The shadow of history


“That was a time when only the dead could smile…” Anna Akhmatova

 On March the 16th, the body of Reshat Ametov was uncovered in a forest 60 kilometres from Simferopol, the drab and dusty capital of Crimea.

His mangled body was wrapped in clear tape, with signs of torture.

The 39-year old construction worker and father of three was demonstrating against the local government, when witnesses saw three masked men leading him away from Lenin Square.

Ametov was never seen again.

Just weeks later a small boy was savagely beaten by pro-Russian thugs while walking home from school.

Before pounding his face into the concrete and smashing his nose, they barked, “all Tatars should be thrown out of Crimea.”

Seventy years ago they were.

In the early hours of the 18th of May 1944, NKVD foot soldiers burst into thousands of Tatar homes across Crimea, shouting obscenities and pointing their rifles buts at bleary-eyed women and children.

It was time to go.

The order had been given.

On May the 11th Joseph Stalin circulated a memorandum amongst his top lieutenants, accusing the Tatars of betraying their Soviet motherland, by deserting from the Red Army.

Stalin entrusted their liquidation to Lavrenty Beria, the balding, brooding head of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, Stalin’s terror apparatus.

Beria was an extremely effective manager that Stalin assigned to the nation’s most important tasks, including the atomic program, military intelligence and the genocide of ethnic minorities.

According to Mubeyyin Altan, a Harvard educated historian and current Director of the Crimean Tatar Research Information Centre; Stalin’s accusations bordered on delusional and were merely the result of typical Soviet xenophobia.

“In fact, 10 per cent of population was mobilised to fight against the NAZIs.

“Tatar soldiers were only overwhelmed in 1941 due to a lack of military preparedness, a result of the elimination of the top military brass during the Yezhovian terror of the 1930s.”

During the reign of the bloody dwarf, Nikolai Yezhov, the poet Anna Akhmatova described watching “regiments of the condemned herded into railroad yards.”

When the Black Marias pulled up at Simferopol’s main train station, women and children were indeed herded into small boxcars.

Most of Crimea’s male population were off fighting for the Soviet motherland “Uncle Joe” had accused them of betraying.

Many of the cattle cars contained the blood of those that had perished on previous expeditions to the Far East.

Mubeyyin Altan’s relatives were among many of the 191,088 condemned.

“There was no ventilation. In some cars, over 70 people were crammed in like sardines.”

While Stalin, Voroshilov, Malenkov and Molotov retired from a night of drunken debauchery, the cattle cars began their slow journey for the steppes of Central Asia.

However, in their excitement the NKVD soldiers had forgotten to cleanse the village of Arabat of its Tatar population.

Fearing a reprisal from Stalin and Beria, a man notorious for personally torturing his victims in the cells of the Lubyanka and raping young girls in his office, the secret police quickly rounded up the town’s population.

Valeriy Vozgrin, Professor of History at St. Petersburg State University, has documented what happened next, from a witness, Mihail Blohin, that was in the area at the time.

“Over 500 Tatars were forced onto a boat, which was taken out into the Sea of Azov, where it was set ablaze, with all on board.

“There were no survivors.”



A Memorial service in front of the Crimean Parliament marking the “Surgun” or deportation of the Crimean Tatars. Photo credits: Idil Izmirli and Eskender Bariev, 2004.


The journey to the special settlements in in the Uzbek desert was long and arduous.

Disease, lice and starvation were ever present.

Passengers were denied food and access to sanitation, with the authorities throwing the dead in ditches beside the rail-line.

A census conducted after the end of the war revealed the destruction inflicted upon the Tatar population during the journey and the first few months in the camps.

Approximately half of the Crimean Tatar population, over 90,000, didn’t make it to the death of Stalin.

In order to crush all forms of national identity, the Soviet bureaucracy officially extinguished Crimean Tatar as an ethnic group.

Mubeyyin Altan also describes a number of other methods the government used to eradicate this ancient Turkic ethnicity.

“The Crimean Tatars were primarily an agrarian peoples, who managed small plots along the Crimean coast and fertile hinterland.

“The Soviets deliberately erased this connection with the land, forcing the deportees into factories and gigantic state-run cotton farms.

“The conditions in the cotton-fields were completely alien to ordinary Crimeans, with blazing hot summers and freezing winters.”

Altan recalls the story of one individual that attempted to attend a funeral for one of the departed.

