Ex-dissident Tatar reflects on a life of fighting injustice
At six months, he was too young then to be conscious of what was happening. But the young Dzhemilev would grow up to spend his adult life trying to right this historic injustice.
In Soviet times, Dzhemilev spent a total of 15 years in hard-labor camps on charges of slandering Soviet democracy and psychiatry. Now he is head of the Mejlis, the self-proclaimed parliament of Crimean Tatars.
He also serves as a deputy in the Verkhovna Rada, where he is attempting to tackle problems faced by Crimean Tatars who have returned to the peninsula after years of exile in Central Asia.
The Crimean Tatars trace their origins back to the Mongols who seized much of present-day Russia and Ukraine in the 13th century.
Accused by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin of collaborating with the Nazis in World War II, Crimean Tatars were shipped to Kazakhstan and other Central Asian republics in May 1944, days after the Red Army forced the Nazis out of Crimea.
Since most adult men were at war at the time, it was mostly women and children who were loaded onto cattle trains for the long journey east. Nearly half of the estimated 500,000 deportees would die during their first few years of exile.
“It was a real genocide,” Dzhemilev said. “According to our statistics, 46.2 percent of Crimean Tatars died during the first two years of deportation.”
Dzhemilev’s said his family was lucky: It lost only two members to deportation; other families lost everyone.
The iron fist with which Stalin ruled the Soviet Union came down particularly hard on the displaced Crimean Tatars. Under Stalin, police did not allow Crimean Tatars to travel further than 4 kilometers from their settlements.
Though some restrictions were lifted after Stalin’s death in 1953, most of them remained unchanged. Crimean Tatars were still banned from studying law, history and journalism. Job restrictions also applied. Tatars were banned from working in the defense industry.
Dzhemilev would experience those restrictions first-hand.
“I wanted to enter the department of Oriental studies,” Dzhemilev said. “But when I was about to take the entrance exams, the head of the department told me in secret that there was no point and that no matter how hard I tried I would not be accepted, because they had an instruction not to accept Crimean Tatars.”
Dzhemilev ended up studying agricultural irrigation at the Tashkent Institute. But he didn’t graduate.
When he received a draft slip from the army, he refused to join. He told Soviet conscription officials that he had neither a motherland to protect, since he was deported, nor an enemy to fight – outside the country, at least.
“I told them that all my enemies were inside the Soviet Union.”
A rebel’s life
Dzhemilev was subsequently expelled from his university and arrested. It was to be the first of six arrests at the hands of Soviet authorities – each one for defamation of Soviet social and/or political institutions. Over 25 years he would spend a total of 15 years in Soviet prison camps.
“I would be free only long enough for the KGB to drum up a new set of charges on me,” he said.
In the mid 1960s, Dzhemilev became a member of a Crimean Tatars’ “initiative group,” which collected compromising information about the Soviet regime and shipped it to the outside world.
“The Soviets spent so much money on saying that everything was perfect in the Soviet Union, while we did everything we could to prove them wrong,” he said. “We wanted to hit at the very heart of Soviet propaganda. There were many democratic ways to do that.”
The Crimean Tatar movement wasn’t alone in its drive to change the system. The group was in contact with similar dissident Ukrainian, Baltic, Armenian and Jewish groups.
After being in and out of prison for years, Dzhemilev was released from labor camp for the last time in 1986 at the dawn of Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika. His final release was due not to an official change in Soviet policy, but to the death of a hunger-striking political prisoner. That incident made judges wary of handing down sentences to dissidents. Dzehmilev at the time looked set to have his sentence extended by three years; instead, he was given a three-year suspended sentence and released.
Dzhemilev gives much of the credit for his freedom to two people: former U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet scientist and dissident Andrei Sakharov. During the 1986 summit between Gorbachev and Reagan in Reykjavik, Reagan gave Gorbachev a list of political prisoners whom he wanted to see released. Dzhemilev was on that list. When the Soviet government allowed Sakharov to return to Moscow from his exile in Gorky (now Nizhny Novgorod), he refused, demanding the simultaneous release of 23 political prisoners. Dzhemilev’s name was fourth on Sakharov’s list.
In April 1987, 40,000 Crimean Tatars signed a letter to Gorbachev demanding permission to return to Crimea. They also asked for a return of expropriated property and a release of all political prisoners. The response came a year later: All the Tatars’ demands were rejected.
“We realized then that the government had no plans to let us come back,” Dzhemilev said. “So we decided to come back on our own.”
Since then Crimean Tatars have been flowing back to Crimea, often clashing with police and local authorities in the process. Most returnees have settled in rural areas, while the wealthier have bought houses in cities and villages.
Dzhemilev said that about 260,000 Crimean Tatars have returned to the peninsula, and now account for about 13 percent of Crimea’s population. Of the 200,000 or so Crimean Tatars who remain in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, about 85 percent want to come back to Crimea.
“The issue is not just about returning to the historic motherland,” he said. “It is also about reunification of the families. When [Crimean Tatars] were returning [in the early 1990s], often just one member of the family would come back to settle and wait for the rest of the family to join later.”
Though the Ukrainian government has welcomed back the Tartars, it has repeatedly said it does not have enough budget money to help them resettle. That has left the Tatar community largely on its own when it comes to promoting the Tatar language in textbooks and in schools. Dzhemilev said that only 12 out of Crimea’s more than 2,000 schools use Crimean Tartar as the language of instruction. Tatar textbooks are hard to come by.
Dzhemilev said unfair privatization of land has also dealt the Tartar community a cruel blow. According to current legislation, only members of former collective farms are entitled to own land plots. Since most Crimean Tatars didn’t work in collective farms and returned to Crimea after the breakup of the Soviet Union, they have no rights to receive land. Many of those who have received land complain that they given last choice on land and received low-yield plots.
Disproportionately low representation in the Crimean parliament and government are two more problems that must be overcome, Dzemilev said.
Despite those challenges, Crimean Tatars today are on much firmer footing that they were a decade ago, Dzhemilev said. More importantly, they’re home.
“Of course we have a lot issues that remain unsolved,” he said. “But we have realized our dream – we have returned to our land. And now we can fight for our rights.”
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