Cover Image for The Long Exile: A History of the Deportation of 1944

The Long Exile: A History of the Deportation of 1944

The mass deportation of Crimean Tatars in May 1944 is rooted in Russian settler colonialism which Martin-Oleksandr Kisly traces to the subjugation of Crimea by Catherine II. Eighty years after the grievous crime against the Indigenous people of Crimea, Crimean Tatars are under Russia’s occupation and banned from marking this historic date.


The deportation of the Crimean Tatars in 1944 is more than a historical event; it is also a protracted process, extending through time, or even a condition. The condition of exile. ‘In deportation’ — meaning ‘in exile’ — is what Crimean Tatars say when they talk about their years in foreign lands. This process did not just ruin the lives of individuals, it destroyed the way of life and culture of an entire people. In addition, deportation is also a colonial structure deeply embedded in the history of Russia’s occupation of Crimea. To understand the significance of remembering and reminding the world about the deportation, today, eighty years after the tragic event, one needs first to explore historical context and explain what happened in Crimea on 18 May 1944.

According to the established canon, essays like this begin by stating that the deportation of the Crimean Tatars began with the State Defence Committee Resolution signed by Stalin on 11 May 1944, which accused the Crimean Tatars of ‘treason against the fatherland’ and ordered the expulsion of the entire people from their homeland as punishment. That’s what I used to write too. Only recently did I realise that both referring to the Soviet myth about collaboration and refuting this myth reproduce the Russian narrative which continues to prevail in the Russian Federation. It began long before May 1944, and it is an integral part of the colonial structure.

From the moment that Russia appeared in Crimea in the eighteenth century, it aimed to reduce the size of the peninsula’s Indigenous population, resorting to terror, discrimination, and resettlement. The local population was rooted in the land, which reminded the colonisers they were alien newcomers; using political, economic, and religious persecution the latter literally pushed the former out of Crimea. In their stead, settlers populated the land, turning Crimea into a settler colony. When Crimea was annexed by Catherine II in 1783, the Russians depicted the Crimean Tatars as ‘untrustworthy’, ‘dangerous’ savages. In his letters to Catherine, Potemkin called Crimean Tatars ‘beasts’ while claiming that the local population was not civilised enough. Peter Pallas, a Prussian naturalist invited to the Russian Empire by Catherine II, wrote in his Travels through the Southern Provinces of the Russian Empire that Crimean Tatars are useless, inactive, and even dangerous.[1] Finally, the myth of ‘treason’, created to legitimise oppression, appeared during a different war: the Crimean War of 1853 to 1856. Thus the deportation of the Crimean Tatars in May 1944 was the culmination of the Russian policy to Russify Crimea.

The mechanism of forced resettlement was nothing new for the Soviet repressive machine. It had already been ‘tested’ on the Koreans, Poles, Germans, Kalmyks, Ingush, Nokhchiy and other peoples during collectivisation, as well as just before and during World War II.

On 18 May at dawn, and in some villages on 17 May, armed NKVD (the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, the Soviet secret police agency responsible for internal security and the Gulag prison labour camps from 1934 to 1946) officers arrived at the homes of Crimean Tatars. At the time most of their men were in the ranks of the Red Army, so it was the women, children, and elderly who were at home. In a state of shock and panic — at gunpoint — people were either given ten to fifteen minutes to pack their most precious things, or else the officers forced people from their homes immediately. Few are the stories of guards who allowed the exiles to take food, clothing, or household items with them. The population was transported by truck to railway stations, where they were loaded onto trains. This was all done in haste and rather chaotically; as a result people from a single village or community, or even from the same family, were separated and ended up in different cars or on different trains. By 20 May, the last train carrying deported Crimean Tatars set off for Uzbekistan.

It is worth noting that according to the above-mentioned State Defence Committee resolution, the deportation was supposed to be completed by 1 June, but the Soviet motto of ‘achieving and over-achieving the plan’ led to tragic consequences. Thus, according to official Soviet counts, 191 people died in transit. This number is questionable, as the recollections of deported Crimean Tatars include numerous accounts of people dying from hunger, illness, unsanitary conditions, and suffocation in tightly packed freight cars not designed for transporting people. Those in the wagons had to bury their kin hastily during brief stops, or leave them beside the tracks.

