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Claims of Protecting Ethnic Russians Manufactured, Based on Historic Atrocities Against Tatars

Released: 3-Mar-2014 2:00 PM EST
Source Newsroom: Indiana University
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Despite Russian claims to the contrary, Ukraine is culturally and by disposition European, as it has been, more often than not, since the emergence of Kiev as a major medieval city, said Edward Lazzerini, director of both the Sinor Research Institute for Inner Asian Studies and the Inner Asian and Uralic National Resource Center at IU Bloomington.

"In the recent unfolding sequence of steps that has all the earmarks of being part of a war-room plan, Putin has revealed himself, once again, as a shrewd and calculating politician bent upon repeating his 2008 success in Georgia and furthering his efforts to extend Russian influence in the 'Near Abroad,' where substantial ethnic Russian populations dwell," said Lazzerini, the only historian in the U.S. who has a consistent record of studying the Crimean region, visiting it many times.

"This makes decidedly bad news for Ukraine, in which ethnic Russians predominate in its eastern districts and in Crimea, and it may fairly be seen as a prelude for what will transpire in the absence of any concrete opposition," he added. "Dismayingly, all of Putin’s maneuvers are countered by reports that NATO has no plan A, B or C in place for any kind of response; nor has the EU or the United States, apparently. As an authoritarian, Putin understands democratic nations: They do not plan well for what should be anticipated developments but tend to wait until disaster strikes. Striking in these circumstances is child’s play for such as Putin, accomplishes what is hard to undo after the fact by others, and at worse creates opportunities for negotiating over what ought not to be negotiable in the first place."

Lazzerini noted that the historical context for today was set in the early hours of May 18, 1944, all across the Crimean Peninsula, where Tatars lived as they had since the 15th century.

"Brusquely aroused from their slumber, terrified families were instructed that they had 30 minutes to gather outside with whatever they could carry. Thus began implementation of Joseph Stalin’s hasty order to more than 30,000 NKVD (secret service) troops for the forcible deportation of nearly 200,000 Crimean Tatars," he said.

At the same time, Crimean Tatars serving in the Red Army were demobilized and transferred to forced labor camps.

"Soviet documents eventually released, and surveys by Tatar activists in the 1960s, corroborate the staggering toll: Nearly 50 percent of the deportees died in the first 30 months of exile," he said. "On its annual anniversary since, Crimean Tatars have recalled the painful memory of the sürgünlik (the day of genocide) not just in Crimea, to which about one-half have succeeded in returning over the past five decades, but elsewhere in Central Eurasia, in Turkey, and even the United States.

"To replace the deported Tatar families, ethnic Russians were 'imported' into the peninsula, contributing to a further fiction that Crimea was Russian territory, whether imperial, Soviet or post-Soviet," Lazzerini said.

The sürgünlik was only the latest episode in an old story: the repetitive outflow of native Tatars from the region in the face of Russian pressure since the late 18th century. During the next century, hundreds of thousands of Tatars settled in Romania and Anatolia, where today about 5 million descendants live.

"Had these episodes of forced exodus not occurred, the ethnic distribution of Crimea’s population would be vastly different today," he said. "To whom, then, does the peninsula rightly belong?"

Lazzerini is director of both the Sinor Research Institute for Inner Asian Studies and the Inner Asian and Uralic National Resource Center, coordinator of the Volga-Kama Initiative and an adjunct professor of history. He can can be reached at 812-856-0671 or elazzeri@indiana.edu. For additional assistance, contact George Vlahakis at 812-855-0846 or vlahakis@iu.edu.

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