Deportation of Minorities

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Subject essay: James von Geldern

In 1943-44, approximately one million people were removed by the NKVD from their homelands in the North Caucasus and Crimea for resettlement in Kazakhstan and Central Asia. These were the Chechens, Ingushi, Karachai, Balkars, Kalmyks, Meskhetian Turks, and Crimean Tatars who were collectively charged with treason for having collaborated with German occupiers.

The forcible removal of an ethnically defined population from a given territory, known today as “ethnic cleansing” was neither unique to the Soviet Union nor new to the territories encompassed by it. During World War I, while the Ottoman Empire deported its entire Armenian population from the northeastern frontier and engaged in genocidal massacres, the Imperial Russian army removed some 800,000 Germans and Jews from the western borderlands. Soviet ethnic cleansing began in earnest in the mid-1930s with the removal of stigmatized ethnic groups from sensitive border regions. In the western borderlands, Poles, Germans, and Finns were the main victims; in the Far Eastern krai virtually all Koreans, numbering some 171,000 people, had been resettled in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan by October 1937. Within months of the Nazi invasion in 1941, at least 400,000 citizens of German descent living along the Volga were transported eastwards to Central Asia and Siberia.

The deportations of 1943-44 were carried out with devastating efficiency. On a single night in February 1944 tens of thousands of NKVD troops assembled and deported at one hour’s notice the vast majority of the Chechen and Ingush populations, killing the most recalcitrant and those too ill to be moved. Transported by cattle car and in trucks provided to the Soviet Union by the US Lend-Lease aid program, many died en route to Kazakhstan. In 1957 the government revoked the accusation of Nazi collusion and permitted all but the Crimean Tatars and Meskhetian Turks, whose homes and lands had been occupied by Russian, Ukrainian, and Georgian settlers, to return.

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