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INTERVIEW FOR DERIN TARIH

It’s all about geopolitics. The Tsardom of Muscovy, the predecessor of the Russian Empire, was a land-locked country. Muscovy’s first access to the sea was in the far north, but for much of the year the waters there were frozen. Access to warm-water ports became the major goal of Muscovy and later Russia. After gaining access to the Baltic Sea in the west, Russia set out to reach the Black Sea in the south. There it confronted the Ottoman Empire against which Muscovy/Russia conducted a series of wars from the mid-seventeenth to late eighteenth century. As long as Russia persisted, sooner or…

INTERVIEW FOR DERIN TARIH, MONTHLY HISTORY MAGAZINE (ISTANBUL,TURKEY), GIVEN BY PROFESSOR PAUL ROBERT MAGOCSI, FRSC, CHAIR OF

UKRAINIAN STUDIES, UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO

1. On what grounds was the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 1783 after Crimea came out of Ottoman protection with the Treaty of Kucuk Kaynarca in 1774? What was the reaction of the Ottoman Empire to what happened in this period?

 

It’s all about geopolitics. The Tsardom of Muscovy, the predecessor of the Russian Empire, was a land-locked country. Muscovy’s first access to the sea was in the far north, but for much of the year the waters there were frozen. Access to warm-water ports became the major goal of Muscovy and later Russia. After gaining access to the Baltic Sea in the west, Russia set out to reach the Black Sea in the south. There it confronted the Ottoman Empire against which Muscovy/Russia conducted a series of wars from the mid-seventeenth to late eighteenth century. As long as Russia persisted, sooner or later Ottoman lands, including the Crimean Khanate, would be annexed to the tsarist empire.

            The means toward annexation might vary, but the result was inevitably the same. The scenario that played out in the 1770s was the following. Crimea’s ruling khan and the influential Shirin clan pledged their loyalty to the sovereign of Russia, Catherine II; tsarist armies invaded Crimea which was proclaimed an independent state; then the Ottomans recognized Crimean independence in the Treaty of Kucuk Kaynarca. But within less than a decade Catherine II ordered the annexation of Crimea to Russia (1783). In the end, these were just details, since Muscovy/Russia had always meant to obtain warm-water ports. Now they had several in Crimea and along the northern shores of the Black Sea.

            Of course, Russia was not about to stop until it expelled the Ottoman Empire from Europe. Perhaps it might even achieve Catherine’s “Greek project”—the restoration of the Byzantine Empire to be ruled by Russia’s imperial family. This did not happen, because the Ottoman Empire, with the help of Great Britain and France, managed to survive until World War

2. What did Russia aim at in the Tatar lands in the 170 years from 1774 to 1944? What was the systematic program it followed to achieve this goal? What injuries did the Tatar identity, language, and culture suffer in this process?

 

Under Russian imperial rule beginning in 1783, the status of the Crimean Tatars and their culture steadily declined. If in 1775, the Tatars comprised 88 percent of Crimea’s inhabitants, by the last years of tsarist Russian rule at the outset of the twentieth century that figure decreased to 30 percent. By 1944, after a quarter century of Soviet Russian rule, the percentage was zero. There were simply no more Tatars in Crimea. The reason for the steady decline and eventual disappearance of Tatars was due to several waves of emigration, the largest occurred during the decade after the Crimean War ended (1854), when over 140,000 Crimean Tatars emigrated to the Ottoman Empire, whether to its lands in the Balkans (modern-day Romania and Bulgaria) or to Anatolia.

            As for the Tatars who remained in Crimea, they suffered discrimination of various kinds. Their mosques and other cultural monuments were left to decay, especially since the tsarist authorities were determined to transform Crimea into an Orthodox Christian land. Chersonesus (modern-day Sevastopol) was, after all, the site where the tenth-century Kievan grand prince Vladimir was baptized, setting in motion the Christianization of “Russia.” Christian ideology in tsarist Russia was replaced by atheistic Marxist-Leninist ideology in Soviet Russia. Regardless of ideology, the situation for Crimean Tatars got even worse.

