Portraits from Ukraine: A Crimean Tatar’s story

Jon Lee Anderson writes: “Step by step, we have led Crimeans to realize their dream of returning home to Russia,” Vladimir Konstantinov, the speaker of the breakaway Crimean legislature, told his colleagues recently, as they hastily voted in a new, Russia-friendly constitution. The dream was not universally shared, of course. During the March referendum to rubber-stamp the peninsula’s annexation by Russia, the region’s long-oppressed Tatar minority had launched a boycott. On the eve of the vote, a Tatar man was abducted and tortured to death, presumably by pro-Russian thugs. It was a warning—perhaps an intentional one — of the violence and provocation now occurring in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian paramilitaries are increasingly active, with the apparent connivance of the Kremlin. Last week, the Tatars’ historic leader, Mustafa Dzhemilev, who spent years in Soviet prisons for agitating on behalf of his people, went to Ukraine in an attempt to meet with Joe Biden; on the way home, he received papers informing him that he was barred from reëntering Crimea until 2019. The Kremlin and the regional government have denied the ban, and he was eventually let through. But it was a clear sign that the Russian-backed authorities have little sympathy for the Tatars. The acting Prime Minister, Sergei Aksyonov, a former gangster, noted on Twitter that any Tatars who were unhappy with the new order in Crimea should “leave if they don’t like it.”

For the second time in seventy years, the Crimean Tatars are forced to confront a complete upending of their lives. The Tatars, Muslim descendants of Genghis Khan’s Golden Horde, saw virtually their entire community — some two hundred thousand people — uprooted in May, 1944, after Stalin’s forces took Crimea from the occupying Nazis. Stalin justified the occupation by pointing out that some Tatars had fought alongside the Nazis in the war — even though others had fought in the Red Army. Nearly half of the Tatars are thought to have died in the harsh conditions of their deportation and the early years of their exile.

In the late nineteen-eighties, as the Soviet Union opened up a bit, Tatars were allowed to return, and a trickle began coming back from Central Asia. Those who could afford it returned to their villages, but few provisions were made for their reintegration into Ukrainian society, and there was no compensation for the properties they had lost. Many ended up squatting on public lands, where they remain. Known as the “original inhabitants” of the peninsula, Crimea’s Tatars now constitute twelve per cent of the region’s population. They are the poorest and least educated section of society, and the least represented in local government. For all the rhetoric emanating from the Kremlin—and from Kiev—they are effectively the Ukraine’s Lakota Sioux. [Continue reading…]

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