Deportation of the Crimean Tatars 1944

Let it never be said that the Eurovision Songcontest can’t be an inspiration to write a historical piece.

The lyrics for “1944” concern the deportation of the Crimean Tatars, in the 1944, by the Soviet Union at the hands of Joseph Stalin. Jamala was particularly inspired by the story of her great-grandmother Nazylkhan, who was in her mid-20s when she and her five children were deported to barren Central Asia. One of the daughters did not survive the journey. Jamala’s great-grandfather was fighting in World War II in the Red Army at this time and thus could not protect his family.

The forcible deportation of the Crimean Tatars from Crimea was ordered by Joseph Stalin as a form of collective punishment for alleged collaboration with the Nazi occupation regime in Taurida Subdistrict during 1942-1943.


The state-organized removal is known as the Sürgünlik in Crimean Tatar. A total of more than 230,000 people were deported, mostly to the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic. This included the entire ethnic Crimean Tatar population, at the time about a fifth of the total population of the Crimean Peninsula, as well as smaller numbers of ethnic Greeks and Bulgarians.

A large number of deportees (more than 100,000 according to a 1960s survey by Crimean Tatar activists) died from starvation or disease as a direct result of deportation. It is considered to be a case of ethnic cleansing.  For a long time Crimean Tatars and Soviet dissidents called for recognition of the genocide of Crimean Tatars. On November 12, 2015 parliament of Ukraine adopted a resolution recognizing the event as a genocide and declared 18 May as a Day of Remembrance for the victims of Crimean Tatar genocide.

The events of World War II   had a huge impact on the entire Crimean Tatar population. The Axis occupation of the Crimean peninsula precipitated a brutal war between Soviet partisans and German and Romanian forces. This war involved Crimean Tatars on both sides. After the Soviet victory   in World War II, the Stalin regime exiled the entire Crimean Tatar population to Uzbekistan and Eastern Russia. Crimean Tatar soldiers in the Red Army found themselves rewarded for their loyalty with harsh forced labor in coal mines and lumber camps in the Urals. These events still haunt the Crimean Tatars both demographically and psychologically. In 1939, the Soviet census counted 218,179 Crimean Tatars in the Crimean ASSR.[By 1953, their numbers in the USSR had dropped to 165,259 people scattered throughout Kazakhstan, Central Asia, the Urals, and Siberia. This loss becomes even more staggering when the pre-war growth of the Crimean Tatar population is taken into account. Between 1923 and 1939, the Crimean Tatar population increased from 150,000 to over 218,000.The scale of this demographic loss gives a small indication of the traumatic devastation the war, deportations, exile, and forced labor had upon the Crimean Tatars.

When the Soviet Union was first established, Crimean Tatars were recognized as the indigenous people of the Crimean peninsula under the policy of Korenizatsiya, and the Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (Crimean ASSR) was established.


Under this administration, Crimean Tatars enjoyed cultural autonomy and the promotion of their culture, as the Crimean Tatar language had co-official language status along with Russian and Crimean Tatar cultural activities, including establishment of cultural institutions, museums, libraries and theaters, proliferated. However, under Joseph Stalin, the official policy of the Soviet government turned to one of repression. Under the policy of dekulakization, a number of Crimean Tatars were deported to Siberia and the Ural Mountains and the Crimean Tatar people suffered from the Soviet famine of 1932–33, which was exacerbated by the destructive effects of collectivization on Crimean Tatar orchards, vineyards and farms.

In September 1941, during the German 11th Army and troops from the Romanian Third Army and Fourth Army entered the Crimean Peninsula and started the Crimean Campaign of World War II. By November, they controlled the entire peninsula except for the city of Sevastopol. After a siege lasting for months, Sevastopol also fell and the peninsula was occupied by Army Group A with the 17th Army.


With the fall of the peninsula to the Germans, the resistance activity of the Soviet partisans, led by A.N. Mokrousov and A.V. Martynov and organized by the NKVD and activists of the Communist Party began. However, Crimean Tatars were banned from joining this movement. Historian J. Otto Pohl has accused Mokrousov and Martynov of incompetence and extreme racism against the Crimean Tatar population. Some Crimean Tatar communists were forced out of their refuges in woodlands by the partisans, which resulted in their execution by the occupying German forces. The partisans specifically targeted and destroyed Crimean Tatar villages; according to Pohl, this was not because of their suspected collaboration but rather a “Slavic animosity against the Tatars”. Crimean Tatar villages were also pillaged for food by the partisans.

