivization. While foreign currency flowed to Soviet industrialization, people in the impoverished countryside faced malnutrition and death from starvation.
Thus by the beginning of World War II, the surviving population of Crimea had endured Russification, collectivization, and witnessed the deportation or execution of their clergy, poets, teachers, writers, and political leaders. In 1941, the invading German army encountered a population that had been decimated and demoralized by Soviet rule. As Jemilev stated, “From the perspective of the Crimean Tatars, the history of the peninsula is understood in terms of a battle of two aggressive and imperialistic regimes” (Interview, 2008). It was thus a debilitated Crimean population that encountered the worst tragedy: deportation.
This research was originally published by International Committee for Crimea, Inc. on January 10, 2015. Access the original essay here.
(i) Greta Uehling. 2004. Beyond Memory. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. p. 36.
(ii) Alan W. Fisher. 1978. The Crimean Tatars. Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, p. 140.
(iii) Fisher, p. 145.
(iv) James Minahan, 2000. One Europe, many nations: a historical dictionary of European national groups,p. 189.
(v) Cafer Seydahmet. 2005. “Famine in Crimea.”
(vi) Fisher, p. 142.