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The Crimean Tatar National Movement and the American Diaspora

Mübeyyin B. Altan

It is tragic that on May 18, 1944, the Crimean Tatars were brutally, systematically and unjustly uprooted from their ancestral homeland en masse by the Soviet government. 46.2% of the Crimean Tatar population, mostly women, children and elderly,1 perished during this mass deportation called Sürgün. Survivors of Sürgün were forced to live in notoriously strict "Special Settlement Camps" until 1956. During Nikita S. Khrushchev's regime, the de-Stalinization era, "The Decree of Supreme Soviet of USSR removed 'existing legal restrictions' from the Crimean Tatars," on April 28, 1956,2 and released them from these camps. This newly acquired partial freedom (Crimean Tatars were still forbidden to return to their homeland) allowed Crimean Tatars to get organized and launch one of the most formidable human rights campaigns in the history of the Soviet Union. A campaign that began with individual letter writing to the Communist Party's Central Committee and to the Presidium of the USSR's Supreme Soviet, developed into a highly efficient petition sending. " ...the total number of signatures on the Tatars' appeals over the preceding eleven years reached 3 million. This meant that, if, say, two-thirds out of roughly 300,000 Tatar adults signed petitions, they must have signed fifteen each on the average."3 One petition written in 1966 and sent to Communist Party's Central Committee alone contained over 120,000 signatures.4 When this hard-fought campaign failed to produce immediate results the Crimean Tatars began sending hundreds of delegates to Moscow to hold demonstrations and appeal to the Soviet authorities to be politically rehabilitated and allowed to return and resettle in the Crimea. Such active campaign generated enough pressure, which eventually forced the Soviet authorities to promulgate a decree on September 5, 1967, admitting for the first time, that the Crimean Tatar people were unjustly punished. Despite the Decree of September 5, 1967, the Soviet authorities continued to oppress the Crimean Tatar National Movement, stating that the decree of 1967 was not intended to allow Crimean Tatars to return and resettle in their homeland. Thus, the Crimean Tatars national struggle continued well into the 1980s when a new leader, Mikhail Gorbachev was selected as the chairman of the Communist Party of the USSR. Thanks to Gorbachev's policy of Glasnost and Perestroika (Openness and restructuring), the Crimean Tatars were allowed to return to their homeland. As a result, today there are more than 260,000 Crimean Tatars living in the Crimea, attempting to rebuild a new national life and new future.

What is most tragic, however, is that the Western world, and the Crimean Tatar Diaspora were unaware of the details of the courageous national struggle of the Crimean Tatar people for quite sometime. The Soviet authorities skillfully kept the news from reaching outside the iron curtain until 1969 when "the Crimean Tatars held their first public demonstration in a Moscow square"5

The Tashkent Trials

July 1, 1969, was another turning point in the history of Crimean Tatar National Movement. Ten Crimean Tatar dissidents went on trial in Tashkent, Uzbek SSR, for allegedly defaming the Soviet motherland. It was then that the Crimean Tatars held their first public demonstration in Moscow. The transcripts of the Tashkent Trial were smuggled out of the USSR and reached London, England. These transcripts provided a great deal of information on the plight of the Crimean Tatar people in the Soviet Union, not only for the western media, but also for the Crimean Tatar Diaspora. After learning more about the status of their compatriots' courageous fight against the Soviet authorities, a small group of Crimean Tatars in New York became actively involved in supporting the Crimean Tatar National Movement. The following is a brief account of the American Crimean Tatar Diaspora's attempt to support the Crimean Tatar National Movement.

The Crimean Tatar Diaspora in the United States of America

Before we deal with the activities of the Crimean Tatar Diaspora in the United States, it would be helpful to know the origin of this community. The Crimean Tatar immigrations to the United States began in late 1950s. Several Crimean Tatar families6 resettled in Brooklyn, New York, and a few more families joined them in the early 1960s. They founded the American Association of Crimean Turks, Inc, in 1961, basically as a cultural organization. They were the original members of the Crimean Tatar Diaspora who were still closely tied to Crimea, as almost all of them had families left behind. Another group of Crimean Tatars joined the first group in the mid 1960s. The new Crimean Tatars were those who had emigrated from Crimea to Turkey in the 1930s, and their attachment to Crimea was not as close as the first group of Crimean Tatars. Nevertheless, both groups had no difficulties coexisting and sharing their common culture. Currenly, the total population of the Crimean Tatar Diaspora in the United States is about seven thousand; many of them reside in the Brooklyn-Queens section of New York.

