In all truth

I take the bus that goes ‘In all Truth’, to visit a woman who recounts the lies she’s been told, and the lies she told herself, to explain why her son never came home to her from the war. Her road, Prospect Truth, heads out of her city eastwards, straight to Donetsk, to the line beyond which it’s all lies, beyond which her missing  son is somewhere, in limbo, neither dead nor alive.

prospekt pravdy

I take a bus to  Liberation Square, where women hold photographs of prisoners – their sons and husbands detained in Donetsk. The ones being held prisoner and the ones holding them prisoner are both descended from those who fought for that liberation the park commemorates. There are identical parks on the other side of that line further east, beyond which those men are somewhere, in limbo, neither sentenced nor acquitted.

Truth and Freedom. The first casualties of war. But in the two years since I met these women in Ukraine, this war’s stupid ironies never cease.

What am I worth? Or, the joys of the gig economy

Work is what we do by the hour. It begins and ends at a specific time and, if possible, we do it for money… Labor, on the other hand, sets its own pace. We may get paid for it, but it’s harder to quantify…. Writing a poem, raising a child, developing a new calculus, resolving a neurosis, invention in all forms – these are labors.

Work is an intended activity that is achieved through the will. A labor can be intended but only to the extent of doing the ground-work, or of not doing things that would clearly prevent the labour. Beyond that, labour has its own schedule…

When I speak of a labour, then, I intend to refer to something dictated by the course of a life, rather than by society, something that is often urgent but that nevertheless has its own interior rhythm, something more bound up with feeling, more interior, than work.                                                                                                              The Gift, Lewis Hyde

This week, I don’t feel worth very much. A publication I write for has just changed its terms, requiring that I sign over to them all copyright on my stories, forever. In return I get a flat fee which I don’t want to start working out how much it is per hour, because it would be way way lower than the minimum wage in my country. Not to even start factoring in my expenses to get the stories. Or the fact that the latest story I offered them came from a war zone.

What else do I get? I get to write. I get to work with a pretty good and not annoying editor. I get published in a respected publication; I get ‘exposure’, that double-edged thing. People read a story which I think is important. Maybe as a result someone or something changes for the better. Yeah, right…

So do I work, do I write this latest story from a war zone, under those terms? I tried to argue. The editor was sympathetic but – could do nothing. Either you agree to those terms, or – goodbye. And we won’t particularly miss you.

I choose to write, and to try to sell what I write as a freelance journalist. I both love it and hate it. I choose all my subjects myself, only writing about things that interest me or that I think are important. No one sent me to the war zone for this latest story, or forced or persuaded or induced me to spend several days there, with shelling every night, and one moment when I was running for what felt like my life. Some unbelievably lucky circumstances and wonderful people in my life mean I can afford (for the moment) to do this. I’m so much more fortunate than an Uber driver or parcel deliverer or most of the workers of the gig economy struggling to make ends meet while top managers and shareholders are paid more than they could ever, ever need or want. Put like that, can I really complain if a publication wants to pay a small fee in return for total ownership of work I wanted to do?

I could compromise by offering a less good story, with the best bits reserved for the future when I might be able to sell them elsewhere, under better terms. But I don’t want to deliberately write something second rate. Become someone whose writing is second rate. I want this story to be not work but labour, in Lewis Hyde’s sense quoted above. I want the lives of the people there who talked to me, and the risks I took to meet them, to be worth the best I can offer.

After all, even if the rights belong in perpetuity to someone else, the piece will still have my name on it, also (presumably) in perpetuity.

The gig economy works by assuming no one is worth anything, and drives people to indeed do work that is worth less. In that atmosphere, it’s difficult to hold on to a sense of self worth. But some thing have no price. Things like the lives of people in that war zone. Collateral damage, cannon and propaganda fodder – lives that are worth nothing and that are worth everything. A seventeen year old girl dreaming of being a film maker, shooting videos in the cemetery where new graves are dug daily. A woman painting new signs for new war exhibits in a bombed museum. A grandmother planting tulip bulbs to come up next year, carefully digging round unexploded shells shaped like flowers.

No one pays them what these labours are worth. These things have no value in the gig economy. They are labours of love.

mariinka window1

Writing in a war zone – books used to block up windows broken by shelling

Such a long way from thinking about people

And tonight, 25-26 May, is three years since Andrey Yudenko died in Feodosia, Crimea. Andrey was a son, a brother, a one-time sportsman, a gentle, home-loving soul – and a drug user. He died because Russia stopped the substitution therapy programme he was on when it annexed Crimea.  Andrey died five days after he received his last dose of methadone.

