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  • Writer's picturePeripheral Histories ISSN 2755-368X

Wrong Tatar, Wrong Place: Stalin’s Mass Deportations and the Fluidity of Ethnic Identity

Andrew Straw

This post underlines the NKVD’s confusion and chauvinism directed towards Tatars- one of the largest ethnic groups in the Soviet Union, as well the agency of Soviet citizens. In specific, I examine the cases of non-Crimean Tatars that the NKVD incarcerated while detaining Crimean Tatars during the summer of 1944.[1] Documents suggest that these arrests occurred due to a combination of widespread confusion about Soviet ethnic categorization, as well as remaining prejudices amongst Soviet law-enforcement. Concerning Soviet nationalities policy, it is notable that even after extensive ethnic “korenization” and internal passports containing both ethnic identity and birthplace, Tatar individuals were responsible for defining the limits of Joseph Stalin’s ethnic repression on Crimea. In fact, one positive aspect of this episode is the ability of some Soviet citizens to resist incarceration.

Map of the Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, 1930s (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Iusup Kalimulin’s story is typical for these Tatars. From a Tatar village near Saratov, Kalimulin spent the 1930s on the “Karakarke” communal farm. From February 1942 until May 1944 he fought in the Red Army. Afterwards, the Red Army placed him in an emergency farm brigade trying to salvage Crimean agriculture. However, the laborers deployed just as the NKVD began arresting Crimean Tatars. After arriving at a vineyard near Sevastopol, the NKVD arrested Kalimulin for being a “Tatar in Crimea” and forced him onto a train to Sverdlovsk oblast. In written appeals, he asserted that his arrest was unlawful because he was not a “native resident of Crimea.” After an extensive bureaucratic back-and-forth, the NKVD released him in March 1945.[2]

The arrests of Kalimulin and other Tatars on Crimea resulted from a combination of older chauvinistic attitudes towards Tatars with Stalinist passportization and policing that, by the late 1920s, targeted one group of Tatars- Crimean Tatars- as a security concern. To start, Tatar, as an ethnic signifier, refers to several different groups across Eurasia whose formations were quite different, but do have the commonality of speaking a Turkic language and being Sunni Muslim. However, as Nicholas Breyfogle notes, Russian imperial bureaucrats often referred to anyone who was non-Slavic as Tatar.[3] As the Bolsheviks consolidated power, Vladimir Lenin and the Soviet state incorporated the various Tatar identities into the Crimean ASSR, the Tatar ASSR and other oblasts and republics with large Tatar populations.[4] While built through a combination of violence, coercion and compromise, the power sharing and Soviet state building cooperation between Russians, Crimean Tatars, Volga Tatars, and other ethnic groups was real, and functioned until World War II on Crimea, and elsewhere afterwards. And though chauvinism towards Tatars remained (especially in the police), the situation on Crimea in 1944 was not inevitable.

The issue with this arrangement on Crimea was Stalin. Although Yuri Slezkhin’s “communal apartment” metaphor holds for many of the larger ethnic SSRs and autonomous republics, Stalin began evictions for some minorities as soon as NEP ended.[5] Although Stalin used mass-treason as a pretext for deporting Crimean minorities in 1944, this excuse concealed Stalin’s long-term attack on non-Slavic Crimeans.[6] Stalin’s assault on multi-ethnic regions was not limited to Crimea. In fact, the purpose of the Stalinist internal passports with ethnic designations was to repress groups based on ethnicity in addition to class. As David Shearer underlines, designating populations as being “anti-Soviet” based on ethnicity coincided with the anti-Kulak campaign and targeted Karelian, Polish, German, Korean and other populations throughout the 1930s. In 1935, NKVD head Genrikh Yagoda even proposed mass deportations of Greeks and other non-Slavic populations from all strategic Black Sea regions.[7]

On Crimea, as early as 1926 Stalin was concerned about Crimean Tatar efforts to repatriate diaspora from Turkey, Bulgaria, and Romania to Crimea. While, Lenin had promoted such outreach to Muslims outside the Soviet Union, Stalin undermined this effort, especially after Kemal Ataturk outlawed the Turkish Communist Party in 1925 and repressed Turkish communists. Stalin wrote that former Turkish passport holders harbored “pro-Turkish or pro-capitalist sentiment” and echoed similar concerns about Crimean Greeks, Bulgarians, Iranians, and Armenians.[8] Stalin accused the head of the Crimean ASSR government, the Crimean Tatar Bolshevik Veli Ibrahimov, and Crimean Tatar “Turkish turncoats” of conspiring with kulaks to betray the Soviet state to Turkey. Stalin executed Ibrahimov in 1928 and began a constant battle against the “Ibrahimovshchina” and “Kemalist Turksit,” a political disease with a key symptom being “Kemalist forms of governance.”[9] As a result, from the late-1920s to the height of Stalinist terror in 1936-38, the NKVD arrested and executed thousands of Crimean Tatars.[10]

Veli Ibrahimov

However, purging thousands of Crimean Tatars and other Crimean minorities did not pacify Stalin. In preparation for the 1939 census, the Census Bureau downgraded Crimean Greeks and Bulgarians from official “Soviet nationalities” to the lower status of “national minority” and folded Crimean Tatar into a general “Tatar” category.[11] On the eve of the Nazi invasion, Crimean Tatars became, per the Soviet state, “Tatars who reside in Crimea.”[12] These designations established the Stalinist narrative that Crimean minorities were not indigenous to Crimea and foreshadowed the 1944 deportations.

