The Unseeing Years: Russia’s Ethnic Cleansing of Crimea - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
The Unseeing Years: Russia’s Ethnic Cleansing of Crimea
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It was late in the evening of May 24, 2014, and the Tatar activist Ervin Ibragimov was taking a stroll through the picturesque streets of his central Crimean hometown of Bakhchysarai. Whether he needed some time alone with his thoughts, or was seeking instead to clear his mind, we simply cannot know, but we can be confident that Ibragimov, like most all Crimean Tatars that spring, was under considerable pressure. Three months earlier, in the aftermath of Ukraine’s pro-European Revolution of Dignity, thousands of masked Russian troops with no insignia on their uniforms — the so-called “little green men” — had fanned out across the Crimean peninsula, seizing the Supreme Council headquarters and other strategic sites. The indigenous Tatar community, which had suffered so grievously under Soviet rule during the 20th century, keenly sensed the makings of a 21st-century reprise.

The newly installed Russian authorities in Simferopol wasted little time making their presence felt, arresting prominent Tatar figures like Ilmi Umerov and Akhtem Chiygoz, though Ibragimov had so far remained unscathed. Symbolic measures were also being taken, including the cancellation of a yearly ceremony held in remembrance of victims of the Sürgün — the brutal Soviet deportations of ethnic Tatars that took place May 18-20, 1944 — owing to the alleged but entirely spurious “possibility of provocation by extremists.” When four Tatar activists went ahead and violated the edict, they were taken into custody and given a trial date of May 25. As most members of the Tatar community’s leadership were already languishing in jail or exile, Ervin Ibragimov had taken it upon himself to attend the hearing and lend his moral support. Yet when the trial commenced the morning after his evening promenade through Bakhchysarai, Ibragimov was conspicuously absent from the gallery.

Grainy CCTV footage later recovered from a shop on the outskirts of town would show a struggling Ibragimov being bundled into a white Ford Transit cargo van, the culprits clad in Russian traffic police uniforms. The vehicle disappears from view at a timestamp of around 10:25 p.m., marking the last known whereabouts of the 30-year-old Tatar activist. Natalia Poklonskaya, the Kremlin lackey then serving as prosecutor of the Crimea, callously dismissed the concerns of Ibragimov’s panic-stricken family. In the eyes of the law, Ibragimov’s abduction was considered nothing more than a false flag “provocation aimed at aggression and negativity towards the law enforcement bodies of the republic,” given that “many of the abductions that allegedly took place in the Crimea were specially performed for a commotion around the issue of human rights violations.” Gaslight was all that would be shed on the matter. The crime remains “unsolved” to this day.

Ibragimov’s enforced disappearance was not the first of its kind, and it would be far from the last. As early as March 3, the 39-year-old Reshat Ametov, who had been picketing outside Simferopol’s Council of Ministers building after the illegal Russian annexation, was abducted by several individuals wearing military green attire. His mutilated body turned up two weeks later in a distant forest, and no meaningful investigation was ever attempted. Ametov’s last Facebook post took on a haunting significance: “Russian friend, if they order you to, will you shoot at me?” The pro-Ukrainian activist Timur Shaimardanov would share the fate of Ibragimov and Ametov, disappearing on May 26, never to be seen again. Seiran Zinedinov, who had been investigating Shaimardanov’s abduction, himself went missing a few days later while on a family errand. Ukrainian Maidan activists like Sevastopol’s Vasyl Chernysh, along with Simferopol’s Ivan Bondarev and Valery Vashchuk, vanished under similarly mysterious circumstances. Dozens of dissidents would join them in the coming months and years.