One of the many things his mother Olga told me, which never made it into this story I wrote, was:

 “I’ve never been abroad, but I’ve heard that in Europe more attention is paid to the unprotected sectors of society. Here, they’re just the things you throw out. We’re such a long way from thinking about people.”

Europe is far from perfect in social protection, just as substitution therapy is far from the ideal answer to drug-related harm. But Olga’s son Andrey was a person, not a thing to be thoughtlessly thrown out along with Crimea’s substitution therapy programme in 2014.

feodosia yudenko grave

Here is another, longer piece explaining Russia’s ideological opposition to methadone, and telling the stories of the Crimea programme’s fatalities, and its survivors like Ruslan.

I asked Ruslan why he’d agreed to meet me in Crimea, where any positive mention of substitution therapy is pretty much considered ‘extremist’ – as he had already discovered to his cost.

One of his answers is in the text; the other was “It’s good to talk to people from a lighter world.” Crimea is indeed a very dark place now for Ruslan.

 

 

 

 

#where_is_Ervin

Too many sad anniversaries. Today it’s a year since Ervin Ibragimov was abducted in Bakhchisaray, Crimea. Although his abduction was clearly captured on CCTV, no one has been charged; Ervin has not been found, nor have most of the others who have disappeared since annexation in 2014.

When my dad died, for a little, black while I envied people whose family members were missing, because they still had hope that their loved one would come back. We all hope they will come back. But here is Abdureshit Dzhepparov, whose son and nephew were abducted in Crimea in 2014: “I start thinking about my son, and my second son. Is he alive or not alive, killed or not killed, how did they kill him, how have they tortured him…”

I’m not sure what can be harder than that.

My article here from last year, on Crimea’s disappeared.

What frightens us

Manchester is where as a little kid my mum took me to ballet matinees and for two magic hours my World was princesses in sparkly chiffon skirts. Manchester is where as a teenager I went for Life: shopping, bright lights, music and dancing. I wasn’t there in 1996 when the IRA bombed the Arndale Centre, but I remember it happening. My generation grew up with IRA terrorism. But I don’t remember ever being really afraid of it. We were more terrified of dying, slowly and agonizingly, in a nuclear holocaust.

I told a friend this morning about the 1996 bombing – the biggest bomb exploded in the UK since WW2. When I told her that the IRA called the police 90 minutes beforehand to warn them, she looked at me in disbelief. This was twenty years ago. In just twenty years, it  has become inconceivable that someone would warn the police before they committed an act of terror. Because of the warning, no one died, although 200 were injured.

My teenage fears about dying in a nuclear holocaust feel so old-fashioned and quaint now, even though there are nuclear weapons in the world now as then, just as there was terrorism then as now. Then we were scared of men in suits pressing The Button. Now –

Now I am thinking not just of Manchester, but of the little kids and the teenagers in Aleppo, Baghdad, Kabul, in so many cities, who can no longer go shopping, dreaming, dancing under the bright lights. I am thinking: how could it become inconceivable to us that a bomber would warn the police beforehand. How could it become conceivable to someone who was once a kid, once a teenager, that they should kill not only themselves with a bomb but also ten, twenty, fifty, a hundred boys and girls out dreaming, dancing – living.

donetsk man united ticket

I usually tell people in other countries I’m from Manchester, and they usually respond with “Manchester United!” This ticket was given to me by a young man living in an underground bomb shelter in Donetsk in 2014. When I said I was from Manchester, he ran outside to his nearby house to fetch it. It’s for a Man United match in Donetsk’s Donbass Arena in 2013 – before the war in East Ukraine, back when people in Donetsk could party all night and dance and go to international football matches.

 

 

 

 

The politics of memory II (don’t mention the war)

Last week on 9 May millions of people in Russia and former Soviet states joined ‘immortal regiment’ marches, commemorating the Soviet victory in World War 2. With each year that the war gets further and further away, more and more people turn out on these marches. They march in identical crowds holding identical placards: the black and white faces of millions of people who killed or died or disappeared or got medals or were deported or deported others or made a black market fortune or lost everything or fell in love or were raped or told magnificent war stories or never, ever talked about the war.

They marched in Chechnya, without a mention of the Chechens deported in 1944, or a single picture of the thousands who died and disappeared in two more recent wars with Russian forces. They marched in Crimea, and dressed up their children in Red Army hats, and wore the same striped ribbons worn by modern fighters waging a senseless war against children of the same Red Army soldiers in mainland Ukraine. They repeated identical phrases about solidarity and patriotism and pride in their ancestors.

In Russian-annexed Crimea you’re actively encouraged to mention the war. But only if you remember it in the right way.