Thus, when Stalin began the ethnic cleansing of Crimea in May 1944, the NKVD cast a net that included “Tatars who reside in Crimea.” The presence of dozens of petitions mirroring Kalimulin’s case confirms that the NKVD often targeted any Tatar. Moreover, complaints from non-Crimean Tatars reveal that such detentions continued until at least 1953-54.[13] Unfortunately, because the NKVD listed these Tatar deportees as Crimean Tatars in the deportation manifestos, there is no way to determine their exact number. Still, what we do know is significant.

First, on Crimea no variation of Tatar identity was immune. The NKVD arrested self-identified Volga/Kazan Tatars, Astrakhan Tatars, other Tatars from European Russia, Siberia, and Central Asia, and even some Jewish and Roma Crimeans. For example, hailing from Astrakhan, Genijat Aitov had moved to Crimea before the war and then faced deportation when he returned after fighting in the Red Army.[14] In a similar situation, Khanife Klebleeva was a Kazan Tatar, but had directed a Crimean kindergarten since 1938. In 1941 she evacuated to the Uzbek SSR and returned to Crimea in May 1944, but the NKVD deported her back to the Uzbek SSR. An example of the NKVD profiling non-Tatars is S. M. Khanukova. The NKVD deported her for being Tatar, but she was from the Dagestan ASSR and her father was Dagestani and her mother Jewish.[15]

Ironically, for many Tatars the war was their first time on Crimea. The NKVD arrested Kazan Tatar Alimzhan Settarov while he was serving with the 180th Rifle Reserve on Crimea. Khamet Tatzhebaev from Astrakhan had been a Soviet POW at a camp on Crimea, escaped, joined Crimean Tatar partisans, and then was deported to Tul’skoi oblast in May 1944. Raznichal Sakhautdinov, M. A. Alaiarov, Il’ias Valiev, and other Tatar veterans from the Bashkir ASSR had identical experiences of receiving orders to work on Crimean vineyards where the NKVD arrested them.[16] Obviously military service was no shield.

This better safe than sorry approach was an outgrowth of the fact that, as Shearer argues, Stalinist policing became centered on “repressing groups rather than individuals.” While sometimes individuals could “fall through the cracks” of sweeps for ethnic or class groups, on Crimea the opposite occurred.[17] This reproduced the imperial-era conflation of different Tatars and left individuals to challenge this erasure of regional distinctions.[18] Another variant of this chauvinism was the belief that all Tatars belonged in “their republic”- the Tatar ASSR. For example, Firtat Il’iasov was a Volga Tatar working in Yalta from 1938 to 1941. The NKVD arrested Firat and his spouse when they returned to Yalta in September 1944. Il’iasov asserted that Volga Tatars should be allowed in Yalta. The MVD released them in October 1944, but forbid them from returning to Crimea. They could, however, “return to Kazan.”[19]

Finally, these Tatars were some of the first rehabilitated “special settlers” from this wartime period. They successfully argued that the NKVD overstepped its deportation mandate. MVD special settlement records show that most “wrong Tatars” arrested in 1944 were released by 1950 (the fate of Tatars detained in the late-40s to early 50s is sketchier, but there are examples of successful appeals). Despite waiting months or years for their release, even at the height of Stalin’s deportations there was a functioning appeals process in these Tatar cases.

In sum, this story highlights a unique instance of Stalinist repression that combined Stalin’s ethnic cleansing with older prejudices. However, numerous questions remain. For example, did any Tatars argue with the NKVD and avoid deportation? Since the NKVD deported over 10,000 Crimean Tatars from the Red Army, were there such cases outside of Crimea? Did any “wrong Tatars” die in special settlement? Did a similar dynamic unfold during the deportations of other Soviet nationalities? Finally, since Crimean police and the later KGB would pursue returning Crimean Tatars, were there post-Stalin instances of this Tatar profiling? Regardless, at least on Crimea, ethnic identity was still a negotiation with the state in the immediate post-war period.

