The Right to Memory. On the anniversary of the deportation of the Crimean Tatar people

On May 18, 1944, the Crimean Tatar people were deported en masse from Crimea to remote regions of Central Asia and beyond the Urals. The memory of this event – when a purge descended upon an entire people, when individuals were labeled “traitors” solely on the basis of their ethnicity, driven from their homeland, and condemned to an agonizing exile – is still alive, but it is becoming more and more difficult to commemorate this day. The Crimean authorities have effectively prevented public acts of remembrance on this date.

In some sense history and rhetoric are repeating themselves: The rumor that there are allegedly many extremists and Islamists among Crimean Tatars has proliferated in public statements made by Russian politicians and in the media. There is much speculation in public discourse based on historical myths about the Crimean Tatars as “collaborators and traitors of the Soviet people” during World War II. The main messages that are being spread are: “Crimean Tatars are traitors,” “Crimean Tatars are not an independent people,” “Crimean Tatars must be deported again,” “Crimean Tatars are dishonorable, they must be avoided” and so forth. In this way, the entire Crimean Tatar people is again becoming the victim of discriminatory rhetoric and practices.

Crimean Tatar national symbols, imagery, and heritage, and attributes of Crimean Tatar identity are being used to shape the pro-Russia discourse. At the same time, monuments to the cultural heritage and holy sites of the Crimean Tatars are being destroyed. It has been reported that the sites of former Crimean Tatar cemeteries have been developed and that remains have not been treated properly during excavation.

In 2019, a cemetery identified as Crimean Tatar by the nature of the burial site was uncovered during excavation work at the location of the former village of Ungut in Kirov District. Activists thought that it was sacrilegious to store the remains in plastic baggies and cardboard boxes under the open sky, even though it was announced that the remains could be reburied following Muslim traditions after they were examined in a laboratory. After this situation was publicized, the remains were taken away. Their fate is unknown.

In 2019, human remains were found during repair work in Simferopol’s city garden. Local historians say that an old Crimean Tatar cemetery used to be located at this site. Construction was temporarily suspended, but the fate of the remains is unknown.

Unprofessional repair work that compromised the authenticity and integrity of the 16th century Bagçesaray Palace of the Crimean Khans, which is on UNESCO’s tentative World Heritage list, is cause for serious concern.

At the same time, Crimea is experiencing what experts call a “boom in monuments”: At least 150 monuments were erected between 2014 and 2020. Most of these were openly used to promote Russia’s government ideology and “symbolically anchor the peninsula in Russia.”

The erection of a monument to the leaders of the Big Three, including Stalin, in Livadiya in 2015 despite numerous objections by Crimean Tatar activists was particularly offensive, as was the installation of a statute of Catherine the Great, who Crimean Tatars see as a symbol of the persecution and destruction of their statehood, in Simferopol in 2016.

Meanwhile, objects sacred to the Crimean Tatar people are being desecrated and destroyed. These objects include not only gravestones at Crimean Tatar cemeteries, but also plaques commemorating Crimean Tatars who died during World War II or displaying Crimean Tatar symbols. Acts of vandalism become more frequent before commemorative dates connected with the deportation in 1944. Crimean activists say that 23 cases of the vandalism of Crimean Tatar holy objects have been recorded in the six years since annexation.

The victims almost always attempted to get the police to react to these documented acts of vandalism (they called the police and filed statements), but the police never took any measures. The victims frequently reported that law enforcement refused to open criminal cases and maintained that the victims could have harmed the objects themselves.

The new round of discrimination is also being expressed in attempts to silence discussion about past persecution and to rewrite history. But neither the destruction of old monuments nor the erection of new ones can extinguish the truth and memory.

Photos by Valeriy Miloserdov were used in the animation.