On 2 January 1942, the German government authorized the formation of “self-defense battalions” by the Crimean Tatars, and by 15 February, 1,632 Crimean Tatars had already been recruited into these troops Overall, the number of Crimean Tatar men who joined these battalions was around 2,000, a figure which was “given Stalin’s terror, surprisingly [small]” according to The Guardian.The motivations of Crimean Tatar men who joined these battalions varied. Some were members of the defeated 51st Army and had been taken as prisoners of war by the German Army. They joined the battalions to avoid the harsh conditions in the POW camps in Simferopol and Mykolaiv, where starvation and disease were rife. Some aimed to protect their villages from the activities of Soviet partisans. However, 15% of the adult male Crimean Tatar population remained active in the ranks of the Red Army, and some Crimean Tatars were taken to Germany as forced laborers, called Ostarbeiter

The official Soviet explanation for the deportations was that the Crimean Tatars betrayed the USSR and collaborated with Nazi Germany. GKO resolution 5859ss officially accused the Crimean Tatars of mass treason.

In the period of the Fatherland war many Crimean Tatars betrayed the Motherland, deserted from units of the Red Army defending the Crimea, and turned over the country to the enemy, joined German formed voluntary Tatar military units to fight against the Red Army in the period of occupation of the Crimea by German-Fascist troops and participated in German punitive detachments. Crimean Tatars were particularly noted for their brutal reprisals towards Soviet partisans, and also assisted the German occupiers in organizing the forcible sending to German slavery and mass destruction of Soviet people.Crimean Tatars actively collaborated with the German occupying powers, participating in the so called “Tatar National Committees” organized by German intelligence and were extensively used by the Germans to infiltrate the rear of the Red Army with spies and diversionists. “Tatar National Committees,” in which the leading role was played by White Guard-Tatar emigres, with the support of the Crimean Tatars directed their activity at the persecution and oppression of the non-Tatar population of the Crimea and conducted work in preparation for the forcible separation of the Crimea from the Soviet Union with the assistance of the German armed forces.

Most of the 20,000 Crimean Tatars in German military units, however, retreated to Germany in May 1944. The majority of Crimean Tatar young men remaining in the USSR were Red Army soldiers fighting against the Germans. Most of the Crimean Tatar population remaining in the Crimea in May 1944 were women and children.The Soviet government did not merely send suspected German collaborators and their families into exile. Instead it deported innocent women, children, invalids, Red Army veterans, Communist Party members and Komsomolists without exception. In March 1949 the special settlements contained8,995 former Red Army soldiers of Crimean Tatar nationality.These veterans included 534 officers, 1,392 sergeants, and 7,079 rank and file soldiers. Also among the Crimean Tatar special settlers were 742 Communist Party members and 1,225 Komsomolists.The charges of treason against the Crimean Tatar nation were thusspurious. A fact recognized by the Soviet government in 1967.

The real reason for the deportation of the Crimean Tatars appears to be related to Soviet foreign policy objectives in the Middle East.The Stalin regime had designs on Turkish territory after WWII. Moscow desired to obtain the Turkish provinces of Kars and Adharan. It also wanted to establish military bases in the Dardenelle Straits. In March 1945, Molotov informed the Turkish ambassador to Moscow that the Soviet Union was not going to renew the 1925 Soviet-Turkish Treaty of Neutrality. On 7 July 1945, Molotov formally requested that Turkey allow Soviet naval bases in the Straits and cede Kars and Ardahan. Stalin reiterated this request at both the Yalta and Potsdam summits.On 20 May 1945, the USSR demanded that Turkey acquiesce to Soviet desires on these matters.At this time the USSR began to put military and diplomatic pressure on Turkey to meet its demands. Part of this campaign involved a massive anti-Turkish propaganda effort among Armenians and Georgians in the Caucasus. Soviet actions aimed at forcing Turkey to meet its demands continued until September 1946. They ended when President Truman returned the body of the recently deceased Turkish ambassador to the US back to Turkey. Truman sent the ambassador’s body back on board the Battleship Missouri escorted by the Aircraft Carrier Franklin D. Roosevelt and several destroyers.Moscow understood this not so subtle message and ceased its bullying of Ankara.