Enforced disappearance is by no means the only weapon of social control in the Putin regime’s repressive arsenal. Sometimes the methods are cynical, as when the authorities accused the Tatar poet Aliye Kenzhalieva of “rehabilitating Nazism” for having written a poem concluding “Here my great-grandfather lived, his gardens were here, / Now there are the parades of an alien country.” Even more cynically and disturbingly, the aforementioned Ilmi Umerov was sentenced to confinement in a psychiatric clinic in 2016, a sinister throwback to those dark Soviet days when dissidents would be sectioned and locked away in psikhushkas, the better to humiliate them, isolate them from society, and cast political protest as psychological abnormality. It is worth noting that the heroic Soviet officer Petro Grigorenko (1907-1987), who bravely advocated on behalf of the deported Tatar community, was himself locked up in the Serbsky State Scientific Center for Social and Forensic Psychiatry, his sympathy for the Tatar community diagnosed as a paranoid delusional disorder.

And sometimes the methods are decidedly brutish, as when the 83-year-old activist Vedzhie Kashka lost her life in late 2017, perishing at the hands of Federal Security Service thugs who were conducting an armed “special operation” to disrupt her meeting with like-minded Tatars at a cafe in Simferopol. More recently, in September of 2021, the Tatar leader Nariman Dzhelyal, deputy head of the Crimean Tatar People’s Mejli, was detained on a trumped-up charge of attacking a gas pipeline, his actual offense being his prominent role at the inaugural meeting of the international Crimea Platform in Kyiv. Like Umerov before him, Dzhelyal was confined to a psychiatric hospital, while his trial and subsequent appeals process have been conducted in absolute secrecy. Tatar protests against this clear-cut travesty of justice were met with some 50 more arrests. This litany of Putin’s Crimean victims is far from exhaustive, mind you, and more names are being added to it all the time, as the peninsula experiences yet another era of abuse and dispossession at the hands of the Kremlin. Their names are worth repeating all the same.

II

Not content with merely brutalizing the indigenous population of the Crimean peninsula, Russian authorities have taken aim at the region’s cultural heritage as well. The plundering of Crimean museums and heritage sites began shortly after the invasion. Priceless exhibits from the National Preserve of Tauric Chersonesos (the “Ukrainian Pompeii”) and the Central Museum of Tauria in Simferopol were carted off to Saint Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum, which also organized an exhibition entitled “On the Ground of the Griffin: Ancient Archeology of the Hermitage in Crimea,” featuring works taken from the East Crimean Historical and Cultural Preserve in Kerch. Not content with looting ancient artifacts, Russian agents whisked 38 works by the 19th-century Crimean and ethnic Armenian painter Ivan Aivazovsky away from the museum in Feodosia to the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. Hitler’s Kunstschutz and Stalin’s Gosfond would doubtless have been impressed with the efficiency of Putin’s Crimean trophy brigades.

All of these appropriations, Ukraine rightly complained, constituted flagrant violations of the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property, but no consequences were ever visited upon the Russian government for its despoiling of Crimean cultural sites. It was only by a stroke of good luck that Ukraine managed to retain possession of a substantial collection of Scythian gold from Crimean museums, which just happened to have arrived in the Netherlands for an exhibit at the Allard Pierson Museum in February of 2014, right on the eve of the Russian invasion, and even then it took until late 2021 for a Dutch appeals court to rule that “the Allard Pierson Museum is no longer obliged to return the pieces to the [Russian-held] Crimean museums,” and that “the rights of the Ukrainian state, based on the Law of Museums … take precedence.”

The Scythian gold will, we can earnestly hope, soon return to a free Ukraine, but in the meantime, the Crimean heritage sites still under Russian control remain existentially endangered by Russian chauvinism and ethnonationalism. Two years after the Russian invasion, the Russian Orthodox Church of all institutions was granted ownership of the 24 sites that make up the National Preserve of Tauric Chersonesos, prompting Crimean human rights defender Valentyna Potapova to warn that the “preserve is sliding from scientific research towards religiosity and breaking ties between Chersonesos and its international partners.” Ancient tiles in Chersonesus were replaced with modern ones based on some dubious aesthetic rationale, and a Russian military helicopter pad was erected on the site of an ancient manor house. The Great Mithridates Staircase near Kerch, meanwhile, was “restored” by a Russia-based firm that bafflingly chose to use concrete, thereby permanently destroying the site’s authenticity. These and other acts of vandalism prompted objections from National Preserve director Andrei Kulagin, who warned that “as a result of the excavations, the tracing of the medieval church was destroyed, namely, the chapel and the adjacent medieval residential development. The elements of museification of the complex of medieval buildings in the main square of Chersonesus have been violated.” Kulagin was promptly fired, and replaced by a pliable priest from the nearby cathedral of Saint Vladimir.

