Katherine the Great, Stalin and Putin: cut from the same cloth as far as the Crimean Tatars are concerned
Back in 1966 I signed up for group therapy with Louise Potts, an “art therapist” in her 70s who a number of Bard graduates had begun to see. I was in the same group as Daniel Pinkwater, an art major who became famous for his witty children’s books and NPR commentaries. Pinkwater lived in a loft next to my building in Hoboken and we used to spend a lot of time hanging out.
I stopped going to see Mrs. Potts after my post-Bard depression had lifted. When they said that the “real world” was different from Bard, they weren’t kidding. Breaking up with my girlfriend and facing the draft made the adjustment to living alone in NYC and studying philosophy at the New School an even bigger challenge.
I have vivid memories of the therapy sessions in which after scribbling something on a big sheet of paper you were expected to fill it in as recognizable drawing. Supposedly this was the equivalent of a waking dream (not that the interpretation of dreams ever made much difference in “curing” a neurotic.)
Daniel’s drawings always made mine look crude by comparison. Eventually he was eclipsed by another art major, a woman in her early 20s named Lily. She was a Crimean Tatar who had suffered the lot of a “displaced person” throughout the 50s after her parents had been expelled from her homeland. Mrs. Potts believed that Lily’s depression had a lot to do with her family situation even though it had stabilized after they moved to the USA.
Two years later I was in the SWP and reading about the suffering of the Tatars in Intercontinental Press, a magazine edited by Joe Hansen that covered the activities of Russian dissidents, including General Pyotr Grigorenko, a decorated WWII hero of Ukrainian descent. As punishment for his advocacy of Crimean Tatar rights, including repatriation into their homeland, he was stripped of his military rank, privileges and pension and then sent to a mental hospital for two years. In 1971, a Jewish psychiatrist Dr. Semyon Gluzman wrote a report finding Grigorenko sane and concluding that his hospitalization was a form of repression. For his efforts, Gluzman was rewarded with seven years in labor camp and then three years in Siberian exile. Unlike Joe Hansen and the SWP, most people on the Maoist left backed the Soviet bureaucrats for the same sorts of reasons so many “anti-imperialists” are backing Putin today. If imperialism was applauding Grigorenko’s efforts, that was reason enough to jail him in a mental hospital and to make any psychiatrist pay dearly for a report that deemed the General sane.
Mostly as a way of familiarizing myself with Tatar history, I speed read Alan Fisher’s “The Crimean Tatars”, one of the few authoritative books on the topic. As it turns out, the Tatars are a Turkic people—something that makes me even more sympathetic to them since I have a great affection for the average Turk as opposed to the problematic leadership they have endured for a hundred years or so.
The Tatars settled into the Crimean peninsula back in the fourteenth century under a so-called khanate. Their first great leader was a man named Haci Giray who created an independent state that relied heavily on Ottoman support. Giray was a descendant of Genghis Khan but was far more similar to the more settled and urban character of the Ottoman rulers than the Mongol Golden Horde of nomad conquerors. For example, Giray lived in a castle that was like a smaller version of the Topkapi rather than a tent.
As was the case in the Ottoman Empire proper, non-Muslims conducted business, trading, shipping, and personal finance under Tatar rule and paid a tax for these privileges. And as was typical as well, the non-Muslim enjoyed a level of freedom and tolerance that was remarkable for the age. Fisher reports that Karaim Jews spoke a Turkic language, lived according to Turkic traditions, and even sang purely Turkic songs.
This was by no means a paradise but life generally went well for the citizens for a couple of hundred years until Russia developed an interest in the region. Katherine the Great, a relatively enlightened Czarina, decided to annex Crimea in the same empire-building spirit that led her to launch incursions into the southern Caucasus territories. You can get an idea of the changes in Crimean demographics from this chart that appears in Wikipedia:
The Tatars are green, the Ukrainians yellow and the Russians red. So clearly what has happened from the time of Katherine the Great (the late 1700s) throughout the 19th century is a dramatic removal of the Tatars from their homeland. The slight uptick in green toward the far right of the graph reflects the repatriation victory won by the Crimean Tatars. The question, of course, is whether this was similar to Stalin’s wholesale expulsion or something less genocidal.
It was less genocidal but by no means benign. How could emigration ever be benign, after all? As is so often the case, the Russians opted to bring Crimea under its control by using a puppet, in this instance a khan named Sahin Giray. After instituting some reforms intended to “Westernize” the khanate, and deeply unpopular with the masses—including being subject to the Russian military draft—Giray was put under house arrest in St. Petersburg.
Once Crimea was annexed, Katherine began colonizing the region with non-Muslims. This was partly responsible for the demographic changes. There were also reasons for the Tatars to flee, particularly in the period following the Crimean war when Russia was defeated by a coalition of armies including the Ottomans and the British. Despite Russia’s loss, many Tatars fled, especially the elites, because of a fear that there would be reprisals against them even though many fought courageously for the Czardom.
