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May 18, 1944 — May 18, 2007

By Idil P. Izmirli*

May 18, 2007 marks the 63rd anniversary of a grave tragedy. On that day that left a dark spot on the history of humanity in the [former] Soviet Union, Crimean Tatars in their entirety were deported from their peninsular homeland under Stalin's orders. Deportation was carried out by the armed NKVD (People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs) soldiers, who went door to door, woke up sleeping Crimean Tatars and gave them only 15 minutes to get ready for their exile to unknown destinations. The whole process that took place in every Crimean village, town, and city was well organized and supervised by the 5,000 agents of the Soviet state security services, supported by 20,000 interior ministry troops and thousands of regular army soldiers.[1] During that time, most of the able-bodied Crimean Tatar men were at the front fighting the Nazis. Moreover, Crimean Tatars constituted approximately one fifth of the [Soviet] partisans who were involved in guerilla warfare in Crimea.[2] The majority (86.1 percent) of the deportees consisted of the elderly, invalids, women and children.[3] This mass deportation on guarded cattle-trains without food, water, and inferior sanitary conditions, resulted in a substantial death toll. During and after the exile, 46.2 percent of the total Crimean Tatar population perished.

Three months after the deportation, on August 14, 1944 the State Defense Committee (GKO) authorized the settlement of 51,000 new migrants in 17,000 empty collective farms (kolkhozes) to replace the deported Crimean Tatars.[4] Although some of these settlers were Ukrainians, the vast majority of them were ethnic Russians.[5] While the Russification of the peninsula was taking place rapidly, with a decree published on June 30, 1945,[6] the Crimean ASSR was officially abolished and it became an oblast (district) within the RSFSR. In the mean time, according to the orders of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (KPSS), Crimean Tatars were "to live in exile forever with no right to return to their former residence."[7]

The majority of the surviving deportees ended up in highly regimented strict special settlement camps (spetsposolonets) in their respective exile countries. Upon arrival to these camps, able-bodied Crimean Tatar men (mostly young ones) were forcefully separated from their families and were imprisoned at hard labor camps. In these camps Crimean Tatars had no freedom of movement and remained in them for the next 12 years.

After Stalin's death on March 5, 1953, Nikita Khrushchev came to power and launched a de-Stalinization campaign. In one significant move, he transferred Crimea to the Ukrainian SSR through a Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR decree issued on February 19, 1954. At the 20th Communist Party Congress in February 24-25, 1956, Khrushchev condemned Stalin's crimes in his famous [secret] speech that led to the abolishment of special settlement camps throughout the Soviet Union. A special [unpublished] decree issued on April 28, 1956 the Presidium of Supreme Soviet (Ukaz 136/142) officially released the Crimean Tatars from special settlement camps.

After their release from the camps, through their Initiative Groups, the Crimean Tatars launched a nonviolent national movement that was solely focused on return to Crimea. This return movement first began with individual letter writing and telegram-sending campaigns and continued with group protests in Tashkent, Uzbekistan as well as in front of Kremlin in Moscow. Despite the top-down pressures, Crimean Tatars did not give up and continuously demonstrated, went on hunger strikes, and protested against the Soviet regime demanding permission to return to Crimea.

The struggle for return took many years. During that time, many Crimean Tatar national movement members, including the head of the OKND (Organization of Crimean Tatar National Movement) Mustafa Cemilev, were beaten up, jailed, and even killed. The movement proceeded regardless. Against the background of political dynamics of Perestroika in Moscow, a new commission formed under Genadii Yanaev recognized the forced deportations as illegal and criminal. In addition, the commission agreed upon the restoration of the Crimean autonomy. This decision was a major turning point for the Crimean Tatars as they organized the beginnings of an [unofficial] mass return to Crimea. The 1989 Soviet census showed the number of Crimean Tatars in Crimea as 38,000. It is estimated that at the present time approximately 300,000 Crimean Tatars are living in Crimea. It is also estimated that about 250,000 Crimean Tatars are still residing mainly in Uzbekistan, but also in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and throughout the different regions of the Russian Federation, not by choice but by impossible socio-economic obstacles placed upon them by multiple circumstances.

May 18, 2007 is a dark day for Crimean Tatars. In an effort to ease the trans-generational pain, each year on this dark day they meet at the Lenin square of Simferopol and try to find collective strength when they share their emotions with one another. Unfortunately, as the Crimean Tatars in Crimea are preparing to arrive in Simferopol from all regions of Crimea to commemorate the 63rd anniversary of the deportation, I am not with my brothers and sisters physically, but I don't feel alone. Although there is a physical distance between me and Crimea, in spirit I am still there. I am at the Lenin square with my people; praying for the dead; celebrating the living; and remembering the deportation that is embedded in our (Crimean Tatar) collective memory.

While remembering the painful past, I am also focusing on the bright future. As I remember May 18, 1944, I am hoping that by May 18, 2014, the 70th anniversary of the deportation, Crimean Tatars will be able to achieve social, political and economic prosperity within their own realm and enjoy their homeland to the full extent. I am also hoping that all homebound Crimean Tatars from Uzbekistan and other central Asian republics will be able to return to Crimea and join with their people to sing "Ant Etkemen" in unison.


[1] Burke, Justin, (1996). Crimean Tatars: Repatriation and Conflict Prevention, New York: The Open Society Institute, The Forced Migration Projects, p 12.

[2] Williams, Brian Glyn (2001). The Crimean Tatars: The Diaspora Experience and the Forging of a Nation Leiden, Boston, Koln: Brill, p.376.

[3] Noyan, Ismail (1967). "Kirimli Filolog-Sair Bekir Cobanzade: Hayati ve Eserleri" [Crimean Philologist-Poet Bekir Cobanzade: His Life and His Work], University of Istanbul, Unpublished Masters thesis, p.7

[4] Pohl, Otto J. (2004). "Timeline: deportation of Crimean Tatars and Their national Struggle under Soviet Rule."

[5] Wilson, Andrew (2002). Ukrainians: Unexpected Nation, 2nd Edition, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, p. 151.

[6] Fisher, Alan W. (1987). The Crimean Tatars, Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, p. 167.

[7] Iliasov, Remzi (1999). Krimskie Tatari: Kratkii Obzor Proshlogo i Analiz Sotsialno-Ekonomicheskogo Polojenia Nastoiashego, Simferopol, p. 7.

Idil P. Izmirli is President of the International Committee for Crimea, Washington, DC. She is an Adjunct Faculty member of the Strayer University, Alexandria, VA, and Adjunct Faculty member/Ph.D. Candidate, George Mason University, Arlington, VA.

Posted: 30 May 2007

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