The Stalin regime deported the Karachays, Chechens, Ingush, Balkars, Crimean Tatars, and Meskhetian Turks in preparation for this anti-Turkish campaign. All of these Muslim nationalities had historical and cultural ties to Turkey. They also all occupied strategic areas of the Soviet Union in relation to Turkey. The Meskhetian Turks inhabited the Georgian-Turkish border, the Karachays, Chechens, Ingush, and Balkars lived near the main highways through the Caucasus, and the Crimean Tatars made their homes near the naval bases and facilities of the Black Sea Fleet. The Stalin regime feared that these nationalities would not be completely loyal to the USSR in the event of a conflict with Turkey. In the minds of Stalin and Beria these ethnic groups represented a potential pro-Turkish fifth column living close to vulnerable Soviet military assets. Thus one of the main reason for the deportation of these groups was to prevent any espionage, sabotage, diversion, or other assistance to Ankara by their members in the event of a Soviet-Turkish conflict. The importance of the Crimean peninsula in such a conflict had already been demonstrated in the Crimean War in the last century. The Soviet leadership believed that military control of the Black Sea depended upon a solidly loyal population in the Crimea.   Hence the Stalin regime deemed it necessary to deport the Crimean Tatars with theirlinguistic, cultural and historical ties to Turkey far away from the region to Uzbekistan and the Ural

A total of 238,500 people were deported, compared to a recorded total of 9,225 Crimean Tatars who had served in anti-Soviet Tatar Legions and other German-formed battalions.

The deportation began on 18 May 1944 early morning in all Crimean-inhabited localities and lasted until 16:00 on 20 May 1944.More than 32,000 NKVD troops participated in this action.

The forced deportees were given only 30 minutes to gather personal belongings, after which they were loaded onto cattle trains and moved out of Crimea. A deportee recalled the knocking of their door at 3 am on 18 May and being given 15 minutes to get ready.[16] Despite the fact that the decree allowed the deportees to take their “personal items, clothing, household objects, dishes and utensils, and up to 500 kilograms of food per family” with them,some deportees did not take anything with them as the events were reminiscent of the Holocaust, and they expected to be killed soon.[16] The deportees were brought to central gathering stations in Simferopol and Bakhchysarai, and after a short waiting period, loaded on trains.


183,155 – 193,865 Crimean Tatars were deported, 151,136 of them to Uzbek SSR, 8,597 to Mari ASSR, 4,286 to Kazakh SSR, the rest 29,846 to the various oblasts of Russian SFSR.According to NKVD records, 2,444 Crimean Tatar families were separated during the deportation.This was considered to be intentional by the Crimean Tatars, as they believed that the aim of the Soviet government was to achieve their deaths by any means; if not physically, then through grief and loneliness.At the same moment, most of the Crimean Tatar men who were fighting in the ranks of the Red Army were demobilized and sent into forced labor camps in Siberia and in the Ural mountain region.

According to eyewitness accounts, the NKVD officials forgot to deport the Crimean Tatars in the fishing villages of the Arabat Spit. On 19 July 1944, during a celebration about the deportation, when Bogdan Kobulov learned about these villages, he allegedly ordered that no Crimean Tatar should be left alive within 24 hours. Following this, all inhabitants of these villages were locked up in an old and big boat, which sailed to the deepest part of the Azov Sea and was then sunk. Soviet soldiers awaited in a nearby ship with machine guns.There are some theories that this incident is a myth. While there is no documentary evidence, Crimean Tatars refute these theories by eyewitness accounts, such as that of linguist Naciye Bekir.


The train journey of the deportees to the destinations was carried out under harsh conditions and resulted in a large number of deaths. Michael Rywkin puts the number of deaths during the train journeys at 7,900, but Aurélie Campana wrote that this number could be underestimated. According to official Soviet data, 7,889 people, amounting to approximately 5% of the Crimean Tatar population was presumed dead during the deportation. The deportation was carried out in sealed box cars, and thousands of deportees died because of thirst. Beria related to Stalin that “no excesses were committed” during the deportation.

