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Who Talks about the Crimean Tatars Nowadays?
By Paul Goble*
Adolf Hitler told those who thought he would never getting away with killing all the Jews of Europe in the Holocaust that they should ask themselves, "who talks about the Armenians nowadays?" a cynical reference to the killing of that nation in the Ottoman Empire only two decades earlier. Hitler’s question not only highlights the evil of those who think they can destroy this or that ethnic group but also points to an aspect of modern life that modern dictators like Vladimir Putin invariably think they can exploit.
That Putin lies is almost universally recognized, but that the Kremlin relies on the fact that in the flood of events, many people quickly forget what has happened either because they are focusing on other things, accept the notion that they should always look to the future rather than obsess about the past, or, in the name of a misplaced realism, believe that any action against others however horrible should be overlooked so that some supposedly "higher" value can be achieved.
The Crimean Tatars have been the victims of Putin’s lies and criminal actions, but they have also been the victims of this tendency and for all these reasons to forget the past. You would not be here today if you felt the same way, but I would like to take a few minutes to speak with you about two people who have never been afraid to "talk about" the Crimean Tatars and consider the ways in which the current situation challenges all of us to "talk about" that embattled nation as well.
The first truth teller in this story was Petro Grigorenko, a Soviet general who was stripped of his rank for protesting a variety of Soviet policies in the 1960s and 1970s and who was, while confined in a psychiatric prison and "diagnosed" as suffering from "paranoid schizophrenia," subjected to mind-altering drugs for his support for the Crimean Tatars and opposition to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.
When his tormenters asked him whether, as a result of their "treatments," he had changed his views, Grigorenko responded that "convictions are not like gloves; one cannot easily change them." And he didn’t. In 1977, when he went to the US for medical treatment, Moscow stripped him of his Soviet citizenship; and he remained there until his death in 1987, writing his memoirs, In the Underground, One Can Meet Only Rats, and continuing his support for the right of the Crimean Tatars to return from exile and to have their own republic. Not surprisingly, American doctors found no evidence of the psychiatric illness that the Soviet medical officials claimed to have identified. And once Soviet power had collapsed, Russian doctors agreed.
In 1982, I had the opportunity to meet General Grigorenko, still vigorous at the age of 75, and I can tell you that in our conversation, he made three points, all of which I vividly remember and which continue to be important. First, he said, any society will be judged by how it treats its weakest rather than its strongest people. Second, he insisted that the Soviet government had committed terrible crimes against its peoples in general and that these crimes not only must be spoken about but corrected. And third, he said that among the first that must be noted and corrected was the deportation and mistreatment of the Crimean Tatars. They must be allowed to return to their homeland, the general said; and they must have their own republic.
The second truth teller about the Crimean Tatars is certainly better known today. He is Mustafa Jemilev who since the age of 18 in 1961 has been fighting for the rights of the Crimean Tatars. Born just before his nation was deported to Central Asia by Stalin, Jemilev grew up in Uzbekistan. During the last three decades of Soviet power, he was arrested for "anti-Soviet activities" and served time in Soviet prisons and camps. There he protested conditions by going on the longest hunger strike in the history of the human rights movement in the USSR – some 303 days. Even when he was released, he was kept under constant surveillance by the Soviet security agencies.
In 1989, he helped form and was elected to head the Crimean Tatar National Movement. He returned to his native Crimea and helped more than 300,000 other Crimean Tatars come back from exile in his capacity as leader of the Mejlis in Crimea and a parliamentarian in Ukraine. He opposed the Russian Anschluss of Crimea and for his troubles was first harassed and then banned from entering his own homeland by the occupation authorities for five years. But that has not stopped him from speaking out on behalf of the Crimean Tatars or from being recognized internationally as the irreplaceable leader of their movement.
Both Petro Grigorenko and Mustafa Jemilev have called the world’s attention to Moscow’s continuing oppression of the Crimean Tatars. Thanks to their efforts, the entire world knows about Stalin’s deportation of the Crimean Tatars on invented charges that they had collaborated with German forces during World War II. And also thanks to them, many but far from all Crimean Tatars have had the opportunity to return to their homeland.
Now, there is a new challenge: Russia’s illegal seizure and occupation of Crimea. Because Mustafa Jemilev and the Crimean Tatars were have been the most consistent and vocal opponents of that occupation, they not surprisingly have been subjected to the worst that the illegal Russian authorities can dish out. Jemilev and other leaders have been banned from their land, Crimean Tatar newspapers and television stations have been closed down, Crimean Tatar homes and institutions have been raided by masked men, and Crimean Tatars have been harassed and "disappeared," with the authorities showing no interest in finding the perpetrators.
The situation is as bleak today as on any occasion since the 1944 deportation. Many Crimean Tatars fear they are going to be deported again because their Russian neighbors say they plan to occupy their houses once the Crimean Tatars are expelled. Even if that does not happen – and with the regime of Vladimir Putin it is never wise to rule out even the most horrific and illegal actions – the future of the Crimean Tatars is very much in question.
Tragically, many Western commentators and some Western governments are acting as if the Russian Anschluss of Crimea was yesterday’s news, as if everyone must now accept that crime as a permanent fact of life because Putin says so, and they are further suggesting that it may be necessary to sacrifice the rights and interests of the Crimean Tatars in order to achieve some kind of settlement with the Kremlin over "larger" issues.
Such suggestions are simultaneously an outrage and a self-deception, an outrage because as General Grigorenko told me more than 30 years ago, how a country treats its weakest members is how it should be judged, and a self-deception because Putin will see this as an indication that his criminal attacks work and thus will be more inclined to repeat rather than stop them.
Mustafa Jemilev is even now speaking out against sacrificing Crimea in the name of some grand agreement. What he is saying is gaining support in many Western countries among ordinary people who can recognize injustice when they see it and in many Western governments who are beginning to understand that appeasing Putin will be no more successful than was the appeasement of Hitler before World War II.
But tragically, the logic behind Hitler’s question, "who talks about the Armenians nowadays," remains compelling to many. It is critically important that those of us who do care about justice say that we will continue to "talk about" the violations of the rights of the Crimean Tatars whenever and wherever possible. Given the legacy of General Grigorenko, the efforts of Mustafa Jemilev, and the nature of the situation now, we cannot do any less.
*Mr. Goble is a political analyst, columnist and editor of "Window on Eurasia. His remarks were delivered at "Maidan, Petro Grigorenko and Crimea Tatar Dissidents," a film screening event at George Mason University, Arlington, VA, on 28 March 2015.
Posted: 31 March 2015