The Tatars of Crimea: a tragedy remembered through film

Memorial day of deportation of Crimean Tatars in Kiev (photo credit: Wikimedia)

Crimean Tatars remember the events of the deportation with bitterness

It is 17 May 1944, a joyful day in the Crimean town of Alupka. The local Crimean Tatar community is celebrating the return of their beloved son, Amet-Han Sultan, a pilot who earned the title of Hero of the Soviet Union defending Sevastopol from the Nazi invaders. During the celebration, Sultan’s father proposes a toast for Soviet leader Josef Stalin: “to the father of all the people of the Soviet Union.” That same night, in accordance with Stalin’s order, Soviet troops storm Alupka, enforcing the mass deportation of the entire Crimean Tatar population as punishment for their alleged collaboration with the Nazi occupants.

These scenes, based on historical facts, are drawn from Haytarma (2013) (meaning ‘Return’ in the Crimean Tatar language), the first feature film dedicated to the Crimean Tatars, an ethnic group that is native to the Crimean Peninsula. The film was screened on 18 May in the St Petersburg Open Space centre to commemorate the 73rd anniversary of the Crimean Tatars’ deportation from their homeland.

“My parents never talked about the day of the deportation; recollecting those memories was intolerable for them,” says Asan Mumiji, 57, a Crimean Tatar attending the event. Asan’s mother was only 13 when she was forced into the carriages bound for the steppes of Central Asia. That journey meant the deaths of around 100,000 Crimean Tatars from disease and starvation—nearly half of the entire deported population.

Currently a resident of St Petersburg, Asan was born in Samarkand, in the former Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan, where the majority of the Crimean Tatars were forced to settle after the deportation. After Stalin’s death, the Crimean Tatars were partially rehabilitated but they were still not allowed to return to their ancestral homeland. “They used to tell us: you already put down your roots, now you are people of Central Asia, you better stay here,” recalls Asan with bitterness. Asan’s father was among the activists who devoted their lives to advocating for the return of the Crimean Tatars to Crimea. The Soviet authorities me the Tatars’ demands with indifference, at best, and, at worst, with violent crackdowns. Asan remembers his mother’s anxiety when she was waiting for his father to return from his numerous journeys to Moscow as a member of a delegation. “Every time she was afraid he might not come back,” he recalls.

The majority of Crimean Tatars could only return to Crimea in the late 80s, during the years of the perestroika reforms. Soon after that, the Soviet Union collapsed and the Crimean Tatars became citizens of the newly independent country of Ukraine. Most Crimean Tatars firmly opposed the Russian annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014. Since then, numerous abuses carried out by the newly established Crimean authorities against Tatar dissidents have evoked comparisons with the Soviet Past.

Asan shares his people’s visceral hostility towards what he considers Russian occupation. “The few tatars who supported the annexation now are looked upon as traitors of their brethren,” he says.

As Tass reported, on 8 May the Ukrainian Prosecutor General’s Office had gathered evidence for charges against Stalin and the chief of the NKVD Lavrenty Beria over the deportation of the Crimean Tatars in 1944. The Russian authorities dismissed the initiative, calling it “a mockery” of the Crimean Tatars’ tragedy.

For once, Asan seems to agree with Russian authorities. He thinks that blame for the tragedy of his people shouldn’t only lie with the Soviet leaders but with all those who had some part in it. “Stalin was the ideologue but there were people passively obeying his orders. All of them should be held accountable,” he concludes.

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