SIMFEROPOL, CRIMEA — No one has any idea what President Vladimir Putin will do after Crimea votes on Sunday to join Russia. But if bankers and diplomats from New York to London are sleeping fitfully, worried whether Russia’s about to launch World War Three, you can only imagine what's going through the mind of Adavye Osmanova, a 79-year-old Tatar woman in the Crimean capital of Simferopol. She had worn her best dress to meet me—black with gold stitching—but she looked drawn and exhausted.
Putin has said he is obliged to defend the Russian-speakers of Crimea from the new government in Kiev, but who, Osmanova asks, will protect her from him? “I have seen nothing good from the Russians for 70 years and I expect nothing good now," she said. "I want my children to be happy and safe, but how do I know what will happen now? This Putin, I will not compare him to Hitler. I have only seen him on television, but he could be worse than Hitler, worse even.”
Before you try her under Godwin’s Law for a Hitler comparison, she—unlike all the Russians currently comparing the new government in Kiev to Nazis—has first-hand experience. When Hitler’s troops smashed Crimea in World War Two, she was there.
“We hid in trenches," Osmanova said. "Instead of rain, bullets were falling. My mother’s sister stood up in the trench and was shot. It was horrible, terrifying. The Germans blockaded Sevastopol for nine months. You could see it burning from 30 kilometers away. My aunt lived there and my grandmother just looked out of the window and cried and cried, ‘My daughter’s burning, my daughter’s burning.’”
She remembers Joseph Stalin, too. When the Soviet troops drove out the Germans in 1944, it was a bitter liberation. Stalin decided that the Tatars had betrayed him, had collaborated with the Germans (though there was no proof they had done so any more than any other nation Hitler occupied) and deported them all to Central Asia or the Urals. On May 18, 1944, Osmanova, her mother, grandmother, sisters, and cousins were packed into cattle cars. Within a year, only Osmanova and her little sister were still alive. “My mother would take the husks from the cotton plants and grind them and make bread with them. But that doesn’t keep you going for long and that winter everyone died, except us two.”
Her father, a Soviet soldier, was no less fortunate. Taken by the Germans, he survived the prisoner of war camps, but after his camp was liberated he was sentenced to 10 years in the Gulag for the “crime” of having been captured. He only found his daughters—who were paying half their salary for the right to share a bed in the corner of a barn—when he was released in 1955, two years after Stalin’s death. “I was 20 when he returned, and I didn’t recognise him," Osmanova said. "I hadn’t seen him for 16 years. He said he was my father, but I had never seen a photograph of him."
Stalin’s death did not mean the Tatars could return home, however. They were officially pardoned, but had to stay where they were, on the steppes of Central Asia, baking in summer, freezing in winter. Temperate, gentle Crimea became, for Osmanova’s generation and the generations born in exile, a place to long for: their promised land, their land of milk and honey, their Israel.
No one kept count of how many of the 200,000 Tatars died. Officials estimated 15 to 20 percent. Tatar historians have sought to survey each family, and came up with a death toll of 46 percent in the 18 months after the deportation. Either way, this was their holocaust, a crime compounded by the unfounded accusation that they were traitors, and the continuing injustice of not being allowed to go home.
The Crimean Tatars became one of the key strands of the dissident movement. When their activists were jailed, news reached the West by the same channels that kept information about Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov flowing. Some Tatars snuck back to Crimea for a visit, including Osmanova in 1970. “We cried and cried. We saw my house, and we saw my husband’s house, where he had grown up. There was some alcoholic living there, he was just lying there drunk. It smelled so bad, you couldn’t even go in,” she said.
She and her nation finally won the right to come home when the Soviet Union collapsed, but they never got their houses back. Many Tatars now live in the same village their parents left, can see the house their parents lost, and have no right to cross the threshold. It is something that makes them scoff at any claim that this is Russian land, that it should be united with Russia, that it was only removed from Russia by the whim of the Ukrainian Nikita Khrushchev. I spoke to at least 40 Crimean Tatars on Saturday. Not one of them intended to vote in Crimea’s referendum. Not one of them considered it to be legitimate.
“They say this is their homeland, but we are the native people here, our ancestors lived here, not theirs,” Osmanova said, with real anger. “The people who rule us now, they burned our houses, they destroyed our cemeteries, flattened our graves. That was what their government did against us. How could they lack the humanity?”
Now, as night falls, on the corners of the Tatar regions of Simferopol, and on the roads into Tatar villages, young men stand around braziers, warily watching the cars coming in and out, guarding their communities in the way they could not in 1944. But that is not enough to reassure Osmanova, who sees armed men and remembers Hitler and Stalin, and what they did to her family and her people.
“I did not sleep all night after seeing the news yesterday. They showed these columns of trucks coming from Russia onto our peninsula,” she said. There may be uncertainty for diplomats, but there is none for her. “We Tatars will not leave again. We have nowhere to go. This is our homeland. We spent 70 years wandering the earth. We went everywhere. We finally came home, and we’re not going anywhere.”
Oliver Bullough is the London-based author of The Last Man in Russia.