Below the radar: Tatars in Crimea
One of the least reported angles to the Crimea story is the plight of Russia's Tatars - an ethnic group that was forcibly removed from their original home in the Crimea following World War II for supposedly collaborating with the Nazis.
Only in the last few years have the Tatars been allowed to return. So you will forgive them for not quite trusting the Russians to keep their word.
The Crimean Tatars became one of the key strands of the dissident movement. When their activists were jailed, news reached the West by the same channels that kept information about Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov flowing. Some Tatars snuck back to Crimea for a visit, including Osmanova in 1970. “We cried and cried. We saw my house, and we saw my husband’s house, where he had grown up. There was some alcoholic living there, he was just lying there drunk. It smelled so bad, you couldn’t even go in,” she said.
She and her nation finally won the right to come home when the Soviet Union collapsed, but they never got their houses back. Many Tatars now live in the same village their parents left, can see the house their parents lost, and have no right to cross the threshold. It is something that makes them scoff at any claim that this is Russian land, that it should be united with Russia, that it was only removed from Russia by the whim of the Ukrainian Nikita Khrushchev. I spoke to at least 40 Crimean Tatars on Saturday. Not one of them intended to vote in Crimea’s referendum. Not one of them considered it to be legitimate.
“They say this is their homeland, but we are the native people here, our ancestors lived here, not theirs,” Osmanova said, with real anger. “The people who rule us now, they burned our houses, they destroyed our cemeteries, flattened our graves. That was what their government did against us. How could they lack the humanity?”
Now, as night falls, on the corners of the Tatar regions of Simferopol, and on the roads into Tatar villages, young men stand around braziers, warily watching the cars coming in and out, guarding their communities in the way they could not in 1944. But that is not enough to reassure Osmanova, who sees armed men and remembers Hitler and Stalin, and what they did to her family and her people.
No, it's not 1944. But don't put it past Russians in the Crimea to make their lives miserable for not supporting the referendum.