Crimea will be a part of strong, unified Ukraine again, — Arsen Zhumadilov

Crimean Tatar activist Arsen Zhumadilov talks to Bohdan Nahaylo on Crimean Tatars, their tragic modern history, their place and role in Ukraine, and their current difficult situation

Show hosts

Bohdan Nahaylo


Arsen Zhumadilov

Crimea will be a part of strong, unified Ukraine again, — Arsen Zhumadilov
Crimea will be a part of strong, unified Ukraine again, — Arsen Zhumadilov

Hello and welcome to this week’s episode of Ukraine Calling. I’m Bohdan Nahaylo for Hromadske Radio in Kyiv and as always we’re bringing you our feature interview followed by some new music from Ukraine. This week we’re focusing on the Crimean Tatars, their tragic modern history, their place and role in Ukraine, and their current difficult situation.

Nahaylo: I am delighted to have as the guest of my program Arsen Zhumadilov, a representative of the Crimean Tatars who teaches at the famous Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. The reason why we have him this particular week (we should have focused on the Crimean Tatars question more often) is because in May we traditionally commemorate the notorious deportation of the entire Crimean Tatars people. Arsen, how many years since the deportation?

Zhumadilov: It’s 74 years now.

Nahaylo: This was in May 1944.

Zhumadilov: On May 18th 1944 all Crimean Tatar people were deported from Crimea to Siberia and Central Asia. It’s the 74th anniversary.

Nahaylo: Purportedly why?  What reason did the Stalinist regime used what allegations for that?

Zhumadilov: It was falsified. They accused us of being collaborators of the Nazis, which was to some extent true, but the extent was in no way larger than it was among the Russians or Ukrainians.

Nahaylo: or Balts, Georgians… Tell me. The Crimean Tatars were not the only people who were deported en mass in 1944. As I recall there were eight entire peoples that were deported.

Zhumadilov: Let me recall all of them: Crimean Tatars, Armenians, Bulgarians, Germans; you had even a few Italians in Crimea who were also deported. All these people were deported from Crimea

Nahaylo: Were all Jews deported?

Zhumadilov: All Jews of course. Karaims and Krymchaks were also deported.

Nahyalo: I am talking more about how many peoples in the former Soviet Union were deported, like the Chechens, Kalmyks, Meskhetian Turks. 

Zhumadilov: Yes, Karachai, Ingush, Meskhetian Turks, Balkars. I do not have an exact figure or number.

Nahaylo: I think it was 8 entire peoples.

Zhumadilov: Yes, up to 10. But among them only three were not allowed to come back to their native land up until the collapse of the Soviet Union: Crimean Tatars, Meskhetian Turks, and Volga Germans.

Arsen Zhumadilov in Hromadske Radio’s studio Hromadske Radio

Nahaylo: I had the honor as a young student in Great Britain and specialist on the nationalities question to write a report in 1980 for the Minority Rights Groups on exactly these three peoples. Well, the Volga Germans in the 1950s had some support from West Germany and many of them returned. 

The Meskhetian Turks unfortunately got stranded and were never were allowed to return. Georgia did not allow them back, unlike Ukraine in the case of the Crimean Tatars.  But the actual return of the Crimean Tatars, as we know, was not easy. There were issues, as I recall because I used to work on the citizenship issue for the UN at that time. Even the attitude towards Crimean Tatars. My understanding is that Ukraine accepted them, but Kyiv did not follow through to ensure they enjoyed proper political and economic rights.

Zhumadilov: Absolutely correct. There is actually a distinction of the attitude of the Central government in Kyiv towards Crimean Tatars and the attitude of the local authorities in Crimea towards them. The attitude of the authorities in Kyiv since 1991 and up to 2014 – you can call it one of “ignorance”.

Nahaylo: Ignorance, ignoring them, or that they were not a priority.

Zhumadilov: The Crimean Tatar issue was not prioritized. They saw it as a very marginal one. We did not really have a lot of problems with the Central government, but we did not have its support either.

Nahaylo: As I understand you had support from some democratic forces. From Rukh, form people like Chornovil…

Zhumadilov: Yes. But unfortunately they have never been in power, in full power.

Nahaylo: Symbolically, [the Crimean Tatars were supported], or in the form of tokenism perhaps, if were to be cynical. At least Mustafa Dzhemilev, your famous leader, and Refat Chubarov have made it into the Ukrainian parliament

Zhumadilov: Yes, correct.

Nahyalo: What this amounted to in terms of political influence is another question.

