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The Deportation and the Return of the Crimean Tatars—And the Controversial Issue of Collaboration with the Nazis

Submitted by on June 3, 2013 – 8:55 am 10 Comments |  

Crimean Tatars were among the many ethnic groups deported under Stalin during World War II due to the alleged collaboration with the Nazis. Today, this Turkic-speaking group constitutes merely 0.5% of Ukraine’s population, but historically, they held the key to the Black Sea shores that the Russian Empire (and later independent Ukraine) needed to gain access to warm sea ports.



The history of Crimean Tatars goes back to the Crimean Khanate, whose rulers traced their ancestry to Batu Khan, founder of the Golden Horde and grandson of Genghis Khan. The majority of Crimean Tatars adopted Islam in the 14th century, making the peninsula a center of Islamic civilization. In 1475, the Crimean Khanate became a protectorate of the Ottoman Empire. Subordination to the powerful Ottoman state, however, along with profits from a massive slave trade, allowed the Crimean Khanate to survive until the 18th century, when the Ottomans were decisively defeated by the Russian Empire. As a result of the peace treaty signed in 1774, Crimea became independent and the Ottoman government renounced its right to protect the Crimean Khanate. But less than a decade later, Crimea was annexed by Russia. Many Crimean Tatars were subsequently massacred or exiled into Siberia; others moved to the Ottoman Empire in several waves of emigration.


Still, a sizeable Crimean Tatar minority continued to live on the peninsula (see map on the left). After the Bolshevik Revolution in October 1917, a short-lived Crimean People’s Republic was proclaimed on December 26, 1917, only to be defeated by the Bolsheviks in January of the following year. Persecutions of Crimean Tatars continued throughout the 1920s and 1930s, marked by imprisonment and execution.  The confiscation of food to be shipped to central Russia resulted in, widespread starvation. According to some sources, half of the Crimean Tatar population was killed or deported between 1917 and 1933.

Persecution reached its culmination on May 18, 1944, when the Soviet government deported the entire remaining Tatar population of Crimea to Central Asia, as a form of collective punishment. Allegations of mass treasonous collaboration with the Nazis during the occupation of Crimea in 1941-1944 and anti-Soviet rebellion were the official justifications. But such accusations could hardly excuse the harsh treatment of Crimean Tatars as a group—or of such other peoples who suffered similar punishment, including the Volga Germans, Kalmyks, Chechens, Ingush, Balkars, Karachays, Meskhetian Turks, Bulgarians, and Crimean Greeks. By mid-May 1944, the Soviets had already taken back nearly all of their pre-1940 territory, had liberated Crimea, had largely expelled Axis forces from Ukraine, and even made halting incursions into Romania. Mass deportation at this time was therefore useless for halting collaboration and could only serve as a form of collective punishment. A great number of Crimean Tatar men, moreover, served in the Red Army and took part in the partisan struggle in Crimea during the war, factors ignored by the Soviet authorities. It is true, however, that during the German occupation many Crimean Tatar religious and political leaders had indeed called for collaboration with the Nazis, considering them as “the enemy of the enemy”, and that quite a few Crimean Tatars had joined the Nazi army. But the scope of this collaboration must be put in context. Nine battalions in the Wehrmacht were composed almost entirely of Crimean Tatars,  but as a battalion consisted of 700-800 people, only some 6,300-7,200 Crimean Tatars served in the Nazi army. This figure constitutes less than 5% of the total Crimean Tatar population.

The Crimean Tatars, moreover, were hardly the only ethnic group in the Soviet Union to have collaborated with the Nazis. Inhabitants of many towns in the occupied areas greeted the German forces with flowers, of which abundant photo evidence exists. Thousands volunteered to join the Nazi army. Approximately 90 so-called “Eastern battalions” were composed of soldiers belonging to various ethnic groups of the USSR. Among them were the Turkestan legion, consisting of 26 battalions drawn from Turkic-speaking groups of Central Asia (Uzbeks, Turkmen, etc.); an 8-battalion-strong Volga-Ural Legion, composed of Volga Tatars, Bashkirs, Chuvash, Mari, Udmurt, and Mordva; an Azerbaijani Legion and a Georgian Legion, with 14 battalions each; and other “Eastern Legions”, which counted some 65,000-75,000 people. Moreover, when the Germans advanced to the area of Don and Kuban rivers in 1942, volunteer Cossack units were quickly formed. By the spring of 1943, over 20 Cossack regiments (over 30,000 people) were fighting alongside the Nazi army.

