Book Review: Brian Glyn Williams ‘The Crimean Tatars: From Soviet Genocide to Putin’s Conquest’

This book review was originally published on Open Democracy Russia under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence.

williams-crimean-tatars-cover-webThe Crimean Tatar population following Russian annexation is under renewed pressure. As a new history of the community shows, their troubles have many historical precedents—rooted in Russia’s first annexation of the peninsula.

Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, Crimea’s indigenous community faced a new level of threat and discrimination from the annexing regime. Crimean Tatars were the most vociferous—or at least visibly vociferous—opponents of annexation. Historically, too, Crimea’s Tatar minority had aligned with post-Soviet Ukraine against pro-Russian movements within Crimea. In the summer of 2014, Crimean Tatar leaders Mustafa Dzhemilev and Refat Chubarov, were barred from entering Russian territory including Crimea for five years following accusations of extremism.

With violence towards Crimean Tatars on the increase, including a raid and forced closure of the Mejlis (Crimean Tatar representative council) and Crimean Tatar media, Crimean Tatars comprise a significant proportion of those who have fled since Russia’s annexation. Crimean Tatars have come to fear exile, or even another deportation. This echoes the trauma experienced by Crimean Tatars’ Sürgün (deportation) in 1944, when the population was deported to Siberia and Central Asia in 1944 at the behest of Stalin. The order was taken to punish Crimean Tatars’ for betrayal of the Soviet motherland due to alleged collaboration with the Nazis, who occupied Crimea from 1941 to 1944. Many Crimean Tatars managed to return to their historical homeland only after 1989.

Crimea’s other annexation

Williams’s second book on the history of the Crimean Tatars, The Crimean Tatars: From Soviet Genocide to Putin’s Conquest, offers a timely and rich historical account of this community, stretching from Crimea’s annexation from the Ottoman empire to the Russian Empire in 1783 to the present ‘second annexation’ of 2014. It offers a historical context, if not haunting reflection, on the brutalities experienced by Crimea’s indigenous minority, of their ‘forced exile, genocide and revival as a nation’, at a time of great uncertainty, as well as the effect of these traumas on the national identity of this community.

Crimean Tatars were the most vociferous—or at least visibly vociferous—opponents of annexation

Williams’s narrative follows two central themes: firstly, of the building of a Crimean Tatar nation and sense of homeland, and secondly, the modernising transformation of Crimean Tatars, from a ‘pre-modern tribal-Islamic peasant people’ to a ‘modern secular nation’ in a matter of decades.

Williams contextualises the fears and worries of Crimean Tatars, residing now in Russia after a period of revival since the collapse of the Soviet Union, countering the enduring assumptions that Crimean Tatars might be a source of religious fanaticism. The Crimean Tatars, he stresses, have endured as a secular and peaceful community and nation, in spite of the numerous challenges posed by the deportation. This argument has increasing relevance since annexation, demonstrating the absurdity of Russia’s treatment of Crimean Tatars, depicting them as religious extremists, and including accusing Crimean Tatar leaders as recruiters for ISIS.

This history follows the pre-Tsarist period to the contemporary period, to discuss how a diasporic nation came to be constructed and how it endured despite the challenges of deportation.

Williams spends the first three chapters focusing on precisely how Crimean Tatars did not conceive of themselves as a nation, beginning his historical narrative with the Crimean Tatars’ dispossession—their loss of a homeland to the Russian Empire in 1783. This annexation caused micro-level changes in terms of property rights, contrasting the traditionally freer Crimean Tatars with a landowning Russian elite, who confiscated land from them, encouraged the Muslim minority to migrate en masse to the Ottoman Empire.

Those remaining fell victim to the suspicions of the Russian Empire, as religious fanatics and potential collaborators with the ‘invaders’, in a context of rising tensions between the Russian and Ottoman Empires culminating in the Crimean war of 1854-1856. Even in this period, the idea of mass expulsion of Crimean Tatars was considered, although as Williams argues it was not pursued due to a lack of logistical capacity. These rumours continued to circulate, however, and were successful in scaring Crimean Tatars to emigrate voluntarily.

