Crimea occupation stirs dark memories for Tatars

Crimean Tatars Jafer Abdulkerimov and his wife, Sheide, survived the 1944 deportation of Tatars under Stalin. The presence of Russian troops in Crimea is recalling memories from that dark era, they say.
(Sergei L. Loiko / Los Angeles Times)

SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine — There are no words in the lexicon of the Abdulkerimov family more terrible than “occupation” or “deportation,” two foreign terms with no precise translation in the Crimean Tatar language.

For Tatars, an ethnic group with deep roots in Crimea, the terms are strongly associated with Adolf Hitler’s Germany and Josef Stalin’s secret police, and together they evoke dark memories of war, exile, deprivation and death. They had seemed all but obsolete in recent years.

Last week’s de facto Russian takeover of the Crimean peninsula, however, brought history flooding back to many Tatars, recalling the Nazi occupation of Crimea during World War II and the subsequent Soviet deportation of the entire Tatar people, summarily accused by Stalin of being traitors.

“If somebody tells me today that another deportation is possible, I would tell him that he is an idiot and nothing of the kind can happen again,” said Jafer Abdulkerimov, a frail 81-year-old man with bright eyes, a steady voice and a sound memory. “But then again, if somebody had told me before last week that another occupation of our land by a foreign army is possible, I would have told him he was an idiot too.”


Few are seriously suggesting that Russia’s nonviolent military presence in Crimea portends another deportation. But Tatars, who are predominantly Muslim, fear the consequences of a rise in Russian nationalism in the region, a semiautonomous Ukrainian republic with a large ethnic Russian population that is chafing at the ouster of Ukraine’s Kremlin-leaning president, Viktor Yanukovich, and his replacement by a pro-West interim government.

“As Moscow once again intends to gain control over the peninsula, the Tatars become the most vulnerable people in Crimea because we support the interim government and the territorial integrity of Ukraine,” said Mustafa Dzhemilev, a Crimean Tatar activist and member of the Ukrainian parliament.

As with so many groups in this part of the world, the history of Crimean Tatars is steeped in tumult and tragedy.

“Even if we look way beyond the deportation of 1944, we will find many examples in the history of the Crimean Tatars that evoke quite valid comparisons with the events we are seeing today,” said Gulnara Abdulayeva, a Crimean Tatar historian and television anchor.

Russia annexed the Crimean Tatars’ territory in 1783. Repression and deportation followed; over the next half a century, more than 600,000 Tatars were forced to leave, Abdulayeva said.

“In today’s situation, the Russians will most likely be forced to eventually stop their occupation and leave,” she said, “but our people are traditionally ready to prepare themselves for the worst.”

Abdulkerimov remembers every detail of his family’s wartime ordeal, which he calls a trip to hell. On May 18, 1944, Jafar, his two brothers and his mother were awakened at 5 a.m., along with hundreds of other families in the highland village of Shelen, close to the Black Sea coast. They were put into trucks, then a cargo train, and eventually onto a barge that took them northward on a river for more than a week.

Huddled below deck, the deportees saw the light of day only when a hatch door was opened to dump a dead woman overboard, he recalled.

“Women and children were crying and wailing while old men were praying,” Abdulkerimov said in an interview. “We all thought they would sink the barge with us in it.”

Disaster followed. More than 600 people of about 5,000 in their exiled colony died of starvation, exposure and disease during the first two years in the frozen woods of the Perm region of Russia, where adults were put to work cutting pine trees for timber and children tried to survive on a few ounces of stale bread a day.

That made them lucky: Of about 200,000 Crimean Tatars deported by Stalin in 1944, up to 40% died within two years, according to various accounts.

Abdulkerimov returned with tens of thousands of other Tatars in 1990, during the Soviet thaw known as perestroika, and built the home where he still lives in a suburb of Simferopol, the Crimean administrative capital. He fears that Russian troops and local Russian nationalists will lash out at Crimean Tatars, who now make up 260,000 of Crimea’s population of almost 2 million, and that the result may be voluntary or forced deportation.

Contributing to that fear was the regional parliament’s appointment last week of a Russian nationalist, Sergei Aksenov, as the autonomous republic’s new premier and a decision to hold a referendum this month on the future status of Crimea.

In December, Aksenov reportedly led a group of Russian nationalists who rampaged through a new settlement on the outskirts of Simferopol called Molodezhnoye, or “youth,” where dozens of Crimean Tatars were building homes. The attackers took to the buildings with sledgehammers and crowbars, destroying many of them, Dzhemilev said.

Referring to Aksenov and his political allies, Dzhemilev added, “If they vote for this illegitimate referendum on [Crimea’s] status, who will prevent them from doing something totally absurd like voting to expel us from our motherland once again?”

Russian nationalists say that a Tatar separatist movement has taken root in the region.

“The Tatars should watch their step now,” said Alexander Zhilkin, a 46-year-old businessman from the city of Bakhchisaray who carried a Russian national flag to protest the presence of a Ukrainian military unit in Simferopol. “They keep talking of gaining their own autonomy within Crimea, but now that our people are in power here we won’t allow any separatism inside our republic.”

The pro-Kremlin speaker of Crimea’s regional parliament, however, emphasized that the new authorities understood the Tatar community’s concerns.

“No threats exist today for the residents of the republic,” Vladimir Konstantinov said, promising the Tatar community power that “they had never enjoyed before.”

Konstantinov’s pledge didn’t impress the residents of Abdulkerimov’s sprawling Tatar community, whose men now patrol the streets at night, fearing attacks by Russian nationalists.

“When they deported my father’s and mother’s families in 1944, all our grown men were at the front and couldn’t protect them,” said Emir Shevkiev, a 25-year-old philologist and member of the local Tatar community. “We are here and we will fight back.”