In front of the railway station in the Crimean capital Simferopol there used to be a statue of Lenin and Stalin sitting side by side on a bench. Shortly after Khrushchev’s Secret Speech in 1956, the granite likeness of Stalin was removed surreptitiously, and Lenin was left sitting alone on a slightly ridiculous half-bench, a book in his hand. In the thaw that followed the speech many of those who had been deported on Stalin’s orders were allowed to return home, but not the Crimean Tatars.

The Tatars were a Turkish Muslim people who had lived on the Crimean peninsula since the 13th century and had ruled it as part of the Ottoman Empire from the 15th century until it was annexed to Russia in 1783 by Catherine the Great. On 18 May 1944, more than a hundred and eighty thousand Tatars – mostly women, children and the elderly, because the younger men were at the front – were rounded up and deported to the Central Asian republics, mainly to Uzbekistan, accused of collaborating with the German occupiers. Stalin masterminded the deportation, and is widely blamed for it, but the inspiration probably came from Lenin, who had warned in 1920: ‘Now in the Crimea there are three hundred thousand bourgeois. They are the source of future speculation, spying, all sorts of support to capitalists. But we are not afraid of them. We say that we will take them, divide them, subjugate them, digest them.’

Around a quarter of a million Tatars have returned to Crimea since the break-up of the USSR and all have vivid stories of their experiences during the deportation: of having fifteen minutes to grab their belongings (‘Mother took my hand, gave me the kettle to carry and put my little brother under her arm’); of three weeks’ journey crammed into cattle trucks (‘A boy from my village went to find water at one Station and the train left before he came back’); of family members dying en route (‘My aunt told me that grandma’s corpse was thrown out by the railway track: the truck was overcrowded and it was a hot summer’); of arriving at a camp in Central Asia (‘Some exiles were simply left on the bare steppe and told: “Now build yourselves a new life” ’): of forced labour (‘We were children but they made us work collecting wood’); and of limited freedom of movement (‘A friend went to fetch flour from another village and was punished by 20 years in the gulag’). The Tatar leader, Mustafa Cemiloglu, estimates that around forty thousand people died during the journey and in the first two years of exile.

Soon after the Tatars were expelled, what had been the Autonomous Socialist Soviet Republic of Crimea was incorporated into the Russian Republic, and then, in 1954, Khrushchev transferred it to Ukraine to mark the 300th anniversary of its union with Russia. At the time this gesture was meaningless – Crimea remained within the USSR – but it had the unforeseen consequence that after the break-up of the USSR, Crimea became a semi-autonomous part of the independent Ukraine. A small majority of Crimeans voted in favour of Ukrainian independence in December 1991, probably hoping for a better standard of living in what used to be the bread basket of the USSR, but now even the Russian economy looks healthy by comparison with Ukraine’s, and there are strong secessionist tendencies in Crimea. The Russians, who constitute 60 percent of Crimea’s population of 2.7 million (24 per cent are Ukrainian), clearly believe that they are likely to have a better future as part of Russia. In May 1992 the regional parliament even declared independence, only to back down under pressure horn Kiev. In June 1993 in an attempt to appease the separatists, the Ukrainian Parliament gave Crimea some autonomy, including the right to elect a president. The elections took place in January. A Russian nationalist called Yuri Meshkov won a landslide victory and immediately proposed a referendum on secession from Ukraine – this was, unsurprisingly, opposed by the Ukrainians Meshkov’s Russia Bloc won 54 of the 94 seats in the elections for the Crimean Parliament this spring and in a referendum carried out at the same time (it was called a poll in an attempt to placate the Ukrainians) over three-quarters voted in favour of increasing presidential powers and basing relations between Crimea and Ukraine on bilateral treaties.