From Muslim minority to Turkic nation

In the nineteenth century, an emerging Crimean Tatar intelligentsia constructed the peninsula as a vatan (homeland) for Crimean Tatars and transformed the population from a religiously-defined politically apathetic minority into a secular and politically active nation with a clear sense of territorial attachment. Williams argues that local intelligentsia were responsible for this transformation, in particular the cultural hero of Ismail Gasprinsky, the so-called ‘father of the Russian Turkic Nation’.

Gasprinsky sought to modernise and reform Crimean Tatar society, through education and newspapers, from an inward looking and conservative community to a secular nation. Gasprinsky was concerned too with self-preservation, supporting an international pan-Turkic affiliation between Crimean Tatars and Muslims across the Russian Empire which centred on a common language, culture and ethnicity (rather than a common religion) and opposing emigration. This was a watershed in Crimean Tatar history and marked the creation of Crimea as a territorial home for the Crimean Tatar nation.

Williams emphasises the role of Soviet policies in creating and shaping the Crimean Tatar nation, and the different dynamics of Soviet policy under Lenin and Stalin. The Crimean Tatars were crucial in helping the Bolsheviks capture the Crimean peninsula from the Whites during the Russian civil war. After a policy of repression by the emerging Soviet regime, the Soviet Union changed tactics and instead supported a policy of supporting Crimean Tatars—as the indigenous peoples of the territory—in line with Lenin’s policy of korenizatsiya(indigenisation).

The Soviet state promoted the flourishing of Crimean Tatar language, education and culture, though equally pursued a policy of secularisation, leading to the closure of mosques in Crimea. During this period, Crimean Tatars such as Veli Ibrahimov—chairman of the Crimean Central Committee—were empowered, pursuing policies to increase the population of Crimean Tatars and to resettle them away from over-populated coastal areas north of the Crimean Steppe.

With Lenin’s death and the rise of Stalin, the approach of the Soviet Union to the Crimean Tatars shifted dramatically. Ibrahimov fell victim to the first wave of purges under Stalin in 1928 and waves of deportations of Crimean Tatars to Siberia began in the early 1930s.

Moving towards the second world war, Williams discusses both how antipathy Crimean Tatars towards Soviet rule was already high and unpacks the complex experiences of Crimean Tatars during Crimea’s occupation by Nazi Germany. Crimean Tatars fought and died in the struggle against Nazi occupation and, after their capture, some were forced into fighting with Nazi soldiers. Williams complicates the collaboration accusation put forward by Stalin, highlighting coerced collaboration and significant wartime losses, where up to 20,000 Crimean Tatars died fighting within the Soviet army.

Enduring traumas

The Sürgün in 1944 saw the deportation of almost the entire population of Crimean Tatars following the liberation of Crimea from Nazi occupation, Williams’s analysis of the events centres on national identity, noting the ruthless rationale of Stalin’s actions. The deportation was to deterritorialise—and thus denationalise—Crimean Tatars. However, the consequence of this communal trauma was instead to converting a latent national identity into a site of mobilisation and politicisation. The risks of politicisation were something Crimean Tatar activists were willing to bear throughout the Soviet period. Many were imprisoned, notably former chairman of the Mejlis Mustafa DzhemilevQırımoğlu (Crimean Tatar: ‘son of the Crimean nation’) as they waited out the Soviet experiment in exile unable to return until the final years of Gorbachev’s policies of perestroika and glasnost.

Tatars returning to Crimea were willing to sacrifice their standard of living in returning to a peninsula in which they were marginalised

With the return of Crimean Tatars to Crimea in 1989, Williams argues the diasporic identity of this nation and their attachment to the territory of Crimea were crucial to the endurance of a Crimean Tatar identity. This identity was passed down through generations via folklore and myths about the territory and the transgenerational and shared nature of the Sürgün trauma.

Those returning to Crimea were willing to sacrifice their standard of living in returning to a peninsula in which they were marginalised to rural and urban peripheries, self-made shacks in self-made settlements, often without running water, electricity and toilets. This process of deurbanisation, Williams adds, also affected the employment opportunities of those returning, with white collar workers becoming market traders.

This communal experience of trauma, post-Soviet return and renewal was the backdrop for Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. New struggles began for the Crimean Tatar community. The occupying Russian regime was suspicious of the community, not only because they were consistently pro-Ukrainian minority, but due to an entire history of distrust which began with the ‘first annexation’ of 1783.