In May 1944, according to official figures, 193,865 Crimean Tatars were deported from Crimea.[2] The majority (151,136) were exiled to Uzbekistan. Some of the trains were re-routed along the way, for the Soviet authorities decided to use the exiles as free labour in the Urals and the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic, in addition to Central Asia. After the war, men who returned from the front were sent to the ‘labour army’ (trudarmiia). They did not get a chance to search for their families until after 1948.

The Crimean Tatars were settled in special camps, similar to the camps of the Gulag. The exiles had limited rights and restrictions on their freedom of movement, and they were put to forced labour. This regime remained in force beyond Stalin’s death, until 1956. Between 1944 and 1956, 49,200 people died; the high mortality was caused by deportation and poor conditions in the special settlements. 65.9% of the total deaths occurred in the first four years of exile. It is worth noting that these figures are based on official Soviet records; in the Crimean Tatar community, it is widely believed that many more of their compatriots died as a result of their deportation and exile. Ukraine has recognised the crime of forced deportation as an act of genocide against the Crimean Tatar people, based on the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Canada, Latvia, and Lithuania have also recognised the deportation of the Crimean Tatars as genocide.

After the deportation, the Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was annulled, and Crimea became a region of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic. While the Crimean Tatars were in exile, the authorities conducted a campaign to Russify Crimea, thus changing the image of the peninsula: Crimean Tatar toponyms and hydronyms were renamed wholesale. For years, the Crimean Tatars not only disappeared from Crimea but also ceased to exist as a people on paper. During the Soviet censuses in 1959, 1970, and 1979, Crimean Tatars were recorded as ‘Tatars’, while official documents called them ‘individuals of Tatar nationality formerly inhabiting Crimea’. The colonisers tried as hard as possible to wipe out all references to Crimea’s Indigenous people in encyclopaedias and literature.

It is a characteristic feature of the deportation of the Crimean Tatar people that it was a mass and total phenomenon: no Crimean Tatar was untouched by this tragedy. The deportation left a deep mark on the people’s collective memory, and it also shaped the identity of the Crimean Tatars, changing the way they thought about themselves. Contrary to the expectations of Soviet authorities, Crimean Tatars in exile did not assimilate; instead, they formed an image of Crimea as their homeland, the place to which they must return. Ultimately, they did. After 1967, although it was forbidden, Crimean Tatars began returning to Crimea. On the peninsula, they were not granted legal status, they were not eligible for work, and they were unable to buy homes. If a Crimean Tatar family did succeed in acquiring a home and settling down in Crimea, the house would be bulldozed and the family would be banished from Crimea by force. The mass return began during perestroika in the USSR, when Crimean Tatars organised a protest in Red Square in Moscow in July 1987, demanding permission to return to their homeland. That summer it became obvious that the ‘liberalisation of all spheres of life’ declared by the Soviet authorities did not apply to those forcibly exiled; so masses of people left for Crimea on their own, breaking through the resistance of the totalitarian system, which did not want Crimean Tatars living at home.

It is incredibly difficult to write about the deportation of Crimean Tatars this year, on the eightieth anniversary of this crime. On 18 May, people in Crimea will not gather for public commemorations of the dead or recite duas[3] for them on the central squares of their towns and villages. After Crimea was occupied by the Russian Federation in 2014, public mourning on 18 May was banned by the occupying authorities. Commemoration of the deportation has again moved from the public sphere to the family home, just like in Soviet times. To some extent, this ban does not just demonstrate the rebirth of Soviet discriminatory policies controlling public space and commemorative practices in Crimea, it speaks of the occupying authorities’ fear that 18 May has the potential to mobilise the Indigenous population.

In 2014, the Crimean Tatars decisively proclaimed their pro-Ukrainian and anti-Russian political position. Over the past ten years, both on the occupied peninsula and on the free territory of Ukraine, Crimean Tatars have demonstrated that they are the bridge joining the mainland with the peninsula. As a result, they have been subjected to political persecution, show trials based on fabricated charges, repressions, and even abduction and murder.

Following the occupation of Crimea by the Russian Federation in 2014, the homes of Crimean Tatars on the peninsula have become the sites of regular searches and arrests. The searches usually happen at dawn, without warning, and employ violent force. Today in Crimea, over 200 Crimean Tatar children are growing up without their parents. The occupation of Crimea has meant losing one’s home, not only for the tens of thousands of refugees forced to flee the peninsula, but also for the hundreds of thousands who remain but no longer feel at home. The spring of 2014 was a painful reminder, and in some cases even a repetition, of the events of another spring — in 1944. The events taking place on the peninsula since March 2014 have had the effect of re-traumatising Crimean Tatars, reopening a wound that still has not healed, and giving rise to a reasonable fear of being deported again.

