Deportation of the Crimean Tatars Memorial Day
Every year on May 18, Ukraine commemorates the memory of the victims of the deportation of the Crimean Tatar people. The deportation of Crimea’s indigenous population from their homeland is one of the most striking examples of the crimes of the Soviet regime.
The consequences of such war crimes were devastating: hundreds of people died during the deportation, many suffered from psychological trauma and a whole generation of Crimean Tatars was raised far away from their homeland. For many years, the Soviet authorities completely denied the responsibility.
Why did the Soviet authorities erase the memory of the existence of Crimean Tatars in their historical homeland? Read the main facts about the deportation of Crimean Tatars in our explainer.
The deportation of Crimean Tatars from the Crimean Peninsula began at dawn on May 18, 1944, when the first echelon of Crimean Tatars was sent from the peninsula.
The deportation was carried out by NKVD troops known for political repression, including authorized murders, as well as kidnappings, assassinations and mass deportations. The forced deportation affected all Crimean Tatars living on the peninsula.
They were given only 15 minutes to pack. Within three days, almost the entirety of the Crimean Tatar population of Crimea was herded into railway cars and sent toward Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Russia.
According to the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance, more than 200,000 Crimean Tatars were deported from Crimea. Most of them were women, children and the elderly. The National Movement of Crimean Tatars, which collected information and conducted a self-census, says the actual number of deported was twice as high. According to them, a total of 423,100 people were deported from the peninsula.
The deportation from Crimea to Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan took 2–3 weeks to travel. During the journey, people were forced to stay in inhumane conditions: they were hardly fed or given water. A hole in the floor of the carriage served as a toilet.
As a result, 46% of Crimean Tatars died during deportation. The highest mortality rate occurred not only during the journey but also in the first months of living in a new area.
The vast majority of Crimean Tatars were transferred to special settlements, which were similar to labor camps. People lived in barracks or tents. They were used as a cheap workforce and were made to work on farms and at industrial enterprises. All Crimean Tatars were forbidden to return to their homeland.
Difficult living conditions were coupled with psychological pressure exerted upon Crimean Tatars by locals of the areas they were forced to settle in. For example, in Uzbekistan, locals had been told that Crimean Tatars were traitors and non-humans, which subsequently influenced the ways in which the latter were treated.
The Crimean peninsula itself had also suffered from damage. The Soviet authorities sought to erase all memory of the existence of Crimean Tatars in the peninsula by changing the Crimean Tatar names of local cities, towns, and villages to Russian ones.
By 1948, approximately 90% of Crimean Tatar place names had been renamed. Modification of names was not the only tactic used to modify the physical fabric of the peninsula: the Soviet authorities had also destroyed many Crimean Tatar monuments.
Upon ethnically cleansing the peninsula, the Soviet Union appropriated the property of Crimean Tatars and later transferred it to migrants from Russia. On July 14, 1944, 51,000 people, mostly Russians, were allowed to move to Crimea and settle in the empty homes of those deported.
The alleged reason why the Soviet authorities conducted the deportation was the accusation of the entire Crimean Tatar people of collaboration with the Nazi occupiers and mass defection.
In reality, there was no evidence of a mass defection of Crimean Tatars. More than 200,000 Crimean Tatar fought in the ranks of the Red Army during World War II. Moreover, Crimean Tatars comprised a third part of the partisan movement on the peninsula. Several Heroes of the Soviet Union are Crimean Tatars. Legendary Crimean Tatar pilot Amet-Khan Sultan even became a Hero of the Soviet Union twice.
In the opinion of many historians the real reason for the deportation was different. At that time, the Soviet Union was preparing for a war with Turkey over the Bosphorus and Dardanelles. By conducting the deportation, the Soviet authorities were “cleansing” Crimea from potentially disloyal populations like Crimean Tatars, who were historically close with the Turks.
Crimean Tatars were allowed to return to their native peninsula only in 1989.
Today, as a result of Russia’s occupation of the peninsula in 2014, the Crimean Tatars are once again oppressed and persecuted. Yet they remain resilient in the face of the Russian occupation and hold a steadfast belief in their human rights to existence, freedom, justice, and life on their own land.
Prepared by: Diana Matviiv, Inga Vyshnevska
Design: Anastasiia Dorofeieva
Edited by: Kvitka Perehinets