IAN BIRRELL: Crimean Tatars, victimised under Stalin, will fight Putin's Russia to the death

IAN BIRRELL: Crimean Tatars, victimised under Stalin, will fight Putin’s Russia to the death

As the military forces of a modern Russian dictator menacingly encircle Ukraine, they stir chilling memories from the past of his predecessors such as Joseph Stalin in this scruffy little town of 12,000 people that sits near a new border with Crimea. 

For it is filled with exiled families who know from bitter experience the brutal reality of Kremlin rule after suffering repeated waves of ethnic cleansing over the past century – first under the Soviet Communists, then recently under Vladimir Putin.

Typical is a taxi driver called Ildar. His grandmother was deported to the Urals almost a century ago, then his father put in a cattle wagon by Stalin’s goons and sent to central Asia on a 20-day rail journey that only one in five people survived.

It was only with the collapse of the Soviet Union that, along with about 250,000 other Tatars, Ildar returned to Crimea. But then they watched in horror as Putin followed in Stalin’s footsteps with his illegal seizure of Crimea eight years ago.

Ildar joined protests against Moscow’s annexation but was forced to flee with his wife and two children, abandoning his home and business to escape over the newly-imposed border.

Crimea has long held significance as a naval base – and Putin's invasion in 2014 has led to the harassment, detention, disappearance and killing of Tatars who opposed his actions.

Crimea has long held significance as a naval base – and Putin’s invasion in 2014 has led to the harassment, detention, disappearance and killing of Tatars who opposed his actions. 

Stalin deported 200,000 Crimean Tatars to Central Asia over a few days in May 1944, claiming they were Nazi collaborators – even all those serving in the Red Army or who had joined the resistance.

Stalin deported 200,000 Crimean Tatars to Central Asia over a few days in May 1944, claiming they were Nazi collaborators – even all those serving in the Red Army or who had joined the resistance.

Eighty years ago, Stalin brutally expelled 200,000 Crimean Tatars. Today, with Putin’s troops massing, their descendants say this time they will fight to the death.

Eighty years ago, Stalin brutally expelled 200,000 Crimean Tatars. Today, with Putin’s troops massing, their descendants say this time they will fight to the death. 

Today, he lives among 5,000 Crimean Tatars in the town of Novooleksiivka – so close in geography yet so far for him in reality from Russian-controlled Crimea.

He fears fresh confrontation with Moscow amid talk of another invasion. ‘We have nowhere left to run so we’ll have to fight,’ says Ildar. 

‘Russia is a terrorist country ruled by people who don’t value human life.’

As we sit in a cafe, he tells me his family’s story: His wealthy grandmother targeted by the Communists when they collectivised farms; his uncle dying on that horrific train journey after Crimea’s Tatars were rounded up on Stalin’s orders; and his father’s shock when the survivors were dumped in empty fields in Uzbekistan.

Yet this terrible tale is far from unique in this town – and given the tragic history of the Crimean Tatar people, treated with such cruelty by Russia’s rulers over three centuries, it is no wonder they look with alarm at the actions of Putin, the latest Kremlin empire-builder.

These people were among leading opponents of Putin’s theft of Crimea, the chunk of land that dangles below Ukraine where Florence Nightingale worked in the 1850s when Britain fought the Russian Empire for control of the Ottoman Empire.

Crimea has long held significance as a naval base – and Putin’s invasion in 2014 has led to the harassment, detention, disappearance and killing of Tatars who opposed his actions.

Russian president Vladimir Putin, pictured last Monday, has more than 100,000 troops on the Ukraine border

Russian president Vladimir Putin, pictured last Monday, has more than 100,000 troops on the Ukraine border

Novooleksiivka – the only place in Ukraine with a school teaching lessons in Crimean Tatar – lies in a coastal region some analysts suspect Putin is targeting to strengthen his grip on the peninsula and key strategic stretches of sea.

The testimony of Adile Medzhitova, 75, drives home the deep fears of this Muslim minority – subjected to waves of ethnic cleansing that date back to the initial Russian annexation in 1783 of their independent state under Catherine the Great. 

Adile’s father, a teacher, fought as a partisan against the Germans when the Nazis invaded Ukraine during the Second World War, marrying her mother after his first wife was thrown into a well and young son killed in retaliation for his activities.