Zhumadilov: Here in Kyiv it was usually a lip service. In Crimea the local authorities were very much opposed to the Crimean Tatars’ return to their homeland. So apart from the issue of citizenship, there were others connected with land allocation and languages taught at schools, kindergartens, with getting employment etc. All issues that had to be dealt with at the local level.   

Nahaylo: I remember in mid-late 1990s how difficult it was for your community in Crimea because the local Russian-dominated authorities, that were not particularly pro-Ukrainian, used to bulldoze your  so-called squatter settlements because they were not allowing you to have property in towns and cities and to reclaim your property.

Zhumadilov: Absolutely. Yes, we went through very hard years back in 1990s, and then 2000s as well.

Nahaylo: This is an issue that I would like to highlight for our listeners: that of course the great tragedy was the uprooting, the deportation of Crimean Tatars  in 1944, but even after they returned they suffered greatly, and it is to their credit that they remained peaceful and did resort to violent means of defending themselves.

Zhumadilov: Yes and this is a very good point. We, Crimean Tatars, showed a level of democracy…

Nahaylo: Tolerance and patience…

Zhumadilov: Yes, patience, which was unexpected by many. That we Crimean Tatars, when we get back in 1991 would re-establish our bodies of self-governance. We were always adamant in sticking to non-violence as our key priority. We have always said that as Crimean Tatars we have the right to all the things that we claimed, so we do not have to be violent to reclaim.

Nahaylo: But you have to defend yourself sometimes. I mean you had murders in the community…

Zhumadilov: Unfortunately, our opponents did not share this ideology. Sometimes they resorted to things like that.

Nahaylo: That’s a tragedy. In the Soviet period, once Crimean Tatars  were deported, Moscow settled old KGB veterans and military officers in Crimea, very imperial-minded people who of course did not want you to come back and reclaim your ancient territory, your homes and vineyards and everything else. 

Zhumadilov: It’s interesting that yesterday when I watched news from this newly built bridge over the Kerch straight on Russian TV, they interviewed a woman in Kerch who said, “I am a daughter of a Soviet military officer and my mother was also a military officer. They settled in Crimea and now I feel I am a Crimean, so therefore I am very happy that now we have this bridge with Russia.”

Nahaylo: So, we translate that into understandable language:  what she was was – I am the daughter of a military colonizer, and we are here, we pushed the others out, we don’t want them back because we like it here, Crimea is a great place.

Zhumadilov: And we are happy!

Nahaylo: Right. But not the rest of us. Let me remind listeners that your leader, the head of the Mejlis, your council, your democratic body that has run your community life, your national life, that Mustafa Dzhemilev was not only a political prisoner several times  I think three or four times during the Soviet period), for organizing peaceful, non-violent protests, mass ones, something very rare in the Soviet period, but also that the UN gave him its highest award in this realm, the Nansen award for the non-violent stance in the face of severe provocation.

This I think was in the 90’s or in the 2000’s, I can’t recall exactly [1998].  So you that you know, and that is for the record. Okay, let’s move on, but before we move on, I forgot to ask you to introduce yourself a little bit more. I’m talking to Arsen Zhumadilov. Arsen, tell us where are you from, how you ended up in Kyiv, what do you do.

Zhumadilov: I’m from Simferopol, I was born there. I’m among very few Crimean Tatars of my age who happen to have been born in Crimea because my family moved back even before the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was a very hard process, but they managed to do it. So I was born in Crimea, I was raised there, I studied in school there, but then I studied at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy actually. I was a student there.  Then I did my Master’s degree at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Nahaylo: Where I was a student…

Zhumadilov: Really.

Nahaylo: So we have something in common. I was there in the late 70’s working on the Soviet nationalities problem.

Zhumadilov: Oh, such a pleasure. And then I worked in the corporate sectort, until 2014. And then in 2014 the events broke out and –

Nahaylo: Let’s not jump ahead so fast. Where did you learn your great English?

Zhumadilov: Well, as I said I studied at the London School of Economics but before that I studied at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy and I’m very thankful that this university gave quite a strong knowledge of English. But even before that I studied at the famous Tankovoe Boarding School for gifted children. It was a unique school back in Crimea that provided instruction in some classes in lessons in English.

Nahaylo: Wonderful. Now in those earlier years; let’s not jump ahead to Maidan, the Revolution of Dignity, and what happened in Crimea. We’ll come to that in a second. How did you feel as a young Crimean Tatar linked with Ukraine, studying in the West? Did you feel that you were understood: a) in Ukraine, and b) in the outside world?

