Marco Levytsky, National Affairs Editor.
This Thursday, May 16, Etobicoke-Centre Liberal MP Borys Wrzesnewskyj will rise in the House of Commons to ask for unanimous consent for the passage of his motion to establish the Crimean Tatar Deportation (“Sürgünlik”) Memorial Day on the 18th day of May, in each and every year, and to recognize the 1944 Sürgünlik as an act of genocide. This year marks the 75th anniversary of this event.
If the motion is passed, Canada will become only the third country in the world to recognize this crime against humanity for what it actually was — a genocide. Ukraine’s Parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, was the first to do so on December 12, 2015. Latvia followed on May 9 of this year, just four days before the issue went to press. The Latvian resolution stressed that “a set of historical sources refers to the purposeful pursuit of genocide by the Soviet authorities against…Crimean Tatars as an ethnic group to destroy their cultural and social heritage and their historical affiliation with the Crimean Peninsula.”
On May 18, 1944, the terror began throughout Crimea when a 32,000-strong NKVD special force rounded up Crimean Tatars for deportation. They were loaded onto trucks, taken in convoys to Simferopol and Bakhchysaray and were then reloaded into cattle cars for transport to the Central Asian steppes. Crimean Tatars who lived in mountainous regions inaccessible to NKVD trucks were rounded up and shot. The inhabitants of the Arabat Spit, a group of inaccessible fishing villages, were herded onto a barge which was then towed into the Azov Sea and scuttled. A nearby boat with Soviet machine gunners made sure that no one survived.
Within three days, there were no more Crimean Tatars, or as Communist officials in Moscow stated, they had “created a new Crimea according to Russian order.” Crimean Tatar books were burned. All Crimean Tatar towns and villages were given Russian names, and Muslim cemeteries and mosques were razed. Stalin ordered the editors of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia to remove all references to the Crimean Tatars, in effect, erasing them from history.
Crimea was cleansed of over 200,000 Tatars. The next four weeks witnessed a procession of lingering death as thousands of railway cattle cars crammed with people travelled 4,000 kilometres across the scorching steppes of Central Asia. The Crimeans called them “crematoria on wheels.” They died of suffocation, hunger and thirst. A trail of decomposing bodies lay along the railroad tracks; close to 30,000 of the human cargo, perished. Approximately half subsequently died of hunger and disease in the Central Asian steppes, hidden from the eyes of the world in the midst of World War II.
MP Wrzesnewskyj is basing his motion upon the definition of genocide found in the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide passed on January 12, 1951. It was initiated by Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jew, who based his definition upon the study of the Armenian genocide, the Holodomor and the Holocaust and dedicated his life’s work to ensuring the passage of that convention.
Under this convention, genocide means any of five specified acts “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”. Wrzesnewskyj says the Sürgünlik meets three of the five conditions, namely:
- “Killing members of the group”. What qualifies here is the scuttling of the boat with the villagers of the Arabat Spit on board, the hunting down of Crimean Tatar shepherds by the NKVD and the “crematoria on wheels” journey to Central Asia killing 15 percent of the population;
- “Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group”. This would apply to the mass confiscation of property and deportation, and;
- “Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.”
Wrzesnewskyj points out that the deportation was a special operation that was premeditated, meticulously planned and executed by specially assembled forces of Stalin’s NKVD. Some 90,000 people died, almost 50 percent of the entire Crimean Tatar population.
“In fact, it was not only a plan for the destruction of the Crimean Tatars as a people, it was meant to erase (the historical record) that they had ever existed in Crimea. It was genocide as well as historical ethnocide,” he says.
This is the second time such a motion is being presented in Canada’s Parliament. The first was in 2016, when another private member’s bill, this one authored by Edmonton – Griesbach Conservative MP Kerry Diotte, was defeated 160-137 on second reading by the ruling due to the reluctance of then Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion to use the term “Genocide”. Wrzesnewskyj, who was one of five liberals to support it, explains that this time, his motion has the support of Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, but will need the unanimous agreement of all members of the House to pass.
What makes the passage of this motion so imperative at this point in time is the fact that Joseph Stalin’s genocidal policy from 1944 has today been picked up by his successor in mind, spirit and deed – Vladimir Putin. Since the annexation, the Crimean Tatars have been subjected to a brutal campaign of repressions by Russian authorities. Close to 150,000 ethnic Tatars and Ukrainians have left the peninsula, while hundreds of thousands of ethnic Russians have been resettled in their place. This is very much like the Holodomor in which the millions of Ukrainians starved to death by Stalin were replaced by millions of ethnic Russians, leading to the massive russification of the affected regions and the subsequent invasion of eastern Ukraine by Russian proxies under the excuse of defending “Russian speakers”.
The 1932-33 Holodomor, the 1944 deportation, and the 2014 annexation of Crimea which has led to the current ethnic cleansing of the peninsula is all part of an historic and deliberate Russian process of mass murder and expulsion, followed by the incursion of countless colonizers on foreign territory, which is designed to enlarge and consolidate the Russian Empire. It violates all accepted international principles of human rights and sovereignty of nations. Very often these actions get minimum attention from the rest of the world.
But it is critical to understand all of these historical events in their proper context and how they constitute part of a very ruthless, deliberate – and consistent policy of Russia’s leaders. That is why it is so important for Canada to vigorously denounce such despicable crimes against humanity and that is why we urge all Members of Parliament to unanimously endorse this bill. While a motion may not have the same impact as a full-fledged bill, it nevertheless is a first step and that is a step in the right direction.