Just as would happen in the Middle East under Zionist colonization, non-Tatars were lured into settling in Crimea with cash awards and the mass expulsions of Tatar peasants.
By 1917, the Tatars constituted only 30 percent of the Crimean peninsula. Despite the fact that the Bolsheviks claimed that it favored the self-determination of oppressed nationalities, the tumult of the civil war made it difficult to put this into practice.
In 1921 Lenin wrote a comrade:
In all autonomous republics, the Tatar Republic in this case, there are two clearly distinct trends (groupings) among the native Communists (Tatars): one of them takes the standpoint of class struggle and works for further class differentiation of the sections of the native population, and the other has a shade of petty-bourgeois nationalism….
The petty-bourgeois nationalism is an obvious reference to the preference for SR and Menshevik politicians among the Tatars, a most unfortunate choice given the polarization following October 1917.
Celebi Cihan was one such “petty bourgeois nationalist”. As leader of the Milli Farka Party, he spoke for its key demands: nationalization of the church and private property, opposition to the conservative clergy, breaking off contacts with the Russian liberals, and closer cooperation with the Russian social democracy.
Despite these sympathies, the Milli Farka was considered an enemy of Soviet power. In February 1918, the Chekha arrested Cehin and put him in front of a firing squad. Afterwards they threw his body into the Black Sea. And this was during the “heroic” period of Communist rule. It should be mentioned that the Bolshevik heading up such repression was none other than Bela Kuhn, the man who also helped to sabotage the German revolution.
It was such actions that led some of the Tatars to collaborate with the German contingent that was part of the invasion force fighting alongside the White Army, just as they would collaborate with the Nazis during WWII.
In a bold attempt to reverse the disastrous policies being pursued by Bela Kuhn, the Soviet Union created an autonomous socialist republic for the Crimean Tatars in 1923 and had the good sense to put Veli Ibramihov in charge. Ibramihov had been a member of the left wing of the Milli Farka and had evolved toward Bolshevik politics. Ibramihov followed a number of enlightened policies:
- Crimean Tatars were elevated into responsible positions in the autonomous republic’s government.
- “War Communism” policies that severely affected Tatar peasants were reversed.
- Tatarization would be implemented on all levels, including the reopening of Tatar-language schools, scientific institutes, museums, libraries and theaters.
Despite Ibramihov’s nationalist leanings, he never for one minute displayed secessionist tendencies. He and the Crimean Tatar people had the misfortune to have encountered Stalin’s Great Russian chauvinism just a few years after these policies were adopted. In 1927 Stalin decided to create an autonomous Jewish republic in the south of Crimea that would be seeded with 3500 “colonists” who would displace the Tatars. (I have written with some pleasure about this kind of project in another part of the USSR. At the time I had not considered the possible collateral damage to the indigenous population.)
After Ibramihov wrote a letter to Stalin complaining about the abridgement of Tatar rights, he was arrested on the charge of being a “bourgeois nationalist” and executed on May 9, 1928.
In my view, there is a red thread that runs from Katherine the Great’s annexation of Crimea, to Kuhn and Stalin’s repression, to Putin’s annexation once again of Crimea. He is basically reprising Katherine’s colonizing tendencies while justifying it in the name of “anti-imperialism” in faux Bolshevik style.
Long-time British Trotskyist (but of a very benign nature) Murray Smith has written a useful article (http://links.org.au/node/3773) that makes the Putin/Romanov connection (Katherine the Great was of course a Romanov). It is about Putin’s desire to reconstitute the traditional Great Russian hegemony over that part of the world even if it has to be realized over the dead bodies of lesser nationalities. Here is Smith:
In 1913, the third centenary of the dynasty of the Romanovs was celebrated with great pomp. Four years later, revolution had thrown them into history’s garbage bin. Definitively, so it seemed. But no. After the fall of the USSR, they were exhumed, literally and figuratively. In 2000, Tsar Nicolas II, known in his time as Bloody Nicolas and a great lover of anti-Jewish pogroms, was canonised.
And, in 2013, Russia celebrated the fourth centenary of the Romanovs. What was showcased and taught to schoolchildren, with supporting interactive maps, was the role of this dynasty in the expansion of the Russian empire. And it’s true: under the Romanovs, from Ukraine to the Baltic countries, from Central Asia to the Caucasus, Russia built up its empire by methods no less barbaric than those used by the British, French and other imperialists all over the world.
When he came to power in 2000, Putin was preoccupied by the decline of Russia and swore to restore the authority of the state, something he has largely achieved. This translates into “guided democracy”, growing control of the mass media, suppression of any serious dissidence and a policy of rearmament.
The whole against a backdrop of Great Russian chauvinism — that ideology which Lenin so detested and against which he fought tirelessly. And which today is broadly shared in the Russian political universe, from the extreme right of Zhirinovsky to the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF).