On 18 May 1944, the Soviet NKVD began the systematic round up and deportation of nearly the entire Crimean Tatar population from their ancestral homeland to Uzbekistan and the Urals. Early in the morning armed troops of the NKVD started knocking on the doors of Crimean Tatar houses and informing the inhabitants that they were to be deported. The official explanation given for this mass uprooting of women, children, elderly, Red Army veterans and even members of the Communist Party was the false claim that the Crimean Tatar nationality had collectively betrayed the Soviet Union and collaborated with the Nazi occupiers. The Soviet government did not repeal the last legal vestiges of this false charge until 7 March 1991 (Bugai, pp. 16-18). The authorities gave the deportees only a short period of time to pack. They had to abandon the vast majority of their movable as well as immovable property. Even more importantly they lost access to the natural and cultural resources of their national homeland.
On the first day of the operation, the Soviet security organs took 90,000 people to train stations of which 48,400 began their journey eastward (Bugai, doc. 11, p. 138). The following day the number of Crimean Tatars transported to rail stations increased to 165,515 of which 136,412 had been loaded onto train echelons bound for Uzbekistan (Bugai, doc. 12, p. 138). Finally on 20 May 1944, the NKVD completed the operation. They reported loading a total of 180,014 Crimean Tatars into 67 train echelons of which 63 with 173,287 deportees were already on their way to their new destinations (Bugai, doc. 13, pp. 138-139). On the same day the NKVD also reported mobilizing 11,000 Crimean Tatar men for forced labor, bringing the total number of Crimean Tatars removed from Crimea to 191,014 (Ibid.). A total of 23,000 soldiers and officers of the internal troops of the NKVD and 9,000 operative workers of the NKVD-NKGB participated in this operation (Bugai, doc. 21, p. 144). The NKVD succeeded in ethnically cleansing Crimea of its indigenous population in a mere three days.
The NKVD transported the Crimean Tatars in overcrowded and filthy train wagons to desolate areas of Uzbekistan and the Urals. They lacked sufficient food, water, medicine and hygiene to maintain their health. Many fell ill and thousands perished on the journey. By 4 July 1944, a total of 151,604 Crimean Tatars had arrived in Uzbekistan and 31,551 in the Urals (Bugai, doc. 20, p. 144 and doc. 16, p. 140). In these new locations they lived and worked under special settlement restrictions. Due to a lack of sufficient food, housing and medical care in the face of a severe malaria epidemic thousands died shortly after arriving in Uzbekistan. In the first eight months of exile in Uzbekistan a recorded total of 13,592 Crimean Tatars or 9.1% of the total population perished (Ibragimov, doc. 26, p. 68). The following year another 13,183 Crimean Tatar special settlers died in Uzbekistan bringing the death toll for the first twenty months up to 26,775 people or 17.8% of the population initially deported to Central Asia (Ibid.). This catastrophic loss of life occurred as a direct result of the deportation of the Crimean Tatars to regions which the Soviet government knew were suffering from a malaria epidemic and had insufficient extra housing, food and most importantly anti-malarial drugs to prevent mass deaths among the deportees.
Stalin's ethnic cleansing of the Crimean Tatars 65 years ago represents one of the worst violations of national and human rights during the 20th century. The Soviet regime deprived an entire nation of its homeland and reduced them to a caste of helot laborers under extremely punitive conditions. Indeed the material conditions of the Crimean Tatar special settlers proved to be lethal and decimated the population in Uzbekistan in less than a year. Please join with me and others for a moment of silence at noon, 18 May 2009 where ever you are to remember the victims of this crime against humanity.
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.
For more information on the deportation of the Crimean Tatars see the following posts from 2006 and 2007.