Deportation of the Crimean Tatars

Deportation of the Crimean Tatars
Part of Forced population transfer in the Soviet Union and World War II
Deportation of the Crimean Tatars montage.jpg
Left to right, top to bottom: Memorial to the deportation in Eupatoria; candle-lighting ceremony in Kiev; memorial rally in Taras Shevchenko park; cattlecar similar to the type used in the deportation; maps comparing the demographics of Crimea in 1939 and 2001.
LocationCrimean Peninsula
Date18–20 May 1944
TargetCrimean Tatars
Attack type
forced population transfer, ethnic cleansing
DeathsSeveral estimates
a) 34,000[1]
b) 40,000–44,000[2]
c) 42,000[3]
d) 45,000[4]
e) 110,000[5]
f) 195 471[6][komm. 1]
(between 18 and 46 percent of their total population[8])
PerpetratorsNKVD, the Soviet secret police

The deportation of the Crimean Tatars (Crimean Tatar Qırımtatar halqınıñ sürgünligi; Ukrainian Депортація кримських татар; Russian Депортация крымских татар) was the ethnic cleansing of at least 191,044 Crimean Tatars or, according to the other sources, 423,100 of them (89,2 % were women, children and elderly people)[6][7] in 18–20 May 1944; one of the crimes of the Soviet totalitarian regime. It was carried out by Lavrentiy Beria, head of the Soviet state security and secret police, acting on behalf of Joseph Stalin. Within three days, Beria's NKVD used cattle trains to deport women, children, the elderly, even Communists and members of the Red Army, to the Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan, several thousand kilometres away. They were one of the ten ethnicities who were encompassed by Stalin's policy of population transfer in the Soviet Union.

The deportation ostensibly was intended as collective punishment for the perceived collaboration of some Crimean Tatars with Nazi Germany. Soviet sources indict the Tatars as traitors; Tatar nationalists dispute this, maintaining the program was part of the Soviet plan to gain access to the Dardanelles and acquire territory in Turkey where the Tatars had ethnic kinsmen. Although the Nazis initially viewed the Crimean Tatars negatively, their policy changed in face of determined Soviet resistance. Soviet sources alleged that 15,000 to 20,000 Crimean Tatars were part of self-defence battalions intended to protect Crimean Tatar villages from attacks by Soviet partisans and hunt them down. In addition, a Muslim Committee was also formed, giving them limited self-governance. Soviet and Russian sources tend to downplay the fact that the head of the Crimean Tatar Muslim Committee was a Lipka Tatar and the mention of the role of Crimean Tatars in the pro-Communist partisan movement was effectively buried until relatively recently. According to a modern Ukrainian historian Sergey Gromenko, the NKVD claim about the existence of 20,000 collaborators is nothing but falsification, saying that about 3,500 Crimean Tatars joined the ranks of German battalions.[9] The majority of the few surviving hiwis and their families, along with those associated with Muslim Committees eventually were evacuated before the Soviets took control of the peninsula. Approximately 2,000 Crimean Tatar soldiers were expelled from the Red Army between 1947 and 1948 and deported to Central Asia. This followed mass deportations of Crimean Tatar civilians between 1945 and 1946.

Nearly 8,000 Crimean Tatars died during the deportation, while tens of thousands perished subsequently due to the harsh exile conditions. The Crimean Tatar exile resulted in the abandonment of 80,000 households and 360,000 acres of land. Stalin sought to eradicate all traces of the Crimean Tatars and, in subsequent censuses, forbade any mention of the ethnic group. In 1956, the new Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, condemned Stalin's policies, including the deportation of various ethnic groups, but did not lift the directive forbidding the return of the Crimean Tatars. They remained in Central Asia for several more decades until the Perestroika era in the late 1980s when 260,000 Crimean Tatars returned to Crimea. Their exile lasted 45 years. The ban on their return was officially declared null and void, and the Supreme Council of Crimea declared on 14 November 1989 that the deportations had been a crime.

By 2004, sufficient numbers of Crimean Tatars had returned to Crimea that they comprised 12 per cent of the peninsula's population. Soviet authorities neither assisted their return nor compensated them for the land they lost. The Russian Federation, the successor state of the USSR, did not provide reparations, compensate those deported for lost property, or file legal proceedings against the perpetrators of the forced resettlement. The deportation was a crucial event in the history of the Crimean Tatars and has come to be seen as a symbol of the plight and oppression of smaller ethnic groups by the Soviet Union. On 12 December 2015, the Ukrainian Parliament issued a resolution recognizing this event as genocide and established 18 May as the "Day of Remembrance for the victims of the Crimean Tatar genocide".


