Qirimli war hero: A Hero of the Second World War and the Travails of the Crimean Tatars

19:35 Oct. 26, 2016

A Hero of the Second World War and the Travails of the Crimean Tatars

The plane of Amet-Khan Sultan in his museum (by alypka.info)

Ukrainian historian and diplomat Dmytro Ishchenko on the story of Hero of the Soviet Union, originated from the 'traitor people'

The 25th of October is the birthday of Amet-Khan Sultan, one of the most renowned Soviet pilots in World War II and an epic figure in the collective consciousness of the Crimean Tatars. At present, this nation faces a new grim adversity begot by Russia's illegal occupation of Crimea, as well as by the Kremlin's oppressive policies on the peninsula. Under such circumstances one feels compelled to recall the ordeals, which the Qirimli (endoethnonym of the Crimean Tatars) had to suffer in the 20th century. The biography of the named war hero reflects this tragic theme in the best possible way.    


Captain Amet-Khan Sultan (1920-1971), fighter ace and a ‘Hero of the Soviet Union', in 1943.

(Source: www.ww2.memory.gov.ua) 

Amet-Khan Sultan was born in 1920 into an ethnically mixed family. Sultan's mother was a Crimean Tatar, whereas his father belonged to the Dagestanian indigenous people known as the Laks. In 1940, the future ace graduated from a military aviation school and joined the 4th Fighter Aviation Regiment of the Red Army. When the Third Reich's attack implicitly interrupted its Ribbentrop-Molotov intimacy with theUSSR, the young officer found himself inside the unceasing battle. His valour and virtuosity in the air earned him the title of the ‘Hero of theSoviet Union' along with the nickname ‘King of ram attack'.


American fighter aircraft Bell P-39 Airacobra. During WW II, The US supplied the Red Army Aviation Force with this type of planes. While piloting one of them, Amet-Khan Sultan gallantly won a number of battles in the air. (Source: Wikipedia)

In May 1944, after almost three years of constant fighting, Sultan was granted a short leave to finally see his family. Ironically, this visit coincided with the NKVD operation leading to the forceful removal of the Crimean Tatars toUzbekistan. With the help of another ace pilot and some of their superiors, Amet-Khan managed to rescue his parents from the deportation.


The deportation of the Crimean Tatars. There are different estimations as to the total number of the deported. Most historians believe there were more than 230,000 people. The Qirimli were accused of collaboration with the occupying forces of the Nazi Germany and their allies. Records show that about 9,000 Crimean Tatars did serve in various anti-Soviet Tatar Legions and other unites formed under German supervision. At the same time, 17,000 Crimean Tatars served in the Red Army. The numbers of ethnic Russian serving the Nazis seem to be at least twice larger than the entire nation of the Qirimli.

The NKVD operation involving more than 32,000 troops began on the 18th of May, 1944, and lasted for two days. The deportees had 30 minutes to pack what they could and then, in the trains for cattle, were transported to Uzbekistan. (Source: www. cidct.org.ua) 

Confused and dispirited by the nightmarish ending of his trip, he returned to active duty. The entire nation of the Qırımlı was accused of supporting the Nazis, and those Crimean Tatars who fought for the USSR found themselves in a maddening reality. At the very beginning of the war with Germany, the Red Army mobilized about 17 thousand men (and some women) of this ethnicity. By 1944, more than half of them were killed in action, whereas the rest lost a home to return to. Eventually, they were sent to the special settlement camps in Siberia and the Ural Mountains.


A deported Qirimli family (Source: www.euromaidanpress.com) 

Captain Sultan fought on and rose to the rank of major despite his henceforth very problematic national identity. At the end of the war, he joined a very small circle of those highly decorated veterans who were awarded with two Stars of the ‘Hero of the Soviet Union'.