Zhumadilov: That is a very interesting question. Because I usually thought, as well as my friends who studied here, all the Crimean Tatars in Kyiv, that we were well understood by our fellow students and fellow Ukrainians. But it was not in fact the case. In 2014, it caught us by surprise that the Ukrainians here were amazed by the behavior that we the Crimean Tatars dispalayed.

Nahaylo: By your loyalty, and your pro-Ukrainian stance.

Zhumadilov: Absolutely.

Nahaylo: That you identified youselves as citizens of Ukraine.

Zhumadilov: They did not expect us to be like that, you know, to feel that strong about our citizenship, that we are loyal citizens of Ukraine. That we see Crimea as an integral part of Ukraine. They did not expect us to be such strong believers in our united nation.

Nahaylo: A united political nation.

Zhumadilov: Yes, united political nation. Back in those times we always pinned high hopes on new political leaders emerging. I remember our emotions when president Yushchenko was elected. We took a very active part in the Orange Revolution; I remember my friends and me standing at the first Maidan, the Orange Revolution, day and night to support him. We thought: this is the moment, it is high time for Ukraine to change, to now finally become a proper European state. But you know what happened, and we lost the chance. We had ten years of…

Nahaylo: Lost time?

Zhumadilov: Lost time, yes.

Nahaylo: At a huge cost. But you were there and your presence was very discernable, very conspicuous at the Maidan. Giving out plov for free to participants. That constituted a very symbolic presence of the Crimean Tatars. It  meant a lot at that time.

Zhumadilov: Yes, the second Maidan you mean?

Nahaylo: Yes, at the second Maidan; at the Revolution of Dignity.

Zhumadilov: At the Revolution of Dignity, yes indeed.  The Crimean Tatars were very clear that Yanukovych’s rule was a mistake, that he should leave, he should go. We had no illusions whatsoever about that man. So we were a part of the Revolution of Dignity. We really had some very good stories from tha,t before the killings started. I remember those days.  I was in Crimea though, but I know that on February 18th when the massacre started, Mustafa Dzhemilev was among very few Ukrainian politicians who was brave enough to step on to the stage of the Maidan and to say some very strong words to the men and women who were there.

Nahaylo: So we should say in retrospect, “Cлава героям” (Glory to the Heroes), to living heroes. And Mustafa is a Crimean Tatar hero, but he’s also a hero of Ukraine.

Zhumadilov: Absolutely.

Nahaylo: Well you’re very fortunate that you’ve had at least one, if not several leaders in recent times, who really have put their people, their nation, first. You are an example to all of us in that respect. We can learn a lot from you. Okay, moving on.

So suddenly the Maidan is over, we think that we’re going to have a new rule by dignified democratic Ukrainian politicians, and suddenly, the “green men” move into Crimea and start taking it over. We remember the very brave courageous protests by Crimean Tatar women on the streets, your huge presence outside the autonomous parliament building. It was touch and go at that time. The Crimean Tatars really came out in force in support of a united Ukraine.

Zhumadilov: Yes, and this was a crucial moment actually because Putin’s master plan for Crimea was to show that it was all peaceful. Actually he thought that his people on the ground would make it all happen without these mass rallies against it. He did not take the Crimean Tatars into account. When they went out onto the streets of Simferopol on February 26th, when they actually blocked the Crimean parliament and they wouldn’t let the Crimean deputies gather together to vote for decisions that would eventually bring Crimea out of Ukraine, they understood that the so-called peaceful plan would not work.

Nahaylo: Was not feasible.  

Zhumadilov: Was not feasible, yes. So, therefore, they opted for open aggression.

Nahaylo: When a military option disguised by who knows who, “green men”, anonymous locals…

Zhumadilov: Very poorly disguised.

Nahaylo: So, let’s move on. The so-called “referendum” took place. I remember reading a document submitted to Putin by a Presidential Council, which consisted, at that time, still of many democrats. They said that only about 31% [of the voting population of Crimea] participated. Unlike the myth of 90 something percent supporting it. I’m sure very few Crimean Tatars voted, 10-15%, if at all, if they were forced to.

Zhumadilov: Crimean Tatars by and large boycotted the so called “referendum,” as well as the majority of other people living in Crimea. I remember very well the atmosphere in the air.

Nahaylo: Were you still there?

Zhumadilov: Yes, I was there.

Nahaylo: Tell us, in a few sentences ,about  the drama, the feelings, the emotions. What did you feel? Scared? Frightened? Did you think “oh my God, this is another deportation in the making? Where are we headed?’ You, as a young man, your whole future is at stake here. Your world is being turned upside down yet again.