If ten years ago Crimean Tatars were afraid of being packed into freight cars again, then today it is evident that the occupiers are taking a different approach, which has its roots in the nineteenth century. This so-called ‘hybrid’ (or quiet) deportation involves squeezing the most active Crimean Tatars out of the peninsula, in addition to arresting those who remain and imprisoning them outside Crimea. After launching its full-scale war against Ukraine, the Russian Federation also commenced the forced mobilisation of Crimea’s residents into Russia’s armed forces. This prompted a large migration of Crimean Tatars to Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkey, Europe, North America, and, finally, to the unoccupied territories of Ukraine. The repressions and persecution forcing Crimean Tatars to leave their homeland are not the only things harking back to Russia’s nineteenth-century colonial practices. The occupying authorities are also colonising the peninsula with settlers from Russia; nearly one million have arrived over the past ten years.

The deportation of Crimean Tatars in 1944 is one of the Soviet regime’s greatest crimes, which still demands study and reflection. First of all, because in the 1990s and 2000s we never fully dealt with the ramifications of the deportation, and second, because right now, under Russian occupation, the world of the Crimean Tatars is in danger again. That is why it is hard to delimit this long process of exile, when the Indigenous people who remain in Crimea today still do not feel at home. While neo-Stalinism is flourishing in Crimea among the Russian occupiers, the Ukrainian state has the obligation to do what was not done before 2014.

In truth, the occupation of Crimea showed Ukrainians and the world who Crimean Tatars are, with their hopes and aspirations. Respect for the memories and pain of others guarantees a strong foundation, as well as solid walls. Especially if those walls are made from Crimean yellow limestone. But until the rights of the Crimean Tatars as Indigenous people are fully reinstated, the discourse of empire will persist. The slogan, ‘Everything began with Crimea, and it will end with Crimea’, which spread far and wide after Russia launched its full-scale invasion, is spot-on, as Russia’s aggression against Ukraine really did begin in February 2014 in Crimea. But de-occupation alone is not enough. Taking into account the history of settler colonialism in Crimea, the expulsion of the Indigenous people and the destruction of their institutions, and the invention of imperial historical myths and narratives about Crimea, we must put in the effort truly to decolonise our discourse regarding Crimea and the Crimean Tatars.



[1] Peter Pallas, Travels through the Southern Provinces of the Russian Empire, in the Years 1793 and 1794, trans. by Francis Blagdon, 2 vols (London: John Stockdale, 1812), II, p. 262.

[2] Researchers do not know the exact number of deportees and dead. The reasons for this include a lack of official documentation and mistrust of available sources, as well as conflicting reports. The most comprehensive estimate of the number of Crimean Tatars who were divested of their homeland and ended up in exile, calculated by Ukrainian demographers Oleksandr Hladun, Omelian Rudnytskyi, and Natalia Kulyk, includes those deported from 18 to 20 May 1944; men who were mobilised into the Red Army after Crimea was liberated from April to May and eventually sent to labour camps; those arrested from April to May as ‘anti-Soviet elements’; Crimean Tatars demobilised from the Red Army; and Ostarbeiters and others forcibly repatriated from Western Europe. The overall number is 207,111 Crimean Tatars. Oleksandr Hladun, Omelian Rudnytskyi, Natalia Kulyk, ‘Otsinka demohrafichnykh vtrat krymskotatarskoho narodu vnaslidok deportatsii 1944 roku’, Demohrafiya ta sotsialna ekonomika, 2 (2017), (p. 20).

[3] Islamic prayers.


Martin-Oleksandr Kisly (History Department of the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy) was born in Simferopol, Crimea. He is a historian of Crimea and Crimean Tatars with a focus on the Soviet and post-Soviet periods. In 2021, he defended a PhD dissertation on the topic ‘Crimean Tatars’ Return to the Homeland in 1956–1989’. In 2018, he was a visiting scholar at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He is a fellow at Indiana University, Linda Hall Library (Kansas) and Virtual Ukraine Institute for Advanced Study as well as one of the authors of the online course ‘Crimea: History and People’. He serves as an expert on the Council on Cognitive De-Occupation (Mission of the President of Ukraine in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea).


Image: Emine Ziyatdinova, The wall in the house of Zore Kursuitova, 82, with the portrait of her and her parents and a Koran in Novoselivske, Crimea, July 2013.

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