In addition to those in active military service, larger numbers of Soviet citizens from various ethnic groups, including Russians and Ukrainians, served as “volunteer helpers”—the so-called Hiwi (abbreviated from Hilfswilliger, literally ‘help willing’). Some Hiwis were recruited from POW camps, others volunteered directly in the occupied territories. Their main purpose was to act as drivers, cooks, hospital attendants, ammunition carriers, messengers, sappers, and the like, freeing “Aryan” Germans to serve in combat units. Some Hiwis served as polizei, a kind of volunteer police units, some of which played an active role in the executions of Jews at Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Auschwitz, and elsewhere. In later stages of the war, Hiwis joined the regular military units. Some figures help to understand the magnitude of this phenomenon. In April 1942, roughly 200,000 Hiwis served in the German military. The 6th Army commanded by Friedrich Paulus, which was surrounded at Stalingrad in November 1942, included 51,800 Hiwis, with up to 40% of its personnel in some infantry divisions being Soviet citizens. In February 1943, some 750,000 Hiwis served in “Eastern troops” under General Ernst-August Köstring. Another 150,000 Soviets served in the Waffen-SS. Total numbers of those officially affiliated with the Wehrmacht in one capacity or another are difficult to find, but the fact that over 994,000 Soviet citizens were convicted by the NKVD (the Soviet Peoples Commissariat for Internal Affairs) for collaboration or desertion suggests a number around a million, if not more (Yakovlev, Po moscham i elej, 1995, p. 139; Solonin, 23 ijunja: “den’ M”, 2007: 431). Some sources suggest a figure as high as 1.5 million.

In November 1944, many of “Eastern troops” were joined into the collaborationist Russian Liberation Army (ROA) under the command of the former Red Army Lieutenant General Andrey Vlasov. Vlasov is a highly controversial figure: a decorated Soviet general and a hero of the Battle of Moscow, he was put in command of the 2nd Shock Army and ordered to lead the attempt to lift the Siege of Leningrad in January-April 1942. Other forces failed to follow up on Vlasov’s advances and his army was left stranded in German-held territory, where it was surrounded and, in June 1942, destroyed. Vlasov himself was imprisoned and interrogated; he subsequently defected to the Germans, with the goal of founding an anti-communist Russian Liberation Movement, which later morphed into the ROA. Vlasov’s Prague Manifesto declared its aim as the overthrow of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and the establishment of a non-communist government in Russia. Vlasov also spelled out 14 democratic points, including “true equality for women”, the “liquidation of forced labor”, and “granting the intelligenzia the opportunity to freely create for the well-being of their people”. After the war, Vlasov was among 23 ex-Red Army generals executed by the Soviets for treason (an even larger number were imprisoned in the Gulag; Sverdlov, Sovetskie generaly v plenu, 1999).

Two important points are worth noting here. First, the reliance on hundreds of thousands “volunteers” from various ethnic groups of the Soviet Union exposes a gap between Nazi ideology, which considered all “Russians” (extending the term to most of the peoples of the USSR) as “sub-human” (Untermensch), and pragmatic German Army practices. The resulting uneasy feeling is described by Colonel Groscurth (Chief of Staff, XI Corps), who wrote to General Ludwig Beck:

“It is disturbing that we are forced to strengthen our fighting troops with Russian prisoners of war, who are already being turned into gunners. It’s an odd state of affairs that the “Beasts” we have been fighting against are now living with us in closest harmony.” (Beevor, Stalingrad. London: Penguin. 1999, p. 184)

Second, Crimean Tatars constituted less than 1% of the Soviet citizens who served in the German military, a group that included ex-POWs, Cossacks, “volunteer” units, and even White émigrés of different ethnic backgrounds. Thus, they were hardly the ethnic group most guilty of collaborationism. Some scholars have suggested that the actual reason for the mass deportation of the Crimean Tatars had much more to do with the strategic geopolitical position of their homeland than to their collaboration with the Germans. Supporting this thesis is the fact that other non-Russian populations of the peninsula, such as Greeks, Armenians, and Bulgarians, also suffered mass expulsions.

