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Faces of the Crimean Tatar Deportation 75 Years Later

Opened May 5, 2019


New York—On the morning of May 18, 1944, the Soviet government initiated a special operation in Crimea: the deportation of Crimean Tatars (Kirimli) to the Urals and Central Asia.(1)

NKVD(2) officers went from house to house and read an order according to which all Crimean Tatars, including children and the elderly, were accused of cooperating with the Nazis (3) and were to be deported. Soviet soldiers accompanying the NKVD gave people only 15-20 minutes to collect their belongings. According to the archival documents, each family was permitted to bring up to 500 kilograms of luggage. In reality, the Crimean Tatars were allowed to take only the most necessary things and some food.

People were transported by trucks to the nearest railway stations, where they faced a long journey to the Urals and Central Asia in closed cattle cars without windows and seating, or room to lie down if a person was sick. The unsanitary conditions and lack of fresh air led to numerous deaths before the eyes of helpless relatives. Within just two days, from May 18 to 20, some 180,000 people were deported from Crimea. Uncounted thousands of Crimean Tatars died en route from hunger, lack of oxygen, and illness, especially typhus.

In exile, the Crimean Tatars were confined to controlled settlements that were under curfew in the evenings. The deportees were used for cheap labor in harvesting cotton, and as laborers for road construction, in factories and mining. Researchers estimate that 22 to 40% of Crimean Tatars died during the first five years of exile due to illness and starvation.

Zarema Yaliboylu's exhibition, Faces of the Crimean Tatar Deportation 75 Years Later, reveals this crime perpetrated by the Stalinist regime against the Kirimli through portraits and stories of ordinary people who survived the deportation and managed at last to return to Crimea. The people in these photos are living witnesses to Soviet crimes against humanity. Many of them still remember those events down to the smallest detail, even though the survivors were little children at the time of deportation. Their stories are mostly similar, reflecting fear and pain, and the loss of people dearest to them. Uniting them all was their overwhelming love for Crimea and a powerful belief that they would return to their homeland – a belief that the Crimean Tatars carried with them for more than 40 years.

It was only in the early 1990s that the Crimean Tatars were permitted to return to Crimea. The number of people who witnessed the deportation is shrinking every year. But, there is hope that humanity will not forget the destruction of the Crimean Tatars, and do everything possible that in the future such profound crimes are never again committed against Crimean Tatars or any other people.

The exhibition was organized at The Ukrainian Museum with Harvard University's Turkish-Ukrainian-Crimean Tatar Studies at CMES and Crimean House (Kyiv) by guest curators Hanna Abakunova, Lubomyr Hajda, Sevgil Musaieva, and Hüseyin Oylupinar.

Original artifacts enhancing the selected portraits on display include several Crimean Tatar textiles, ceramics, and images. These indigenous artifacts were curated by Ayla Bakkalli, U.S. member of the World Congress of Crimean Tatars.

About the Photographer

Zarema Yaliboylu was born into a family of Crimean Tatar exiles in the city of Gelendzhik (Russia) in 1986. When she was five years old, Crimean Tatars were finally allowed to return to their homeland and the family moved to Simferopol. Zarema adopted photography as a hobby at age 16, and later studied law at Taurida National University. After graduation, however, Zarema decided to become a professional photographer. She worked as a photojournalist for Crimean Tatar newspapers and information agencies, and later as a photographer at the Crimean Tatar youth journal, Nesil. Her work on photojournalist projects consolidated Zarema’s interest in her native Crimean Tatar culture and history. For eight years, Zarema Yaliboylu has been creating a film archive devoted to old Crimean Tatar houses, meeting with her fellow countrymen in their native villages in Crimea, taking portrait photos of elderly Crimean Tatars as well as youth in traditional dress. Zarema Yaliboylu is the author of several photo exhibitions. Zarema’s dream is for her archive to become part of a comprehensive museum devoted to Crimean Tatar history.

(1) World War II, which ended in May 1945, was still raging across Europe.

(2) NKVD: (Russian) Narodnyi komissariat vnutrennikh del / (Ukrainian) NKVS, or Narodnyi komisariiat vnutrishnikh sprav; a law enforcement agency that Stalin used for political repression.

(3) Axis forces (Nazi German and Romanian) had attempted to conquer the Crimea peninsula during an eight-month-long campaign in 1941 and 1942.


About the Museum

The Ukrainian Museum acquires, preserves, and exhibits articles of artistic or historic significance to the rich cultural heritage of Ukrainian Americans; its collections include thousands of items of folk art, fine art, and archival material. At its founding in 1976 by the Ukrainian National Womens League of America, the Museum was hailed as one of the finest achievements of Americans of Ukrainian descent. Since then, and particularly since its move in 2005 to a new, state-of-the-art building in Manhattans vibrant East Village, it has become known as one of the most interesting and dynamic smaller museums in New York City. Each year, the Museum organizes several exhibitions, publishes bilingual (English/Ukrainian) catalogues, and presents a wide range of public and educational programs, including concerts, films, lectures, courses, workshops, and special events.

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