The resonance of the book is a testament to the richness and depth in which it covers Crimean Tatars’ history. Williams constructs a fascinating narrative and a convincing argument on the strength of deportation as a communal trauma, which served to preserve a nation in exile and incentivise return, even though this incurred significant personal costs.

Williams has a particular interest in the slur of Crimean Tatar ‘betrayal’—which is still used to delegitimise the community. As he notes, this accusation preceded Stalin’s 1944 denunciation of the Crimean Tatars, and had its roots in the ‘first annexation’ and then the Crimean war of the 1850s . It was unclear therefore whether the author intended to draw parallels between these periods, a point which Williams could have addressed more directly.

The Crimean Tatars’ expertise with the land in Crimea—in particular their skill for water conservation—was also briefly addressed by Williams. In a peninsula notoriously short of this precious resource and in a political climate where—since annexation—Ukraine has halted water supplies to Crimea, this point could also have been developed further. For example, one potential reason suggested for Khrushchev’s transfer of Crimea to the Ukrainian SSR in 1954 was Crimea’s reliance on water supplies from Ukraine, via the Dnieper. How far this reliance on Ukraine increased following the deportation of Crimean Tatars would then have been an interesting point for Williams to consider.

Williams projects a precarious future for Crimean Tatars: one in which they will likely remain a source of suspicion, at risk of continued discrimination and marginalization. If anything should be taken from his pessimistic history of the community, it is that the Crimean Tatars show incredible durability as a peaceful nation, even in exile. To this end, however tragically, Crimean Tatars may not need Crimea as a territorial homeland to endure as a nation.


 

Brian Glynn Williams’s The Crimean Tatars: from Soviet Genocide to Putin’s Conquest was published by Hurst in November 2015.

Originally published on Open Democracy Russia: https://opendemocracy.net/od-russia/eleanor-knott/book-review-brian-glyn-williams-crimean-tatars-from-soviet-genocide-to-putin

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Why is there Antagonism between Russian Nationalists and Crimean Tatars?

This text is based on a talk I gave on 6 March 2015 as part of a discussion hosted by Research Turkey on “Ukrainian Crisis and the Atrocities in Crimea: The Never-Ending Persecution of Crimean Tatars”.


Based on the fieldwork I conducted in Crimea in 2012 and 2013, I wanted to offer a historical perspective, or at least a pre-annexation perspective, on why antagonism from Russian nationalists within Crimea might be directed towards Crimean Tatars. Here I argue antagonisms pre-existed in the organisations (such as Russkaia Obshchina Kryma/Russian Community of Crimea [ROC] and Russkoe Edinstvo/Russian Unity [RE]) that were key in facilitating Crimea’s annexation in 2014, given the pre-eminence of key figures within these organisations (most prominently Sergei Aksenov, as head of RE) during and after Crimea’s annexation.

As Liana Fix and I argue, in a report for the German Council on Foreign Relations, Crimea should not be seen as a “fait accompli” or a realist situation to be dealt with by drawing lines in the sand, because there are real concerns about the deteriorating situation for, and heightening repression of Crimean Tatars since Russia’s annexation of the peninsula in 2014. I want, therefore, to reflect on how and why Crimean Tatars might be the object of such repression since 2014.

Speaking to Crimean Tatars pre-annexation

Khan's Palace, Bakhchysarai
Khan’s Palace, Bakhchysarai

During fieldwork, I was able to conduct some interviews also with Crimean Tatars about how their position within Crimea. This was not a comprehensive study, since my focus was primarily on meanings attached to Russian identity, and others have researched Crimean Tatars, far more than me (e.g. Greta Uehling and Andrew Wilson’s OSCE report). However it still provided useful insights into Crimean Tatar perspectives and a fascinating contrasts with the Russian nationalist organisations I was focusing on.

In terms of identification, it was evident from those I interviewed they felt both as Crimean Tatar and as Ukrainian citizens. In fact, they rejected even identifying as Crimean (Krymchanka) on the basis that this was a “Soviet expression” (“sovok”). But those I spoke to retained strong ties to the land, reinforced by their sense of return to Crimea, and their ability to return to the land of “their ancestors” and the land from where their parents had been deported. That is to say, Crimean Tatar identification was strongly linked to the cultural memories, if not experiences, of deportation and return, since all I met had returned to Crimea from Uzbekistan in the preceding years and decades.