Crimea highlighted on a map of the Black Sea

The Crimean Tatars controlled the Crimean Khanate from 1441 to 1783, when Crimea was annexed by the Russian Empire as a target of Russian expansion. By the 14th century, most of the Turkic-speaking population of Crimea had adopted Islam, following the conversion of Ozbeg Khan of the Golden Horde. It was the longest surviving state of the Golden Horde.[10] They often engaged in conflicts with Moscow—from 1468 until the 17th century, Crimean Tatars were averse to the newly-established Russian rule. Thus, Crimean Tatars began leaving Crimea in several waves of emigration. Between 1784 and 1790, out of a total population of about a million, around 300,000 Crimean Tatars left for the Ottoman Empire.[11]

The Crimean War triggered another mass exodus of Crimean Tatars. Between 1855 and 1866 at least 500,000 Muslims, and possibly up to 900,000, left the Russian Empire and emigrated to the Ottoman Empire. Out of that number, at least one third were from Crimea, while the rest were from the Caucasus. These emigrants comprised 15–23 per cent of the total population of Crimea. The Russian Empire used that fact as the ideological foundation to further Russify "New Russia".[12] Eventually, the Crimean Tatars became a minority in Crimea; in 1783, they comprised 98 per cent of the population,[13] but by 1897, this was down to 34.1 per cent.[14] While Crimean Tatars were emigrating, the Russian government encouraged Russification of the peninsula, populating it with Russians, Ukrainians, and other Slavic ethnic groups; this Russification continued during the Soviet era.[14]

Corpses of victims of the winter 1918 Red Terror in Evpatoria, Crimea

After the 1917 October Revolution, Crimea received autonomous status inside the USSR on 18 October 1921,[15] but collectivization in the 1920s led to severe famine from which up to 100,000 Crimeans perished when their crops were transported to "more important" regions of the Soviet Union.[16] By one estimate, three-quarters of the famine victims were Crimean Tatars.[15] Their status deteriorated further after Joseph Stalin became the Soviet leader and implemented repressions that led to the deaths of at least 5.2 million Soviet citizens between 1927 and 1938.[17]

World War II and the reasons for the deportation

In 1940, the Crimean Socialist Soviet Republic had approximately 1,126,800 inhabitants, of which 218,000 people, or 19.4 percent of the population, were Crimean Tatars.[18] In 1941, Nazi Germany invaded Eastern Europe, annexing much of the western USSR. Crimean Tatars initially viewed the Germans as liberators from Stalinism, and they had also been positively treated by the Germans in World War I.[19]

Collaborationism accusation

Many of the captured Crimean Tatars serving in the Red Army were sent to POW camps after Romanians and Nazis came to occupy the bulk of Crimea. Though Nazis initially called for murder of all "Asiatic inferiors", they revised this policy in the face of determined resistance from the Red Army. Beginning in 1942, Germans recruited Soviet prisoners of war to form support armies.[20] The Dobrucan Tatar nationalist Fazil Ulkusal and Lipka Tatar Edige Kirimal helped in freeing Crimean Tatars from German prisoner-of-war camps and enlisting them in the independent Crimean support legion for the Wehrmacht. This legion eventually included eight battalions.[19] From November 1941, German authorities allowed Crimean Tatars to establish Muslim Committees in various towns as a symbolic recognition of some local government authority, though they were not given any political power.[21]

Number of Crimean Tatars in Crimea[22][13]
Year Number Percentage
1783 500,000 98%
1897 186,212 34.1%
1939 218,879 19.4%
1979 5,422 0.3%
1989 38,365 1.6%

Some of the Crimean Tatars were also organized into Schutzmannschaft (police battalions) brigades to protect Crimean Tatar villages from the attacks and to track down the Soviet partisans. According to both German and Crimean Tatar evidence, the Germans persuaded between 15,000 and 20,000 Crimean Tatars to form self-defence battalions.[23] However, rather than uniformly support German forces, these units frequently sided with whoever was the strongest in an area. Soviet Communist partisans also raided Tartar villages as punishment for perceived collaboration.[24]

Toward the end of the war, the SS began enlisting every Eastern Muslim in its reach. In summer of 1944, 800 former soldiers of Crimean Tatar units who had been evacuated from Crimea to Romania were recruited into the Tatar SS Waffen Mountain Brigade or Tatarische Waffen-Gebirgs-Brigade der SS. These fought in Hungary before integration into Harun el Raschid-bey's legions.[25]

However, not all Crimean Tatars joined the collaboration; many Crimean Tatar communists strongly opposed the occupation and assisted the resistance movement to provide valuable strategic and political information.[21] Other Crimean Tatars also fought on the side of the Soviet partisans, like the Tarhanov movement of 250 Crimean Tatars which fought throughout 1942 until its destruction.[26] Furthermore, 25,033 Crimean Tatars fought in the Red Army during World War II,[27] a greater number than the 15,000 to 20,000 persuaded to join the self-defence units that protected Crimean Tatar villages and also hunted down partisans.[23][28] Six Crimean Tatars were even named the Heroes of the Soviet Union. In addition to this, even though the Volga Tatars actually participated in collaboration in higher number than the Crimean Tatars, with 35,000–40,000 volunteers fighting with the Axis, they avoided any kind of collective punishment.[23] Many other ethnicities were also Nazi collaborators, even numerous Russians and Jews, suggesting that some people in the occupied territories had been forcibly drafted.[28]

