The massacre in Bucha near Kyiv, committed by Russian soldiers a few weeks ago, came as a shock to many citizens of liberal democratic countries. They shouldn’t be so surprised. Genocide is actually a traditional method of Russian “politics.” What happened in Bucha and what is now happening in Mariupol and other Ukrainian cities—murder, torture, and rape of Ukrainians—is perfectly in keeping with the historical practice of ethnic cleansing long carried out by Russia in Ukraine and elsewhere. Such atrocities, because of the machinations of the perpetrator, have been insufficiently covered and often whitewashed or even justified in the world media.
One of the best examples of such an unnoticed genocide is the extermination of the Crimean Tatars, the indigenous people of what is now Russia-occupied Crimea. Today is its anniversary. The deportation of the Tatars from the Crimean Peninsula began on May 18, 1944. During the deportation, about half of the Crimean Tatar people were exterminated.
The Final Solution to the Crimean Tatar Question
As is well documented, the Nazis called the extermination of the Jews “the final solution to the Jewish question.” On April 3, when the world was horrified by the photos from Bucha, an article about the “solution of the Ukrainian question” showed up at the RIA Novosti, a Russian state news agency. But this isn’t the first time Russia has indulged this impulse. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Russian Empire “solved” the “Circassian question.” In the 1940s, the USSR dealt with the “Lithuanian question.” And in the 1990s, Russia solved the “Ichkeria question.” But those are stories for a different day.
Today, a few words about the “Crimean Tatar question.” Stalin’s order and the resolution of the USSR State Defense Committee of May 11, 1944, led to tragic effects. Within three days in May 1944, an entire nation that had lived in Crimea for centuries was forcibly deported to Central Asia. According to various sources, between a quarter and half of the people were killed during long-term transportation in packed freight cars, as well as later in barbaric forced living conditions.
At the same time, any public mention of Crimean Tatars was banned in the USSR. The mention of the ethnicity was suddenly absent in subsequent Soviet censuses. Authorities changed about 90 percent of geographic names on the peninsula that had Crimean Tatar names.
The descendants of the survivors of the genocide returned home in 1989. By that time, their family houses were mostly inhabited by Russians who had transmigrated in 1944, immediately after the deportation of the local population. And in 2014, after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the persecution of Crimean Tatars began again. Dozens of Crimean Tatar activists are currently being held in Russian prisons. From time to time, human rights advocates record the mysterious deaths of Crimean Tatars, and there is a lot of evidence of repression of the Crimean Tatar language.
What was Stalin’s rationale for the deportation? I will describe it below. But for now, ask yourself whether there is ever any good reason to destroy a nation?
Carpathian-Embroidered Table Runners and Crimean-Embossed Utensils
Everyone in Ukraine can identify with the history of the Crimean Tatars. Ukraine’s “bloodlands” suffered the greatest destruction and human losses among all of the Soviet republics during the two world wars; Stalin’s terror, itself a genocidal artificial famine; and then during Nikita Khrushchev’s and Leonid Brezhnev’s purges. Every Ukrainian has a relative who was deported to Siberia, who was sentenced for connections with insurgents, or who died during that famine, known in Ukrainian as “Holodomor.”
So when an acquaintance, a Crimean Tatar, told me her story, it resonated with me completely, despite the 1,000 kilometers separating the places of my birth and hers. By the time her relatives returned to Crimea in 1989, their family house had been inhabited by new owners for decades. So the Crimean Tatars decided to build a new house in another area. They often went to the village market. Once there, amid the various items available for sale, they saw the embossed utensils they had left in their home in 1944.
This case reminded me of stories from the Carpathians, where I am from. Many people were deported in the 1940s to the Russian hinterland because of their connections to those who fought for a free Ukraine. They began to return home after Stalin’s death. In their neighbors’ houses, they saw embroidered table runners and other household items they had left in their own homes 15 years earlier. In other words, the authorities not only pitted ethnicity against ethnicity but also aimed for the moral destruction of these peoples from within, by demoralizing and intimidating them and inciting shameful acts. These acts are still the reason for ongoing internal conflicts in Ukraine and unspoken traumas.
First They Kill the Culture
At the beginning of the Russia-Ukraine war, information leaked that the Russians had lists of people (political and cultural elites) to be killed or placed in concentration camps right after the occupation. This was not unexpected. After all, the extermination of the people entails not just physical murder. There is also the destruction of culture, people’s forced assimilation, and, in Ukraine’s case, Russification. And after each act of cultural cleansing in Ukraine, monuments to the Russian poet Pushkin appeared in the occupied territories, alongside prohibitions of communication in the native language and the banning of books.
Ukrainian intellectual Mykola Zerov was murdered by the Soviet security service NKVD in 1937 in the Solovky prison camp. At the time he was killed, Zerov was in the process of translating Virgil’s Aeneid into Ukrainian—but he made it only part of the way through before his death. The absence of a full translation sets the nation aside in civilizational evolution.
In total, Russians exterminated almost all Ukrainian prose writers, poets, and theater directors of the 1920s and 1930s. This homicide of almost all cultural leaders took place in the late 1930s and was repeated during Khrushchev’s and Brezhnev’s times. It went on even during progressive “perestroika” when Vasyl Stus, one of the leading Ukrainian poets of the 20th century, was assassinated in a Russian prison in 1985.
As for the Crimean Tatars, in 1918 the Bolsheviks shot the key politician and author of the national anthem, Noman Çelebicihan. And in 1938, alongside dozens of other representatives of Crimean Tatar culture, the NKVD arrested and killed the leading poet Osman Aqçoqraqlı. It’s not an accident that today, according to UNESCO, the Crimean Tatar language is “seriously endangered.”