Meshkov is now pushing for closer links with Russia – which could well lead to a confrontation between Moscow and Kiev. Even before the elections strengthened his mandate, he had declared that Crimean soldiers were to serve only in Crimea, had talked about making the Russian rouble the official Crimean currency and then, in a symbolic gesture, aligned local time with that in Moscow, one hour ahead of the rest of Ukraine. In late May, after the Crimean Parliament voted to revive the short-lived constitution which amounts to a declaration of independence, armoured vehicles appeared in the streets of Simferopol. Yet another source of tension in relations between Moscow and Kiev is the controversy over which country should control the 350-ship Black Sea fleet, based in the Crimean port of Sevastopol. Russians and Ukrainians are supposed to hold joint command until next year, but the situation is very volatile and there are an increasing number of incidents involving sailors from the fleet. What with that, and its worries about the increasingly vociferous nationalist movements, the Ukrainian Government may be unwilling to give up their nuclear weapons.

So far the Tatars haven’t featured very prominently in the dispute over Crimea. They constitute only 10 per cent of the population and have no powerful sponsors to turn to. In June 1990 they elected their own assembly, the Kurultai, with a governing body called Medzhilis, but it is not recognised by either Crimea or Ukraine. Ukraine does, however, provide some financial aid, although the sums aren’t very large and don’t arrive very promptly: when the money does come it is administered by the Crimean Government rather than by Tatar officials. The Tatars haven’t had much luck with state aid. In November 1989, the Supreme Soviet, following the recommendations of a commission led by Gennadi Yanayev, formally condemned the 1944 deportation and gave the Tatars the right to return. Before any money was allotted, however. Yanayev played his part in the August coup against Gorbachev (who had been holidaying in Crimea), thus precipitating the dissolution of the USSR.

‘To whom can we go to complain of the injustice we suffer if the people who deported us are no longer alive, and the state that they represented has vanished?’ Fievzije Muradosilova asked. Fievzije is in her early thirties and was born in Tajikistan, where she worked as a teacher. She couldn’t get a job as a teacher in Crimea, in fact she had problems finding a job at all: she was offered work in a toy factory, but when they realised she was a Tatar, they changed their minds. The same thing happened with a job in a sanatorium. Even now Tatars have difficulty finding employment outside their own community. The Medzhilis estmimates that unemployment among the Tatars is 70 per cent, compared with 17 per cent in the region as a whole. When she arrived in Alushta on the south coast of Crimea four year ago Fievzije couldn’t get an apartment, a plot of land to build a house on, or a ‘propiska’ or residence permit (to get an apartment one needs a propiska, but one cannot get a propiska without an address). She had nowhere to live, so in common with dozens of other Tatars, she rented a tent and pitched it in front of the town hall. They staged demonstrations every day for five months until finally they were assigned apartments or plots of land.

Fievzije showed me photos of the demonstrations in the square and of others in a valley called Krasnyj Raj or Red Paradise. The Red Paradise story is a typical one. The returning Tatars asked for their land to be restored to them and wrote letters to Gorbachev and the Supreme Soviet, but the collective land, or kolkhoz, which they were attempting to reclaim, was being privatised and the plots given to the local nomenklatura to build dachas on. It has to be said that land on the Crimean coast, with its elegant cypresses and lavender-scented valleys, is very valuable.

Finally, around a hundred desperate Tatars pitched their tents on the kolkhoz vineyard. Police backed by civilians tried to evict them. The battle that ensued went on for several hours: it was described by the local authorities as a ‘disturbance’ and by the Tatars as a ‘pogrom’. When the news reached the Tatars in Simferopol, they blocked the streets in the centre of the town and staged a meeting in front of the parliament building.

