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Interview: Crimean Tatar Leader Reflects On Stalin-Era 'Genocide,' Resistance And Resilience

Mustafa Dzhemilev: "I believe the Crimean Tatars have no future unless Crimea is de-occupied."
Mustafa Dzhemilev: "I believe the Crimean Tatars have no future unless Crimea is de-occupied."

Eighty years ago, over three days from May 18 to May 20, 1944, Soviet security forces rounded up at least 200,000 Crimean Tatars on the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea and brutally sent them into exile in Soviet Uzbekistan and other remote places in the Soviet Union.

Tens of thousands died during the deportation and under the harsh conditions of their first years in exile. Soviet demographers in 1949 estimated there had been nearly 45,000 “excess deaths” among Crimean Tatars in the previous five years, while Crimean Tatar sources put the losses far higher.

The deportation of the Crimean Tatars -- like those of several other Soviet ethnic populations around the same time -- was ordered by dictator Josef Stalin and overseen by notorious secret police head Lavrenty Beria. It was followed by a campaign of de-Tatarization in Crimea, during which the culture of the Turkic, Muslim people was virtually wiped out on the peninsula.

Although most of the persecuted ethnic groups were allowed to return to their homelands after Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev condemned the population transfers in 1956, Crimean Tatars were not. Only in the late 1980s, after more than four decades of exile, did the Soviet government condemn the deportation as a crime and lift the ban on their return.

The deportation has been condemned as “genocide” by Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, and Canada.

To mark the anniversary, RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service spoke with longtime Crimean Tatar spiritual leader Mustafa Dzhemilev, a member of the Ukrainian parliament and the chairman of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis, their supreme executive body, from 1999 to 2013.

Born in Crimea in 1943, Dzhemilev survived the deportation and grew up in exile in Soviet Uzbekistan. As a teenager, he was a co-founder of the Union of Young Crimean Tatars, his first step in a lifetime devoted to promoting the rights of Crimean Tatars. The Soviet authorities arrested him six times, and he spent 15 years in prisons and labor camps. In the mid-1970s, he conducted a 303-day hunger strike, surviving only because he was force-fed.

Shortly after the Russian occupation of Crimea in 2014, Dzhemilev was banned from entering the peninsula and Russia has issued an arrest warrant for him.

In November 2023, to mark Dzhemilev’s 80th birthday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy awarded him the Golden Star Order and the title of Hero of Ukraine

RFE/RL: Thank you for speaking with us on the occasion of the 80th anniversary of Stalin’s deportation of the Crimean Tatar nation in 1944. Tell us about the meaning of this tragedy for Crimean Tatars today.

Mustafa Dzhemilev: In terms of the scale of the catastrophe and its consequences, this is the second such date in the history of the Crimean Tatar nation. The first came in April 1783, when the Russians occupied Crimea for the first time. Under pressure from the authorities, Crimean Tatars were forced to leave their homeland and move to the neighboring Ottoman Empire.

To this day, there are between 3 million and 5 million Turkish citizens of Crimean Tatar descent living in Turkey, according to various estimates. That is, 10 times as many as are currently living in Crimea. During this first occupation, the goal was simply to clear the land for the Russians.

Visitors attend an exhibition on the 1944 deportation of the Crimean Tatars in Kyiv on May 17.
Visitors attend an exhibition on the 1944 deportation of the Crimean Tatars in Kyiv on May 17.

But the second deportation and genocide, evidently, had the goal of completely destroying our nation. It wasn’t just a matter of the mass deaths of Crimean Tatars. In the mid-1960s, we conducted a research project into how many people were killed. We came up with the figure that, during the first two years after the deportation, about 46 percent of the entire Crimean Tatar nation had perished.

That is why it was entirely just when the Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada recognized the deportation as genocide [in 2015]. After the 1944 deportation, they did not only destroy Crimean Tatars, but they also destroyed everything associated with Crimean Tatars.