The Mania of Numbers
“Not enough people have been murdered,” say some people who opposed referring to the events in the Kyiv suburbs as genocide. We still discuss topics in Ukrainian history in similar terms. How many of the Crimean Tatars died during the deportation—was it 20 percent or 46 percent? How many Ukrainians died during the Holodomor—was it 4 or 10 million people?
The cynical pursuit of numbers misses the point: What if it was a hundred people? How many victims does it take to call it horror? How many people have to die to prove that there was an immediate attempt to destroy an entire nation or an entire culture?
This discussion is somewhat reminiscent of the discussion in Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved (1987) about African American slavery. Critics tried to find out why she dedicated the book to “60 million and more.” The writer explained later that this is the number of those who died in inhumane conditions on their way from Africa to America. Morrison’s critics claimed the actual death toll in the Middle Passage was much lower. Would their reduced numbers reduce the level of horror?
And Now the Answer
So why did Stalin want to exterminate the Crimean Tatar people? The official reasoning was “the mass collaboration of the Crimean Tatar people with the Nazis.” Leave aside that the idea of mass, non-individualized punishment of a whole nation for collaboration does not satisfy any conception of justice. As a factual matter, the allegation is simply untrue. Somewhere between 20,000 and 50,000 Crimean Tatars served in the Red Army, fighting against the Axis Powers, during the war. Twenty-one of them were recommended by the Soviet military administration to be honored as a “Hero of the Soviet Union,” one of the Soviet Union’s highest military ranks.
What was the real reason for the genocide? Historians’ opinions on the subject are not unanimous. As a connoisseur of a perverse notion of the “ideal” Soviet citizen, Stalin was annoyed with the presence in the European part of the Soviet Union of these Muslim people. Crimean Tatars differ religiously, culturally, and linguistically, and perhaps Stalin feared that such difference might cause instability within the region.
Of course, the “collaboration” argument is inherently fraught; one is not a collaborator because of one’s ethnicity, let alone because of one’s grandparent’s ethnicity. But for many Russians, the accusation of collaboration is still a black mark on the record of the Crimean Tatars.
I am currently working on the script for a feature film by director Nariman Aliev, entitled “Ortalan.” The film will tell about May 18, 1944, when Crimea suddenly became empty. It will also show how Crimea was then filled with new Russian occupants, whose descendants would call in 2014 for Putin to exterminate those Crimean Tatars who were not killed 70 years earlier.
As I have worked on this project, I discovered that it was incredibly important for the older generation of Tatars to dispel this “collaboration nation” myth. They wanted to prove to everyone, and to themselves, that they were not a traitorous nation. Of course, the whole notion of a traitorous nation makes sense only in the Soviet frame of interpretation and ethics. But sometimes you have to fight fire with fire.
The strategy of marking peoples fit Soviet concepts of domestic policy regulation. In other regions, the Soviets achieved a similar result by branding persons as “enemies of the people,” a Stalinist appellation that former President Trump imported to the United States to refer to the democratic free press.
Even just being related to an “enemy of the people” meant one would have problems entering university and being hired. Anybody could just denounce such a person behind his or her back. And today, Russia extends this kind of denunciation to history in its contemporary efforts to discredit the leaders of the Ukrainian People’s Republic (1917-1921) and the Ukrainian insurgent movement of the 1940s. Today, the Russians falsify the past and recruit useful idiots from Ivy League universities to fill Western discourse with misinformation about the Azov Regiment, which Russia is now physically destroying in Mariupol. Russia’s efforts to whitewash history continue, and the world sits idle in response.
Again and Again
And it works. Russia denied the Great Famine of 1932-1933. And the West enabled Russia in that denial. The most striking example is the American Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Walter Duranty (1884-1957), who deliberately and intentionally denied the Holodomor and Stalin’s terror. Duranty was cynically falsifying reality, but this idea was also supported by the outstanding writer Bernard Shaw, who came to the USSR and naively walked with NKVD representatives through what historians refer to as “Potemkin villages” and reported that he saw “surprisingly round” children.
After the Soviet Union collapsed, Ukraine and other former Soviet states did not have enough sovereignty and influence in international discourse to counter the weight of Russia’s lies about its genocidal past. Russia was a party in all decision-making authorities with the right to veto, bribing other decision-makers as needed. And the West, remember, has its own uncomfortable history of imperialism. This is a reason why many of Russia’s historical crimes, including genocides, have not been recognized and the perpetrators have not been punished. Recognizing genocide as such, even defining the term “genocide,” is highly contested ground notwithstanding an international treaty and even case law on the subject. Slowly, though, the genocidal politics of Russia are becoming a part of international discourse and are being emphasized in international media, as in a recent Atlantic essay by Rory Finnin.
We don’t need to resolve definitional questions to understand the material point at hand: However one defines “genocide,” the criminal has never been brought to justice despite its recidivism. Because of intentional acts of the authorities, a number of peoples of the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and the Russian Federation have been exterminated or brought to the margin of nonexistence. This has happened over and over again in history.
After the massacre in Bucha, some people complain that there are not “enough victims” to call it genocide. Let me be clear: It is not important for Ukrainians what word is chosen for the repeated systematic murder of our people. For us, the main issue is to win the war and survive, for the entire population of 40 million people to survive.
The postwar slogan “Never Again” sounds not only insulting but is a kind of mockery today. “Never Again” happened again and will happen again. This will happen again, again, and again, until the country that commits one crime after another is finally stopped and finally punished.