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‘I’m spoiled by my Ukrainian love of freedom’ In a bitter echo of Stalinist deportations, Russia's mobilization is forcing Crimean Tatars into exile
Original story by Zerkalo. English-language version by Sam Breazeale.
About 13 percent of Crimea’s population is made up of Crimean Tatars. And like many ethnic minorities within Russia’s internationally recognized borders, Crimean Tatars are widely reported to have been disproportionately targeted by Moscow’s mobilization campaign. This is in addition to the targeted repressions and violence they've faced at the hands of the occupying Russian government since 2014, when Moscow first annexed their homeland. But as multiple members of the minority group recently told the Belarusian independent news outlet Zerkalo, deciding whether to leave Crimea isn’t as easy as weighing the safety benefits; the forced deportation of hundreds of thousands of Crimean Tatars under the Soviet government, which rapidly led to the deaths of more than 100,000 people, remains in living memory, making life outside of Crimea “unthinkable” for many. In English, Meduza summarizes Zerkalo’s report on the agonizing choices facing Crimea’s indigenous people.
In June, Seidamet, a Crimean Tatar who now lives abroad, was recovering from surgery in a hospital on his native peninsula when he got a call from his mother: somebody from the military commissariat was searching for him.
“I don’t know why; maybe they were preparing a list for the future,” he told Zerkalo. Though his doctor said he would be granted a health deferral in the case of mobilization, and he has no military experience, he knew that at 48, he was still young enough to be conscripted.
Then, in early September, weeks before Putin’s mobilization announcement, Seidamet’s nephew received a summons from the commissariat. According to Seidamet, his family, like most Crimean Tatars still living in Crimea, doesn’t support the war.
“[My nephew] has no motivation to fight — he’s pro-Ukrainian in his soul and he’s half-Ukrainian by blood,” he said. “If any of our people support Russia and the war, they're exceptions, and in my view, they're no longer Crimean Tatars. Our people are peace-loving — and we love Ukraine.”
So to be on the safe side, Seidamet and his nephew left Crimea.
Their departure made a lot of their relatives uneasy; after all, every Tatar that leaves Crimea is a reminder of the recent past, when the peninsula had virtually no Tatars at all. Seidamet himself, a Ukrainian citizen, was born in Uzbekistan, a consequence of the Stalin regime deporting the Crimean Tatar population from their homeland en masse.
“In 1944, we were accused of betrayal — allegedly, we were on the same side as the fascists — and deported. There were a lot of deported ethnic groups in the USSR, but in 1957, the majority of them returned home. But Crimean Tatars didn’t have that opportunity! They simply tried to dilute us, to assimilate us into Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan. While people’s main desire was to return,” he said.
In 1989, the Soviet government finally lifted the ban on Crimean Tatars returning to Crimea. Seidamet and his family went home in July of that year.
“I was fifteen years old when I [first] set foot on Crimean land. For all of our people, returning home was something monumental. Something for which we’d endured years of suffering. So the prospect of abandoning our homeland again — the Crimean mountains, the sea — was an insoluble problem for many, especially for older people. And the annexation in 2014 was a terrible blow. But most of our people understood that while they were under the yoke of repression, and they no longer had freedom of speech, they would remain home,” said Seidamet.
But those who have stayed have paid a heavy price. 27-year-old Ildar (name changed for security reasons), another Crimean Tatar from the peninsula, said that two days after Putin’s mobilization announcement, his various group chats began filling with messages about checkpoints popping up in rural areas.
“I didn’t serve in the army, but it was clear that they would take Crimean Tatars first, and that the roundups had started. I could see in the chats that they were being especially thorough in areas that are densely populated with our people — in the settlements that arose where the camps once were. When Crimean Tatars returned [to Crimea after 1989], the government obstructed them, refusing to give them land. In some areas, people just put stakes in the ground and set up tents, and houses appeared later on. Later, that land was legally privatized,” he said.
He recalled one case in which authorities tricked a man into opening his door, since draft orders must be physically handed to their recipient under Russian law. After somebody cried out that a person was hurt, the man came out to help — and was immediately served his summons.
Ildar himself ultimately decided to flee to Kazakhstan, as did a lot of other people he knew.
“Among my friends and relatives, maybe 70 percent of Crimean Tatars have left. For us, that’s quite a lot,” he told Zerkalo.