Now the Crimean Tatar language is on the brink of disappearing. UNESCO has listed it as a “critically endangered” language. I hope it won’t disappear. Ukraine is making efforts to preserve the language.

RFE/RL: Many younger Crimean Tatars don’t speak the language, both those still in occupied Crimea and those in Kyiv-controlled Ukraine. What can be done about this?

Dzhemilev: We are really experiencing a language catastrophe. After the deportation, there were no schools [teaching in Crimean Tatar]. We could only hear that language and learn it from our parents. I am old enough to have been born in Crimea, and my parents always spoke their native language at home. I remember that my father forbade us from speaking Russian at home, even though we were attending Russian schools and studying everything in Russian. As children, we spoke with one another in Russian. But my father insisted: “Speak a human language so that everyone can understand.”

Then there was the generation that came after us, people who were already born in exile. Their level of knowledge of their language is very low. They were not capable of passing the language on to their children. As a result, according to various studies, only about 20 percent of Crimean Tatars can be said to more or less know the language. A few speak it quite well, while the rest either don’t know anything or speak it very poorly.

RFE/RL: Do you see parallels between these experiences and what other Ukrainians have experienced since Russia’s full-scale invasion in 2022? Many Ukrainians are now forced to live abroad and are struggling with matters of teaching their children Ukrainian and assimilating in the countries where they live.

Many Ukrainians have been leaving the country since the invasion. Of course, this is a catastrophe. I am very much afraid that many of them will not return, particularly those who made it to prosperous countries. The same thing is happening with Crimean Tatars.

Before the full-scale invasion, 99 percent of the Crimean Tatars who left Crimea went to Kyiv-controlled Ukraine. But after the invasion, those routes were cut off, and they left in various directions – through Georgia, Kazakhstan, the Baltic countries – and then onward to other countries. They simply couldn’t get to unoccupied Ukraine. Now, there are about 50,000 Crimean Tatars living outside of Crimea. Maybe that figure seems small, but it is one-quarter of the entire nation.

Ukraine is also losing a very large portion of its native speakers. I am very concerned about the children of those who are living abroad.

RFE/RL: Since the invasion, many have been discussing the language issue. Do you think the Russian language is a threat to Crimean Tatar, Ukrainian, and other languages?

The threat to the Crimean Tatar nation and to Ukraine is not just the Russian language but everything Russian. We all know Russia’s policies, including its language policies: Russification, both toward Ukrainians and toward Crimean Tatars.

Ukrainians weren’t deported, so they are not in the same position as Crimean Tatars and the blow against Crimean Tatars has been worse. Everything that Ukraine is doing now to intensify the use of Ukrainian and to create a Ukrainian environment is very positive, and we welcome it.

RFE/RL: Could you please speak a little about your personal experience preserving your cultural identity while in exile? Your family was deported from Crimea when you were very young. When did you understand that you were a Crimean Tatar and that Crimean Tatar was your language?

For the most part, the worldview of Crimean Tatars is formed in the family. That is why Soviet propaganda didn’t have much effect on Crimean Tatars. We knew the truth from our parents.

1944 Deportation Victim: ‘I Will Never Forgive Russia’
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I remember the day Stalin died [in March 1953] when everyone was crying. Only our small circle of Crimean Tatars in school was joking. None of them cried – rather, one girl was crying, and I remember thinking that she had a bad family.

When they announced over the loudspeaker that “the great leader of all times and all peoples” had died, my father said: “Finally, the dog has kicked off.” That is the feeling I had when I arrived in school and all the teachers and children were weeping. At a meeting, they announced that because of the death of “the genius of all times and peoples,” there would be three days of mourning and school would be closed. I almost shouted “hurrah!” But if I had, it would have been bad for my parents.

Everything about Crimea, we learned from our parents. Since we all lived in one room and slept in a row, my parents held their serious conversations after everyone was asleep. If we hadn’t dozed off yet and the conversation became anti-Soviet, I can remember my mother telling my father: “Shhh! Quiet! The children….” That wasn’t because we…were going to go denounce them. But children are children, and they might say something in public. But I would pretend to be asleep because I was very interested in what they were saying.