In Ervin Ibragimov’s native town of Bakhchysarai, the renowned Hansaray, or Khan’s Palace, would meet a similar fate. It was this beautiful 16th-century structure, and particular its Fountain of Tears, built by Khan Qirim Girai in memory of his beloved wife, that had provided the subject matter for Pushkin’s exquisite narrative poem “Bakhchisaraiskiy Fontan,” which in turn inspired a short film by Yakov Protazanov, an opera by Alexander Ilyinsky, and a ballet by Boris Asafyev. Pushkin described encountering a sort of memento mori there:

The cemetery there I found,
Of conquering khans the last abode,
Columns with marble turbans crowned
Their resting-place the traveller showed,
And seemed to speak fate’s stern decree,
“As they are now such all shall be!”

The Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz, echoing his Russian counterpart, described in his Sonety krymskie:

A vessel hewn from marble stands untouched
Within the hall — the harem’s fountain-spring;
Seeping pearl-tears, it sobs across the waste,
“Love, glory, potentate! where are you now?
You claimed eternity, spring-water’s fleet
You have fled; infamy! the spring runs on.”

In Russian hands, the Khan’s Palace has been subjected to a new wave of ruination and historical negationism, representing now not so much a memento mori as a damnatio memoriae.

According to philologist and journalist for the EuroMaidan Press Yuri Zoria, the site’s ongoing “restoration” has been entirely botched after “authorities chose a Moscow-based firm with apparently no experience in restoring historic buildings to renovate this Turkic historic place. The renovation shocked the local residents: centuries-old oak beams ripped out and replaced with concrete constructions, old tiles removed to be replaced with modern ones in ‘old style’, murals nearly erased by streams of water, authentic wall stones treated as rubble.” Experts have condemned the “deliberate destruction of the palace’s authentic nature,” and have noted that “300-year-old beams appear to have been cut down and the wooden fortification simply covered in concrete. This is clearly no ‘restoration,’ but the foundations of a new construction.” The fact that the overall structure has been wrapped with a “heavy metallic shell,” but with no attempts made to protect the various gravestones and calligraphic wall art present inside, speaks for itself.

Outrages have likewise been perpetrated against Christian communities in Crimea. On August 31, 2017, bailiffs forced their way into Simferopol’s Cathedral of Volodymyr and Olga, part of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the Kyiv Patriarchate, carrying off crosses, chalices, icons, porcelain, crystal, rugs, and other treasures; force was used against Archbishop Kliment, who required medical treatment afterward. Two years later, the church was ransacked by vandals as Archbishop Kliment continued to contest his eviction. Within a year of Russian occupation, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Crimea was nearly driven extinct, its 46 pre-invasion parishes winnowed down to only eight, as churches and cathedrals were served with eviction notices and taken over by the state.

Oleksa Petriv from the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church explained that “in Ukraine we have full freedom of worship, and we had become so accustomed to it that we couldn’t imagine that things could be different,” but life in Russia-controlled Crimea quickly became unrecognizable. Said Ismagilov, mufti of the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Ukraine, wondered aloud: “Who could have imagined that in the 21st century in the centre of Europe we would be seeing widespread repression unleashed on the basis of religion?” It has become abundantly clear that enforced disappearance is a concept that can be applied to more than just the abduction of political dissidents. Ethnic cleansing is another kind of enforced disappearance, a spoliation of the relics of the past, an annihilation of the spiritual and cultural life of the present, a deliberate destruction of the authentic nature of a people and its place in the world.