Yet after Russia repelled Hitler, Stalin deported 200,000 Crimean Tatars to Central Asia over a few days in May 1944, claiming they were Nazi collaborators – even all those serving in the Red Army or who had joined the resistance.

‘The soldiers came early one morning. They were called ‘traitors’ and ‘collaborators’ – even those like my father, heroes fighting against Germany,’ says Adile.

Adile's father (pictured laying at the bottom left in white trousers and a dark t-shirt), a teacher, fought as a partisan against the Germans when the Nazis invaded Ukraine during the Second World War, marrying her mother after his first wife was thrown into a well and young son killed in retaliation for his activities.

Adile’s father (pictured laying at the bottom left in white trousers and a dark t-shirt), a teacher, fought as a partisan against the Germans when the Nazis invaded Ukraine during the Second World War, marrying her mother after his first wife was thrown into a well and young son killed in retaliation for his activities.

Adile's parents found themselves 1,200 miles from home in a forest – yet were fortunate to escape the fate of two of her uncles, sent to Siberia as intellectuals and never seen again. Pictured: Adile Medzhitova (top right) with her mother (bottom right) and father (bottom left) and other relatives

Adile’s parents found themselves 1,200 miles from home in a forest – yet were fortunate to escape the fate of two of her uncles, sent to Siberia as intellectuals and never seen again. Pictured: Adile Medzhitova (top right) with her mother (bottom right) and father (bottom left) and other relatives

Some Tatars did back the Nazis in hope of kicking out the hated Communists – yet many more fought against them. Some historians think Stalin’s motivation was not revenge but part of his plan to start a fight with Turkey to reclaim land lost in the First World War, which led him to fear that Tatars – as Turkic people of Islamic faith – might side with Turkey.

Families were given as little as 15 minutes to pack and permitted to take few belongings, if any, in one of the 20th century’s most savage acts of ethnic cleansing. It was declared a genocide by Kiev’s parliament seven years ago.

The majority of deportees were women, children and old people – with many suffering hunger, thirst, cold, overcrowding and diseases that spread rapidly in the packed cattle trucks. Stalin’s soldiers were reported to have killed those unable to walk – and then refused to bury them.

Ildar, the taxi driver, says he was 12 when his father told him about the events to explain why they had come to be living in Uzbekistan. ‘The soldiers came at night and ordered them into cattle wagons, 100 at a time,’ he recalls.

‘Only about 20 people reached the destination alive. The journey lasted 20 days. They were given one barrel of water and some fish, then they did not stop nor get any other food.’ It is estimated almost half the deportees died en route or in the first year of exile.

Adile’s parents found themselves 1,200 miles from home in a forest – yet were fortunate to escape the fate of two of her uncles, sent to Siberia as intellectuals and never seen again.

‘My mother always cried telling me about it,’ she said. ‘It looked like a concentration camp with long wooden barracks. Soldiers with dogs threw hay on the floor and told them to make it into their beds.’

The couple’s first child, like many Tatar babies born in such barren conditions, died in infancy. Adile arrived three years after deportation – her birthplace listed in official documents as ‘the tenth kilometre’ since there was no existing town.

Then her father suffered a horrendous head injury while cutting timber that left him with mental difficulties. Later, after the family were allowed to move to Uzbekistan, he worked in a cotton factory. ‘My father was an educated man but he had to do manual labour. The local population did not want us there – we all dreamed of returning to Crimea.’

Adile remembers one day in 1953 when people were made to gather in a stadium to mourn Stalin’s death. ‘Everyone was crying – it was only later we learned the original order to deport us had been signed by Stalin,’ she said.

A decade later Adile helped her father, along with other exiled Crimean Tatars, collect signatures for a letter to the Soviet leadership begging to return to their homeland. ‘Everyone was very afraid of the KGB because if they caught us, we could go to prison.’

As a result, in 1968 the local KGB gave the family 24 hours to leave the area – but they remained barred from Crimea, unable to work without the correct documents and ending up sleeping rough at rail stations.

Her father died in 1986 after working as a guard on a collective farm, writing Tatar poetry and pining for his Crimean homeland. The year after his death, a small group of Tatar activists staged a series of protests in Moscow’s Red Square, demanding an end to their exile.

