The Biggest Threat to Putin’s Control of Crimea

Crimean Tatars have long helped shape Ukraine’s sense of self as a vibrant multiethnic, multiconfessional, multilingual place.

A young Crimean Tatar holds a flag.
Iva Zimova / Panos / Re​dux

In May 2020, the Ukrainian writer Serhiy Zhadan stood before a crowd of battle-hardened Ukrainian marines at a base in Mariupol, roughly 40 miles from the Russian border. The soldiers had been holding the line for six years against Russian proxies in the Donbas, and Zhadan had come to boost morale with some poetry.

Glancing down at a tablet in his right hand, he recited a selection of his Ukrainian-language verse with well-worn confidence, as if he had known the audience forever. His last poem of the day had the urgent cadence of a telegraph:

How did we build our homes?

When you stand beneath winter’s skies

And the heavens turn and float away,

You understand you need to live where you are not afraid of death.

Zhadan’s poem speaks to the deep existential threat facing all of Ukraine today. It whispers a terrible knowledge of Russian occupation, which turns the fear of death into a unit to measure distance from home. But for all its wider resonance, Zhadan’s poem draws its inspiration from a specific group of Ukraine’s citizens. As he explained to the marines in Mariupol, “How Did We Build Our Homes?” is a work about the Crimean Tatars, the Indigenous people of the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea.

Especially now, understanding the Crimean Tatars is key to understanding contemporary Ukraine and its vibrant civic national identity, which may be the most powerful force defending liberal democracy today.

“Our path with the Crimean Tatars is narrow and long,” Zhadan once remarked, “because they are our compatriots.” For decades, this small, resilient, Sunni Muslim nation has been helping shape Ukraine’s sense of self and advance a dynamic conversation about the long-standing idea of Ukraine as a multiethnic, multiconfessional, multilingual country—the idea of Ukraine as a homeland of homelands.

The modern history of the Crimean Tatar homeland is one of cycles of displacement, expulsion, and resistance. In the early Soviet period, the cycle seemed to subside. The Crimean Tatars were widely recognized as the Indigenous people of a newly declared Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. Soviet policies of “Tatarization,” which fostered Crimean Tatar schools and funded theaters and publishing houses, “drummed it into Crimea that it was Tatar, Tatar,” as the Soviet writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn emphatically put it. “Even the alphabet was in Arabic [script], and all its signs in Tatar.” Yet by the time of the Nazi occupation of Crimea during the Second World War, these halcyon days had receded.

This month we mark what Stalin did after Hitler’s forces left Crimea. In May 1944, over the course of three days, he deported the entire Crimean Tatar nation—roughly 200,000 people—from its homeland. In the Crimean Tatar language, the deportation is remembered as Sürgün (“the Exile”), an event of brutal dispossession and mass death. Thousands of the deportees died over the course of the journey from inhumane conditions, lack of water and food, and vicious treatment by Stalin’s NKVD. Thousands more perished from hunger, exposure, and disease in “special settlement camps” in Central Asia and Siberia, in the far reaches of the Soviet Union, where they languished for nearly half a century.

Stalin leveled the Crimean Tatars with trumped-up charges of mass collaboration with their Nazi occupiers. Like all ethnic groups in Crimea—including Russians, Ukrainians, and even Jewish Karaites—a number of Crimean Tatars did collaborate with Nazi forces during the war. But the overwhelming majority fought in the Red Army; thousands won medals from the state and six became celebrated Heroes of the Soviet Union. Stalin drove the Crimean Tatars out of Crimea not for something they did but for something he thought they might do. In his paranoid imagination, which entertained the idea of an imminent war with Turkey over control of the straits of the Bosporus and Dardanelles, the Crimean Tatars were a potential Muslim, Turkic-speaking fifth column. Sooner or later, they needed to be broken.

But the Crimean Tatars did not break. Deportation survivors responded to the trauma of their displacement by mounting the largest, most organized, and most sustained movement of dissent in Soviet history. Their fight to return to Crimea, founded on principles of nonviolent resistance against state injustice and oppression, exerted an indelible influence on the organizational infrastructure and moral direction of Soviet dissent as a whole. As the Soviet Ukrainian dissident and mathematician Leonid Plyushch liked to remark, the Crimean Tatars always “understood things inaccessible to the ‘average Soviet intellectual.’”

They had strident Ukrainian allies, especially in the realm of culture. In the 1960s and ’70s, after Crimea had been transferred from Soviet Russia to Soviet Ukraine, dissident poets such as Mykola Rudenko and Ivan Sokulsky circulated poetry in the underground that expressed a passionate solidarity with the Crimean Tatars and called on readers to act in support of their cause. “The Crimean Tatars are suffering in exile,” Sokulsky implored his audience. “Let the world hear about this interminable crime!” Other Ukrainian writers such as Roman Ivanychuk managed to outwit the censor and publish fiction that considered the history of Ukraine from a Crimean Tatar perspective, upending in the process any notion that Crimea was “ancient” Russian land. Such works, as one contemporary noted, were like “explosions” in Soviet Ukrainian society.

