by Yevgeny Lerner
The current Russian-Ukrainian war started eight years ago with the Russian annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, which fell with hardly a shot fired, and largely without notice in the world at large.
The most important thing to understand about Crimea is that it is indigenous land, and that the Crimean Tatars are its people. The Crimean Tatars overwhelmingly favor Kyiv over Moscow, but a large majority of the peninsula’s population has been Russian since 1944. Under the latest Russian occupation, the Tatars have once again become a terrorized minority, and their language and culture are now being threatened by the current policy of Russification.
All of these factors—the peninsula’s demographics, Tatar support for the Kyiv government, the policy of Russification—can be understood through one historical event. It is a chilling chapter in Soviet history (though by no means a singular one), and it is hardly known about by English speakers. An understanding of this event provides the necessary context not only for the 2014 annexation referendum, but for Putin’s declared casus belli in Ukraine today.
A genocide was committed against the Crimean Tatars in living memory, one of a series of such crimes carried out by the Soviet state on the heels of the Second World War.
The Moscow government ordered and executed the immediate forced removal of the peninsula’s Crimean Tatar population to other parts of the USSR, including the farthest reaches of Eastern Siberia. There were no actual human provisions made for such an undertaking. Tens of thousands starved or froze to death, accounting for somewhere between a fifth and nearly half of the total population. It was a Soviet Trail of Tears.
The official justification was that the Crimean Tatars were being punished for their supposed collaboration with the Nazi occupation. Leaving aside the sheer monstrous absurdity of conducting an ethnic cleansing on such a basis, there is simply no evidence that there was even an especially high rate of collaboration in Crimea, comparatively speaking.
Just months before, Stalin had done much the same thing to the Chechen and Ingush peoples in the Caucasus. There the program of mass population removal, mass murder, and Russification had been in reaction to an actual uprising. This was but the latest in a long series of Chechen insurgencies against Moscow rule, and genocide was Stalin’s answer to the then already century-and-a-half old Chechen Question.
Contrast this with how the Soviets dealt with Nazi collaboration in Russian cities, towns, and villages. In Russia, the expected assortment of known high-level collaborators and unlucky tokens was generally deemed sufficient to feed the scaffold. No emptied villages, their entire populations crowded into cattle cars at bayonet point, sent off to freeze and starve to death in some far-off wilderness. Nothing of the sort. Ethnic Russians were not targeted for murder and deportation on the basis of their nationality. Quite the opposite. Back in Crimea, ethnic Russian families, many of them military families, were soon taking possession of Tatar homes. Towns, rivers, and mountains were stripped of their Crimean Tatar names and were given new Russian ones. All this was part of a broader Stalinist policy of Russification, which has its roots firmly in older Tsarist national policy.
The specific lies that a liar tells can reveal something about that liar’s own motivations, and Stalin’s pretense of denazification in Crimea should be considered in this light. Moscow had just put down a Chechen uprising that had broken out in the midst of World War II, and it would seem that Stalin decided that Crimea, where nothing of the sort had occurred, was simply much too strategically important (and much too close to Turkey) to have such a sizable ethnically distinct majority-Muslim population. So like other Russian autocrats before him, Stalin enlisted the demon of Great Russian chauvinism to bolster Moscow’s military grip on her vast empire. And while Chechen and Ingush survivors were rehabilitated under the Khrushchev Thaw, Crimean Tatars were not allowed to return to their homeland until the last few years of the Soviet Union’s existence.
The Great Russian chauvinist majority that voted “YES” on the 2014 Crimean referendum on Rusian annexation was built on Stalin’s act of genocide . Many of the Russians who voted “YES” are the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of the post-1944 settler colonists.
In this context, it becomes painfully clear that the 2014 anschluss referendum was only “democratic” in the sense that Israel is a Jewish and “democratic” state.
Vladimir Putin has described Khrushchev’s attachment of Crimea to the Ukrainian SSR as a symbolic and frivolous gift to Ukraine and a historical slight against Russia. It was in fact mostly just a common-sense administrative reform based on simple and obvious facts of geography and infrastructure. More recently, he has declared the Ukrainian nation itself to have simply been Lenin’s invention. In fact, Lenin understood Great Russian chauvinism as an insidious poison that threatened to dissolve the USSR from within, and he saw a kind of All-Soviet polyglot multiculturalism as a worthwhile antidote. Stalin, on the other hand, saw Great Russian chauvinism as the only glue strong enough to hold the Empire together, and minority cultures as potential vectors of separatist nationalism.
Putin hurls blame at Lenin, he hurls blame at Khrushchev. And as for Stalin, Putin picked up Crimea exactly where Stalin left it for him. The political basis for the annexation was Great Russian chauvinism, and the historical basis was a genocide that was committed by Moscow in living memory. The genocide was carried out under a false pretext of denazification. Now Putin is continuing his campaign. He is besieging Kyiv, and just as he picked up Crimea where Stalin left it for him, he has also picked up Stalin’s genocidal pretext of false denazification.
In these past weeks, the Russian military has already murdered thousands of civilians. Entire cities and towns have been reduced to rubble. They have bombed agreed-upon evacuation routes, and there have been reports of captured Ukrainian civilians being herded into concentration camps within the borders of the Russian Federation. All this has been done under the ridiculous slogan of “denazification.” Putin’s armies are marching on a country that Stalin had starved in the ’30s, and they are marching under a pretext that Stalin used to ethnically cleanse Crimea in the ’40s. So whatever it is that Putin may say or promise, you will understand why all this would make Ukrainians especially reticent to surrender.
Yevgeny Lerner is a writer, artist and activist. Born in Kyiv, he is now based in Brooklyn, NY.
Image: Euromaidan Press
From our Daily Report:
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‘Rehabilitation center’ planned for Crimean Tatars
CounterVortex, April 11, 2019
Russian repression mounts against Crimean Tatars
CounterVortex, Aug. 20, 2018
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STALIN’S CAUCASUS CRIMES
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CounterVortex, February 2020
Special to CounterVortex, March 27, 2022
Reprinting permissible with attribution