Among them was Edem, then 30, who told me they held banners emblazoned with slogans such as ‘Return Crimea to Crimean Tatars’ while confronted by passers-by shouting that they were ‘traitors to the Soviet Union’.

Despite this being the time of Mikhail Gorbachev’s ‘perestroika’ reforms, the KGB tried to break up the protests; some demonstrators were sent to psychiatric hospitals. ‘They’d drag us off, fly us out of Moscow, patrol the streets with dogs,’ said Edem.

Yet the numbers swelled and copycat protests took off, leading to the pledge of a meeting with Soviet president Andrei Gromyko.

Crimean Tatars deported in 1944 were accused of being 'Nazi collaborators'

Crimean Tatars deported in 1944 were accused of being ‘Nazi collaborators’

Adile Medzhitova, 75, says she is fearful of what could happen to Crimean Tatars if Putin's Russia invades Adile Medzhitova, circa 1965

The testimony of Adile Medzhitova, 75, drives home the deep fears of this Muslim minority – subjected to waves of ethnic cleansing that date back to the initial Russian annexation in 1783 of their independent state under Catherine the Great. 

Over the following decade, hundreds of thousands of Tatars flocked back to Crimea – among them Edem, a car mechanic, and his two brothers. ‘It felt so good, like a homecoming,’ he says.

Yet those returning home faced hostility. ‘People had been brainwashed by Russian propaganda and didn’t realise our ancestors had been on Crimean land since the beginning.’

Then this man who once faced down the KGB starts to weep gently as he tells me he cannot visit the graves of his brothers in Crimea and speaks of his fear that Russian troops might soon be seen on the streets of Novooleksiivka.

Edem says: ‘If the Russians keep pushing forward into Ukraine, I would have no choice but to take a gun in my hands. We cannot allow them to take more of our lands.’

And so the agony of the Crimean Tatars continues – their lives disrupted and devastated by Russia’s repeated atrocities against them.

For her part, Adile Medzhitova, says that despite Putin’s war-mongering, she does not bear a grudge towards Russian people. 

‘It’s not their fault they live under a bad government. I’ve seen how they have miserable lives. 

‘For them, it is still like Soviet times – you can’t speak freely there.’ 

Speaking in her three-room whitewashed house where she raised two daughters with her late husband, she tells me she is scared Russia might seize her adopted home town. 

‘I am afraid to say my worst fears out loud. It would be so terrible that I can’t even talk about it.’

Such fears seem justified. Russian security forces last week carried out fresh searches of Tatar homes in several parts of Crimea, which led to four people being detained for suspected terrorism.

Habibula Lumanov, a father of six who runs a café in Novooleksiivka, knows many who stayed in Crimea and were put in prison, so felt unable to return even for his mother’s funeral.

Usein Tohlu, the town's imam, is equally forthright. 'We'd all like to see Putin in a coffin,' he says. 'The Russian state is evil. It is the enemy of Tatar people.'

Usein Tohlu, the town’s imam, is equally forthright. ‘We’d all like to see Putin in a coffin,’ he says. ‘The Russian state is evil. It is the enemy of Tatar people.’

‘They don’t need a reason in Russia to put a person in prison,’ he said. ‘Anyone who disagrees with them can be called a terrorist – they come to your home and say they found weapons, drugs or forbidden documents.’

The 52-year-old says that when Russian troops invaded Crimea the Tatars wanted to fight back but were not supplied with weapons by Ukrainian forces. ‘Now we’ve discussed it a lot – if anything happens we’ll send our families to a safe place but we’ll stay to fight.’

His own father was deported to Uzbekistan before finally returning to Crimea. Now he says: ‘My oldest daughter is 17 and I fear she must go through the cycle again.’

Usein Tohlu, the town’s imam, is equally forthright. ‘We’d all like to see Putin in a coffin,’ he says. ‘The Russian state is evil. It is the enemy of Tatar people.’

He joined volunteers in Novooleksiivka assisting 30,000 Tatars who fled Crimea after annexation. Their leaders still demand that the Russian-held peninsular is reunified with Ukraine – which has triggered retaliation including a ban on their representative assembly as an ‘extremist’ body.

Like so many other Crimean Tatars whose families have been benighted pawns of Moscow strongmen down the years, thousands more now find themselves trapped on the frontline of a geo-political struggle. This time it is one that pits Putin against the West. 

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