Vedzhie Kashka was 82 years old. She was a child when the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin sent his NKVD to the Crimean Peninsula to deport the entire Crimean Tatar minority to Central Asia—and to kill anyone who resisted. She spent much of her adult life urging the Brezhnev-era bureaucracy to allow her people to return home. Last month, she was killed by the security agents of the latest Russian dictator: Vladimir Putin.
On November 23, Kashka was with several other Crimean Tatar activists, including Bekir Degermendzhi, Asan Chapukh, and Kyazim Ametov in a café in Simferopol, a major city in the Russian-occupied Crimean Peninsula. The activists had come to help Kashka with a financial matter; she had apparently loaned money to a Turkish man who had not returned it. The meeting was disrupted by heavily-armed Russian FSB agents. The sting was organized to arrest the Tatars for the “extortion” of the Turkish man.
During the search, detention, and arrest, Kashka fell ill, and was quickly transported to the hospital, where she died. The Russian occupation authorities attributed her death to “stress”—but did not openly acknowledge that the stress was caused by blatant entrapment and mistreatment by Russian state security forces.
“Vedzhie Kashka was legendary and possessed the unyielding spirit of the Crimean Tatars to return to their homeland and live there peacefully,” says Inci Bowman, president of the International Committee for Crimea and a Crimean Tatar herself. “Her tragic death following the raid of a café by FSB agents reminds us once again that no Crimean Tatar activist is safe in Crimea.”
The story of Kashka’s life is the tragic story of the Crimean Tatars in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. As World War II raged across the whole of Europe, Joseph Stalin decided that the Crimean Tatars were a “collaborationist” ethnicity that had allied with the Nazis en masse during the German occupation of the Crimean Peninsula. (In actuality, Crimean Tatars who cooperated with the Nazis did not exceed 7 percent of the population). In May 1944, he ordered that all Tatars be “cleansed” from the strategically-important Crimean Peninsula and dispersed throughout the hinterlands of the Soviet Union. Vedzhie Kashka was nine years old.
“NKVD mechanized infantry units surrounded the Tatar villges and suburbs and herded the startled inhabitants to several designated transshipment points,” historian Brian Glyn Williams writes in his book The Crimean Tatars: From Soviet Genocide To Putin’s Conquest. “The traumatized Tatars were given less than an hour to gather a few belongings.” Soon, Kashka and her compatriots were packed into livestock trains and sent to the desolate reaches of Soviet Uzbekistan. Many Tatar folk stories involve Red Army soldiers and anti-fascist partisans returning to Crimea after the war only to find their ancestral homeland empty, their friends and families now thousands of miles away.
After Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech,” which shifted the blame for the Soviet state’s manifold crimes onto the shoulders of the deceased Stalin, the deported Tatars began to agitate for the right to return to their homes in Crimea. Kashka and her family returned in 1969—but the institutionalized discrimination and persecution of Tatars was far from over.
The land once inhabited by the expelled Tatars had been settled by Russians—who were quick to bring the repressive weight of Soviet power to bear on the Tatars slowly trickling back to their vatan (homeland). In 1974, Soviet authorities attempted to expel Vedzhie Kashka, her husband Bekir, and their four children from their home once more. In response, she penned an appeal to the Moscow authorities. “Is it such a crime to be a Crimean Tatar?” Kashka wrote in the close of the letter. “You have made the whole world black for all of us.” Only after the legendary Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov intervened on her behalf was Kashka’s family allowed to remain in Crimea unmolested.
After the Soviet Union fell in 1991, scores of Tatars returned to the peninsula to try and rebuild the lives their grandparents had enjoyed. Crimea became a part of the newly-freed nation of Ukraine. But on February 27, 2014, the peninsula’s peace was shattered once more. The residents of Crimea awoke to find armed men in unmarked uniforms—Vladimir Putin’s “little green men”—in control of strategic points across the territory. Soon, the peninsula was forcibly incorporated into the Russian Federation. Harsh repression of the Tatar community followed quickly. “Remembering the victims of the Sürgün [deportation] used to be an annual event in Crimea,” says Bowman. “Unfortunately, it can no longer be held publicly. Crimean Tatar media outlets have been shut down. Tatar homes have been searched illegally and many activists have been detained. There are currently more than fifty Crimean Tatar political prisoners.”
Soon after the occupation began, Vedzhie Kashka was summoned for interrogation by the Russian FSB. She chose to go voluntarily, knowing how harsh her interrogation would be and certainly unsure if she would return from Russian custody. “I’m not a coward, and never hid before nor now,” she told her friends later. “and I therefore came.”
Today, Vedzhie Kashka’s name joins those of Yuri Shchekochikhin, Alexander Litvinenko, Anna Politkovskaya, Sergei Magnitsky, Boris Nemtsov, Pavel Sheremet, and countless others killed for speaking the truth about the crimes of the Putin regime. Kashka’s bravery did not go unrecognized: “Her funeral was attended by 5,000 Crimean Tatars,” says Bowman. Nor should this brave woman’s life go unrecognized here.