The cars were called “crematoria on wheels” by Crimean Tatars. The doors and windows were tightly bolted to prevent the entry of fresh air, there was no medical care and little food.This led to the deaths of especially elderly people and children, who could not withstand the suffocating conditions and the lack of food. Grigorii Burlitskii, a NKVD officer overseeing the deportation who later defected, reported that “they were packed into wagons like sardines, the wagons were locked and sealed and put under the guard of military detachments”. According to testimonies, the doors of the cars were only opened upon arrival to the Kazakh steppe and the dead were dumped along the railway track, with the deportees not given the time to bury them.


Men and women were deported together, which constituted a problem due to embarrassment when it came to personal hygiene. According to eyewitness reports, a girl had her intestines explode as she was too shy to defecate in the presence of the men on the train. While some wealthy Crimean Tatars did take gold jewelry, ornaments and coins with them, they often had to trade them for food along the journey.

The deportation was poorly planned and executed; local authorities in the destination areas were not properly informed about the scale of the matter and did not receive enough resources to accommodate the deportees. The lack of accommodation and food, the failure to adapt to new climatic conditions and the rapid spread of diseases had a heavy demographic impact during the first years of exile

The Soviet government provoked xenophobia amongst the inhabitants of the destinations against the Crimean Tatars, as a part of a policy of demonization and dehumanization. According to Greeta Lynn Uehling, they were given precautions that “cyclops” and “cannibals” would be arriving and were advised to stay away from them.Some deportees were examined upon arrival by locals to determine if they had horns on their skulls.

From May to November 10,105 Crimean Tatars died of starvation in Uzbekistan (7% of those deported to the Uzbek SSR). Nearly 30,000 (20%) died in exile during the following year and a half according to NKVD data.

Upon their arrival in Central Asia, Crimean Tatars were forced to live in special settlement camps, administered by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and surrounded by barbed wire. They were forced to report to the settlement commanders every three days, providing an account of their family and work progress. Leaving the camps was punished by five years of hard forced labor.According to Soviet dissident information, many Crimean Tatars were also made to work in the large-scale projects conducted by the GULAG system. In these forced labor camps, deportees recall being assigned the heaviest tasks available and awoken before dawn for 12-hour workdays. According to official Soviet statistics, 86,917 deportees were placed in jobs under the Council of People’s Commissars, with the greatest number (56,961 people) being sent to Narkomzem.

The Crimean Tatars found the first years of exile in Uzbekistan extremely difficult. The Uzbeks met the exiled Crimean Tatars with hostility.NKVD agitatorspublicly slandered the Crimean Tatars as traitors and Nazi collaborators in Uzbekistan prior to their arrival. This NKVD propaganda stressed Crimean Tatar collaboration with Nazi Germany against the Soviet Union while Uzbeks fought in the Red Army. Not only did the Uzbeks refuse to assist the dislocated Crimean Tatars, but in some cases they stoned them. The hostility of the Uzbeks dissipated after they learned the Crimean Tatars were fellow Muslims. Far from being Nazi collaborators who believed Central Asians were untermenschen (subhumans), the Crimean Tatars shared the same religious beliefs and traditions as the Uzbeks. The initial hostility of the Uzbeks, however, meant that the Crimean Tatars had to face the burdens of exile without any local assistance during 1944 and 1945

In Uzbekistan, Stalin ordered the settlement of Crimean Tatars in kolkhozes (collective farms), sovkhozes (state-owned farms) and settlements around factories for industrial and agricultural production.

The deportees partially provided the required workforce for the industrial development of the area. Regardless of their former profession and skills, Crimean Tatars were forced to do heavy labor. Their places of residence consisted of barracks, makeshift shelters, parts of factories and communal housing. This contrasted with their traditional lifestyle in villages and resulted in its destruction.

Crimean Tatar activists tried to evaluate the demographic consequences of the deportation. They carried out a census in all the scattered Tatar communities in the middle of the 1960s. The results of this inquiry show that 109,956 (46.2%) Crimean Tatars of the 238,500 deportees died between July 1, 1944 and January 1, 1947 due to starvation and disease.There are estimates that the death toll in the first five years is closer to 30% of the deported Crimean Tatar population.

The Soviet government planned the ethnic assimilation of the Crimean Tatar community into the Central Asian population. It destroyed Tatar cultural assets; this included the destruction of Tatar monuments and burning of Tatar manuscripts and books,including those by Lenin and Marx.


