"There are about three hundred thousand Crimean Tatars on the peninsula, and although they constitute only fifteen per cent of its population they have great political significance. If they do not back the upcoming referendum, it will be far more difficult for the pro-Moscow government in Crimea to legitimize what is in effect a Russian annexation of the peninsula."
At first, Rustem Kadyrov could barely make out the mark outside his house, in the Crimean town of Bakhchysarai, but it filled him with terror. It was an X, cut deep into the gray metal of the gate, and its significance cut even deeper, evoking the memory Kadyrov shares with all Crimean Tatars. Kadyrov, who is thirty-one, grew up hearing stories about marks on doors. In May of 1944, Stalin ordered his police to tag the houses of Crimean Tatars, the native Muslim residents of the peninsula. Within a matter of days, all of them—almost two hundred thousand people—were evicted from their homes, loaded onto trains, and sent to Central Asia, on the pretext that the community had collaborated with the Nazi occupation of Crimea.
Kadyrov's grandmother, Sedeka Memetova, who was eight at the time, was among those deported. "The soldiers gave us five minutes to pack up," she told me, when I visited the family on Thursday. "We left everything behind." Memetova still has vivid memories of her journey into exile: the stench of the overcrowded train carriage, the wailing of a pregnant woman who sat next to her, and the solemn faces of the men who had to lower the bodies of their children off of the moving train—the only way, she said, to dispose of the dead. Four of her siblings were among the thousands of Crimean Tatars who never even made it to their final destination, Uzbekistan.