“Leaving the special zone was completely out of the question. In this case, the individual concerned received 25 years hard labour in a Kolyma Gulag, a frozen hellhole not far from the Arctic circle.”

The man of steel was not built of steel though.

Stalin died on March the 5th 1953, alone, isolated and drenched in his own urine.

After Nikita Khrushchev and Vyacheslav Molotov had disposed of the wicked Beria, a thaw began to blow across the USSR.

The Gulag system was wound back and Stalin denounced as a traitor against Lenin’s glorious October Revolution.

The battle was not over for the beleaguered Tatars though.

These reluctant exiles spent the next four decades fighting the Soviet bureaucracy in an attempt to make it back to their homeland and receive an official pardon for apparently aiding and abetting the NAZI regime.

Despite running the risk of imprisonment, thousands of Tatars launched a letter writing campaign, flooding the Kremlin with petitions to assist the group in making it back to Eastern Europe.

Inspired by dissents like Yuri Sakharov and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a young Mustafa Dzhmeliv even went on a hunger strike, protesting against the failure of the state to address his people’s grievances.

However, this wasn’t any ordinary hunger strike.

It was the longest in human rights history, at 303 days.

Many that did make it back to Crimea found their homes occupied, leading some to set up squatter camps on un-claimed land on the edge of cities, like Simferopol and Sevastopol.

This created a growing divide between Tatars and ethnic Russians and Ukrainians, with long simmering tensions often bursting to the surface.

Here lie the roots of the present crisis, which is ripping Crimea and the Ukraine apart.

Vladimir Putin has been lambasted by the western press for precipitating the break-up of the Ukraine, by covertly aiding militia groups in Crimea and the East of the country.

While evidence suggests the Kremlin has been involved, current commentary overlooks the role of Stalin and his comrades in creating an ethnic tinderbox, notes Professor Stephen Cohen from New York University.

“The author Michael Crichton once said that if you don’t know history, than you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree.

“Putin is an easy scapegoat for the United States and the European Union. It provides hawks within NATO an excuse to get closer and closer to Moscow.

“Putin is dealing with geopolitical problems that were not created by him, but rather by those that came before him.”

Like the Tatars, right across Eastern Europe, whole populations were uprooted by Stalin and deported to Siberia and Central Asia.

The A to Z of nationalities – the Abkhazians, Bessarabians, Bulgarians, Byelorussians, Chechens, Hungarians, Ingush, Estonians, Finns, Georgians, Iranians, Kalmyks, Koreans, Latvians, Meskhetian Turks, Lithuanians, Ossetians, Poles, Romanians, Tatars, Ukrainians and Volga Germans all found themselves locked up in the vast Gulag archipelago.

In the eyes of Stalin they were ideologically suspect and were collaborating with fascist groups in the Eurasian borderlands.

Many also opposed Stalin’s collectivization of agriculture in late 1920s, which created a man-made famine that killed over 6 million peasants.

This was a direct abandonment of Leninist policies, which favoured the creation of distinct ethnic regions or oblasts in the border region, to attract migrants into the USSR – the “Piedmont Principle.”

Stalin replaced many of these regions with Red Army soldiers and ethnic Russians, including the Crimean Peninsula, Eastern Ukraine and Transnistria (Moldova).

When the repressed nationalities came back during the Gorbachev era and after the fall of the Berlin Wall, like the Tatars, they realised that they had to start from scratch again.

All of the best real estate had been redistributed to groups favoured by the regime.

Professor Cohen believes it’s time to inject some old-fashioned realism into the debate over the Ukraine.

“The reality is that ethnic Russians are here to stay.

“When the Unites States and Europe cheered on the overthrow of Ukraine’s incompetent, yet democratically elected leader, Viktor Yanukovych, by mobs of ultra-nationalists from the Right Sector, they isolated a whole group of people.”

“In such an environment, it is little wonder that they became increasingly radicalised and embraced the arms of the Kremlin.”

The long-time friend of Mikhail Gorbachev believes that it is time to cast aside the Cold War rhetoric and find a diplomatic solution, that doesn’t involve a hot war, mass deportations or more ethnic violence.

“Finding a political compromise between the different groups will not be easy, but poking the bear will only encourage it to reveal its darker side.”

Mubeyyin Altan is not sure what tomorrow will bring.

“We find ourselves caught between East and West, between an expansionist superpower and a great power suspicious of that superpower’s role in the region.

“Only peace and empathy will allow our people to prosper once again.”

Thumbnail image: Mubeyyin Altan’s personal collection.




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