What was most striking, and reflecting on events post-2014, was a consensus that the situation, socially, politically and economically, had got better for Crimean Tatars in Crimea and Ukraine. They had already “experienced the worst years” (2012) and no longer subject to the same discrimination, seeing themselves as able to get jobs in peninsula, which previously had been difficult.

Хайтарма (Haytarma)

Хайтарма / Haytarma – The History of a Nation

My 2013 visit to Crimea coincided with the release of the first Crimean Tatar film Хайтарма (Haytarma, which can be watched online in Russian). Travelling to a small village beyond the outskirts of Simferopol to watch it in a Soviet-style Cultural House, I was (probably) the only non-Crimean Tatar person in the room watching the film. By the end I was the only person who left the room not in tears. Of all my memories in Crimea, this remains one of the most poignant.

Haytarma combined the story of deportation alongside the story of a Soviet hero, Amet-Khan Sultan who himself was half Crimean Tatar, and it was this combination that made the film so potent and controversial. Arriving in Simferopol in late May 2012, coinciding with Crimean Tatar protests outside the Russian consul in Simferopol following the order by the Russian Consul, Vladimir Andreev, for his delegation not to attend the premiere because it “distorts the truth about the Great Patriotic War” by failing to “reflect the mass betrayal of the Crimean Tatar people”. Alongside the protests against this rhetoric, and the observation about the potency of the idea of Crimean Tatar collaboration, the Russian Foreign Ministry seemed to want to lock the story down: the Russian Consul was promptly advised to resign, on the basis that the Russia, officially, did not want to seem to be endorsing this extreme opinion.

This contention, between Consul and Ministry, struck me at the time as interesting by demonstrating the Russian MFA’s willingness to scold its consuls; Russia, in an official capacity, seemed not to want to endorse the discourse of Crimea’s Soviet betrayal/collaboration, which in itself was quite surprising, and an interesting point of reflection given Russia’s willingness to suppress Crimean Tatars post-annexation.

The Three Sergeis and Andreev L-R: Sergei Tsekov (ROC), Vladimir Andreev (Russian Consul, Simfeorpol), Sergei Aksenov (RE), Sergei Shuvainikov April 2013

However, what I observed also were Andreev’s (the Russian Consul in Crimea) close informal ties to key actors in ROC and RE, demonstrating the highly developed relations that existed between Russia and local pro-Russian organisations, who themselves were key also in endorsing the idea of Crimean Tatar collaboration. I would add the idea of collaboration was supported only in the minds of the most heavily nationalistic; this was not a mainstream discourse among non-Crimean Tatars that I interviewed, who instead praised, often, Crimea as a multi-cultural peninsula, where people enjoyed this ethnic diversity, and the different experiences it presently, culturally, rather than pathologised this diversity.

Grievances of Russian nationalists towards Crimean Tatars

These Russian nationalists, who were often members of ROC and RE (and/or more extreme groups) which in themselves were key actors in Russia’s annexation, focused both on pre-Soviet and post-Soviet/contemporary grievances.

Sure enough, pre-Soviet grievances focused on the idea that the deportation of Crimean Tatars was justified by their collaboration, that they were “evicted, we say rightly because so many of them during the occupation during the war, worked on the side of Nazi Germany” (2013). This was combined, and strengthened, by post-Soviet grievances which maligned not only that Crimean Tatars felt they were returning to their “indigenous land”, but that this return threatened (according to this extreme position) the situation of ethnic Russians in Crimea. As one respondent described the “difficulty of being Russian in Crimea” was one where Crimean Tatar “nationalism […] leaves no room for Russians in Crimea, by considering that this is only the birthplace of Crimean Tatars” (2012). Here there was a clear “discursive inversion” through the portrayal by the majority as a threatened community (although a minority component of this majority) and the minority of Crimean Tatars as a malign threat to the status of this majority (even though it was the minority who themselves suffered greater discrimination and socioeconomic problems relative to the majority ethnic Russian community in Crimea).

Here they framed their organisations, such as ROC, as “legal” and “registered”, vs. the Mejlis (the council of representatives of Crimean Tatars) as “illegal” because they “did want to register” (2012), without recognising there were barriers, on the Ukrainian side, that had inhibited the Mejlis from being able to register. This ambiguous legal situation made it easier for post-annexation authorities, under the order of Aksenov, to argue Mejlis to be dissolved because it had never registered. 