The official Soviet decree “On Crimean Tatars” described the resettlement, known in the Crimean Tatar language as Sürgünlik (‘exile’), as a very humane procedure. But the reality described by the victims in their memoirs was horrific. More than 32,000 NKVD troops participated in this action. The deportees were given only 30 minutes to gather personal belongings, after which they were loaded onto cattle trains and moved out of Crimea. Nearly 195,000 Crimean Tatars were deported, two thirds of them to Uzbekistan. Others ended up in the Gulag camps in the Mari Autonomous Republic in the Central Volga region of Russia, in Kazakhstan, or elsewhere in Russia. The expulsion was poorly planned and executed; local authorities in the destination areas were not properly informed about its scale and did not receive adequate resources to accommodate the deportees. The lack of accommodation and food, the harsh climatic conditions of the destination area, and the rapid spread of diseases together generated a high mortality rate during the first years of exile. It is estimated than nearly half of the deportees died of diseases and malnutrition. Crimean activists call for the recognition of the Sürgünlik as an instance of genocide.



In 1967, Soviet government officially “rehabilitated” the Crimean Tatars. However, they were not allowed to return to Crimea until the fall of the Soviet Union. Even then nothing was done by the authorities to facilitate their resettlement in their homeland and to make reparations for lost lives and confiscated property. Since 1989, more than a quarter million Crimean Tatars have returned to Crimea, where they now constitute about 13% of the population. Returnees, however, were met by a strong opposition from the local population. As a result, some 270,000 Crimean Tatars remain in Uzbekistan and other parts of the former Soviet Union.

A crucial question here is why the Crimean Tatars, unlike the Chechens, not allowed to return to their homeland after the death of Stalin in 1953? The most likely reason is the same one that motivated the deportation in the first place: unlike the lands occupied by other deported ethnic groups, Crimea was seen by Soviet leaders as geopolitically and economically crucial. When the USSR was created, Crimea had been assigned to the Russian Republic within it, but in 1954, in a gesture of largesse, Khruschev transferred the peninsula to Ukraine. At the time, this maneuver did not matter much, as Ukraine was still essentially controlled by Moscow. But with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Crimea became a bone of contention in the tense relations between the two countries. Although the peninsula remains part of Ukraine, Russia’s Black Sea Navy fleet is still based in Sevastopol, the most heavily Russian-speaking—and the least heavily Ukrainian-speaking—area of Ukraine (see the maps on the left). Crimea also remains one of the most heavily pro-Russian voting areas of Ukraine, as can be seen from the map of the 2004 Presidential Election.


Although a large number of Crimean Tatars returned to Crimea, few managed to move into the areas of their historical settlement. Prior to the deportations, the majority of Crimean Tatars—members of the Tat and Yalıboyu subgroups—lived in the mountainous central and southern parts of Crimea and on the southern coast. These areas, and particularly the coastal region, are climatically favorable, protected by the east-west running mountains from frigid northern winds. But upon their return, most Crimean Tatars had to settle in the less desirable central and eastern parts of the peninsula. The demographic change in the southern region of Crimea from the last pre-war census of 1939 to the 2001 census was extraordinary. In 1939, Crimean Tatars constituted 60-70% of the population in the coastal strip stretching from Hurzuf eastward through Alushta to Sudak—all popular resort towns. In 2001, this number was down to less than 6% in some areas. Even fewer Crimean Tatars—less than 2% of the population—now live in the in the most favorable stretch of the southern coast, which includes the crème-de-la-crème Black Sea resort towns such as Yalta, where Yalta Conference took place in February 1945. Other towns in this zone include Alupka, famous for its historic Vorontsov Palace, and Foros, home to many state dachas, such as the one of which the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was held under house arrest during the Communist-led coup d’état attempt in August 1991. The fewest Crimean Tatars are found in the heavily Russian city of Sevastopol and the surrounding areas, where they form only 0.5% of the population.

