Friday, May 18, 2007

The 18 May 1944 Deportation of the Crimean Tatars

On 18 May 1944 the NKVD began the systematic round up of the Crimean Tatars in accordance with GKO order 5859ss. In the early hours of the morning a total of 23,000 officers and soldiers of the NKVD internal troops and 9,000 NKVD and NKGB operatives started going door to door and expelling the Crimean Tatars from their homes. They quickly roused the still sleeping Crimean Tatars from their beds and transported them to rail stations. They had only a short time to gather a few possessions to take with them into exile. Tenzile Ibraimova’s recollection of being evicted from her home with her children on that morning is typical of most Crimean Tatar survivors.

We were expelled from the village of Adzhiatmak in Fraidorf district on 18 May 1944. The expulsion took place very cruelly; at three o’clock in the morning when the children were still asleep. Some soldiers came in and said we should get ready and be out of the house in five minutes. We were not allowed to take with us either possessions or food. They treated us so roughly that we thought they were taking us to be shot…My husband was fighting at the front; I was alone with three children. (Amnesty International, pp. 140-141)

The NKVD and NKGB took the unsuspecting Crimean Tatars to rail stations and stuffed them into train wagons designed for the transport of freight and live stock. The Soviet security organs worked extremely fast. Already by 8 pm on 18 May 1944 they reported loading 90,000 Crimean Tatars into 25 train echelons. The first 17 of these echelons had already left on their way to Uzbekistan with 48,400 deportees. During the next day the NKVD continued this frantic pace. The NKVD had counted loading 164,515 Crimean Tatars into train wagons and dispatching 136,412 deportees to Uzbekistan during these two days. Finally, the NKVD finished the operation on 20 May 1944. The officers in charge of the operation initially reported deporting 180,014 Crimean Tatars on 67 train echelons and mobilizing an additional 11,000 men for forced labor. The NKVD thus recorded the forced removal of 191,014 Crimean Tatars from their ancestral homeland in only three days. The Stalin regime had ethnically cleansed the Crimean peninsula of virtually all Crimean Tatars. (Bugai, docs. 11-13, pp. 138-139).

The NKVD transported the Crimean Tatars far from their ancestral homeland in extremely overcrowded and unhygienic train wagons. An average of 50 people had been stuffed into each wagon and lice infestations rapidly spread typhus among the deportees. Lack of water, food and adequate latrine facilities greatly contributed to the outbreak of disease among the Crimean Tatars in the deportation trains. The official reports on food provided to the Crimean Tatars during transit indicate that they received only an average of 340 grams per a person per day. The result is that thousands perished during the initial journey into exile. (Bugai, doc. 15, pp. 139-140 and fn. 1, p. 137).

Initially the Soviet government had planned to deport all the Crimean Tatars to Uzbekistan. On 21 May 1944, however, Stalin issued GKO resolution 5937ss diverting 31,551 Crimean Tatars on their way to Uzbekistan to the Urals. Here the NKVD assigned them to work felling trees in the cold wet forests of the region. A lack of food, clothes and adequate shelter afflicted the Crimean Tatars in the Urals. Diseases such as dysentery, mange, eczema and tuberculosis became common. As a result the Crimean Tatars in the Urals suffered an abnormally large number of premature deaths. Only a little over a fifth of the deported Crimean Tatars, however, ended up in the Urals. The vast majority of the Crimean Tatar deportees continued on their way to Uzbekistan. (Alieva vol. III, p. 66 and Bugai, doc. 20, p. 144 and doc. 26, p. 147).

Material conditions for the Crimean Tatars in Uzbekistan were only marginally better than in the Urals. The milder climate of Uzbekistan slightly ameliorated the death rate of Crimean Tatar deportees compared to those sent to the Urals. Severe shortages of food and habitable shelter afflicted the Crimean Tatars in Uzbekistan. Raging epidemics of malaria and intestinal illnesses plagued the new arrivals. The Soviet authorities had foreknowledge of the malaria epidemic and took no preventive measures to limit its effects. No extra quinine or other anti-malarial drugs existed in Uzbekistan at the time of the deportations. This callous policy resulted in massive deaths among the Crimean Tatars in Uzbekistan. According to one Soviet document the NKVD recorded 13,592 deaths among the Crimean Tatars in Uzbekistan from May 1944 to 1 January 1945. This constituted 9.1% of the Crimean Tatar deportees in Uzbekistan. A full 6,096 or almost half of these deaths occurred among children under 16. From 1 January 1945 to 1 January 1946 the NKVD recorded another 13,183 Crimean Tatar deaths in Uzbekistan. This represented 8.7% of the Crimean Tatars in Uzbekistan. In total during the first year and a half of exile in Uzbekistan the NKVD recorded 26,775 deaths among the Crimean Tatars or 17.8% of their population. This horrible loss of human life has never been properly acknowledged by the legal successors of the Soviet government. Not a single Soviet official has ever been tried for this crime. (Ibragimov, doc. 26, p. 68).

Crimean Tatars and their friends have traditionally observed 18 May as a day to remember the victims of these terrifying events. I ask my readers to take a minute of silence today to honor their memory.


Alieva, S.U., ed., Tak eto bylo: Natsional’nye repressi v SSSR, 1919-1953 gody (Moscow: Insan, 1993).

Amnesty International, trans., Chronicle of Current Events, no. 31, 17 May 1974 (London: Amnesty International, 1975).

Bugai, N.F., ed., Iosif Stalin – Lavrentiiu Berii. “Ikh nado deportirovat’,” Dokumenty, fakty kommentarii (Moscow: Druzhba narodov, 1992).

Ibragimov, Ayder, ed., Krimskii studii: Informatsiini biuletin, no. 5-6, September-November 2000.

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