Today, 18 May, is the day the Soviet NKVD and Red Army deported the Crimean Tatars, the Greeks, the Bulgarians and the Germans from Crimea in 1944, for alleged collaboration with the Nazis. There aren’t any marches in Crimea today to commemorate this event. Instead there are police cars and FSB (the successor to the NKVD/KGB), anonymous denunciations and warnings from the prosecutors office that any public action today may be considered an extremist or terrorist offence.

crimea terrorism monument

Crimean myth-making: 2016 site in Simferopol for a monument ‘for innocent victims of terrorism, and security and law enforcement agency staff who lost their lives in the line of  duty in the fight against terrorism’

One of the aspects of the deportation I still find hardest to grasp is the men and women from these ethnic groups who were fighting in the Red Army in 1944. At the same time as they were at last becoming victorious heroes, who will go on to become black-and-white faces in ‘immortal regiment’ marches, their families were deported as traitors – even they themselves were deported for treason, when the war was over and they were of no more use as soldiers.

The same authorities that needed them as heroes to win a war then, and still needs them now, also needed them and needs them still to be the villains, fifth columnists, extremists and terrorists.

I can imagine the deportation, I think, sort of and inadequately. But my imagination fails when it comes to a man from a Red Army regiment whose family disappears in Soviet-liberated Crimea while he fights all the way to Berlin. How did he feel? How could he bear it? How could he keep wearing that uniform and follow orders and be so obedient?

I tried to retell this story – one of several told to me in Crimea – in Dream Land; here’s the excerpt although I don’t think it’s a very succesful part of the book, because actually I simply can’t imagine it.

“Did you go up on Mangup-Kalye? What did you find?”

“A cemetery,” Safi said glumly. She didn’t really want to be reminded of those tombstones, mossy and tumbled on their cold carpet of flowers.

But Refat was interested. “I wonder who’s buried there. Let’s ask your Grandfather about it.”

…“My best friend once came looking for my grave there there,” grandpa said… “My friend Ayder came from the war to find us, but he was too late, and we had all gone.

“[Ayder] defended the Soviet Union against the Germans. Alongside him fought Russians and Chechens, Ukrainians and Uzbeks, Azeris and Armenians. It didn’t matter. They were all from the Soviet Union. They all wanted the same thing: to get the German fascists out of their country so they could return to their families; to stay alive.

“Ayder was in Azerbaijan with his unit when an Azeri officer, a Muslim like him, said he should go back to Crimea as fast as he could. He said he’d heard something about the Crimean Tatars, and he’d help Ayder get leave to go home before it was too late. But he didn’t say what it might be too late for.

“It was June 1944; Crimea had just been liberated from the Germans when Ayder arrived, met by the smell of roses. The flags welcoming the returning Red Army hung limp in the streets. Everywhere walls were shattered by bullets and bombs. From lamp posts dangled the stiff, dry bodies of collaborators.”

… “At his mother’s house in Akmesjit, the door was locked. Next door was empty too. There were no Tatar children playing in the yard. It was as if they had all stepped out for something, and if he waited they would come back. But he did wait, and no one came. Ayder was wearing his uniform, which made him look like any other soldier defending the Soviet Union, but the Russians and Ukrainians avoided his eye, and hurried away when he approached. All through the city was the same. The Tatar houses stood deserted; when he peered through the windows he could see the kind of mess people leave when they are in a hurry and expect to be back soon to tidy up.

“My friend thought perhaps the Tatars had fled the fighting and gone to the villages for refuge. So he came out here, to Adym-Chokrak. But here too, all he found was empty houses and silence, and up on Mangup-Kalye he found a cemetery. It wasn’t a Tatar cemetery, but there was nowhere else to look, nowhere else we could be. Ayder searched there for his family, for my grave, my mother’s grave, the graves of all the vanished Crimean Tatars.”

The silence of those narrow stone beds up on the hillside. Imagine the silence of a whole village emptied of people, the beds in the houses unslept in and stony cold. Safi wished more than ever that they’d never found the graveyard.

“But you weren’t buried there, Khartbaba,” she said.

“No. And it was our Karaim neighbour who told Ayder what had happened… Old Gulnara Tata tended the graveyard on Mangup, even though no one remembers who is buried there any more. She found my friend there, crying as he searched, and she told him, ‘They took all the Crimean Tatars away. Red Army soldiers, like you. Some people say they drowned them in the Caspian Sea, or took them to Siberia.’

… “Ayder had nothing but his army uniform and his soldier’s papers. He went back to his unit, and a few months later he was sent west to the Front. He was with the Red Army when it marched into Berlin.