On May 18, 2013 Crimean Tatars marked the 69th anniversary of Sürgünlik. The rally that took place in Crimea’s administrative center of Simferopol included a “minute of grief and unity” and a Muslim prayer for those who never returned from the expulsion. There were some calls for Crimean Tatar autonomy at the event. At least one poster laid the blame for the exile with the international Jewry. Peaceful protests in support of Crimean Tatars’ struggles against pressures from the pro-Russian Crimean government were also held in front of Ukrainian embassies in the Hague, Berlin, Paris, and Brussels.

Only five days later, another rally took place outside the Russian Consulate in Simferopol, protesting recent statements about Crimean Tatars by Vladimir Andreyev, the Russian consul-general in Simferopol. In a recent TV interview, Andreyev criticized a movie about the 1944 deportation of Crimean Tatars, saying that the film does not mention the alleged collaboration with the Nazis. Crimean Tatar community considered those remarks insulting. About 300 protesters demanded that Andreyev be stripped of diplomatic status and declared persona non grata. The Russian Foreign Ministry subsequently apologized for Andreyev’s remarks and praised those Crimean Tatars who “were forging our common Victory”, such as one of the film’s main characters, Amet-Khan Sultan, a Soviet fighter and test pilot with Crimean Tatar roots who was twice decorated as Hero of the Soviet Union. Andreyev himself, however, refused to retract his words, adding that he was not questioning the wrongfulness of the deportation of Crimean Tatars by the Soviet leadership.


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  • TimUpham

    Rudolf Nureyev was a Crimean Tatar, and he defected from the Soviet Union in 1961.

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      As far as I know, he was a Volga Tatar, a related but distinct ethnic group, with their own language (one I happen to work on at the moment!).

  • j.ottopohl

    The 5 September 1967 decree partially rehabilitating the Crimean Tatars had nothing to do with Khrushchev. Nikita Khrushchev had already been removed from all power in 1964, three years earlier.

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      Of course! Thanks for the correction. I will fix it now.

  • Eskarpas

    Regarding the “Issue of collaboration with Nazis” this article greatly explores two sub-issues: 1.The illogicality of punishing whole nation for the crimes of the few (in fact, crimes of the few were typically used to “justify” almost every genocide an war crime). 2.The fact that only a minority fought on the German side while many also fought on the Soviet side; and that the same happened in both deported and non-deported populations.

    However there is a 3rd key issue: the fact that most of the people styled as “collaborators” by Soviet historiography (which is sometimes repeated by some western historians) were in fact not collaborators at all.

    It must be noted that the situation in Western Europe and Eastern Europe was tremendously different.

    In Western Europe independent and democratic nation-states fought onslaught of Nazi Germany. To support Nazi Germany instead of one’s own democratic country which still had (with Allied support) great chances of being saved/liberated could be considered as high treason.

    However in Eastern Europe there were not one but two totalitarian powers invading weaker countries, subduing minorities and committing genocides: Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

    Each regime had different target groups meaning that nearly every group of people could have expected to suffer more greatly under one of them. Nazi Germany had fewer targeted groups (Jews, Romani, etc.), Soviet Union had many more, meaning that most groups (ethnicities, nations…) believed they had more to lose from Soviet rule than from German one (a good example you give is the Crimean Tatar opinion of Germans as “enemies of an enemy”).

    Secondly, both of these powers occupied unwilling nations and there was little hope for any help from outside. While the occupation of Baltic States, Eastern Poland or Moldova (1939-1940) is widely recognized it must be understood that other areas such as Transcaucasia, Ukraine or Belarus also had been occupied by the Soviet Union in wars although it was done earlier (~1922). Genocides such as Holodomor (7 million Ukrainians killed) followed.
    It is wrong to think of all these people as “Soviet subjects” just as it would be wrong to think of people from WW2 occupied France as “German subjects”. Many (most?) of them had loyalties to their own nations. As such, fighting against Soviets was not collaboration per se.

    The only way the groups/nations of Eastern Europe believed they had hopes to avoid genocide and to safeguard at least some independence was to somehow ‘levitate” (in ideology and actions) between the two powers.

