Tatars tiptoe around split over Crimea

June 10, 1994|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Sun Staff Correspondent

CHATAL-KAYA, Ukraine -- The wariest people in the Crimea are the Tatars, unlucky in war and even more unlucky in peace.

Persecuted, vilified, jailed and deported under the old Soviet regime, the Tatars had only just started to rebuild their communities here in their ancestral homeland when they found themselves face-to-face with a new, post-Soviet brand of Russian nationalism.

The Russians, who make up 70 percent of the Crimea's population, are being stirred up by anti-Ukrainian feeling at the moment, but the Tatars here understandably fear that they themselves could get steamrollered if they are not careful. They see themselves getting caught between two Slavic populations, Russian and Ukrainian, in both of which the hotheads seem to be on the rise.

"We want the whole world to understand that the Crimean Peninsula once belonged to the Crimean Tatars," said Nariman Ablaev, 39, who like almost all the other Tatars had grown up in exile in Uzbekistan.

Mr. Ablaev was one of the first to move here, in 1990, and to begin building this still-unfinished settlement on a hillside overlooking the Black Sea.

"We have promised that we will live here, or we will die here," he said. "But we don't know what to expect."

There are about 220,000 Tatars in the Crimea, descendants of the people who settled this peninsula when it was part of the Islamic Ottoman empire. They account for slightly more than 10 percent of the total Crimean population.

Today they are right in the middle of one of the most dangerous disputes in the former Soviet Union, stemming from the desire of ethnic Russians to break free of Ukrainian control. They fear the worst, if only because their own history has been such an unhappy one.

The original Crimean Tatars were the scourge of the early Russian state, sending out regular attack parties across the Ukrainian steppe, plundering and seizing blond-haired slaves, who were much in demand in Constantinople.

Their fortunes changed, though, seemingly irreversibly, when imperial Russia seized the Crimea in 1783 and turned it into a playground for the nobility.

The Tatars enthusiastically welcomed the Germans during a brief occupation in 1918, just before the end of World War I, and nurtured dreams of an independent republic -- dreams that the Bolsheviks in Moscow quickly put an end to.

Like millions of others, the Tatars resisted and suffered horribly when their farms were collectivized in the 1930s. And then, in 1941, the Germans came back.

There are two truths to describe what happened next, according to Andrei Malgin, a historian in Simferopol, the Crimean capital.

The first is that a large number of Tatars were quite content living under the Nazis (and as many as 20,000 helped fight Russian partisans who were hiding out in the mountains). The second is that the Soviet Union, after regaining the Crimea, was not interested in assigning individual guilt for specific acts of collaboration with the enemy.

Instead, on May 18, 1944, less than a month after driving the Germans out, Soviet soldiers rounded up 198,181 Tatar civilians and sent them on boxcars to a life in exile in Uzbekistan.

Mr. Ablaev's father, Delaver, was 18 at the time and living in a village called Kuchukozenbash high up in the mountains. He had been too young for the last Soviet draft before the Nazis came, but his father and brother were both at the front, fighting in the Red Army, and his uncle, a Soviet policeman, spent three years hiding from the Germans.

Moreover, Mr. Ablaev's village had been burned to the ground by the Nazis, and the residents had only just started trying to rebuild it. But none of this did him any good.

"The soldiers came at 4 in the morning and pushed us out on the street," Delaver Ablaev said. "There were women, old men and children. They had machine guns. They took all our money."

After a month in the boxcars they arrived in Tashkent. They were not allowed to travel more than 3 miles out of the city (a restriction that lasted 10 years). They were promised 5,000 rubles to get started on a new life but discovered they had to pay half that amount in bribes just to receive the money.

"People there accused us of selling out the Ukraine," said the elder Mr. Ablaev. "The officers treated us worse than the Germans did. It was as if we were in prison."

Mr. Ablaev eventually found work in a tire factory, but "there was no happiness in Tashkent."

In 1990 the younger Mr. Ablaev, a physical education teacher, was in the first group of Tatars to come back to the Crimea. They met strong official resistance at first, harassed by the authorities and beaten by the police. When they first started building houses here, on a field, local officials knocked them down with trucks.

"I had the same problems when I came here that my father had when he got to Tashkent," Mr. Ablaev said.

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