Kyiv: commemorating Stalin’s Nakba a year after Maidan
Photos by Yevgenii Leshan
In the evening of Monday, May 18 a 1000-strong crowd gathered on the Independence Square near the place where some of the bloodiest events of Maidan took place. The crowd held numerous Crimean Tatar flags, as well as some Ukrainian, some flags of the “Crimea” volunteer batallion as well as flags of Ichkeria and Azerbaijan. The people gathered to commemorate the forced deportation of Crimean Tatars (or Qirimli) from their ancestral lands on the Crimean peninsula that took place 71 years ago, in May 1944.
Back then, the whole Crimean Tatar population of the region, as well as other ethnic minorities, was deported to Central Asia. Many of them – a half, according to the Crimean Tatar community leaders, – died during the journey. They also were labeled the “traitor people” by the official propaganda, and leaving their new settlement places in Central Asia was forbidden up to Khrushchev’s denounciation of Stalin’s personality cult in 1956. Return to Crimea, however, was forbidden for them until the fall of the USSR. After the deportation Crimea was repopulated by Slavic (mostly Russian) settlers which shaped its current ethnic composition.
They started returning illegally in the late Soviet times, and independent Ukraine legalised this comeback.
Today they comprise about 12% of the peninsula’s population. Almost as many Crimean Tatars remained in Uzbekistan where they had been settled by Stalin. Turkey also has a large Qirimli diaspora (estimations on exact number vary greatly).
One of the most striking things about the Crimean Tatar deportation is how little, despite the apparent similarity to Nakba, the international left is aware of it. Such an asymmetry reveals just how deeply the left is still prone to the Cold War divisions and stereotypes and that our-sons-of-a-bitchist attitude.
The left is going mad because of Israeli settler colonialism but remains silent about the settler colonialism of Russian and Soviet regimes, of which the Qirimli deportation is a clear example.
The colonialist policies were not an invention of Stalin or Bolsheviks. They were inherited from the empire of Tzars. Displacement of the native Muslim Turkic-speaking population of Crimea and resettling the peninsula with Russians has been the empire’s policy ever since the conquest in the late XVIII century. The current Russian majority in Crimea is a direct product of it. No wonder that quite typical settler chauvinism directed against Crimean Tatars and Ukrainians is also widespread.
Understanding Russian colonialism is important to understand the present tensions in Ukraine. The whole south-eastern half of the country is a settler society shaped by Slavic colonisation of the steppe regions previously populated by Turkic nomads. Most of the settlers were peasants from the nearby central Ukraine, but, as elsewhere in the empire, a system of Russian privilege has been created there. Russian was the sole language of administration, education and business, and all but the privileged Russian minority had to adapt to Russian cultural dominance to climb up the social ladder.
In the early Soviet years in response to Ukrainian national awakening a very serious attempt to break this hierarchy was made. But Stalin’s counter-revolution also meant re-orientation of the Soviet state towards Russian patriotism which, in turn, led to Russian settler chauvinism retaking the ground lost during the revolutionary years. WWII also meant a great surge of patriotism. In the post-war years the USSR looked more and more like Greater Russia, rather than an equal union of different ethnic groups.
Inability to achieve ethno-cultural justice led to ethnic tensions that contributed to the downfall of the Soviet Union. But the system of Russian privilege has not been dismantled in Ukraine. Even now it is damn common in Kyiv cafes that the personnel is speaking Ukrainian (being recent migrants from the Ukrainian-speaking countryside) while the urban middle class use Russian more. Ukrainian or Crimean Tatar remain largely languages of the underprivileged (in fact, many Crimean Tatars switched to Russian under the pressure from the empire) – especially in the South-Eastern regions.
Attempts to challenge this system of privilege are often met with fierce resistance in the name of “protecting the Russian-speaking minority”. Antimaidan is actually an example of such a resistance: Party of Regions and Yanukovych, whose regime fell as a result of Maidan uprising, was for “defending the Russophones” – i.e. the system of Russian privilege in the East and South. No wonder that the settler chauvinists saw the revolution as a threat to their privilege. And naturally, they called for the empire to protect it.
But many on the Western left turn a blind eye on the settler chauvinism of the “people’s republics” they defend. Are the European Stalinists, who visited commander Alexei Mozgovoy, aware of his dreams of “the great Russian empire”? I don’t know, but I wouldn’t be surprised that even if they knew they still would support him – just another example of Stalinist hypocrisy.
Western left remains silent about the suppression of Crimean Tatars after the annexation as well. The Qirimli community opposed Putin’s land-grab, so now many of its leaders are either imprisoned or forced out of Crimea, independent Crimean Tatar media get closed by the new rulers. As the repression goes on, the shadow of deportation haunts the natives of Crimea.
But are the Qirimli alone in their struggle? Not likely. The gathering in Kyiv looked like anything but an isolated community’s demonstration. I mentioned the flags of Azerbaijan – the Azeri diaspora of Ukraine came to express their support, the speakers included several Ukrainian voices and even a Russian opposition activist. Yekaterina Maldon, who fled Russia after being arrested for protesting Russian aggression in Ukraine last year, expressed her solidarity with Crimean Tatars and all those repressed by the regime in Russia. Clearly, the main division is not between Russians and non-Russians but between those wishing to maintain the old imperial dominance structures and those who want to get rid of them.