…“He had always thought he was the same as all the other soldiers, wanting only to free their homeland and return to their families. But while he’d been struggling to stay alive, the Soviets had taken away his homeland and given it to the Russians,” grandpa said. “After the war, he too was exiled to Uzbekistan. He kept on searching, and in 1950 he found me and my mother. His own family vanished for ever. He never even found their graves.”

karaim cemetery

Karaim graves, Bakhchisaray, Crimea

Here is a first-hand account of a similar, even more shocking story. Note the tone – no blame, no anger, no analysis either from the narrator or from anyone within his narration (other than an Odessan Jew who wraps up his response in a metaphor about black smoke) –  just a kind of matter-of-fact numbness. It reads to me like the testimony of a person still, decades later, in total shock.

“They gave us shovels, and we dug holes in the ground, erecting the posts and enclosing the area with barbed wire. Thus we imprisoned ourselves, surrounded by barbed wire.”

In these stories I think you can read the whole human trauma of the Soviet Union, which taught its people to obey and admire the thing that destroyed them, and feel proud and patriotic to belong to a black-and-white story commemorated with millions of black-and-white faces, while the shades of grey and unbearable darkness are banished now as then by police cars and security services, prosecutors notices and anonymous denunciations and arrests.

crimea adym chokrak well

Well – all that is left of the Crimean Tatar village of Adym- Chokrak. After the inhabitants were deported in 1944 the village was bulldozed.

(On a side note, long ago when I started asking in Crimea about the Crimean Tatar deportation I was struck by the similarity between the Russian word for traitor (predatel’) and for legend or tale (predanie). I presume – a philologist can put me right – they come from the same root as peredat’, to give or pass on, but on the level of historical memory and myth-making in Crimea it still strikes me as very strangely and ironically apt.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fifth columnists and neo-Nazis

Astounding article here from ‘Crimean Pravda [Truth]’ newspaper – a gigantic rant about neo-Nazis and fifth columnists infiltrating Russian Crimea through the perfidious back-door of intellectual tolerance. The topic of all this bile is an announcement on the website of Simferopol’s Vernadsy University department of Crimean Tatar and Eastern literature, of an event celebrating the Crimean Tatar writer Cengiz Dağcı.

I’ve never read Dağcı –his books are only available in Turkish, as is any biographical information about him. I know many Crimean Tatars highly praise his books (all set in pre-war Crimea, as far as I know); they also say he spent much of WW2 in German prison camps before finally ending up in England where he spent the rest of his life. In the USSR his books were banned as by a Nazi collaborator – which this article also contends he was. I can’t comment on that, but would be really interested and grateful if anyone who knows the facts about Dağcı’s life could do so.

All I can say for sure is that Dağcı was a man who wrote some books in Turkish, never got to see his native Crimea again, and died in 2011 in England.

This article, about one planned event about one man at one faculty of one university, starts with a list of Russian military units (Black Sea Fleet, Novorossiysk Airborne Assault Division, Kamyshin and Ulan-Ude separate assault and assault brigades, 4th Air Force and Air Defense Army of the Southern Military District, 2500 paratroopers and 600 units of military equipment) apparently currently engaged in training exercises in Crimea to tackle “an increased terrorist threat” but also, the writer thinks, to offer a “polite warning to misinformed ‘partners’”, like foreign media writing nasty things about Crimea, such as about the arrest and disappearance of Crimean Tatars.

“There is not, nor will there be any license to trade in Russian slaves, as in the good old days, and building a ‘worldwide Caliphate’ is banned – so of course if that’s oppression…” jokes the author. But “It’s time to worry not about ‘oppression’ of anyone in Crimea, but about excessive tolerance to Nazi criminals.” The faculty of Crimean Tatars and Eastern literature is “inherently vicious” and a hotbed of “Ukrainophiles and Mejlisovtsi” – the latter a word I’ve only just come across referring to people from the Crimean Tatar governing body the Mejlis (which has been banned by Russia) and clearly parallel to ‘Banderovtsi’, those supposed followers of Stepan Bandera and would-be massacrers of innocent Russians in Crimea.

In short, Russian soldiers without insignia “prevented a brutal massacre on the peninsula three years ago and since then have reliably protected Russian Crimea from the encroachments of the external enemy and his stupid accomplices, neo-Nazis. At the same time, on the homefront among the young generation, Crimeans are being offered to perpetuate the memory of Nazi criminals, thus educating future collaborators.”

I can’t believe I’ve just spent time translating this crap. The trouble is, you hear the same rants from people on the streets in Simferopol. This is the atmosphere ‘Ukrainophiles’ and ‘Mejlisovtsi’ have to live with in Crimea, every day. I would not like to be in the shoes of the staff of the department of Crimean Tatar and Eastern Literature right now.


previous posts

A novel about the Crimean Tatars' return to their homeland


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