Tatar mosques were converted into cinemas and warehouses, gravestones of Tatars were used as building material. Exiled Crimean Tatars were banned from speaking of Crimea and official Soviet texts, including the Great Soviet Encyclopedia, erased all references to them. When applying for internal passports, “Crimean Tatar” was not accepted as an existing ethnic group and those that designated themselves as “Crimean Tatars” were automatically denied passports.The traditional production methods of the Crimean Tatars were destroyed through the force labor imposed on them.

The Soviet Union engaged in a policy of “toponymic repression” against Crimean Tatars. This commenced with a decree from the Party Committee of the Crimean Oblast on 20 October 1944, ordering the renaming of all Tatar, Greek and German-language place names (including mountains and rivers), and was followed by a decree of the RSFSR Supreme Soviet Presidium on 14 December, stipulating the renaming of all districts and district centers to Russian-language names. Two more decrees followed on 21 August 1945 and 18 May 1948, resulting in the renaming of 1389 more Crimean Tatar towns and villages.

The Soviet government of the time denied the nature of the deportation by claiming that it was voluntary and reflecting it in this light to the domestic and international media. At the time of the deportations, the term “resettlement” was used by the NKVD instead of “deportation”.

A revisionist approach was adopted in the historical presentation of Crimean Tatars, where they were represented as bandits and thieves that had no developmental contributions. In some Soviet spy novels, they were vilified as evil Nazi agents and traitors.

On 28 April 1956, by the decree of the Supreme Soviet Presidium of the USSR, the Crimean Tatars were released from special settlement, accompanied by a restoration of their civil rights. In the same year, the Crimean Tatars started a petition to allow their repatriation to Crimea. They held mass protests in October 1966, but these were violently quelled by the Soviet military. On 21 June 1967, the first meeting of the Soviet government, represented by the KGB Chairman, the Minister of the Internal Affairs and the Secretary of the USSR Supreme Soviet with a Crimean Tatar delegation took place. Prompt rehabilitation of Crimean Tatars were promised, but never fulfilled. On 27 August and 2 September 1967, thousands of Crimean Tatars took to the streets to protest in Tashkent. The protests were cracked down upon, but prompted official Soviet response.

Although a decree of the Supreme Soviet Presidium issued on 5 September 1967 removed the charges against Crimean Tatars, the Soviet government did nothing to facilitate their resettlement in Crimea and to make reparations for lost lives and confiscated property. Crimean Tatars, having a definite tradition of non-communist political dissent, succeeded in creating a truly independent network of activists, values and political experience. In 1968, 300 families were allowed to return, but this was only for propaganda purposes.Crimean Tatars, led by the Crimean Tatar National Movement Organization, were not allowed to return to Crimea from exile until the beginning of the Perestroika in the mid-1980s.

The 1991 RSFSR law On the Rehabilitation of Repressed Peoples addressed rehabilitation of all ethnicities repressed in the Soviet Union. However the law had various deficiencies, including unclear legal status of a number of peoples, such as Crimean Tatars moved across the borders of Soviet republics, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.After the annexation of Crimea by Russia, on April 21, 2014 Vladimir Putin signed the decree No 268


“О мерах по реабилитации армянского, болгарского, греческого, крымско-татарского и немецкого народов и государственной поддержке их возрождения и развития”. (“On the Measures for the Rehabilitation of Armenian, Bulgarian, Greek, Crimean Tatar and German Peoples and the State Support of Their Revival and Development”), amended by Decree no. 458 of September 12, 2015. The decree addressed the status of the mentioned peoples which resided in Crimean ASSR and were deported from there.

After the annexation of Crimea by Russia, the Crimean parliament recognized the 20th century history of Crimean Tatars as a “tragic fate.”


Crimean activists were calling for the recognition of the Sürgünlik as genocide. This was also supported by Soviet dissidents.Greta Lynn Uehling, in her book Beyond Memory: The Crimean Tatars’ Deportation and Return, wrote that the deportation of the Crimean Tatars satisfied the definition of genocide according to the UN Genocide Convention, as despite the fact that not all Crimean Tatars were exterminated, the genocidal intent of destroying a particular ethnic group and implementing calculated policies to achieve this was present.[On November 12, 2015 Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine adopted a resolution on recognition of Crimean Tatars’ genocide. On May 11, 2016, it appealed to the international community, particularly the United Nations, OSCE, European Parliament and Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe to recognize the deportation as genocide.


Monument to the Forced Deportation of Crimean Tatars in Sudak.


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