The American Crimean Tatars' involvement in the Crimean Tatar National movement began in 1969 when the details of the "Tashkent Trials" became available to those Crimean Tatars who were concerned about their relatives in the Soviet Union. They wanted their organization, The American Association of Crimean Turks, Inc., to take a politically more active role in helping their compatriots in Uzbekistan. This created a friction within the community, because the majority of them believed that as a cultural organization the "Association" should not get involved in political activities. This prompted a small group of Crimean Tatars, who felt obligated to help their compatriots, to establish a separate organization. After several years of in-fighting, the National Center of Crimean Tatars, also known as the Crimea Foundation, was established.7

The members of the National Center were in close touch with the Crimean Tatar National Movement since the Tashkent Trials and actively involved in disseminating information received from the Soviet Union. The following are some examples of the activities carried out by the Crimean Tatar Diaspora in the United States:

  1. Commemoration of the Mass Deportation, or Sürgün, annually.

  2. Individual letter writing campaign.

  3. Telephone contacts with leading Crimean Tatar dissidents such as Mustafa Cemiloglu, Resat Cemiloglu, Fuat Ablamit, and others.

  4. Secret meetings with Crimean Tatars who were able to travel outside the Soviet Union.

  5. Distribution of documents relating to Crimean Tatar National Movement that were smuggled out of the Soviet Union.

  6. Participation in demonstrations and conferences to speak out against the Soviet treatment of Crimean Tatars.

  7. Publishing books and magazines.

1. Commemoration of Mass Deportation

This event began in 1970 when the details of mass deportation were learned. A small group of Crimean Tatars launched a demonstration at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza near the United Nations in New York City, carrying placards denouncing the Soviet treatment of the Crimean Tatar people. "May 18, 1944 deportation, 46.2% of the total Crimean Tatar population perished;" and "Free Mustafa Dzhemilev and Gen. Pyotr Grigorenko," were some of the placards used during this demonstration. A small group of 10 to 15 dedicated people showed up for this event. Fliers indicating the importance of May 18, (a total of 150 fliers) were also distributed. After the demonstration, a brief ceremony was held in the Crimean Tatar Community center in Brooklyn, New York, where a religious service was also conducted for the Crimean Tatar martyrs. This commemoration became a tradition, which continues even today.

Most importantly, the first Crimean Tatar national monument honoring the Crimean Tatar martyrs who perished before, during and after the Sürgün was erected in Washington Memorial Park on Long Island, New York, in 1986. Every year on May 18, Crimean Tatars gather to commemorate the tragic deportation of their compatriots.

2. Individual Letter Writing

Again a small group of Crimean Tatar activists began writing letters of appeal 9 to US Congressmen, Senators, the Presidents of the United States, and various international organizations trying to draw their attention to the plight of the Crimean Tatars. The quantity of these letters was not great, and only a handful of them replied out of courtesy.

3. Telephone Contacts with Leading Crimean Tatar Dissidents

Members of the Crimean Tatar National Center gathered once a month, depending on the accessibility of the dissidents, to contact Mustafa Cemiloglu, Resat Cemiloglu, Fuat Ablamit and others via telephone to find out the status of the national movement. The President of the National Center, Fikret Yurter, who had the list of the telephone numbers, usually initiated these telephone contacts. Since the telephones were tapped, and the KGB likely listened to conversations, special code words were used to find out how things were progressing. For example, "How are the carnations growing in your garden?" meant, "How is the national movement going?" Carnation symbolized the national movement. During a telephone conversation in the 1980s, Mustafa Cemiloglu asked if there was any news from a young Crimean Tatar who had defected to the Afghani side during the Soviet-Afghani war. Mustafa Cemiloglu indicated that this young man's parents were quite anxious to find out whether he was alive or not. Mr. Cemiloglu was informed that the young man was alive and well, living in New York. This is another example of how two sides communicated important information.

