The 1944 deportation of the Crimean Tatars was on the BBC yesterday, in World War Two: Behind Closed Doors. This series is about the Soviet Union’s relations first with Germany and then with the Allies; more specifically, about the atrocities Stalin’s regime committed and (sometimes) tried to cover up during the war. What I find most interesting and disturbing are the interviews with Russians who were part of the killings and tortures, the mass deportations and mass cover-ups. Old men and women now, with teary eyes and trembling, liver-spotted hands. Someone’s fond old grandparents, boring on about the war. What do they think about the terrible things they did under orders? How do they think about them?
“I understand that it was cruel because I’m more experienced now,” said one old man. “Now we have democracy.” That is his excuse; it’s all he has to say.
I’m reminded of one of Ayder’s stories. Ayder is a Crimean Tatar businessman from Bakhchisaray. His mother was deported in 1944 to the Ural mountains, where she and her family almost died of cold and starvation. Her house in Crimea is still standing, but the Saint Petersburg family who own it as a holiday home refuse to sell it back to Ayder.
A few years ago, Ayder told me, he was in Moscow staying with colleagues when an elderly Russian neighbour came round to visit. After a few drinks and over a cigarette on the balcony he started reminiscing about his time in the war, and specifically in 1944, when as a young NKVD officer in Crimea he had spent one spring night driving the length and breadth of the peninsular on his motorbike, organising the action…
Ayder looked at his friends. There was only one ‘action’ they could think of that would require an NKVD officer to cross and recross the whole of Crimea in one night in 1944: the deportation of all the Crimean Tatars. They were face to face with a man who had been responsible, as a member of the Soviet secret police, for driving Ayder’s own mother from her home and into an exile so harsh that it killed up to a third of the entire Crimean Tatar nation. Ayder said he looked at his friends and they were all thinking, ‘Let’s throw him off the balcony.’
“Next morning,” Ayder said, “when he’d sobered up, he couldn’t look us in the eye. He was that scared.”
I asked if Ayder had said anything to him. Ayder shrugged. “He was just a poor old man.”
I wonder if this man too realised that what he’d done years ago was cruel. In some cases, it’s because of people like him that atrocities have come to light at all. We know about the slaughter of the Crimean Tatar villagers on the Arabat Spit, or the secret execution of a group of Crimean Tatar officers who had been awarded Red Army medals, only because the young soldiers who’d taken part chose later, years later, to speak out about what they had done.