9 Mar 2014

Crimea’s Tatars: fearing a return to Stalin-era terror

The soldiers came at midnight when the children were sleeping. Sabrie, who was ten, struggled to stay awake as her mother grabbed her little sister and two brothers.

There was no time to change, to pack, to bring anything – they had fifteen minutes to get to the station. There they stayed, hungry and afraid, until the train came to remove them from their home in Crimea to a distant land. They would not return for half a century.

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I met Sabrie in the town of Bakhchiserai yesterday. Aged 80 now, she speaks of what happened as if it were last week, not 70 years ago. Her green eyes widen and she gesticulates with gnarled hands, reliving her story as if telling it for the first time.

“The train was dirty as if it had been carrying cattle,” she said. “No toilet. No water. The doors were locked. People were dying and at the next station the bodies would be thrown off. Nobody knew where they were taken.”

Sabrie is an ethnic Tatar. In May 1944, Stalin deported the Tatars – Crimea’s native people – to Uzbekistan, accusing them of siding with the Nazis.


Nearly half of the 200,000 Tatars forced to leave Crimea died of hunger and disease on the journey or during the years that followed. Sabrie and her family were amongst the survivors, although her father, who was fighting in the Soviet army, never returned.

“Father didn’t come back from the war. He left home in 1941, and we never saw him again,” she said.

Crimea is a land of patriotic myths where people spit their version of history in your face, ribbons pinned to their lapels, flags waving, fury in their raised voices. Sabrie, by contrast, was remembering personal pain.

She fears Russia’s sudden decision to re-incorporate Crimea, which has been part of Ukraine since 1954, may herald a return to the time of terror she lived in her childhood. She described how, as a teenager in Uzbekistan, she was forced to clean cotton after school long into the night. She married and had children there but it was never home.

When she and her husband returned to Crimea in 1994 she found Russians living in the house her family had been forced out of 50 years earlier.

“You know, in the old part of Bakhchiserai Russian people live in our house,” she told me, eyes flashing. “They are intruders, but they think it is their house. Putin thinks in the same way. He wants to find some territory to steal.”

Crimea’s new government, which has decided to rejoin Russia even before next Sunday’s referendum, says the Tatars have nothing to fear. Delegations from Moscow have visited Tatar leaders to reassure them.

Yet the gates to a few houses in Bakhchiserai have been marked with a cross, the sign Stalin’s men used to identify Tatar families for deportation in 1944.

It may just be the work of a few local thugs, but Tatars have started to patrol their neighbourhoods in fear of attack.

I asked Sabrie what she felt, as a little girl accused of treachery, as she was forced to leave her home in such terrifying circumstances. I expected her to say “fear” but she didn’t.

“Hatred,” she said. “My father had been sent to war. I was taken from my house as a traitor. What should I feel? Hatred. Even now I feel that hatred. I don’t know why I was taken from Crimea. I’m 80 now and I still don’t know the reason. There is no answer.”

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9 reader comments

  1. Alan says:

    Sorry but this emotive style of propaganda is worse than RT reporting. What next we wonder?

  2. W Waldron says:

    I don’t remember Kruschev asking the population of Crimea in the fifties whether they wanted to leave Russia and become part of the Ukraine. Anyway do you really think the Oligarchs are really going to let Putin damage their money interests in New York, the City of London and Frankfurt for the sake of 1.3 million Russian Speaking people nearly all of which weren’t born in Russia. The Crimea is beautiful and Nicholas II, Gorbachev and Stalin all had palaces there but the whole Peninsular isn’t worth as much as one of the Russian ruling class’s offshore accounts.

  3. peter harvey says:

    I don’t think you can compare what Stalin did in very hard times for everybody with the present situation. It is best to not exaggerate and to try to find something positive to say about the present situation.

  4. Glyn Allott says:

    This is an appalling piece of ‘journalism’ designed to sway opinion in Britain against Russia. For goodness sake Channel 4, do your journalistic job and tell the truth.
    The truth is that the democratically elected President of Ukraine was undemocratically and violently removed by a bunch of sociopathic neo-nazi thugs. These thugs have been organised and financed by the western troika of USA, EU and NATO. Why?
    Because this troika desperately wants to get its hands on the naval facilities in Crimea in order to further squeeze Russia. Russia can not and must not let the strategic region of Crimea fall into the hands of western war lords, it must defend this region and the Russian peoples there at all costs.

    1. BOB says:

      More Russian BS. They etnically cleansed Crimea, and will do it again.
      NEVER trust a russian. Tey are liars!!

      1. Elliaja says:

        BOB, I would like to reply to you directly. It is clear that the events in Ukraine and Crimea have caused quite a stir among the international community, emotions are flyling high and people do not awlays reply from the position of history or other knowledge. However, there have to be LIMITS! The deportation of the Crimean tatars in 1994 happened on the orders of the “Leader and Father of All People” – Joseph Stalin. Who was Georgian. Amongst his henchmen, there were people of all nationalities – fellow Georgians, Jews, Russians, Ukranians, etc – name it. Millions of native Russians became victims of Stalin’s repressions, of his foul, unhuman regime. In fact, you can hardly find a Russian family which did not suffer a loss during Stalin’s rule; sometimes, whole families were arrested, tortured and executed without trial. The world leaders no doubt knew what was going on, yet all was quiet; no international outrage. When Stalin died in 1953, many in the (then) USSR whispered: “The Dog has gone!”. So what did the Russian nation, itself a victim of the regime, big time, have to do with the deportation and suffering of the Crimean tatars? Nothing.
        I find your comments base, distasteful, lacking common sense and meant simply to offend a whole nation. This is how hatred is ignated.

        PS By the way, the above “piece of journalism” by Channel4 is really quite something! So much for an objective, unprejudiced, decent opinion! Alas, we should sing the funeral tune to our Western freedom of press.

  5. Francis Higgins says:

    At a time when the world desperately needs stability along came Putin.

  6. Alex Batlin says:

    I have always valued Channel 4’s impartial reporting of the news, but Lindey’s overall reporting style of this conflict has left me wanting. Constant use of anti-Russian emotive language and as far as I can see unsubstantiated mis information plus what appears to be careful selection of material all smacks of propaganda, which if nothing else will fuel’s Putin’s argument of western anti -Russian propaganda and feed his power base. Please report balanced news, not your opinions and let us decide what we should make of it all.

  7. Andor says:

    I am Russian living in the U.S. I know the pain Tatar families felt after the deportation, but, unfortunately, their pain was fermented by the Muslim hatred more than on anything else. My niece married a nice young man who was a Crimean Tatar living in St.Petersburg. Incidentally, his sister married a nice Russian guy living in Ukraine. The parents disowned them both. Period.
    The younger Tatars are more accepting and less religious, but the author, unfortunately, did not interview any of them. Even her photograph shows the older crowd still carrying the grudge.
    The Germans were also deported by Stalin.. I’ve known many of them, and my aunt married one I Kazakhstan, where they were sent with nothing! The locals were very supportive of the German “refugees” in spite of the war raging on. They knew that the Russian Germans had nothing to do with Hitler.
    The Chechens and Tatars were a different story. They actively supported the invading German Army. I can tell you some horror stories of them killing the remaining behind when the Red Army left Russians … My father had a friend who was a General in the Kremlin Security, and later the KGB ranks..

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