Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, right, presents Viktor Shevchenko with a medal for his military service to Ukraine on April 7, 2023.
Kyiv CNN  — 

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.

Traditional dishes are served for lunch at a Crimean Tatar restaurant in Kyiv.

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.

Viktor Shevchenko, in combat uniform, shows patches on his arm bearing the flags of Ukraine and the Crimean Tatars.

In light of this history of persecution, the sight of Vladimir Putin’s “little green men” arriving in Crimea in the February and March of 2014 meant Shevchenko – by then a young man in his 20s – was in no doubt over what to expect.

“I’ve read a lot of history books, so I knew what was happening. And I knew nothing good would come of it.”

The Tatars, he recalled, along with others on the peninsula opposed to Russia’s invasion, formed territorial defense groups, but without access to arms they were powerless. Russia swiftly announced the formal annexation of Crimea, an act declared illegal in a vote by the United Nations General Assembly.

Shevchenko left and went to Kyiv, where he had friends.

It is not known exactly how many like him fled Crimea in the aftermath of Russia’s takeover, though census figures suggest it could be upwards of 10,000 since 2014. A Human Rights Watch report in 2017 accused Russian authorities there of having “intensified persecution of Crimean Tatars… with the apparent goal of completely silencing dissent,” while the European Union in February 2022 said the Crimean Tatars continued to be “unacceptably persecuted, pressured and have their rights gravely violated.”

Like many, Shevchenko found work in IT. Occasionally, he would make trips back home, most recently during the Covid pandemic, when both of his parents were sick.

And then came February 24, 2022, a date quickly seared into the Ukrainian consciousness – the day when Russia’s full-scale invasion of the country began.

Shevchenko, along with three Tatar friends also in Kyiv, signed up to fight the very next day.

“I had fled Russia once,” he said. “I didn’t want to flee a second time.”

If Ukraine fell, he reasoned, then fleeing to Poland or the Baltic countries wouldn’t provide much safety if Russia turned its attention there next. “Fleeing again sounded absurd to me.”

Viktor Shevchenko and other soldiers remember fallen comrades.

After initially seeing military service near Kyiv, Shevchenko and his friends were soon sent out east, where the fiercest fighting was taking place. One of the friends with whom he had enlisted was killed near Bilohorivka while serving as a combat medic. Shrapnel ripped off both his legs and one of his arms, Shevchenko explained, almost matter of fact.

“Life is very short,” he said when asked what the last year had taught him.

“It is ridiculous wasting time on small things that don’t matter. I was raised to be shy and timid towards other people. I see now how stupid it is to hold back on making new friends and acquaintances.”

Crimean Tatar history books -- Viktor Shevchenko's reading during frontline deployments.

When we met, Shevchenko was waiting to be rotated back to the front line, quite possibly as part of Ukraine’s anticipated counteroffensive. As on other deployments, he would be sure to take with him his history books and his Quran.

He does not regard himself as a particularly observant Muslim, but it is nonetheless a key part of his identity as a Crimean Tatar, something he likes to discuss on his Twitter page. Under the name комбатант (Combatant), he solicits questions from his 15,000 followers on Tatar traditions and their history and relations with neighbors, and answers them with audio recordings. The idea was borne in response to the tedium of trench life.

“You see the same people day in, day out, you can go a bit crazy,” he explained.

There is a lot of ignorance about Crimean Tatars, he said, much of it stemming from Russian- and Soviet-era propaganda, but what is encouraging to him is that people are keen to find out more.