When Viktor Shevchenko was called forward to receive his medal from President Volodymyr Zelensky at a special ceremony in Kyiv earlier this year, his appearance seemed to come as a surprise to the Ukrainian leader.
It was not the neck gaiter Shevchenko was wearing, pulled up to cover his nose and mouth, though that certainly made him stand out from the rest of the two dozen men present. Instead, it was his darker skin tone, dark brown eyes and jet-black hair.
“Are you really Viktor Shevchenko, or are you collecting a medal on behalf of someone else?” Zelensky asked.
Shevchenko muttered his answer through the face scarf, but his voice was muffled, and the president failed to catch his reply.
Shevchenko tried again a bit louder.
This time, Zelensky understood.
He was the right soldier, but Viktor Shevchenko was not his real name.
Shevchenko laughed as he recalled the episode over lunch at a Crimean Tatar restaurant in Kyiv, and said the president was apologetic as soon as the penny dropped.
“He could see I was Tatar, that I wasn’t Slavic. I told him my parents are still in Crimea and he immediately understood,” he told us over a meal of traditional lamb chebureki, or fried turnovers seasoned with pepper, and dumplings.
He chose the name Shevchenko carefully, he said, to sound as un-Tatar as possible.
His parents, still living in the Russian-occupied peninsula, could expect to receive a knock on the door in the middle of the night if he had given his real name. Even a different, Tatar-sounding, name could have caused trouble if another family had been harassed through mistaken identity.
The history of the Crimean Tatars has taught them to tread carefully. Periods of persecution and exodus, mainly at Russian hands, have characterized the Muslim ethnic minority’s story from at least as far back as 1783, when Russian Empress Catherine the Great annexed Crimea after wresting it from the Ottoman empire. Many Tatars fled.
On May 18, 1944, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin ordered their community’s mass expulsion following the Red Army’s recapture of Crimea from Hitler’s Wehrmacht. The Crimean Tatars were accused of collaborating with the Nazis and were taken off in cattle trucks to the Ural Mountains and to Uzbekistan, thousands of kilometers away.
The lucky ones were tipped off by friends, and had a few hours to grab their Qurans and a few other belongings; the rest were caught by surprise and bundled out of their homes in the middle of the night.
In all, historians and official Ukrainian figures put the number deported at more than 200,000, of whom roughly 40% are believed to have died – either during the forced journey east or within the first year of exile – mostly through disease, hunger or thirst.
It was only during the final years of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s and then into the 1990s as Ukraine achieved independence that Crimean Tatars, Shevchenko’s parents among them, were allowed to return. Within two decades, official census figures show, their number had reached almost a quarter of a million – about 10% of the territory’s population.