May 18 of 1944 became a tragedy for 238,500 people. It was on this day that the Soviet government deported the Tatars from the Crimean peninsula deep into the mainland - to Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. Small groups of people were also sent to the Mari Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, to the Urals and to the Kostroma region of Russia.
The deportation of the Tatars in 1944 became one of the fastest ones in history: it happened in just two days.
In Ukraine, May 18 is the Day of Commemoration of the Victims of the Crimean Tatar People's Genocide.
Crimean Tatars before deportation
After the USSR appeared on world maps in 1922, Moscow recognized the Tatars living in Crimea as the indigenous population of the Crimean ASSR. They were allowed to develop their culture: there were Crimean Tatar magazines, newspapers, educational institutions and even museums, libraries and theaters in Crimea. Along with Russian, the Crimean Tatar language was official in autonomy. In the period of the 20-30s of the last century, Tatars accounted for about 30% of the total population.
But in the beginning of the 1930s, the Soviets changed their attitude towards the indigenous population of Crimea and other nationalities; the policy of the USSR became repressive: dekulakization, eviction to the north and beyond the Urals, then violent collectivization and the famine of 1932-33, and then the cleansing of the intelligentsia in 1937-1938. All this set Crimean Tatars against the authorities of the USSR.
Reasons for the deportation of Crimean Tatars
Stalin signed the decision of the USSR State Defense Committee on the eviction of all Crimean Tatars from the territory of Crimea, and the head of the NKVD Beria prepared a memorandum with the justification. In his opinion, about 20,000 Tatars deserted from the Red Army. This has raised concerns in the Soviet government in regard to the threat to national security, especially considering the fact that Crimea is a “border region” with Turkey, which was also seen as a possible enemy at that time. All the Tatar people were accused of collaborationism and the “mass extermination of Soviet people.”
At the same time, according to historians, about 15% of the Tatars fought on the side of the Red Army. According to various sources, 9,000 - 20,000 Crimean Tatars served in anti-Soviet units. Some of them tried to protect their villages from Soviet partisans and ethnic persecution. Others were captured and agreed to cooperate in order to facilitate the conditions of stay in prison camps.
Those who served in German troops in May 1944 retreated to Germany, so their wives and children who remained on the peninsula were deported.
But this is the official version of the USSR. There are also other reasons for deportation. For example, the Crimean Tatars historically had a close relationship with Turkey. At that time, the Soviet authorities saw Turkey as a potential rival, and Crimea was a strategic bridgehead in case of a conflict. So the resettlement was a kind of reinsurance against possible sabotage and betrayal by the Tatars. Moreover, other Muslim ethnic groups from the Caucasian regions adjacent to Turkey were also relocated.
How the deportation was carried out?
It all started early on the morning of May 18, 1944, and ended at 16:00 on May 20, 1944, under the control of over 32,000 people of NKVD troops. The Tatars were given half an hour to pack up, after which they were taken by trucks to the railway stations, and from there they were transported to the east by trains. The wagons were for freight, but they were readjusted for transporting people: there were potbelly stoves and plank beds. In total, 70 of such trains were sent away.
Officially, the Tatars were allowed to take with them up to 500 kg of luggage; however, it was only possible to take much less, sometimes nothing at all.
Not everyone could survive such deportation - about 8,000 people died on the way, most of them elderly people and children. Most often they died of thirst and typhoid.
“There was no medical care of course. People drank water from reservoirs and from there stocked up for future use. There was no possibility to boil water. People began to suffer from dysentery, typhoid fever, malaria, scabies, everyone had lice. It was hot, people were thirsty. The dead were left on the road, nobody buried them,” the Tatars, who were eyewitnesses of the conditions at the time told.
Some people lost their minds, unable to bear the suffering. In the first years after the expulsion, according to various estimates, from 20 to 46% of the deportees died.
Tatars in deportation
Most of the deportees ended up in special settlements. They were surrounded by militarized guards with checkpoints, and the territory was fenced with barbed wire. People were used as cheap labor and sent to cultivate fields, work in mines, construction areas, and factories.
It was impossible to leave the special settlement without the permission of the NKVD, otherwise one could face a 20-year sentence.
Relations with the locals were just as difficult. For example, in Uzbekistan, hatred was spread among the locals even before the arrival of the Tatars; people were convinced that those who arrived were traitors and enemies of the people. People were told that the Tatars were cyclops and cannibals. Some local residents even felt the heads of the visitors to see if they had horns.
Education was still available for the Tatars, but exclusively in Russian. Any publications in the Crimean Tatar language were banned until 1975, and even an article on Crimean Tatars was withdrawn from the Great Soviet Encyclopedia.
Consequences for Crimea
After the deportation of the Tatars, the same fate befell the Armenians, Bulgarians, and Greeks who lived on the Crimean peninsula. Crimea ceased to be an autonomous republic.
The southern regions of the peninsula, where the Crimean Tatars lived, were empty. According to official figures, 2,600 inhabitants remained in the Alushta region, 2.2000 remained in the Balaklava region. Later, the deserted Crimea was populated by people from Ukraine and Russia.
In addition, the peninsula was subjected to “toponymic repressions”: cities, villages, mountains, and rivers lost their Crimean Tatar, Greek or German names, and received new, Russian. These changes did not touch such cities as Bakhchisaray, Dzhankoy, Saki, Sudak, and the village of Ishun.
Tatar monuments, books, and manuscripts were being destroyed, even the volumes of Lenin and Marx, translated into the Crimean Tatar language. Mosques were rebuilt into shops and movie theaters.
Without the right to return to Crimea, Crimean Tatars lived in special settlements until the second half of the 50s, until the era of Khrushchev's de-Stalinization. Though then the government only softened the living conditions, but the charge of treason still remained.
In the 50s and 60s, Tatars actively fought for their return, including with the help of demonstrations. Some of them were dispersed by force. Nevertheless, the efforts were not in vain, and gradually the Tatars managed to expand their rights. At the same time, the ban on returning to the Crimea was still in effect – up until 1989.