Andrew Straw is a historian of Soviet Crimea. He has taught courses on Russian and Soviet history at the University of Texas and Huston-Tillotson University. At the moment, he teaches world history and is an instructor for the University of Texas OnRamps history program. He is preparing a book proposal that will focus on Stalin’s Crimea policy in the immediate postwar period. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @astrawism1

[1] On May 18, 1944, the NKVD commenced its Crimean operation targeting all Crimean Tatars. In June the NKVD expelled all Armenians, Greeks, Bulgars and other minority populations from Crimea. These operations were part of Stalin’s campaign targeting “fifth columns” in numerous Soviet republics. Historian Gulnara Bekirova’s website has a robust collection of resources on the deportation and Crimean Tatar affairs as well as links to her publications and research in Crimean Tatar, Russian and Ukrainian. Other recent sources for these operations include Bekirova’s Krymskotatarskaia Problema v SSSR, 1944-1991 (Simferopol: Odzhak”, 2004); Brian Glyn Williams, The Crimean Tatars: From Soviet Genocide to Putin’s Conquest (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015); Greta Lynn Uehling, Beyond Memory: The Crimean Tatars’ Deportation and Return (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004). [2] State Archive of the Russian Federation (hereafter GARF), f. 9479, op. 1, d. 401, l. 103. Spravka. Signed by I.O. Nachal’nika Otdela Spetsposelenii MVD SSSR Podpolkovnik Konstantinov. [3] Nicholas B. Breyfogle, Heretics and Colonizers: Forging Russia’s Empire in the South Caucasus (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005), xiii. [4] See Brian Glyn Williams, The Crimean Tatars: From Soviet Genocide to Putin’s Conquest (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 81-84. Although dated, the summary in Fisher of the Crimean ASSR period remains helpful. Alan W. Fisher, The Crimean Tatars (Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 1977), 138-149. [5] Yuri Slezkine, “The USSR as a Communal Apartment, or How a Socialist State Promoted Ethnic Particularism,” Slavic Review, no. 2 (Summer 1994). [6] Edward A. Allworth, “Renewing Self-Awareness” in Allworth ed. The Tatars of Crimea: Return to the Homeland (Durham: Duke University Press, 1998), 10-14. [7] David Shearer, Policing Stalin’s Socialism: Repression and Social Order in the Soviet Union, 1924-1953 (Yale University Press, 2009), 253. [8] GARF, f. 1235, op. 141, d. 1102, l.l. 2-3. Pis’mo TsIK Krymskoi ASSR- Sekretariat VTsIK. February 13, 1931. [9] GARF, f. A-259, op. 14, d. 167, l.l. 26, 94-95, 102. Stenogramma Ob”edinennogo Soveta Narodykh Komissarov I Ekonomicheskogo Soveta RSFSR ot 8-go Sentibria 1930 “O sostoianii I perspectivakh kul”turnlo-khoziastvennogo razvitiia Krynskoi ASSR.” [10] Williams argues that because Crimea was such a strategic region, the arrest and trial of Ibrahimov in May 1928 was one of the first and most important purges against “nationalists” that soon became a Soviet-wide campaign. Brian Glyn Williams, The Crimean Tatars: From Soviet Genocide to Putin’s Conquest (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 81-84. [11] Francine Hirsch gives a detailed account of this “combining” of Crimean Tatars with other Tatars on the official Soviet nationalities list. As Hirsh argues, Stalin “used a combination of ethnographic knowledge and terror” to combat “ideological and geopolitical” threats. Francine Hirsch, Empire of Nations: Ethnographic Knowledge and the Making of the Soviet Union (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2005), 302-304, 307. [12] Hirsch, 302. [13] GARF, f. 8131, op. 32, d. 1679, l.l. 16-26. Dokladnaia Zapiska o rabote po spets. prokuratoru Krymskoi Oblasti za II kvartala 1952 goda. June 15, 1952 and GARF, f. 8131, op. 32, d. 2978, l.l. 19-29. Dokladnaia Zapiska. January 23, 1954. [14] GARF, f. 9479, op. 1, d. 401, l. 113. Spravka. September 20, 1948. Signed by I.O. Nachal’nika Otdela Spetsposelenii MVD SSSR Podpolkovnik Konstantinov and GARF, f. 9479, op. 1, d. 204. l. 14. Zakliuchenie. Operupolnomochennyi Otdela Spetsposelenii NKVD SSSR Maior Gosudarstvennoi Bez. N. K. Shmarin. December 14, 1945. [15] GARF, f. 9479, op. 1, d. 401, l.l. 97, 113. Spravka. September 20, 1948. Signed by I.O. Nachal’nika Otdela Spetsposelenii MVD SSSR Podpolkovnik Konstantinov. [16] GARF, f. 9479, op. 1, d. 401, l.l. 98-100, 107, 112. Spravka. Signed by I.O. Nachal’nika Otdela Spetsposelenii MVD SSSR Podpolkovnik Konstantinov. [17] Shearer, 15. [18] Breyfogle, xiii. [19] GARF, f. 9479, op. 1, d. 204. l.l. 2-2ob. Zakliuchenie. Operupolnomochennyi Otdela Spetsposelenii NKVD SSSR Maior Gosudarstvennoi Bez. N. K. Shmarin. Approved by Chernyshov. October 4, 1944.

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