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Remembrance banned as ‘extremism’ and political trials on anniversary of Crimean Tatar Deportation

18.05.2021
Halya Coynash

18.05.1944 77th Anniversary of Genocide of the Crimean Tatar people, Crimean Tatar journalist Remzi Bekirov and four other political prisoners in court on 17 May 2021, with placards protesting Moscow’s repression in 1783, 1944 and since 2014 Photo Crimean Solidarity

It is seven years since the Russian occupation regime first banned remembrance events on the anniversary of the 1944 Deportation of the entire Crimean Tatar people from their homeland.  That ban remains, with Russian-controlled enforcement officers running around Crimea over recent days, issuing members of the Crimean Tatar self-governing bodies and other prominent figures with formal ‘warnings against extremist activity’. This year  Russia has added one new, cynical, element.  On 18 May, the most sombre of anniversaries for any Crimean Tatar, hearings have been scheduled in four political trials, most of them targeting Crimean Tatar civic activists and journalists. 

It is no accident that Crimean Tatars increasingly speak of three tragic years: Russia’s first annexation of Crimea in 1783, the 1944 Deportation and 2014.  Well over 80 Crimean Tatar are among the Ukrainian political prisoners held in Russia, and it is hardly surprising that they view such Russian captivity as a new hybrid deportation.

One of the men ‘on trial’ in the Russian city of Rostov is Remzi Bekirov who is a historian and tour guide by profession but became a journalist in order to inform his compatriots and the world about mounting persecution in occupied Crimea.  He is now facing a 20-year sentence for his unwavering civic position.

In a recent letter from prison, Bekirov points to painful historical parallels between the actions of the Russian regime during the first annexation and after 2014. Both time, the actions were aimed at driving out that part of the indigenous people of Crimea who were not viewed as ‘loyal’.

After the 1783 annexation, the Russian authorities tried to consolidate their position in Crimea through the loyalty of a small percentage of Crimean Tatars who agreed to serve the new rulers of Crimea.  <>  After 2014, the Russian authorities behaved in almost exactly the same way as their predecessors.

Having banned and intimidated the non-subordinate, dissident population, Russia began betting on loyal, ‘obedient’ Tatars.  To Moscow’s great disappointment, there were only a few of these. And those who did agree ‘to collaborate’ did not inspire the confidence of the freedom-loving Crimean Tatar people. The new, so-called Crimean Tatar ‘leaders’ (Ruslan Balbek; Remzi Ilyasov; Eskender Belyalov; Teifuk Gafarov and others) began creating ‘empty’ organizations, holding meetings; giving interviews, but were still unable to gain the acceptance of the people.

In addition, the Russian authorities began taking these people to international meetings where ‘pro-regime Tatars’ from high tribunes told the world how good it is to live in ‘Russian’ Crimea.  Many of these individuals, having carried out their role, were simply thrown out of power”.

Bekirov also cites a historian’s account of how Russia back in 1783 installed a pro-regime, loyal Muftiate, and adds that the same role is basically seen now also.  The Kremlin-loyal Muftiate, or ‘Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Crimea’ is now using its ‘official’ position to fight independent religious communities and Imams, whom the Russian occupation regime then prosecutes for so-called ‘illegal missionary activity’, which is how they describe holding Friday prayers in the Imam’s own mosque.  The FSB, Bekirov notes, will turn up at mosques which are not subservient to the Muftiate, and claim to have found ‘prohibited literature’. 

In short, Russia’s policies over the last 300 years have remained the same. “Russia does not want to see “troublesome”, “unreliable” Crimean Tatars, Crimean Muslims and is doing everything it can to achieve its aim. 

The 300-year struggle between the Russian empire and a small people has shown that the freedom-loving Muslim Crimean Tatar people will not kneel before anyone but the Almighty. And those who have Faith will definitely be victorious”.

The events under Russian occupation since 2014 clearly demonstrate what Remzi Bekirov is talking about.  On 18 May, there will, doubtless, be some kind of formal wreath-laying ceremony, attended by some high-ranking member of the Russian-installed ‘government’ and one or two Kremlin-loyal Crimean Tatars.  The emphasis will almost certainly be on deported peoples in general and on what has purportedly been done by the current regime for ‘rehabilitated peoples’.