A common structure built by Crimean Tatars involved in land claims (Source: http://www.rferl.org/content/ukraine-crimean-tatars-ethnic-cleansing/25306118.html)

The last important issue was the role these individuals and organisations took on the issue of land disputes in Crimea. In visiting Crimea, the presence of small structures (above) constructed by Crimean Tatars involved in land disputes was common. As one respondent explained (affiliated not with ROC but with another organisation), on the more extreme end of those aligned with Russian nationalist organisations and sentiments, they were active in arranging “Slavic pickets” alongside Cossack organisations to “prevent squatting” of “radical” Crimean Tatar organisations. On this basis, they were instrumental in furthering ongoing land disputes with Crimean Tatars, even when the Ukrainian state and its local authorities in Crimea were treading their feet in recognising Crimean Tatar land claims (hence the temporary structures).

2015: an ongoing and heightening repression

It becomes clear that Russian nationalist individuals and groups held grievances towards Crimean Tatars, portraying themselves as a threatened majority vis-a-vis an extremist minority (even if the reverse was closer to the truth) and of these, a minority were participating in more militaristic acts against Crimean Tatars. It is, therefore, less surprising when it is these elements of Crimea that have formed the post-annexation regime in a local context within Crimea.

However, this is also a shocking reality that should make us remember precisely who has taken power in Crimea and the sentiments they hold, that continue to indicate Crimean Tatars will face a precarious, if not threatened, existence in Crimea, shown most recently by the ATR raid (the Crimean Tatar TV channel) on 26 January 2015.

It is these elements that should compel us not to admit Crimea’s annexation as a “fait accompli”, nor in realist terms as facts on the ground that cannot be changed. A regime, that seized power illegally, is now trying to justify its oppression of a threatened Crimean Tatar minority not only to shore up its legitimacy but, on a symbolic level, to appeal to the interests of their support base, and to act on the grievances they held pre-annexation.


My co-author of the DGAP piece, Liana Fix, has also written an article as a follow-up for the one year anniversary of Crimea’s annexation: In Crimea, Time for Pressure

In Crimea, Time for Pressure, not Acceptance: Why we cannot lose sight of the Crimean Tatars

Liana Fix and I just wrote a piece for the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP/Deutsche Gesellschaft für Auswärtige Politik e.V.) analysing the historical and contemporary issues facing Crimean Tatars in the Crimea peninsula. We argue that the West should firstly continue to put pressure on Russia for it’s actions in annexing Crimea. Secondly, we argue that Crimean Tatars are once again a vulnerable minority. Even if the Russian Federation has made promises to the Crimean Tatar community, the actions of Russia and local Crimean authorities show a worrying trend towards persecuting Crimean Tatars under the pretext of fighting “political extremism”.

fix_knott_crimea_cover_eYou can read the full article: In Crimea, Time for Pressure, not Acceptance

Crimea referendum – our experts react: Crimea has changed rapidly from the peninsula where I conducted fieldwork nine months ago

This short piece was originally posted on EUROPP following the Crimean referendum in March 2014.

Crimea has changed rapidly from the peninsula where I conducted fieldwork nine months ago. Then it was a relatively stable and peaceful multinational peninsula, with a growing post-Soviet generation who saw themselves as politically affiliated with Ukraine. Today it is an emerging frozen conflict with a referendum declaring high turnout and high support for joining the Russian Federation. Men are able to sign up to self-appointed militia and dissenters are penalised. The week before the referendum, there were reports of kidnappings of those connected to Euromaidan networks, abuse of journalists and the impression that for those not supporting joining Russia, this was their last opportunity to protest.

This is also not South Ossetia, Transnistria or Kosovo. What has occurred in Crimea is unique, involving a much larger population than previous frozen conflicts and a Russian naval base. While I have already seen reports from friends that they would not like to stay in a Russian Crimea long term, the message from Crimean Tatars is that this is their legitimate home and one which they will not leave again, as they were forced to in 1944.

What is equally alarming is that Crimea is not a self-sustaining peninsula, dependent on Ukraine for gas supplies, fresh water and rail and road transportation links to Russia, excluding those via sea. I would be concerned also about a potential struggle that might arise between the Crimean separatist administration and Russian Federation, concerning their ideas about what Crimea’s autonomous status might look like in whatever comes next.