    Soviet and later Russian propaganda adopted the dichotomic view of the WW2 in the East and started calling everybody who fought against Soviet Union to be Nazi collaborators. This view is designed to evoke hatred in the West for all the Soviet Russian enemies, as Westerners, knowing their own history the best, typically attempt to imagine Eastern situation through a “Western lens”.

    However in reality many of the so-called “collaborators” were not collaborators at all but rather groups fighting for their own survival and freedom; as the Soviets proven to be the main threat, these groups may have been temporarily allied with Germany, but they did not endorsed Nazi actions; this can be evidenced in the fact that many such German allies sought to (for example) protect Jews.

    One example may be the June 1941 revolt in Lithuania which deposed the Soviet regime (quickly after the Soviet acts of genocide – massacres and exiles of June 1941) and formed a provisional government. When the German army came in it found most areas liberated, already under Lithuanian control. The provisional government hoped Germany would recognize Lithuanian independence (and had reasons to believe that; to shorten this long comment I won’t list them here). To achieve this they appeased Germany in speeches by claiming to be willing to participate in “creation of New Europe”, etc. This did not work – Germany occupied the land, limited the powers of this government; unable to work the government disbanded itself; some of its members eventually ended up in Nazi concentration camps. It should be noted that while the provisional government (when it was still in power) adopted some Finlandization-like measures in its speeches and acts, it was firm when the events became more serious: it dared to condemn the first Nazi pogroms against Jews (which happened while the provisional government was still in power formally but in fact the German military had the final say on all matters).

    In Soviet historiography this provisional government – these Lithuanian politicians who wanted to end the Soviet genocide, to restore their recently (1940) Soviet-occupied country, who condemned anti-Jewish pogroms and later suffered Nazi persecution are labelled “Nazi (fascist) collaborators” for daring to oppose Soviet imperialism. The aforementioned pro-German speeches is the supposed “evidence”.

    This way the number of “collaborators” is artificially greatly inflated and these inflated numbers are used to attempt to justify Soviet or Russian policies. The numbers of people who have really supported Nazi policies and/or participated in Nazi killings were only a small fraction of the numbers labeled “collaborators” in the Soviet historiography. BTW some of the members of the aforementioned provisional government emigrated to USA after the war and, given such Soviet position, were investigated for collaboration but found not guilty.

    There were many similar examples in Eastern Europe like the ones in Lithuania. We have established that WW2 in the East, unlike in the West could not be considered as a war between two factions but nor could it be considered a war of 3 factions (Germany/USSR/small countries). For many smaller nations also had their own feuds and disputes since WW1 territorial changes, meaning that every nation was frequently a separate faction with its own goals (contrary to the West where Allied goals were more or less similar in the later stages of WW2). For a good example of such conflict you may read history of Vilnius city here: , the chapters on 1918-1990 years.
    P.S. By this I am not claiming there were no Nazi collaborators in the Eastern Europe. There were – just like in every other occupied land. Rather I claim that far from everybody sometimes listed as collaborator was truly one.

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      Thank you for taking the time to write such thoughtful comments, Eskarpas! I agree with your key points, although I wouldn’t say that these people weren’t collaborating with the Germans but rather that the collaboration was a means of survival (personal or of the whole ethnic group). What I am trying to say is that (some) Lithuanians, Crimean Tatars and others were working with the Germans yet it was not because they shared common goals or ideology.

      Thank you for a detailed analysis of the Lithuanian situation. I would like to bring up Finland as another example of the same thing: though they were not annexed by the Soviet Union, they did come close to losing independence, and although they formally fought on the German side (and suffered punitive measures from the Allies at the end of the war), but it’s hardly because Finns in general or Mannerheim in particular were huge fans of the Nazis. Like you say, it was a choice between two evils, and true evils they both were.

      • Eskarpas

        Thanks for an answer. One more point: as per Oxford dictionary collaborator has this meaning:

        a person who cooperates traitorously with an enemy; a defector

        So it is impossible to be a collaborator when your country has no war against the power the collaboration with which is presumed. Finland fought on the Axis side but of course Finns were not “collaborating with an enemy” unless they collaborated with the Soviet Union, as the Soviets were the sole enemies of Finland (until 1944 Lappland War). Similar situation happened in many other Eastern European nations, including ones previously occupied by the Soviet Union.