4. Secret Meetings with Crimean Tatars Who Were Able to Travel Outside the Soviet Union

The National Center had close contact with the political activists in the Soviet Union. From time to time Crimean Tatars (not the political activists, of course) were able to travel outside the Soviet Union. These individuals brought important news about the Crimean Tatar National Movement. President of the National Center and his wife traveled to Paris twice in the 1970s and 1980s to meet secretly with them.

5. Distribution of Documents Received from the Soviet Union

From time to time, the National Center received documents related to the Crimean Tatar National Movement smuggled out of the Soviet Union. Depending on their importance, these documents were either distributed to other organizations or published by the National Center itself. For example, in the early 1970s a member of the National Center traveled to London, England, to hand deliver some documents to the editor of the Chronicle of Current Events, a journal specializing in human rights movements in the USSR and Eastern Europe. It was during this trip that the National Center learned that The Herzen Foundation in Amsterdam, Netherlands, was planning to publish the Tashkent Trials, and was asked if they could make a financial contribution. A small contribution was made and translations from Crimean Tatar to Russian were provided to help the Herzen Foundation, which published the "Taskentsky Prosess" in 1976, one of the most extensive works compiled on the Crimean Tatar National Movement.

The Crimea Foundation published the Crimean Tatar documents, written anonymously by the Crimean Tatar dissidents under the title Emel in 1978 and 1979, both in Russian and Turkish. The Russian version was smuggled into the Soviet Union to be distributed there.

Collecting the material, organizing it, finding financial support to print them took painstakingly long time and the audience reached was very small, indeed.

6. Participation in Demonstrations, Meetings and Conferences Relating to Crimean Tatars

Members of the National Center participated in many conferences and demonstrations mainly to inform the public on the plight of the Crimean Tatar people. Every effort was made to accept invitations to participate in conferences and demonstrations to address as many people as possible. The National Center had made a decision to utilize every forum to disseminate as much information as possible about the national struggle of the Crimean Tatars against the Soviet oppression. The National Center participated in a campaign to save Mustafa Cemiloglu's life, a campaign sponsored by a diverse group of socialist organizations. The National Center also participated in a public demonstration held on the Liberty Island in New York, sponsored by Russian organizations in New York. The members of the National Center were excoriated equally in the Crimean Tatar community for "joining forces" with "communists" and "Russian Chauvinists." The criticism for participating in a demonstration sponsored by Russian organizations was so harsh that a letter was sent to Emel, the leading Crimean Tatar journal at the time, accusing the Crimean Tatar speaker of being a "Tsarist," which obviously meant a Russian supporter.

7. Publications of Crimea Foundation

The Crimea Foundation was "founded solely to disseminate facts concerning the cruel and unjust deportation of Crimean Tatars and their continuous struggle to return to Crimea and to regain their human and national rights." 9 The documents received from the Soviet Union were prepared for publication under the most difficult conditions. It was quite difficult to raise any money to use for publication or any other political activity, primarily because of the Crimean Tatar community's reluctance and opposition to such activities. Nevertheless, Crimea Foundation succeeded in publishing the following books thanks to a handful of dedicated supporters:

  • A Kogda Mi Vernemsya (And When We return), 1977, by Andre Grigorenko (in Russian)

  • Shest Dnei-Belaya Kniga (Six Days-The White Book), 1980, by M. Serdar, editor (in Russian)

  • Jivoi Fakel (Human Torch), 1986, by Reshat Cemilev, editor (in Russian)

  • Musa Mamut-Human Torch, 1986, by Reshat Cemilev, editor (in English)

  • Etudi Ob Etnogeneze Krimski Tatar (A Study of Crimean Tatar Ethnogenesis), 1997, by Memet Sevdiyar (in Russian)

The Crimean Review-Voice of the Crimean Tatar National Movement. This was the first Crimean Tatar magazine published in English. After many years of political activities, conferences and demonstrations, members of the National Center felt the need for an English language journal to reach a larger audience. The Crimean Review began publication in Boston, Massachusetts, on May 18, 1986, with a circulation of 300, which later increased to 500. It was primarily mailed to members of the US Congress who were involved in foreign affairs, the president of the United States, Embassies of nations thought to be sympathetic to the Crimean Tatar cause, international organizations, such as the UN, major universities and individuals who requested it. It continued until December 1995, on the eve of Internet's arrival.