It was only the Crimean Tatars, the main indigenous people of Crimea, who were exiled from their one and only homeland, and they alone were prevented from returning home for almost 50 years.  The current Russian regime, under President Vladimir Putin, is going to enormous lengths to deny Crimean Tatars their status as indigenous people.  This is almost certainly linked with the fact that the majority of Crimean Tatars have clearly demonstrated their identification with Ukraine.  It is also because Russia’s mythologised narrative about the Soviet victory in World War II and its alarming rewriting of history, including the role of Joseph Stalin, find the truth about Stalin’s Crimean Tatar victims inconvenient.

The sheer scale of the crime committed against the Crimean Tatar people in 1944, recognized by Ukraine as an act of genocide, makes it so shocking that Russia has, since 2014, effectively prohibited the traditional remembrance events.  Every year many Crimean Tatars with a pronounced civic position receive formal ‘warnings’ of the so-called “inadmissibility of extremist activities”, which is what the occupation regime calls honouring the victims of a heinous crime in peaceful gatherings and prayer.

18 May 1944

“In the life of each national group there are important symbolic dates.  These are, as a rule, the anniversaries of great victories or of the declaration of independence. For Crimean Tatars, fate turned out otherwise, and our significant date became a day of sorrow, the day of deportation. This was a day that indeed turned the entire history of the Crimean Tatar people upside down, and sent them decades, if not centuries, back. After all this was no mere resettlement, but an operation aimed at the destruction of a people. it is therefore entirely fitting that the Verkhovna Rada recognized t[the Deportation] as an act of genocide.  Over the two years after the Deportation, we lost around 46% of the people because of the appalling conditions in the places of exile.  At the same time in Crimea, everything linked with Crimean Tatars, their culture and life was being destroyed.  They even destroyed cemeteries, turning them into pavements and pigsties.

Yet we do not speak of the Deportation out of a desire to avenge what was done to our people.  We remind people of it so that nothing like it is ever repeated.“

These words are from Mustafa Dzhemilev, veteran leader of the Crimean Tatar people, who was 6 months old in May 1944, and who spent 15 years in Soviet labour camps for his affirmation of the right of his people to live in their homeland and of human rights in general.  He was speaking from Kyiv, where he has lived since soon after Russia’s invasion of Crimea and his second ‘deportation’ from his home. 

Dzhemilev’s father was at the front, as were very many Crimean Tatars.  Aside from elderly men, there were mostly women and children when the NKVD and army burst into Crimean Tatar homes in the early hours of 18 May 1944.  For all the lies used by Joseph Stalin about ‘collaborators’, most of the men were, like Dzhemilev’s father, fighting in the Soviet Army. 

As historian Gulnara Bekirova recounts, throughout the Nazi occupation, during which many were executed for helping the partisans, people had waited for ‘their’ soldiers to return and liberate Crimea.

Instead, they returned and herded elderly men, women and children into goods trains, after giving them as little as 15 minutes to gather belongings. More than 180 thousand Crimean Tatars were deported during the next three days, with the NKVD operation carried out with enormous brutality.  

“There was not one family who was untouched by the Deportation”, Dzhemilev explains, “Even Soviet heroes, who had received many awards, were deported.  Mixed families also.  If the wife was Russian, they told her she could remain if she got divorced.  It is to the credit of many of those women that they went into exile together with their husbands”.

Dzhemilev also recounts how Russians were brought en masse to Crimea after the Deportation and simply handed the Crimean Tatars’ homes, with everything inside, including children’s toys.  They were also told that they were occupying the homes of ‘traitors’.  Such propaganda was lapped up, he says, since, after all, it gave the Russians a sense of moral justification for taking the property of people who had been killed or deported.  Such propaganda continued for decades, until the Crimean Tatars were finally able to return (in any significant numbers after 1989, and mostly after Ukraine gained Independence.). 

The hate speech and prejudice that this stimulated should be remembered, since Russia, as occupying state, is increasingly using similar tactics against Crimean Tatars now. 

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