3. Did the Tatars really help the Nazis during World War II? Considering Stalin’s foreign policy at that time, could this be a convincing justification for exile?

 

In most European countries conquered by Hitler’s Germany during World War II, the occupying Nazi military and civilian administration was able to find supporters among the local population. This occurred from Nazi-ruled France in the west to several countries in central and eastern Europe, including the Soviet Union. After Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, the German Army (Wehrmacht) took control of Crimea. There the Nazi administrators found support from various segments of the population. Like Russians and Ukrainians, Crimean Tatars joined self-defense police units (about 6,000), the German Army (8,700), and armed battalions (1,600) under the direction of the SS and German police. At the same time an estimated 20,000 Crimean Tatars fought against the German invaders while serving in the Soviet Army on its various fronts. Meanwhile, at home in Crimea a few hundred joined the Soviet partisans.

            The point is that some percentage of all peoples living in Crimea gave support to the occupying Nazi German regime. Such actions did not in any way justify the wholesale deportation of over 188,000 Crimean Tatar men, women, and children over a three-day period beginning on the Black Day (Qara Kün)—18 May 1944.

4. In your book, This Blessed Land, you use the term “Ethnic Cleansing Soviet Style”? Can you elaborate on this statement? How did “Ethnic Cleansing Soviet Style” appear in the Tatar lands?

 

The supreme Soviet leader Joseph Stalin was personally involved in ordering the forced deportation. It was carried out in the most brutal fashion as all Crimea’s Tatar inhabitants were packed into cattle cars and shipped off to Central Asia, in particular to Soviet Uzbekistan. No less than fifteen percent of the deportees (27,000) died along the way, tens of thousands more died after they were deposited at their destination, where they were often left to fend for themselves without any shelter under the blazing sun of the Uzbek steppe.

5. What were Tatars’ “ethnocultural burdens” from the past as defined by Soviet authorities? What were the methods Soviet authorities used to erase those “ethnocultural burdens”?

 

The May 1944 deportation was the last act in the centuries-old attempt of Russia to rid the Crimea of its unwanted Tatar inhabitants. Russia’s, and now the Soviet Union’s justification for expulsion was simple. The Crimean Tatars were allegedly the descendants of invaders serving with the Mongols, who destroyed the “glorious” Slavic state of Kievan Rus’ in the mid-thirteenth century. In other words, the Soviet stereotype was that Tartars were foreign usurpers, and the state they created in the late fifteenth century, the Crimean Khanate, did nothing else but abduct over a million innocent East Slavs to sell them as slaves to the Ottoman Empire.

            Finally, in the twentieth century Russia would have its ultimate revenge. As World War II was drawing to a close, the victorious Stalin was determined to end the heritage of the Mongolo-Tatar yoke symbolized in Europe by the presence of Tatars in Crimea. Whatever remained of Tatar culture—civic monuments, mosques, placenames, even cemeteries—was to be obliterated by the Soviet regime restored in Crimea after 1945. As Stalin was always fond of saying: Net naroda, net problem—No People, No Problem!

6. What can we say about the number of exiles? What do statistics about exile tell us? How many people were exiled? What is the rate of those who lost their lives? In this respect, can exile be defined as genocide?

 

At the close of World War II, the international legal scholar Dr. Raphael Lemkin coined the term genocide. His definition became the basis for 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. The contracting parties (member states of the United Nations) confirmed that genocide means “the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” Clearly, the deportation of May 1944 and the subsequent persecution carried out by the Soviet Union was an act of genocide against the Crimean Tatar people.

7. What about the recognition of Tatars’ right to return to the Crimea? How was this process achieved?

 

What is remarkable is that the Crimean Tatars managed to survive their exile in Soviet Central Asia. Living in a foreign land and without any access to formal education about their ancestral culture and language, it was Tatar parents who managed to impart to their children an awareness of their identity and the idea that someday they would return to Crimea. Already in the late 1950s young activists led by Mustafa Jemiloglu/Dzhemilev began to send petitions to the Soviet authorities demanding the right of return to Crimea. That right was finally granted by the Soviet government in November 1989. By the time the Soviet Union itself collapsed at the end of 1991, over 135,000 had returned to Crimea.