Read also Telegraph: Crimea Tatars endure second tragedy under Russian rule

In 1945, Stalin ordered all fighter aces to enter the highest military academies of the USSR, and Amet-Khan Sultan did just that. Yet, after a year he asked to be allowed to leave his studies, towards which the war-weary pilot did not feel the necessary inclination. Having been honourably discharged, he tried to return to his flying profession, and that is when his nationality proved to be a serious obstacle. Unofficially, the Soviet authorities advised Sultan to declare that he is a Dagestanian like his father's family. That would have secured the ace's post-war career, but the latter remained loyal to the nation he used to see as his own. He called himself a Crimean Tatar and took part in the endeavors to rehabilitate the defamed people.


The members of the Normandie-Niemen Regiment, a French aviation unit that fought on the Eastern Front of WW II. Airmen of this regiment were Sultan's brothers-in-arms. Naturally, the Soviet ace was invited to the anniversary of the unit in 1956. However, the Soviet authorities did not allow the legendary pilot to go to France because of Amet-Khan's support of the Crimean Tatars. (Source: www.normandieniemen.free.fr) 

This stance, very courageous under the regime with no toleration for dissident views, resulted in a refusal when Sultan applied for the job of a test pilot at the leading flight research institute. His bravery, however, was not forgotten, and the military commanders under whom Amet-Khan had served in the war made the case in favour of their former subordinate. The appointment to the aforementioned institution marked the beginning of what became the second and unsurprisingly stunning chapter of Sultan's heroic life.


Major Amet-Khan Sultan at the end of the war (Source: www.ww2.memory.gov.ua) 

He took part in extremely dangerous tests and the Soviet authorities were forced to award the outstanding airman again and again. In 1958, when participating in one of such hazardous projects, Amet-Khan showed the undying ace's spirit to the whole world of aviators. He and his partner, Valeriy Golovin, were testing the ejection seat in the jet fighter known as MiG-15. Something went wrong and the tested mechanism caused the damage to the tanks of fuel, which rapidly started flowing into the cabin. The plane could explode at any moment, but Golovin's seat appeared to be jammed, which meant no chance for him to jump. In spite of instructions, Sultan refused to abandon his colleague and, instead, landed the aircraft with unprecedented artistry.

Read also New York Times: Russia is trying to wipe out Crimea's Tatars

In the very same year, Amet-Khan was engaged in the Soviet space program, within which he trained the first cosmonauts of the USSR, including Yuri Gagarin. According to various memoirs, the future conquerors of outer space were devoted to their legendary instructor, in whom they saw a fatherly figure.


Yuri Gagarin (1938-1968), one of Sultan's trainees and the first human to reach the outer space. Gagarin and other young cosmonauts call Amet-Khan ‘our pakhan', which means both ‘father' and ‘boss'.

(Source: www.kosmonavt.ucoz.net) 

On the 1st of February, 1971, Sub-colonel Sultan was killed in a plane crash when testing a Tu-16LL plane.

Read also Ukraine resumes inquiry into 1944 deportation of Crimean Tatars

Remembered in the Soviet Union as a fighting ace and a brilliant test pilot, for the Qırımlı Amet-Khan Sultan was much more than that. He spoke on behalf of his nation and was not afraid to do it. He was honoured as the nation's hero in many ways, one of which brings us to the story of the ‘Haytarma' – the 2013 film by Akhtem Seitablaiev, a talented director and the performer of the leading role. The film centres on both the biography of Sultan and the deportation of the Crimean Tatars. The premier was to become a notable event attended by numerous former students of the film's protagonist. Everybody expected a touching ceremony, but the political reality was somewhat disappointing. The distinguished aviators who had come fromRussia were invited to the Consulate of theRussian Federation ‘for a little chat'. There, they were ‘advised to refrain' from visiting the film's public showing due to ‘the fact' that the motion-picture in question ‘distorted the history of the war against the Nazism'. Only a handful of Russian guests ignored this ‘recommendation'.


'Haytarma' movie poster (by RFE/RL)  

One can only imagine how such ‘counsel' is given today, in occupied Crimea, where the Crimean Tatars are being repressed once again. It is this repression that makes us tell the story of the Qırımlı and those of who dared to stand against the Kremlin's regime. Their resolve, such as that we can see in the choices and life of Amet-Khan Sultan, is a perfect example for those people of the invaded peninsula who intend to hold on to their dignity, identity, and beliefs.   

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