Indeed, according to preliminary data from the Presidential Representative of Ukraine in Crimea, as of October 3, more than 10,000 people had left Crimea since Putin’s mobilization announcement — “a significant portion of them Crimean Tatars.”
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According to Zarema (name changed for security reasons), overall in Crimea, the wave of panic that followed the mobilization announcement has been gradually subsiding. But fear of conscription, as well as of the repressions that have been ongoing in Crimea since 2014, remains.
“Right now, Crimean Tatars are under close scrutiny. We have so-called bloggers who ‘fight against’ people who don’t openly support the special military operation [Editor's note: Kremlin-speak for the war in Ukraine] or who simply stay silent. They’ve gotten people for discrediting the Russian army, fired teachers, and are prosecuting businessmen who allow their premises to be used for certain events. In schools, they also keep close watch on the teachers — I know of one case when a family of Crimean Tatars who moved from Mariupol were hit with administrative charges. Their child was in the first grade, and the teacher gave the students an assignment to draw the flag of their country, so he drew a Ukrainian flag. Naturally, the other students humiliated him, and the parents were fined for ‘improperly carrying out their duties.’”
More recently, Zarema said, pro-government voices have begun trying to construe legal counsel for draftees as "illegal resistance" to mobilization. “They’re calling for lawyers to be held accountable, and if you take into account the specific context of Crimea, the danger grows tremendously,” she told Zerkalo.
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But Zarema also described efforts by the Russian occupying authorities to suppress Crimean Tatar identity even outside of the context of the war, similarly to how it treats Ukraine’s national identity — despite earlier promises from Moscow to grant Crimean Tatars “national-cultural autonomy.”
“Since 2014, I’ve been working on issues connected to Crimean Tatar culture, and the FSB has put spokes in the wheels at every turn,” Zarema said. “We weren’t allowed to gather even to celebrate Flag Day — cultural events are only allowed when they’re pro-Russian. In schools, there’s an unofficial ban on Crimean Tatar [language] lessons.”
And these bans have been backed up by violence.
“I have friends who have gone to prison, acquaintances who have disappeared. Every day, they rake in Crimean Tatars under the guise of them being terrorists. Just a year ago, they arrested Nariman Dzhelyal, who was allegedly wanted to commit a terrorist attack on a gas pipeline. But everybody knows why he was [really] arrested — he was openly supportive of Ukraine; he was part of the Crimea Platform (Editor’s note: an initiative of the Ukrainian government that seeks to return Crimea to Ukrainian control).”
It’s not just in her capacity as a lawyer that Zarema has experienced Russian state violence: she’s also lost multiple family members.
“One of my sons left in 2012. Clearly, he had his own issues with Russia, though he was still young. He fought in Syria against [Russia] and was killed. This year, he would have been 30. My second son, if he’s alive, will turn 27 in November. He was kidnapped by FSB agents in 2014. He and my nephew were shoved into a car, and we don’t know anything about what happened after that. [...] Later, my oldest daughter moved to Kyiv. When she would travel back to Crimea, they would constantly harass her at the border; it made her very nervous. And then they turned her apartment [in Kyiv] upside down while she was gone. The FSB managed to reach its tentacles there, too. [...] Such are the difficult circumstances around us. Russia is a predatory organization, and repressions are its way of life,” she said.
According to Abdula, a lot of draft evaders have been returning to Crimea because they can’t afford the cost of living in foreign countries. Seidamet also wants to return to the Crimean Peninsula — but only once a different government is in power.
“At some point in 2016, I was suffocating from the lack of freedom, which was being offered to me as if it were manna from heaven. I couldn’t do it! I’m spoiled by my Ukrainian love for freedom. Sure, it sometimes reached the point of anarchy, but we loved it anyway! At that point, I remember, I hopped in a minibus and told the driver, ‘Let’s go to Kyiv!’ I spent a month inhaling the freedom there, then I decided to return to Crimea, but with the caveat that if I saw something bad, I would speak up about it. That’s why even now, I’m not hiding my name.”
And in Seidamet’s view, at least one thing has changed since the mid-2010s: the international community seems to have woken up.
“Since 2014, a lot of people had forgotten about us. No matter how loudly we shouted about what was happening. The world forgot that in the 21st century, [Russia] had brazenly bitten off a piece of an entire country and called it its own. But [one day], Crimea will be Ukrainian again, and I have no doubt that we’ll return. For now, I’m having dreams of Crimean mountains. I’m strolling through them, and everything is alright.”
English-language version by Sam Breazeale
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