Zhumadilov: Well, the first emotion, the first feeling that we all shared was that “this is not for real. This is just theatre. This cannot happen in the 21st century. That a neighbouring state just invades another state with military power.” So, the first impression was that this is not for real. That this will go away in a few days. When that did not happen, the second emotion was that we have to fight. That we have to be really strong in voicing our support for the territorial integrity of Ukraine. That Crimea is a part of Ukraine. This is actually when we created our network of self-defence units in every village and place of compact settlement of Crimean Tatars in Crimea. I was actually the one who brought together the young men in my village, where I lived in Crimea, a suburb of Simferopol [the regional capital of Crimea]. So we had people on duty 24/7 watching who was coming in and leaving the village, to control the situation.

Nahaylo: Were you frightened that you would be provoked into violence?

Zhumadilov: We were not frightened. I would say we really felt that Ukraine would fight for Crimea, and this is why we have to show that we are also here. The pro-Ukrainian population is there.

Nahaylo: Were you disappointed by the feeble response?

Zhumadilov: We were very disappointed when they [Ukrainian authorities] just allowed this so-called “referendum” on March 16 to happen. Then it became obvious, within a few days, maybe weeks, that Ukraine – well it didn’t turn a blind eye, but it did not want to fight for Crimea. We thought all this time that we are all together, Ukraine, that official Kyiv…

Nahaylo: Would support you, express solidarity in other ways.

Zhumadilov: Absolutely. When we understood that this was not the case, that the state was just leaving the place, and that we are now facing our enemy in Crimea on our own, that’s when the fear came.

Nahaylo: I wish we had more time, but to sum up the current situation, obviously it’s a very ugly.. Repression. Arrests. Disappearances. Sum up, if you can, where do we stand. To what extent can you rely on external support? To what extent have you found new understanding, support, within Ukraine?

Zhumadilov: I would say that our hope is for a strong Ukraine. A strong, unified Ukraine that will eventually make it happen that Crimea will be a part of Ukraine again. This is what we really hope for. Because we saw the international community and its reaction, which was very weak in 2014, and still is.

Nahaylo: Some sanctions. At least a UN General Assembly resolution condemning. But weak, yes.

Zhumadilov: It was weak. It was inadequate. It was not enough as a response.  So we hope that Ukraine will one day become a strong state, strong enough to reclaim all its territories. We hope, we believe, that the Crimean Tatars will be seen now by the Ukrainians as part of the Ukrainian political nation, with autonomy in Crimea, Crimean Tatar autonomy.

Nahaylo:  Finally recognized.

Zhumadilov: Finally recognized. So that we, the Crimean Tatars, and the Ukrainians, can move forward, side by side, building a bright future for our children.

Nahaylo: And do you have a final thought, or wish, that you would like to share with our listeners? What is your message to our English-speaking listeners out there?

Zhumadilov: I would call upon anyone who is listening to understand the Crimean Tatars. Please do not think of us as if we live somewhere else, that we are from another planet. We, the Crimean Tatars, are compatriots of Ukrainians, we are citizens of the world. Please understand us. Please try to feel the pain that we have been through, and that we are in at the moment. When you understand us then you will definitely support us. Because the cause that we have been championing for so many years is a just one.

Nahaylo: A just cause! A heroic society! A people who has set an example of courage and use of peaceful means of defending itself in very difficult conditions. I thank you very much, Arsen, for being my guest.

Zhumadilov: Thank you, Bohdan.


It’s not easy to find contemporary Crimean Tatar music. But Hromadske Radio’s co-founder Andriy Kulykov seeks it out. On his music show Pora Roku he recently played a song by a band called R2Я, or Remzik and Ramzik, pseudonyms two guys adopted. They now live in Kyiv. One of them recently revealed that his name is Muslim Umerov (Муслім Умеров.) The song is called ‘Opecem,’ which means ‘I’ll Kiss You.’ Listen for the traditional Crimean Tatar melodies intertwined with a modern beat.


Join us again next week when we’ll bring you a topical in depth interview and some music. So tune in. And we would be happy to receive any feedback from you. Write to us at: [email protected] This is Bohdan Nahalylo in Kyiv. Thanks so much for listening.

Interview transcribed by Marta Dyczok, Larysa Iavorenko, and Caitilin O’Hare. Music by Marta Dyczok. Sound engineer Andriy Izdryk. E-mail distribution Ilona Sviezhentseva. Web support Yaroslava Volvach.