Yesterday Putin’s storm troops made a move on Crimean Tatars, a people whose claim on the peninsula predates the Russians’ by centuries.
Ever since the anschluss of the Crimea last March, the Tatars, who make up about 12 per cent of the population, have been on the receiving end of persecution.
This went beyond your normal common-or-garden jostling for position and the odd offensive word on public transport.
The more vociferous Tatars would simply disappear in the middle of the night, many others were roughed up, and all the rest scared into relative silence.
Traditional Russian xenophobia was a factor, but mainly the persecution was caused by the Tatars’ refusal to accept the annexation as legitimate.
Hence they refused to take part in the sham referendum conducted at gunpoint, instead demanding autonomy under their own parliament, the Mejlis.
The Russian propaganda machine went in high gear, opportunistically portraying the Tatars’ stubbornness as some form of Muslim jihadism, linked to al-Qaeda, the IS and other newsworthy groups.
This doesn’t quite explain why the Tatars never displayed such proclivities under the aegis of the Ukraine, when they led quiet, peaceful lives. Nor is it clear why these putative jihadists are staunch Europhiles to a man, and why they never showed any hostility to non-Russian Christians.
After all, it’s the Ukrainian flag they have been flying off the Mejlis building, not the green banner of Islam – this in spite of the Ukrainians’ less than cordial feelings about the Muslims.
One way or the other, Putin’s storm troops seized the Mejlis building yesterday, simultaneously harassing and ransacking many Muslim households.
In the aftermath, Mustafa Jemilev, the spiritual leader of the Tatar community, described the Putin regime as “worse than in Soviet times”. That is saying a lot.
For in Soviet times, exactly 70 years ago, the Tatars suffered one of the worst demographic catastrophes of all time.
Stalin held the entire Tatar population of 238,500 collectively responsible for the actions of the 9,225 Tatars who had fought on the German side.
As a result, on 19 May, 1944, they were all rounded up by 32,000 NKVD troops, loaded into cattle trucks and deported to Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Siberia. By 1 January, 1947, 109, 956 of them had died of starvation, disease and maltreatment.
Collective responsibility is a time-honoured concept, but it has to be said that the Soviets applied it selectively. For example, at least 1.5 million Russians fought against Stalin during the war, with millions more cooperating with the Germans in non-combat capacities.
Should the whole Russian population have been deported too? The thought no doubt crossed Stalin’s mind, but he regretfully abandoned it for the obvious logistic difficulties.
(Interestingly, during the 1812 Napoleonic war not a single Russian soldier switched sides – this in spite of the army being made up of serfs, effectively chattel property. The pandemic outbreak of treason in 1941, 24 years after the advent of social justice for all, requires an explanation which it doesn’t quite receive in Putin-inspired history books.)
Smaller groups were easier to handle, hence the gruesome genocide not only of the Tatars, but also of the Chechens, the Balkars, the Kabardins and others in the region. Wholesale deportation of Jews was also planned, and only Stalin’s death prevented another Final Solution.
Towards the end of the 1980s all those groups had been exonerated and allowed to return. The Chechens probably wish now they hadn’t been quite so quick to do so – courtesy of successive post-communist Russian administrations they’ve been decimated in two horrible wars, the last one started specifically to tighten Putin’s hold on power.
Now it’s the Tatars’ turn. By now their Crimean population has built up back to the pre-deportation levels, with another 150,000 or so having wisely decided to stay in Uzbekistan.
Yet one can understand those who have returned: it is, after all, their ancestral land. Between the 15th and late 19th centuries, the Tatars were by far the largest ethnic group in the Crimea.
Until the 1768-1774 Russo-Turkish War, the peninsula had belonged to the Ottoman Turks. The treaty signed at the end of the war made the Crimea independent, but Russia’s compliance with such documents has never been of sterling quality.
In 1783 Russia violated the treaty, and Grigory Potemkin, Catherine II’s morganatic husband, annexed the Crimea, earning himself the title of the Prince of Tauris (the Greek name for the peninsula) and her the soubriquet of Great.
Since then the Tatars have been clinging to their old land mostly for nostalgic reasons. Those not given to such emotions have been fleeing in droves following each outburst of hostilities in the region.
Many of those who didn’t flee were expelled, occasionally for the same reason as they were deported by Stalin: insufficient loyalty at wartime. Each time emigration and expulsion combined to reduce the Tatar population.
This happened in 1812, after the 1853-1856 Crimean war, and especially after the Russso-Turkish war of 1878-1879, when 200,000 out of the 300,000 Tatars left the Crimea.
This brief retrospective glance ought to explain why the Tatars’ affection for the Russians isn’t without limits, which feelings are widely shared by all ethnic groups that have ever found themselves in close proximity to the Third Rome.
At the moment the Crimean Tatars are fearing yet another genocide, which in view of their history can’t be wholly ascribed to groundless paranoia. One doubts that yesterday’s events will go a long way towards allaying such fears.