Up to 130,000 people died during the Axis occupation of Crimea.[29] The Nazis implemented a brutal repression, destroying more than 70 villages that were together home to about 25 per cent of the Crimean Tatar population. Thousands of Crimean Tatars were forcibly transferred to work as Ostarbeiter in German factories under the supervision of the Gestapo in what were described as "vast slave workshops", resulting in loss of all Crimean Tatar support.[30] The Nazis considered the Crimean Tatars and various other nations as "people of a lower race."[31] In April 1944 the Red Army managed to repel the Axis forces from the peninsula in the Crimean Offensive.[32]

A majority of the hiwis (helpers), their families and all those associated with the Muslim Committees were evacuated to Germany and Hungary or Dobruca by the Wehrmacht and Romanian army where they joined the Eastern Turkic division. Thus, the majority of the collaborators had been evacuated from Crimea by the retreating Wehrmacht.[33] Many Soviet officials had also recognised this and rejected claims that the Crimean Tatars had betrayed the Soviet Union en masse. However, with the German retreat, voices demanding punishment of the Crimean Tatars grew louder. In addition, the presence of Muslim Committees organized from Berlin by Kirimal and other members of Turkish and Dobrucan diaspora appeared particularly damning in the eyes of the Soviet government. The linking of Crimean Tatars with Turkey by the Crimean Tatar nationalists also increased suspicion.[28]

Falsification of information in propaganda

Some sources question the accuracy of official figures related to the deportation of the Crimean Tatars and its justification, as they differ in different documents of different organizations. In addition, there is a tendency in these documents to adjust the figures to pre-planned results.[34] And the NKVD in its documents intended to distort the facts and beat out confessions in crimes from representatives of deported peoples. Moreover, it was engaged in adjusting the facts on the eve and during the deportation.[35] The leadership of the NKVD often was replaced for "understating" the number of gangs. The newly arrived authorities quickly corrected the statistics in accordance with the wishes of the management. New indicators became the ground for deportation.[36]

Nikolai Bugai, his colleagues, and students including Askarbi Gonov and Adam Khunagov attempt to justify the deportation of the peoples in the USSR. Since they cannot take advantage of the accusations that were debunked by KGB in the 1980s, they use omissions, vague hints, conclusions that are not related to the premises and simply falsification of documents.[37]

A common method by Bugai is the presentation of summaries of the NKVD with figures about the high level of banditry and desertion, without specifying the nationality of said bandits and deserters, with the aim to bring the reader to believe that they were of the deported peoples.[36] Nevertheless, his student Gonov successfully defended his doctoral thesis, and Bugai himself became the head of the Department for Deported and Repressed Peoples in the list of Ministers of National Policy of Russia. Moreover, the version of events held by those self-described historians is reflected history textbooks throughout Russian universities.[38]

The writer Igor Pykhalov published a number of books devoted to justification of deportations (for example, "What Stalin evicted the people for? Stalin's deportations — criminal outrage or retribution?"[39]), and has been criticized by many researchers and scientists for biased attitude to the problem, questionable statements and research methods.[40]

Soviet publications blatantly falsified information about Crimean Tatars in the Red Army, going so far as to describe Crimean Tatar Hero of the Soviet Union Uzeir Abduramanov as Azeri, not Crimean Tatar, on the cover of a 1944 issue of Ogonyok magazine - even though his family had been deported for being Crimean Tatar just a few months earlier.[41][42] The book "In the Mountains of Tavria" falsely claimed volunteer partisan scout Bekir Osmanov was a German spy and shot, although the central committee later acknowledged that he never served the Germans and survived the war, ordering later editions to have corrections after still-living Osmanov and his family noticed the obvious falsehood.[43]

Policy of the Republic of Turkey

Throughout the Second world war, the Soviet-Turkish relations remained tense. This was due to the unpredictability of the policy Turkey, which was characterized as "hostile neutrality". On 18 June 1941 Turkey signed an agreement with Germany "On friendship and non-aggression", and in October 1941 — another one, similar to the first one. These treaties essentially crossed out the Soviet-Turkish Treaty "On friendship and neutrality" of 17 December 1925 and testified to the hostile attitude of the Turkish leadership to the USSR.[44]

A.M. Bugaev, a Russian scientist, supposes that Stalin worried not so much about the possibilities of the majority of Turkic peoples of the Crimean peninsula and the South Caucasus and of muslims of the North Caucasus, as how many of them can be consolidated against the aggressive plans and actions of the Kremlin against Turkey.[44]


Among the possible reasons for deportation is «distrust of national minorities living in the border areas of the USSR with Turkey (like the Crimea), Iran etc. Living in the border areas of Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia, the peoples were in the category of „unreliable“, as many of them had relatives abroad».[45]

The idea of „unreliable“ peoples dates back to the work of specialists on the military statistics of the late XIX century V. A. Zolotarev, A. Maksheev, N. N. Obrucheva. According to their representations, the Slavic population of the country was considered trustworthy, and unreliable — the people of the suburbs of Russia. Foreign citizenship, national or religious proximity to a country with which Russia was at war were also considered signs of unreliability. Another criterion was considered a possible obstacle in the path of Russian colonization of new lands.[46]