Crimea is a peninsula located on the Black Sea coast in the south of today’s Ukraine. Part of the peninsula’s population was forced into exile in May 1944. In April 1944, after two and half years of German occupation, the Soviet forces regained control of Crimea. The reconquest was hardly completed when the Crimean Tatars were deported en masse on the false accusation of having collectively collaborated with the Nazis. This Muslim Turkic-speaking minority then represented 19.4% of the population of the peninsula, where Russians represented over 50%.
Map of Crimean ASSROn May 18, 1944, in the early morning, soldiers of the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs (NKVD, the former KGB) entered Tatars’ houses by force and announced to their astonished and incredulous occupants their immediate deportation because of acts of “massive collaboration”. They were given only twenty to thirty minutes to gather some personal belongings. Without further delay, they were then conveyed to several stations, where they were loaded into cattle trains. In the matter of three days, nearly 180,014 Crimean Tatars were deported from the peninsula. 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 labor camps in Siberia and in the Ural mountain region. The demobilized soldiers were released after Stalin’s death in 1953 and allowed to return to their families in their place of exile.
Over 151,000 Crimean Tatar deportees were sent to Uzbekistan; the rest of the population was conveyed to regions of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), mostly in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, the Ural region, the Mari Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, and for some, to the region of Moscow (Broŝevan and Tygliânc, 1994: 85). The conditions of the transfer by train were particularly difficult; they were fatal for many of them, especially as the majority of the deportees were women, children and old people. The weakest ones were carried off by malnutrition, thirst, cold, overcrowding and diseases that spread rapidly in packed train carriages.
The conditions in the places of exile proved to be just as tragic. Even if their arrival was planned, the deportees’ resettlement had been prepared poorly. Local authorities were informed belatedly, if at all. In a context marked by war and the flood of deported peoples to Central Asia, the local authorities did not have the necessary time and means to absorb physically and psychologically weakened people. The lack of accommodation and food, the failure to adapt to new climatic conditions and the rapid spread of diseases had a heavy demographical impact during the first years of exile.
The Tatar deportees, from now on considered « special settlers », were placed under the special settlement regime. This punitive regime had deprived them, for thirteen years, of their rights, and particularly of their freedom of movement. They could not go as far as five kilometers away from their imposed place of residence, and once or twice a month they had to go to the local kommandatur administered by the NKVD and sign an attendance register. Finally, they were forced to work in the collective State farms or factories and received meager wages.
Simultaneous to the deportation and the scattering of the Crimean Tatar people, the central authorities launched a policy of « detatarization » in the Crimean peninsula: the main monuments and places which recalled the Tatar presence were destroyed; books about Crimean Tatars or written by Crimean Tatar authors were removed from the library shelves and some were burnt; place names were russianized. The status of the peninsula was also changed: the Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR), which was established in 1921 (in which Crimean Tatars enjoyed a positive discrimination), became under the law of July 25, 1946 an oblast (an administrative term which means region), forming part of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR). The passing of this law achieved the process of « detatarization », even as the settlement of Russian-speaking or Ukrainian settlers into the houses deserted by the Tatars was carried out. In 1954, the Crimean oblast was offered to Ukraine to mark the celebrations of the 300th anniversary of the union between Russia and Ukraine. That internal decision, which did not have an immediate effect, proved to be decisive after the USSR disintegrated.
Stalin’s death in 1953 raised hope amongst Crimean Tatar special settlers. However, their hope was quickly dashed. Indeed, they were excluded from the processes of rehabilitation led by Nikita Khrushchev in 1956. Thus, whereas most of the punished people regained their political rights and were authorized to return to their former homelands, Crimean Tatars, as well as Volga Germans and Turk-Meskhetians, were sentenced to a prolonged exile. If from this year on they regained their civic rights as individuals, going back to Crimea remained forbidden. Moreover, this decision meant the negation of the collective existence of Crimean Tatars.