Putin’s war on the Crimean Tatars

Ignoring Russia’s occupation of Crimea also ignores the human tragedy taking place there.

Crimean Tatars mark a first anniversary of annexation of Crimea by Russia in Kiev.
Crimean Tatars mark the first anniversary of annexation of Crimea by Russia on the Independence Square in Kiev, Ukraine [EPA]

As the world approaches the one year anniversary of Russia’s illegal annexation of the Crimea, attention of the peninsula has slowly faded away. It is not unusual to watch a TV interview or read an article about the war in Ukraine, and find that the word “Crimea” is not even used once.

Ignoring Russia’s occupation of Crimea also ignores the human tragedy taking place there. This is especially true with the minority Crimean Tatar community – an ethnically Turkic and religiously Sunni Islam community which has faced decades of religious and political persecution under Russian domination.

Just this week Asan Charukhov, a Crimean Tatar trauma surgeon, was arrested for his part in protesting against the Russian annexation of Crimea – yet the latest example of the Crimean Tatar community being targeted.  

Russia’s poor treatment of the Tatar community is nothing new. The Crimean Khanate – a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire – survived for 300 years until Russia’s Catherine the Great took over the peninsula in 1783.

Crimean Tatars face pressure from new rulers

During the chaos following the Bolshevik Revolution and Russia’s Civil War, the peninsula was finally incorporated into the Soviet Union. The Soviets never had the wellbeing of the Crimean Tatars in mind. Sometime in the 1920s, Vladimir Lenin reportedly wrote about his plans for the Crimean Tatars: “We will take them, divide them, subjugate them, digest them.”

Stalin’s iron-fisted rule

Not to be outdone, under the iron-fisted rule of Joseph Stalin, the Crimean Tatars were almost annihilated. Stalin claimed that the Tatars were enemies of the state because some sided with Nazi Germany during World War II. While thousands did fight for the Germans, an equal number fought for the Red Army against Nazism. In fact, eight Crimean Tatars won the Hero of the Soviet Union – the highest distinction in the Soviet Union. Amet-Khan Sultan, a Crimean Tatar pilot, won this prestigious award twice.

Nevertheless, the fact that some Crimean Tatars fought for the Nazis was a good enough excuse for Stalin to punish the whole community. In 1944, almost 180,000 Crimean Tatars were forcibly removed from their homes in Crimea and shipped east. Many ended up in Uzbekistan, but thousands were also scattered around Siberia. During this forced removal, tens of thousands of Tatars were killed. Families were separated. A culture was almost destroyed.   

Under Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika reforms, the Crimean Tatars were allowed to return to Crimea – and many did. In 1991 Crimea became part of an independent Ukraine. Life for the Tatars in an independent Ukraine was not always perfect but it was far better than anything they had experienced in the past century under Russian rule.  

A year ago Russian President Vladimir Putin said: “I believe we should make all the necessary political and legislative decisions to finalise the rehabilitation of Crimean Tatars, restore them in their rights and clear their good name. We have great respect for people of all the ethnic groups living in Crimea.”

Like most things with Vladimir Putin, his actions speak louder than his words.

Some in Moscow are even calling for the 'de-Turkification' of Crimea by changing the name of the peninsula and its major cities back to the names used by the ancient Greeks.


Cultural vandalism

From the very beginning of the illegal annexation of Crimea, Russian authorities targeted the Crimean Tatar community. Refat Chubarov and Mustafa Dzhemilev, the current and former chairman of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatars respectively, have been barred by the Russians from entering Crimea. 

Russian security services have raided homes and offices of prominent Crimean Tatars on dubious pretences. Moscow has banned the annual ceremonies marking the mass deportation of the Crimean Tatars by Stalin in 1944. Russia has also banned select pieces of Crimean Tatar literature and religious books even though the same texts were acceptable when Ukraine governed Crimea.

Tatar-language media outlets have been raided by Russian security forces and in some cases shut down. Some in Moscow are even calling for the “de-Turkification” of Crimea by changing the name of the peninsula and its major cities back to the names used by the ancient Greeks. For example, Crimea would become Taurida, Kerch would become Pantikapaion, Feodosia would become Theodosia, and Sevastopol would become Sevastoupoli.

Ignoring the role that Turkic culture has played in Crimea’s history, and suppressing the Crimean Tatar language, amounts to nothing short of cultural vandalism.

Today, the Crimean Tatars make up only 13 percent of Crimea’s population. This is a far cry from the days of the khanate when the Tatars were the largest ethnic group living on Crimea. While the Tatars are able to mobilise – and they regularly boycott Russian backed elections – they are now too small to resist in any meaningful way. Perhaps this was Russia’s plan all along since Catherine the Great’s time.

With all the religious and political persecution taking place around the world it is easy to overlook what is taking place in Crimea. As policymakers focus on bringing peace to the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, they should not forget the plight of the Crimean Tatars. 

Luke Coffey is a research fellow specialising in transatlantic and Eurasian security at a Washington DC based think-tank. He previously served as a special adviser to the British defence secretary and was a commissioned officer in the United States army.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.