Crimea is a beautiful peninsula on the Black Sea with a long and rich history. For hundreds of years, Muslim Tatars lived there as fishermen, farmers, and ranchers. During World War II the Nazis conquered that part of the Soviet Socialist Republic. The German National Socialists were at first received by the Tatars as liberators from Soviet communism, only to find out that the Germans thought of them as “sub humans” and wanted them to work as slaves in their factories. The Nazis horribly brutalized the Tatars, but then the tide of war turned and the Soviet armies entered Crimea victoriously in 1944.
Lavrenty Beria, the head of Stalin’s feared secret police, the NKVD (later called the KGB), believed that many if not most of the Tatars had sided with the Germans. He came up with a plan to punish them by deporting them and any other ethnic minority he did not like to the harsh environment of Soviet central Asia. In May of 1944, in just three days, the NKVD swooped down on 230,000 Tatars, packed them all onto sealed box cars (just like what the Nazis had done to the Jews and others) and sent them all away to the desert of Uzbekistan. Those who resisted were immediately shot. After the deportation, the NKVD discovered that they had missed several hundred Tatars on some islands. They rounded them up too, put them on rickety boats in the Sea of Azov, and sank the boats. Those who tried to swim for shore were machine-gunned. The government did not consider them “essential” to the state, apparently.
Some 13,000 Tatars perished en route to Uzbekistan, and also in the following years once they got there. They were certainly not welcomed by the Uzbek people. Somehow, the Tatars managed to survive, but in the Soviet Union, in which the person was always subject to the Almighty state, the socialist government deemed them as second class citizens and they were not allowed to return to Crimea. In fact, the word “Crimean Tatar” was removed from all Soviet history and geography books, and Soviet dictionaries! The state “erased” them.
Except that they did not die off. They continued to agitate for a return to their native homeland, and in 1987, during Gorbachev’s period of “glasnost” and “perestroika” some Tatars were allowed to return. In the waning days of communist-occupied Russia courts declared the removal of the Tatars from their homeland to be unjust and many of them have returned after a 45 year exile.