The Russian seizure of Crimea and its support of the insurrection in eastern Ukraine inspired comparisons of Russia to Nazi Germany and President Vladimir Putin to Hitler. But the way Russia has gone about crushing dissent on the Crimean peninsula lately calls to mind another infamous figure from history that Putin seems to emulate: Joseph Stalin.
Russia annexed Crimea from the Ottoman Empire in the 18th century. In May 1944, Stalin accused the Muslim Tatars – one fifth of the population – of collaborating with the Nazis and ordered their expulsion. Of the 230,000 Tatars sent to what are now Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and other former Soviet states, as well as to gulags, as many as 100,000 are believed to have died from starvation and disease. Stalin’s charges were discredited in 1966, and Tatars began returning to their homeland in the 1980s, with a huge wave immigrating after Ukraine gained its independence. Today, Tatars number about 250,000 and constitute 12 percent of Crimea’s population.
Again, however, Tatars face official persecution. During the last six months their freedoms and rights have been repeatedly attacked. According to a report by Amnesty International: “Tatar activists have been detained and ill-treated by groups of armed men and, in one case, killed; the informal leader of the Crimean Tatars and Ukrainian MP, Mustafa Jemiliev, was banned and prevented from entering his homeland; scores of Crimean Tatars have been prosecuted for taking part in peaceful protests; the highest representative body of the Tatars, the Mejlis, has been threatened with dissolution; Tatars are under pressure to give up their Ukrainian citizenship and apply for Russian passports.”
Ismayil Khayredinov, a Crimean Tatar, lives and works in the Czech Republic now. He served the Observer-Reporter as an interpreter during its exchanges with newspapers in eastern Ukraine several years ago.
Khayredinov had not been home since the Russian invasion but stays in touch with family and friends in his hometown, Sevastopol. In an email to us earlier this week, he wrote, “In the last two weeks in Crimea: My high school was searched and fined for possession of ‘forbidden’ literature; a friend who is a political activist was subject to a home search with all of his computers seized; the Crimean Tatar library that my mom works with has been closed down; my old boss was on a taxi when four masked men pulled him out and stole his passport – he was on his way to UN assembly in New York; the foundation that owned my old office and is dealing with Crimean Tatar Medjlis funds has lost access to all buildings and assets by court order; regular searches are taking places in mosques around Crimea; and the latest – all Crimean schools will be searched for forbidden literature. And why is it that I want to pull my hair out when Russian MFA (Ministry of Foreign Affairs) screams about rights violations of Russian minorities in other countries?”
Tatar leaders have historically been anti-communist and have consistently supported Ukrainian nationalist causes, but their dissent has always been peaceful. Dissent, however, is not something Putin is ready to tolerate. Russian musicians, artists and writers have been asked to sign letters of support for the annexation of Crimea, and those who refuse risk being branded as traitors, yet another Stalinist tactic.
Much attention, fear and consternation is focused on what land Putin may try to seize next, Hitler-style. But perhaps more worrisome are Putin’s plans for his own people.