        While not in dictionary I think the word “Nazi collaborator” has aquired another meaning as a “Non-German who participated in the Nazi genocide”. What I meant in my previous post was that under this meaning many supposed collaborators were not collaborating either.

        One thing I would like to add is that the whole concept of the Allies as a “democratic side” (and therefore right) and of Axis as a “totalitarian side” (and therefore wrong) also applies only to a single region of the world, namely Western Europe.

        Globally both alliances were extremely heterogenous and every country has to be valued separately. On both sides there were democratic governments and regimes that murdered millions.

        Allies had totalitarians (Soviet Union, Communist China), authoritarians (KMT China, Poland), apartheidists (South Africa), colonialists (United Kingdom, France, Belgium, Netherlands) and/or democracies.

        Axis had totalitarians (Germany), authoritarians (Italy, Bulgaria), colonialists (Italy, Japan, Vichy France), traditionalist Asian monarchies (Japan, Thailand) and/or democracies (Finland).

        In Eastern Europe both sides were mainly represented by large totalitarian and small authoritarian regimes.

        In Asia the Axis consisted of the only two independent and stable East Asian countries while Allied lands were all European dependencies with little self-rule (and China, engulfed in civil war and long under European influences).

        In Africa and Oceania both Axis and Allies had mostly colonies, but Allies also had several democracies where pre-colonial racial groups had no voting rights (South Africa, Australia).

        One may say that by fighting in Karelia the Finnish helped the Germans, but one would be also correct in saying that by bombing Helsinki the British helped the Soviets.

        • Asya Pereltsvaig

          1) My dictionary (Mirriam-Webster) defines “collaborator” as either (a) someone working together, especially in some literary, artistic, or scientific undertaking (so Martin Lewis and I are collaborators in GeoCurrents), or (b) someone cooperating with an enemy invader. However, while we can quibble on the dictionary definitions of “collaborator”, I think we both agree on the content: Lithuanians and others in Eastern Europe on many occasions fought/worked on the German side. The other option—fighting/working on the Soviet side—wasn’t a much better choice, on many levels.

          2) Whether Lithuanians and others participated in Nazi genocide is a separate question. Are you saying that categorically did not? Because I have personally met Lithuanians who worked as polizei, Gestapo etc.—what were they doing if not participating in genocide?

          3) And you are absolutely right on non-equating Allies with “democratic states” and Axis powers with “totalitarian states”. The example of Stalin’s USSR being an Allied power is sufficient to show that. But thanks for listing the other countries.

          4) And yes, the British definitely wanted to help the Soviets (and to be on their good side), just as the Finns helped the Germans as the last thing they wanted to do was to help the Soviets. Again, a matter of choosing the least of two evils. Were those choices right? It’s a matter of interpretation…

          • Eskarpas

            I have stated that “many” of the supposed collaborators were not participating in genocide, not that “all” were not particpating. In every occupied country (both Eastern and Western Europe) there were locals who participated in genocide in the 1940s. In Lithuania there were both collaborators who killed civilians in the name of Soviets and those who murdered in the name of Nazis.

            1000 to 2000 Lithuanian citizens are thought to have participated in the Nazi genocide.
            As I have previously noted however, Soviets “added” to this number of collaborators hundreds of thousands other people who merely despised and fought against the Soviet regime.
            On a sidenote, throughout the entire Soviet occupation even the 1926-1940 period of independent Lithuania was called “fascist” in history books – the same word as used for 1933-1945 Nazi Germany. Like much of the Soviet vocabulary this had a propaganda goal: in this case to equate pro-independence people to Nazis (after all, both were supposedly defending “fascism”).
            Unfortunately after decades of propaganda these things remain quite tangled and some historians who use Soviet sources do not critically analyze them, making incorrect conclusions. After all, World War 2 still pretty much lives on in popular psyche heavily influencing international and interethnic relations, unlike e.g. World War 1 which is generally recognized as a mere historical fact.

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  • Abdullah Azzam

    Hoping one day all Crimean Tatars in the diaspora can go back to their homeland..