The Crimean natural environment has not escaped Russian degradation either. On March 16, 2021, Eskender Bariiev of the Crimean Tatar Resource Center issued an urgent communiqué on Russian efforts to colonize and urbanize Crimea, while pursuing infrastructure projects that pose the risk of a “regional ecological disaster” imperiling the Tatar way of life. The construction of the Tavryda Highway, for instance, meant that the

karst rocks of the Crimean mountains and the landscape were destroyed, which negatively effects the livelihood of the Crimean Tatars. The Russian-controlled authorities of the peninsula are developing quarries for the purposes of extracting crushed stone and other minerals, thus changing the landscape of Crimea, blew up the top of Mount Aharmysh — the main source of the formation of natural water resources, which led to its destruction, disruption of the formation of groundwater and a change in river channels in the village of Kholodivka, the river has dried up in the Kirovsk district, 300-400-year old juniper forests are being destroyed. In addition, because of the explosions, houses of local residents are being destroyed. In connection with the construction of this highway, some representative of the indigenous Crimean Tatar people were forced to leave the territory of their traditional residence.

Standing amidst the fading splendors of Bakhchysarai, Pushkin found melancholy solace in the sound of the stream there:

Th’inscription mid the silent waste
Not yet has time’s rude hand effaced,
Still do the gurgling waters pour
Their streams dispensing sadness round,
As mothers weep for sons no more,
In never-ending sorrows drowned.

In present-day Crimea, even the streams are drying up and falling silent, victims of myopic Russian resource-extraction efforts.

Still, the Tatars remain, eking out an existence against the odds. As Neal Ascherson observed in his magisterial Black Sea: The Birthplace of Civilisation and Barbarism:

On stony valley-bottoms which nobody wants, on the barren waste lots outside the Crimean cities, men and women are building houses out of home-made clay bricks, reeds and corrugated iron. They measure up and parcel out the barren land between families, and conjure water out of the rocks. There is a haze of green seedlings where once there was only dusty grey turf, and a din of hammering. This is their Israel, their promised land, and they will not be parted from it again.

These words were written before Russian despotism returned to the peninsula, and though I have no doubt the Tatars will weather this new onrush of repression and discrimination, it is nonetheless dreadful to see barbarism once again ascendant over civilization in the Crimean peninsula.

III

On March 25, 1917, the Tatar poet Noman Çelebicihan was elected chief mufti of Crimea. A passionate reformer, he founded a school for women and a teacher’s institute in Aqmesjit, and on October 21, 1917, declared the Khan’s Palace at Bakhchysarai to be a national museum. On November 26, 1917, Çelebicihan, serving as the Crimean national government president, officially opened the Qurultay or national parliament, declaring  that the Crimean People’s Republic would henceforth be open to “literature, science, business, and diplomacy.” It had been a busy eight months, but Çelebicihan had also found time to produce poems like “My Tatarness,” which eloquently described how his people had been “thrown to the mountains, stony places and battered by a strong wind,” how “this imperfect world has become a grave for Tatarness, for the Tatar,” and how he “paused and poured tear drops on top of every grave / For every one of them I made a headstone from my songs.” Perhaps, he hoped, his efforts throughout the year 1917 would pave the way for a better Tatar future.

Another one of Çelebicihan’s compositions from around this time, “I Pledge,” would go on to become a sort of Tatar national anthem. In it, the poet, politician, and religious figure pledged to “heal the wounds of the Tatars,” to “bring light to that darkened country,” and to “give my word to die for knowledge.” He knew he might be cut down at any moment by the Bolsheviks, and that even if he survived “a thousand unknowing, unseeing years,” still “one day the gravediggers will come to bury me.” Sadly, he was half-right. Çelebicihan was indeed murdered by Russian sailors on February 23, 1918, but his corpse was thrown into the Black Sea. For a headstone, his own renowned songs would have to suffice.