RFE/RL: You mean, honest conversations at home helped you understand yourself?

Yes, of course. I remember how my father said: “Son, the times are such that parents can’t tell their children what to do. You will soon be 14 and will have to join the Komsomol [Soviet youth organization]. But if you could somehow avoid going down that road, I would be happy.”

Of course, to please my father, I didn’t join the Komsomol. When they kicked me out of the institute in 1965 [when Dzhemilev was expelled from an agricultural college in Tashkent], the faculty representative said there was no place in a Soviet institution for such a “renegade” as me.

I think our countrymen are doing this now. At least, there are such conversations in homes in Crimea. That is why when people talk about the deafening Russian propaganda and how we are losing a generation, I say that Soviet propaganda 70 years ago didn’t change us. All it took was two or three years of perestroika and that propaganda was blown away. I think the same thing will happen after the de-occupation of Crimea.

RFE/RL: It has been more than 10 years since Russia’s occupation of Crimea. Many Crimean Tatars have left, many have been forced to serve in the Russian military, many have been killed. Can the Crimean Tatars survive?

I believe the Crimean Tatars have no future unless Crimea is de-occupied. Is there any place in the world where people thrive while rockets and bombs are constantly exploding? That is what is happening now in Crimea. People there understand that if Ukrainian bombs are exploding in Crimea, that means Ukraine has not forgotten them and won’t forget them. It means there will be no negotiations with the occupier about Crimea or other occupied Ukrainian territories. And people understand perfectly well that without liberation, they have no future.

RFE/RL: What prospects for de-occupation do you see? Is it more likely to happen militarily or by diplomatic means?

After 2014, I consistently said Crimea must be de-occupied through diplomacy. Otherwise, it will become an uninhabitable peninsula, reminiscent of [the Azov Sea port of] Mariupol.

But Russia rejects everything and insists that the topic of Crimea will not be discussed because it is “Russian territory” according to the Russian Constitution. When the full-scale invasion began, there were Russian-Ukrainian talks. And in the final statement, both sides laid out their positions. We wrote that our conditions for ending the war were that Russia return to the borders of February 23, 2022, and agree to open status talks regarding Crimea and the Donbas. And during those negotiations, neither side would use force to control these territories.

1944 Deportation Victim: 'We Said Goodbye To Our Home'
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And when this statement was read, they added the phrase “15 years for negotiations.” All the cameras were on me, asking for a comment. Not just Turkish and Ukrainian media, but from around the world. I had heard earlier that they were mentioning those 15 years, and I told Rustem [Umerov, a member of Ukraine’s delegation to the talks who is now Ukraine’s defense minister]: “No way. You take that figure out or everyone will be furious with us!” I was sure that figure would not be left in.

When they asked me to comment, of course, I didn’t say that I was categorically against this formulation. I said something like: “If Russia agrees to hold talks about Crimea’s status, that means that Crimea is not Russian territory but rather is temporarily occupied and, under the 1949 Geneva convention that means it is subject to Ukrainian law and Ukrainian democratic rights. And if that is the case and everyone is able to say what he wants, then the de-occupation of Crimea won’t take 15 years, but six months.”

But this didn’t save us from the anger…. I phoned [Ukrainian presidential chief of staff Andriy] Yermak and said: “What have you done? I haven’t heard such angry words addressed to me in 30 years! Why are you talking about 15 years?” And he laughed and said: “Calm down. They won’t even accept that.”

And, in fact, the very next day Putin’s spokesman [Dmitry] Peskov said there could be no talks on the status of Crimea.

As a result, now we can only talk about the military liberation of Crimea. But I think that when Ukrainian forces enter the zone between Crimea and mainland Ukraine, we will again propose negotiations. But the topic will be how to allow Russian forces to leave Crimea without losses, without fighting. There is simply no other way.

Translated by RFE/RL correspondent Robert Coalson

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