Fate of Crimean Tatars Should Sound Familiar to Jews


By Walter Ruby

If, as appears likely, this summer’s Ukrainian counter-offensive against strongly entrenched Russian occupying forces in eastern and southern Ukraine fails to result in a decisive breakthrough, we are almost certain to hear stepped-up calls from many in the U.S. and Europe for the Ukrainians to make a cease-fire deal with Russia that would leave large sections of their country in Russian hands — including the strategic Crimean peninsula, which Russia has occupied since 2014. After all, as apologists for such a course are already saying, given that 60 percent or more of Crimea’s population today is ethnic Russian, wouldn’t it be reasonable, even just, to leave the region as part of Russia?

Decidedly not. Such a decision would overlook the reality, too little known in the West, that in May 1944, the Soviet Union under dictator Josef Stalin carried out a genocidal deportation of the entire population of Crimean Tatars, a small Turkic-Muslim community indigenous to Crimea, based on the false charge that they collaborated with the Nazis during their more than two-year occupation of the peninsula.

The deportation of nearly 200,000 Crimean Tatar souls in boxcars from Crimea to bleak concentration camps in Uzbekistan and other parts of Soviet Central Asia and Siberia more than 1,000 miles away led to nearly 100,000 deaths of Crimean Tatars from disease and starvation between May 1944 and January 1946. (The Presidium of the Supreme Soviet officially absolved the Crimean Tatars of the charge of mass betrayal of the Soviet Union in 1967, but nevertheless refused to allow the community to return to their homeland.)


Estimates of the percentage of Crimean Tatar deportees who perished from 1944-1946 range from about 30% of the total number of deportees, according to Brian Glynn Williams, an American authority on the Crimean Tatars and author of “The Crimean Tatars: From Soviet Genocide to Putin’s Conquest”; to 46.3%, a figure reached by Crimean Tatar scholars in the 1970s based on a close analysis of Soviet census figures of Crimean Tatars before and after the deportation.

Whatever the exact figure, the percentage of Crimean Tatars who died during the Soviet deportation and its aftermath is analogous to the estimated one third of world Jewry put to death by the Nazis during the Holocaust.

The similarities do not end there. Like the Jews, the Crimean Tatars did not forget their homeland. During the 1990s, in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union, about 250,000 Crimean Tatars managed to return to Crimea during a period in which the region was under Ukrainian sovereignty. Tragically for the repatriated community, the Russians seized and illegally annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

The opposition of the Crimean Tatar Majlis (assembly) and people to that takeover has resulted in full-bore and sustained Russian repression of the Crimean Tatars during the years since. This includes the outlawing of the Majlis as a supposed “terrorist” body; police raids on Crimean Tatar mosques and community institutions; arbitrary arrests and long prison sentences for hundreds of Crimean Tatar leaders and activists. In April 2023, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination denounced wholesale human rights violations by Russia against the Crimean Tatars, including abductions, deportation and enforced disappearances, some of which resulted in rape, torture and summary execution.

To comprehend the nightmare the Crimean Tatar people are enduring, imagine that 70 years after the Nazi murder of 6 million Jews, a latter-day German totalitarian government re-subjugated Jewish communities across Europe and instituted an extensive repression of Jewish self-government, culture and religion.

In response to the horror of the Holocaust, Jews proclaim “Never Again” not only for ourselves, but for any people victimized by genocidal violence. Pursuant to that commitment, American Jews should speak out emphatically against calls to consign Crimea to Russia. To acquiesce in that outcome would likely amount to colluding in the destruction of the Crimean Tatars as a people.

Indeed, the Crimean Tatars have suffered under Russian occupation and sustained efforts to drive them out of their homeland since 1783, when the armies of Catherine the Great conquered Crimea and ended the 300-year-old Crimean Khanate. In the 240 years since, Russia authorities have relentlessly pushed massive resettlement of Crimea by ethnic Slavs (mostly Russians), turning the Crimean Tatars from a large majority in their homeland to a minority of only about 12% of the population today.

The American Jewish community can play a vital role in preventing permanent Russian control over Crimea by affirming that Stalin’s deportation of the Crimean Tatars in 1944 was an attempted genocide. We need to state emphatically that a nation like Russia, that has attempted genocide against another people, must not be granted a second chance to finish the job. Crimea should be restored to Ukraine, which fully recognizes the Crimean Tatars as the indigenous population of Crimea and has vowed to retore their full human and civil rights in their homeland.

Even if the liberation of Crimea does not happen for years, we must shine a spotlight on the brutal Russian repression of the Crimean Tatars and demand it end immediately. If the principle of “Never Again” has any meaning, it must be applied to peoples large and small, very much including the Crimean Tatars. ■

Walter Ruby is a veteran journalist and activist in strengthening Muslim-Jewish relations.

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