Why are Crimean Tatars so hostile to Russia?

Ukrainian, Crimean and Crimean Tatar flags during a rally in support of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, in Kiev’s Independence Square in 2014. (Efrem Lukatsky/AP)

For Crimean Tatars, a Muslim minority group that returned to their ancestral home in Crimea after 1989, the Russian annexation in March 2014 was a hard blow. Three years later, the European Union is pushing back against the latest U.S. sanctions on Russia, passed by Congress in July. German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel even floated the possibility that the E.U. would turn a blind eye to the contested status of Crimea.

Ukrainian officials, typically sensitive to signals about Russian sanctions and the status of the formerly Ukrainian peninsula, have been surprisingly silent. But Crimean Tatars have loudly denounced the E.U. move. Lenur Islyamov, a prominent Crimean Tatar activist and owner of the Crimean Tatar television channel ATR, strongly criticized Gabriel for a “pro-Putin message” and suggested that if necessary, Crimean Tatars would fight for Crimea’s return to Ukraine.

Why are some Crimean Tatars so strongly anti-Russian?

There’s a long history here. We looked at this question in our article in the American Journal of Political Science. The Crimean Tatars remain notably hostile toward Russia’s annexation of Crimea. We argue that part of the reason for this hostility is the enduring legacy of events that took place more than 70 years ago.

In May 1944, Soviet authorities summarily deported 200,000 Crimean Tatars to Central Asia on charges of wartime collaboration with the Nazis. As in other Soviet deportations, everyone — even Crimean Tatars serving as officers in the Red Army — was subject to deportation.

Families were not allowed to bring personal effects, and the lengthy journey to Central Asia in cattle cars proved deadly for many. By some estimates, anywhere from 20 to 46 percent of the Crimean Tatar population perished either in transit or during the first year in exile, mostly from illness and malnutrition.

In 1989, as the Soviet Union was dissolving, the Crimean Tatars were permitted to start returning to their ancestral homes in Crimea. Some 280,000 Crimean Tatars have returned.

Some families suffered more than others

Although every Crimean Tatar family experienced the violence of deportation, some families lost more relatives to the harsh conditions during the first year in exile than others. We studied the effect that the loss of an additional family member has had on the descendants of the survivors.

In late 2014, shortly after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, we interviewed three generations of respondents in 300 Crimean Tatar families who had returned to Crimea. Our survey included survivors of the 1944 deportation, their children born in exile and their grandchildren — millennials who themselves have no direct experience living under the Soviet state. Since some survivors lost more relatives than others, we are able to estimate the impact of additional family deaths on the grandchildren’s political identities, attitudes and behaviors.

Two points are particularly important here. First, there are good reasons to think that whether a family lost few or many relatives during the deportation had nothing to do with the political identities or attitudes of the grandchildren at the time of the interview. This makes us more confident the differences we find between families is a result of how much they suffered.

Second, the survivors’ grandchildren in our survey came of age after the fall of the Soviet Union. Thus, they did not have any direct experience living under Soviet rule — which helps us avoid the problem of distinguishing what attitudes and opinions get transmitted within families from an individual’s own experiences.

We found that the legacies of violence are remarkably persistent within families. With each additional family member lost during the harsh resettlement, the grandchildren in that family tended to identify more strongly as both Crimean Tatar and as victims. And they were more likely to see Russia as a persistent threat.

Our survey also showed that young Crimean Tatars who come from more victimized families were more likely to participate in politics. They were more likely to vote in the referendum in early 2014 on Russia’s annexation of Crimea and in the local elections later that year. But they turned out in those elections to express their opposition to Russia, voting against the annexation and against Russia’s ruling party in the later elections.

Identities within families were deeply rooted

We found that what gets transmitted across generations is identities — victim identity, a heightened threat perception and strong in-group attachment. Once socialized in the family (sometimes through direct conversations about the family’s experiences), these core identities shape how descendants respond to political events and motivate decisions on whom to vote for and whether to turn out to vote.

Our study shows that victim identities are extremely persistent in families, even across three generations. At least some of the strong anti-Russian sentiment among young Crimean Tatars today is a direct result of the Soviet-era victimization of their family members more than 70 years ago.

More broadly, these results help to explain why reconciliation between victims’ descendants and perpetrators’ successors often proves so elusive. Although the victims themselves may be gone, their families remember — and generations with no firsthand experience of violence may still feel wronged.

Noam Lupu is an associate professor of political science and associate director of the Latin American Public Opinion Project at Vanderbilt University. He is the author of “Party Brands in Crisis: Partisanship, Brand Dilution, and the Breakdown of Political Parties in Latin America.” (Cambridge University Press, 2016).
Leonid Peisakhin is an assistant professor of political science at New York University at Abu Dhabi.

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