The aforementioned activities are some examples of how the Crimean Tatar Diaspora in the United States tried to support the Crimean Tatar National Movement of their compatriots in the Soviet Union during the pre-Internet era. It is important to know how and under what circumstances the Crimean Tatar National Movement was supported. Hopefully it will give you an idea how difficult it was to disseminate information during the most crucial period of the Crimean Tatar National Movement.

It is also important that all these activities were carried out by a handful of dedicated individuals who sacrificed a great deal of their time and effort in order to disseminate information about an extremely important cause, the survival of a small nationality as a nation and a people. It was a very difficult time because the means to inform the American and world public were very limited to begin with. Under the normal circumstances all these activities enabled the Crimean Tatar Diaspora in New York to reach a small audience, 500 to 1,000 at the most. Most of the time one waited for some sort of positive response stating that they understand the importance of what you do, and fully support you, or they totally disagree with you. There was no instant response from people you tried to communicate with. The negative response came from your own community where you expected to get full support.

It is also very important to point out that it took quite some time to get the political or other important messages out. There was no Internet then, and one could not sit in front of a small tube and reach out to a large audience to disseminate one's important message. It was a very hard work with very little gratification, but under those circumstances, it had to be done. People's lives depended on our actions. Now there is Internet, with a push of a button one's important message becomes available to millions of people who want to know. A young elementary school student in Colorado wanted to represent the Crimean Tatars in her school's cultural week, and with a push of a button she was able to find out all about Crimean Tatars without traveling anywhere, not even to a library. A group of students in Seattle, Washington, were researching the Crimean Tatars living in the United States. With the same procedure, a touch of a button, either the information or the source containing the information becomes available. Times have changed, and changed for the better. Most importantly, there is no longer an iron curtain, and one does not have to have secret meetings or use coded messages to obtain information. The pre-Internet era for the Crimean Diaspora in the United States was a very difficult period, indeed.


1 Almost all able-bodied Crimean Tatars, nearly 60,000 men and women, were serving in the Soviet armed forces defending their Soviet motherland while their loved ones were being deported from Crimea.

2 Refat Chubarov, "Preface," Krimski Studii, No. 5-6, 2000, p. XVIII.

3 Peter Reddaway, "The Crimean Tatar Drive for Repatriation: Some Comparison with other Movements of Dissident in the USSR." In: Allworth, Edward, ed. Tatars of Crimea: Their Struggle for Survival. Durham and London: Duke University Press, p. 196.

4 Chubarov, "Preface," p. XVIII.

5 Reddaway, p. 196.

6 Mültecis (Refugees), the last group of Crimean Tatar emigrants who initially emigrated from Crimea in the months before the mass deportation selected to go to Turkey in the late 1940s from the International Refugee camps in Europe. After residing in Turkey for about a decade many Mültecis decided to immigrate to the United States, primarily for economic reasons.

7 The Crimea Foundation was officially established in 1976, but the political activities were carried out regularly since 1970.

8 Copies of these letters were published regularly in the Crimean Review, and recently in the new journal Birlik. For example, letters of appeal were sent to such individuals as Senator James Buckley of New York on January 17, 1976; Senator Edward M Kennedy of Massachusetts on December 16, 1986; Soviet Ambassodor Yuri Dubinin on December 16, 1986; King Khalid Ibn Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia on February 15, 1979; Chairman Egil Aarvik of the Nobel Peace Prize Selection Committee on January 22, 1986; President Ronald Reagan on October 21, 1985; President George Bush on October 1, 1989; and President Bill Clinton on April 25, 1998.

9 M. Batu, ed., The Crimean Review: Voice of the Crimean Tatar Human Rights Movement, Vol. 1, No.1, May 18, 1986, p. 2.

Posted: April 2001

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