Çelebicihan’s enforced disappearance would be followed by the thousands of fellow Tatars lost during the Soviet deportations, and the scores of dissidents swallowed up by the hideous maw of Russian repression since 2014. And now, as Russia invades the rest of Ukraine, abductions are occurring with increasing regularity. On March 10, 2022, in Russian-occupied Melitopol, it was reported that Leyla Ibragimova, deputy of the Zaporizhia Regional Council, member of the Crimean Mejlis, and director of the Melitopol City Museum, was taken away by uniformed Russians. Melitopol’s mayor, Ivan Fedorov, was arrested soon thereafter, followed by local activists Sergiy Tsyhipa, Oleg Baturyn, and Leonid Leonid Kondratsky. Dniprorudne’s mayor, Yevhen Matveyev, was brought into custody as well. Instances of enforced disappearance will undoubtedly increase as Ukrainians continue to stubbornly resist Putin’s unconscionable invasion.

Russia’s persecution of the Crimean Tatars, unlike China’s persecution of the Tibetans and Uyghurs, never quite gave rise to a global cause célèbre. There were some attempts to hold the Kremlin accountable, as in 2017 when the UN International Court of Justice ordered that the “Russian Federation must refrain, pending the final decision in the case, from maintaining or imposing limitations on the ability of the Crimean Tatar community to conserve its representative institutions, including the Mejlis.” Naturally the authorities in Moscow and Simferopol simply ignored the ruling. In 2018, the ICJ reminded Russia of its legal obligations, but still no action was taken. That same year, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe adopted the Berlin Declaration, which included a resolution on “Ongoing Violations of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the City of Sevastopol (Ukraine).” While the declaration laudably condemned the “violations, abuses, measures, and practices of discrimination against the residents of temporarily occupied Crimea, including Crimean Tatars, as well as Ukrainians and persons belonging to other ethnic and religious groups, by the Russian occupation authorities,” again nothing concrete resulted from these strongly worded but ultimately toothless edicts. Few realized it at the time, but the Crimean Tatars and other religious and ethnic minorities were serving as the canaries in the coal mine of Russian authoritarianism.

We may regard the period beginning in 2014 and ending in early 2022 as what Çelebicihan called the “unseeing years,” a time when the world chose not to reckon with the horrors being perpetrated in Russian-occupied Crimea. Now those horrors are being visited on the rest of Ukraine, amplified by the savagery of Russia’s unjustifiable invasion, as apartment blocks, homes, schools, malls, hospitals, theaters, churches, monasteries, mosques, and more are mercilessly pummeled with rockets, dumb bombs, cluster bombs, white phosphorus munitions, and thermobaric weapons, while politicians, museum directors, and activists are abducted early in the morning or in the dead of night, plastic bags thrown over their heads, bundled into waiting vehicles just like Ervin Ibragimov was all those years ago.

A regime that murders innocent men and women like Ervin Ibragimov, Seiran Zinedinov, and Vedzhie Kashka, a regime that plunders and defaces sites like Tauric Chersonesos and Bakhchysarai’s Hansaray, a regime that reduces to rubble everything from the Cathedral of Volodymyr and Olga to Mount Aharmysh, is a regime capable of all manner of gross human rights violations. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn warned in his 1970 Nobel Lecture that “violence, less and less embarrassed by the limits imposed by centuries of lawfulness, is brazenly and victoriously striding across the whole world, unconcerned that its infertility has been demonstrated and proved many times in history. What is more, it is not simply crude power that triumphs abroad, but its exultant justification. The world is being inundated by the brazen conviction that power can do anything, justice nothing.” It was with this brazen conviction that Russia ravaged Crimea, and it is with this same brazen conviction that it has brought death and destruction, rapine, enforced abductions, and the wholesale slaughter of civilians to the rest of Ukraine. After all those “unseeing years,” at least our eyes are finally opening to the reality of this imperfect world that, owing to Russia’s ongoing onslaught, has become a grave for so many Tatars, and now so many Ukrainians all across the length and breadth and depth of that war-torn yet still defiant country.

Matthew Omolesky
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Matthew Omolesky is a human rights lawyer and a researcher in the fields of cultural heritage preservation and law and anthropology. A Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute, he has been contributing to The American Spectator since 2006, as well as to publications including Quadrant, Lehrhaus, Europe2020, the European Journal of Archaeology, and Democratiya.
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