After decades of tireless work and sacrifice, the Crimean Tatars won the right to return to their ancestral homeland in the twilight of Mikhail Gorbachev’s rule. When the Soviet Union fell a few years later, in 1991, the Ukrainian–Crimean Tatar solidarity cultivated by the likes of Rudenko, Sokulsky, and Ivanychuk was given a new political home, and the Crimean Tatars became ardent, vocal supporters of the newly independent Ukrainian state. They were often called “the greatest Ukrainians in Crimea.” It was no exaggeration. As the Crimean Tatar poet Samad Şukur exclaimed in 1993, “Ukraine—my brother, my kin. For your freedom, I am prepared to die.”

Russia’s breakneck annexation of Crimea in 2014 changed everything. Almost overnight, activists associated with Crimean Tatar civil society were subject to arrests, detentions, and expulsions at the hands of de facto Russian authorities. The sheer number and nature of these attacks on civil liberties and human rights compelled one prominent Crimean human-rights organization to compile a multivolume “Encyclopedia of Repression.”

Public commemorations of Stalin’s 1944 deportation were banned. Tens of thousands of Crimean Tatars fled Crimea for mainland Ukraine. Mustafa Dzhemilev, the legendary leader of the Crimean Tatar people who endured a 303-day hunger strike in the Gulag in the 1970s, was forbidden to set foot on the peninsula. Others, such as the activist and politician Ilmi Umerov, who declared to the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) in May 2016, “I do not consider Crimea part of the Russian Federation,” were subjected to forced treatment in psychiatric hospitals. Their unrelenting defiance in the face of Russian violence led the filmmaker and former political prisoner Oleg Sentsov to call the Crimean Tatars “the biggest threat” to Putin’s control of Crimea.

With Crimea annexed and the Donbas invaded, Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars turned to each other again in an urgent search for security after 2014. A majority of Ukrainians advocated for the introduction of an amendment to Ukraine’s constitution that would recognize the “national-territorial autonomy” of the Crimean Tatars and, in effect, vest Crimean sovereignty in them. Crimean Tatars, meanwhile, formed volunteer battalions to support Kyiv in the fight against Russian aggression in the Donbas.

In literature and art, Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar artists embarked on a contemplation of home as both body and shelter. “In the Ukrainian collective consciousness,” explains the writer Kateryna Mishchenko, “Crimea is a wound, a trauma of the outbreak of war, a lost home.” For the Ukrainian poet Mar’iana Savka, the bond of solidarity between Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars can help suture it: “Although we are different, brother, the line of our destiny is joined, / Like a thread stitching a burning wound.”

Homeward, the 2019 debut feature film by the director Nariman Aliev, is a similar proponent of such Ukrainian-home work. Awarded the distinction of Un Certain Regard at Cannes, the film centers on a Crimean Tatar named Mustafa who journeys across Ukraine to Crimea to return the body of his estranged son, Nazim, for burial. Years before, Nazim had left Crimea for mainland Ukraine, where a sense of duty to his country led him to fight and die in the war against Russian proxies in the Donbas. Reluctantly traveling with Mustafa is his younger son, Alim, who, like his brother, has also found a home in Ukraine beyond Crimea.

At one point, Alim announces to his father that he has no desire to return to Crimea and live under Russian occupation. Instead he sees his future in Kyiv, where he is studying in journalism school. Mustafa demands that Alim give up his plans. Mustafa exclaims, “There is nothing for you back there [in Kyiv]. Can you even imagine what we went through to return to Crimea?” Alim replies, “Who gives a damn about this Crimea?! There is no life there, and there never will be.”

The argument between father and son is visceral and revelatory, laying bare the divergent conceptions of home and tradition between two different generations. Mustafa’s home is Crimea; Alim and Nazim’s is Crimea, in Ukraine.

At the core of contemporary Ukrainian culture is thus an exploration of what it means for Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars to be “at home” together when home cannot be taken for granted. Even a brief glimpse into the evolving cultural reflections of the solidarity between Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars reveals a startling picture with potential lessons for European liberalism and global Islam. It is a portrait of Crimea’s Sunni Muslim Indigenous people helping shape the civic national identity of a country that the German historian Karl Schlögel calls “Europe in miniature.” Ukraine may have lost control of Crimea for the short term. But thanks to the Crimean Tatars, Crimea has not lost control of Ukraine.

As Serhiy Zhadan left Mariupol in May 2020, he offered the marines in attendance a sense of control. Like a dog-eared omnibus, his poem “How Did We Build Our Homes?” preaches a tactics of defense, empowering his audience to place “stone against stone” to stop the aggressor:

Build walls from reeds and grass,

Dig wolf pits and trenches.

Grow accustomed to living with neighbors day after day.

Your homeland is where they understand you when you talk in your sleep.

Today, defending their country against a cruel, full-fledged invasion of Russian forces, Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars are fighting for the right to be at home together. They speak with each other in dreams of a free Ukraine—a homeland of homelands.