8. What kind of difficulties did the Tatars returning to their lands after the 1990s have in terms of adapting the new Russian regime?

 

Ever since 1954, Crimea had been part of the Soviet Ukraine. After the demise of the Soviet  Union it became an autonomous republic within an independent Ukraine. The Ukrainian government based in Kyiv was sympathetic to the Crimean Tatars, with the result that the number of returnees continued to increase, reaching between 266,000 (official figures) and 300,000 (unofficial figures) by 2013. On the other hand, the government authorities in the Crimean Autonomous Republic—mostly sovietized Russians (sovoks)—were basically opposed and did whatever they could to block the efforts of the returnees to integrate into Crimean society. The Tatars could not live in their pre-1944 family homes which were occupied by sovietized Russians and to a lesser degree Ukrainians. With no where to go, many returnees were forced to live like squatters on the outskirts of cities and towns.

            On the other hand, because Ukraine was trying to become a democratic state, the Crimean Tatars were allowed to create a wide range of civic and political organizations, most importantly a national congress (the Qurultay) and its executive council (the Mejlis). The Mejlis became an unofficial Crimean Tatar governmental body. Its chairman, the former Soviet dissident Mustafa Dzhemilev, negotiated on behalf of Crimean Tatar needs with the central government in Kyiv, which established a Council of Representatives of the Crimean Tatar People attached to the Office of Ukraine’s President. Despite all their difficulties, especially with the old Soviet-minded leadership in the Crimean Autonomous Republic, Crimean Tatars soon realized that Ukraine was their best hope for survival as a distinct people.

9. What incidents triggered the West’s interest in the Crimean issue? What can we say about the world literature dealing with the Tatar exile? Can we say that satisfying academic studies have been done? Have Russian historians done satisfactory work?

 

The difficulties that Crimean Tatars faced after returning home came to the attention of international bodies interested in post-Soviet societies during their transition from a totalitarian to more democratic political system. The Ukrainian government was open to any assistance it could obtain from abroad, in particular from the European Union, the United States, and Canada. It was in this context that various NGOs and the United Nations provided several million dollars to fund the social, medical, and educational needs of Crimean Tatars. Among the leading sources of such funding were the United Nations Crimea Integration and Development Program and Turkey’s Agency for International Development.

            All of these efforts came to an untimely end with the invasion by Russian armed forces and the annexation of Crimea to Russia in March 2014. Crimean Tatar civic and political leaders, led by Mustafa Dzhemilev and Refat Chubarov, are again in exile, although this time they are based in Ukraine’s capital Kyiv. The Ukrainian government recognizes them as the legitimate representatives of the Crimean Tatars now living in Russian-occupied Crimea.

            Many countries—especially the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the European Union—have joined Ukraine in condemning Russian aggression and persecution of Crimean Tatars. In 2018, Ukraine has even brought a suit before the International Court of Justice in The Hague accusing the Russian Federation of “financing terrorism” and committing acts of “racial discrimination” against Crimean Tatars and ethnic Ukrainians in Crimea. Finally, scholars from various institutes at the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine have produced a wide range of well documented studies on the history and present status of Crimea and Crimean Tatars. Alas, most of these are in Ukrainian and not accessible to a wide international audience.

10. Are there any notes you many want to add for Turkish readers?

I would hope that Crimean Tatar diasporan organizations and other civic activists in Turkey will continue to pressure their government in Ankara to take a more pro-active stance on the Crimean issue. Hopefully the government of Turkey will listen to the pleas of Turkish citizens of Crimean

Tatar background and support Ukraine on the international stage in its struggle to return Crimea to its rightful place in a democratic and independent Ukraine.