The Tatars who squatted in Red Paradise were subsequently given plots of land, but not in the valley. Fievzije drove me to Kurbiek, a settlement where some of them now live. The village is up in the hills: the road is barely passable; there is no water or electricity. Of a dozen unfinished houses, only one has a roof; there is no sign of any work being carried out on the others. An old man came out of the cellar where he lives and asked me in for a cup of coffee. The cellar is made up of two minuscule rooms: one is used as a store for mattresses and blankets; the other contains a sofa, a little gas stove and a small table. Izzjet Kurtsejitu, the head of the family, who is 66, introduced me to three old women: his wife, his aunt and his cousin. I asked if they all slept in the cellar and was told that they did, together with two sons, one daughter, three grandchildren and Izzjet’s aunt’s grandson: 11 people, about a square metre each. Izzjet had started to build foundations for a big house, but when he changed the proceeds from the sale of his house in Uzbekistan from roubles to karbovantsi, the Ukrainian currency, most of his savings melted away – inflation is 100 per cent a month – and only the cellar was completed. Izzjet receives a state pension equivalent to ten dollars a month. Of the younger family members only one son works, earning five dollars a month as a guard. One dollar buys eight rakushkas, the rough yellow sandstone bricks they need to build their house. Pointing to the house in the village below Kurbiek where his family lived before the deportation. Izzjet said he didn’t resent the Russians who lived there now, only the authorities who settled the families in Kurbiek and then refused to bring water or electricity.

They had been comfortably off in Tashkent, Izzjet said. But when I asked if they had any regrets about coming back they were all quite sure that they didn’t. Izzjet’s wife Guljara smiled, displaying a blinding array of gold teeth, and explained that the Tatars had always lived in Crimea, that it was their homeland, that it was where they belonged. She asked if I understood that; I said that I did.

I began to understand a few days later when Mustafa Cemiloglu’s sister, Dilara, showed me round the 16th-century Khans’ palace in Bakhchisarai, the Crimean capital in the time of the Tatars. When I arrived in Dilara’s office another woman was telling her that she had spent half her monthly salary dyeing her hair. Dilara explained that Ava Azamatova was running for election to the Ukrainian Parliament and would have more chance as a blonde. As Dilara showed me round the palace, with its minarets and enormous courtyard, some Russians tagged along. Alter a few mentions of ‘our Khan’ and ‘our court’, the Russians – who obviously didn’t live in Crimea – realised that she was a Tatar and became more interested in her than in the palace. Dilara said later that they were probably surprised that she didn’t have a tail and horns. She told me that when she had first arrived in Bakhchisarai she had felt awkward talking about ‘our’ palace, but not any more, because it belonged to the Tatars and the Tatars belonged here. She asked if I understood. I did a little, enough to pay the bill for Ava Azamatova’s hair dye.

I finally understood how much the return meant to the Crimean Tatars when I met Reshat Dzemilev, who came back from Uzbekistan in 1990, at the age of 60, having spent eight years in prisons and gulags. He started early: in 1958 he spent a year in prison for gathering signatures to a petition calling for the rehabilitation of the Tatars. The petition was signed by six thousand people; ten years later a similar demand carried 130,000 signatures. Reshat smiled as he described how he had carried a banner reading ‘Communists – let the Tatars go back to Crimea’ at the May Day procession in Tashkent in 1967. He got away with it, but when he tried to organise a public meeting he was sentenced to another year in prison. ‘In June 1969, at the foot of the Mayakovsky monument in Moscow we held our first demonstration,’ Reshat told me and added that it had been very successful. I asked him how many people he estimated had taken part. ‘I do not estimate, I know: five.’ Embarrassed, I asked him how long the demonstration had lasted. ‘Almost seven minutes,’ he replied. Reshat spent the next two years on the run; when the KGB caught him he got three years. He another three for organising petitions in defence of Mustafa cemiloglu. He said he didn’t think about revenge, but worried only about the price of the rakushkas he needed to finish his house. ‘Hopefully my last one.’ he added.

On 18 May, the 50th anniversary of the deportation, around ten thousand people gathered in front of the Simferopol railway station and in the square behind Lenin’s bench. They said prayers and then marched to the field in which the Tatars had been herded together before being put on trains. A black granite plaque was unveiled, with inscriptions in Tatar, Russian and Ukrainian announcing that a monument was to be erected there to the victims of the deportation. The ground was consecrated by the ritual killing of a ram and the crowd moved on to Lenin Square (where there is another statue of Lenin, this time in the classic pose, cap in hand), a meeting was held and ended without incident.

The tension over the peninsula’s declaration of independence has eased for now. But the position in Crimea, with its two sets of in flammatory nationalists and a group of moderate Muslims with no powerful supporters and nowhere to go, is uncomfortably familiar.

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