Soon after Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula in March 2014, Moscow launched a crackdown against the region's Turkic Muslim minority called the Tatars.
While the EU raised concerns over the ‘illegal’ detentions of Tatars in the seized region, the Russian aggression against this community is not a new phenomenon. Imperial Russia was almost always hostile toward the Tatars and when Catherine II toppled the Crimean Khanate in 1783, the community was exposed to systemic oppression. A century later, the brutality against Tatars intensified as Joseph Stalin led the erstwhile Soviet Union.
Ever since Tatars have been at the receiving end of oppression.
“Today Russia is doing pretty much the same thing, but in slow and poisonous motion,” said Riza Shevkiyev, head of the Crimea Fund, the Mejlis’s financial wing. Mejlis is the autonomous governing body of Crimean Tatars founded after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It has played an active part in Ukrainian national politics but was outlawed by Russia after it occupied and seized control of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014.
Shevkiyev fled Crimea in January 2015 after being informed he would be arrested if he stayed. In a recent interview with TRT World, he stated that dozens of fabricated court proceedings were held against him in Crimea, several of which remain unresolved today.
"Prominent Crimean Tatar leaders and activists have been unfairly detained and faced criminal prosecution," Shevkiyev said, his furrowed eyebrows conveying frustration.
Behind him, the Crimean flag hung on the wall of his office. It is a canvas of blue, the traditional colour of the Turkic peoples, accompanied by the symbol of the golden Tamga. The coat of arms depicted on the flag is the sign of the Girays, the ruling dynasty of the Crimean Khanate, a flag with a long history that remains a symbol of the struggle of the Mejlis.
“I still remember the day when the Mejlis headquarters in Simferopol was surrounded and searched by dozens of drunk, masked, gun-toting pro-Russian security officers, who replaced all Crimean and Ukrainian flags with Russian ones,” Shevkiyev recalled.
The raid came right after the Crimean referendum, which Tatars largely boycotted. The next day after the search, the police announced the seizure of the Crimea Foundation property.
Many activists have been critical of Russia's iron fisted approach towards the Tatars, a community that relentlessly opposes the Russian annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. Amidst rampant detentions and a climate of fear imposed by Moscow, many Tatars left Crimea and sought refuge in different Ukrainian cities.
With uncertainty looming large, many Tatars are reminded of Stalin's era, when their forefathers were subjected to a coordinated mass deportation to various Central Asian countries from Uzbekistan to Kazakhstan. Every Crimean Tatar family has a story that links them to their tumultuous history.
It was only after massive Tatar protests organised by the activist community that the Crimean Tatars were finally allowed to return to the Peninsula in the late 1980s. However, 70 years since their initial expulsion, history was doomed to repeat itself.
The repression of the minority Muslim group has now assumed a different shape in Russia, particularly in Crimea. Russian authorities purposefully conflates Tatars' activism with terrorism.
Shevkiyev, wearing a Tamga lapel pin on his suit blazer, expressed his concern that the portrayal of politically active Crimean Tatars as extremists and terrorists shuts down political autonomy and serves to legitimise the abductions, tortures and murders.
“Russia always plays with the ‘extremism, terrorism’ cards to shut down all the active gatherings, media outlets and government facilities,” he said.
Since 2014, Crimean Tatars have been under tremendous pressure and, with the exception of Turkey, Muslim-majority countries have been virtually silent about their situation.
“Because of the persecution and repression by the occupation authorities, there is a threat of the disappearance of the Crimean Tatars as an ethos,” Shevkiyev said, speaking in slow and measured Russian.
Under the ‘extremism’ charges, Moscow banned several Islamic books and introduced history textbooks that incite ethnic hatred against the community.
“We could not imagine that the war would drag on for so long. Children who are already five years old will be brought up with the Russian mentality. They can no longer resist Kremlin’s propaganda. We lived in deportation in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, where we somehow managed to keep our culture, language and awareness that our parents instilled in us that Crimea is our homeland and we must return," Shevkiyev said.
However, with Russia capturing Crimea, the community has been pushed to the edge. "These ongoing baseless terrorism-related prosecutions threaten our identity,” Shevkiyev said.
The ethnic group adopted Islam in the mid-14th Century. However, the Turkic-speaking population was conquered in 1783 during the expansion of Imperial Russia. Many sought refuge in their religious identity by emigrating to Ottoman Turkey.
Several observant Muslims have been charged with terrorism and adherence to Hizb-ut-Tahrir, an organisation that was banned in Russia in 2004 but not in Ukraine.
“Crimean Tatars are not terrorists,” said 40-year-old Said Ismagilov, a Mufti of the Religious Administration of Muslims of Ukraine ‘Ummah’ and one of the Muslim spiritual leaders of Ukraine.
“They are living embodiments of the uncertainty and confusion about their future. In the occupied territories of the Crimea and Donbass, the situation became more difficult as the level of repression heavily increased. Mosques are closed, people are arrested and imprisoned in these regions. In the Crimea, Muslims are abducted and killed, under the pretext of ‘religious extremism’,” he said.
An ethnic Tatar born in Donetsk, Ismagilov has been residing in Kiev since September 2014. The pressure Muslims living in Eastern Ukraine face, particularly imams and community leaders, keeps them in a tight-knit society. This poses a political threat to Russian authorities who have now banned collective gatherings under the guise of ‘religious extremism’.
“The situation in Crimea is painful, as all Muslims are trying to survive. Russia is pursuing an openly repressive policy, wanting to turn the Crimea into a military base. They are using a whole range of measures to ensure that more of those who are dissatisfied will leave Crimea. We try to communicate with Muslims in Crimea over the internet. There is no direct telephone connection, as it is not safe. People tell us what their problems are and we try to help them as we can,” Ismagilov said with frustration in his voice.
The annexation even affected the attitude of the Russian population towards Crimean Tatars. Suzanna Ismailova has experienced it while travelling through the villages of Crimea to educate people who migrated back from Ural, Tashkent, Kazakhstan after the 1944 deportation.
“All my relatives who live in that region experience difficulties in fully practising Islam. After Russian occupation of the peninsula, Russian population and neighbours became aggressive,” said Ismailova, who fears for her relatives.
A 40-year-old mother of six, Ismailova has soft features that shine through her blue headscarf. She is the founder of the organisation for Muslim women called Maryam and an active member of the Islamic Culture Centre of Kiev.
“In Soviet times, we as a nation have experienced serious pressure from the authorities, and when we were deported to different Central Asian cities, Tatars forgot how to practice Islam. Though they were still holding to their traditions, religion made us unite back again to our identity,” she said.
Although Russia is keen to exploit the racist and anti-Muslim narrative that's prevalent in the West and also threatens the Tatar identity as Stalinism did, many residents, including Ismailova, still exude hope.
“This religious persecution made us even more strong and united,” Islamova said with a broad smile on her face. “And I know that one day we will return to our motherland, and Crimea will return to Ukraine.”