Crimean apples

This is an extract from the original draft of Dream Land, which never made it to the published version. Like everything in the book, it’s a fictionalised combination of several first-hand accounts of the years of exile after all the Crimean Tatars were deported in 1944.

I’ve sadly lost the notes and recordings that made up the research for the book. I remember three people who were sources for this particular story, all then living in Bakhchisaray with children and grandchildren. The last of them died last year.

It’s a sort of physical anguish when people go forever taking their memories with them, leaving behind we who were preoccupied or absent-minded or reluctant to listen and record them when we could. Today, 18 May, is the anniversary of the deportation. I’ve been reading accounts of Crimean Tatars about 1944; the memories that map onto and create newer memories; the things that remain, the things that are passed on, the things that are lost.

Guli didn’t know exactly how old she was. When we would all get together to talk through our memories, keep the soul of Crimea alive, she always said she’d been four or five when we were all deported. She hated it that she couldn’t remember anything about the land we left behind. “It’s like a dream,” was all she’d say. “Like things in a dream.” The one thing she said she remembered was apples. In Guli’s dream the apples of Crimea were the biggest and reddest and sweetest in the world. The blossoming trees in spring, tall as mountains covered with white snow.

Her three brothers were at the front in 1944. She only ever saw one of them again. The cattle trucks took the remaining three children and their mother along with hundreds of other Crimean Tatars to the Ural mountains. Barefoot, in light spring frocks, and they ended up at a labour camp in the wilderness on the edge of Siberia. That winter in 1944 came early. It was so cold; everyone slept in the barracks tight-packed in a line like sardines, and in the night if someone wanted to turn over he had to wake up the whole line of women and boys and old people and children, and they all turned over together.

They were cold and they starved. Six hundred grammes of sour black bread was the daily ration, and that only for workers – not the old people, nor the children. Later they were allotted rooms, one for each family, and one night Guli cried and cried and cried for her empty belly. She was only five or six and she had hardly learned to speak; some of the others thought she was backwards, maybe even a bit daft. The wooden partitions were so thin, you could hear everything; when Guli had cried for three hours without stopping the wife of the camp commander came in.

“Shut the child up! I’ve got visitors staying from the district and they can’t sleep because of her whining.”

She’s hungry!” Guli’s mother replied. “How can I shut her up when I’ve got nothing to give her to eat?”

The wife went back cursing and swearing, and Guli went on crying. And then a little later one of the commander’s guests came sleepily through the door, carrying a chunk of bread and a lump of sugar on the top of it. “There now, eat it and calm down, child.”

Oh but the whole family were so hungry! And none of them would take food from the littlest, but they sat in a circle around Guli, like dogs round a butcher’s shop door, begging. “Give me a piece, Guli. Just a little piece. Share it with me, Guli. Just a corner. Just a nibble. A crumb. Please Guli. Give me a bit. There’s a good girl.”

And little backward Guli, who never said anything at all, looked at them and said as clear as you please, “No, I won’t give you any, because I cried and I cried and I cried this piece of bread all by myself!”

When their mother died it was so cold that the body froze solid. The oldest sister went outside to scrape up snow to wash the body, but the middle sister had the idea to pretend the woman was still alive, so they could get her food ration. They kept it up for three days, chewing on black bread under the frozen eye of their mama. On the fourth day a doctor came to see what was keeping the woman so sick she couldn’t work. He found the three girls wrapped together in all the clothes and blankets they had, warming their hands round a candle, and the body sat up stiffly in bed all blue and ghastly.

“Mama’s caught a cold so bad she can’t eat, she can’t get out of bed,” Guli explained.

Well, they took her away after that but the ground was frozen so solid they couldn’t dig a grave, so they just left her lying outside until the thaw.

About ten years later Guli and her sisters were transfered to Uzbekistan, to the Hungry Steppe, to work digging irrigation channels for cotton. We came from neighbouring villages in Crimea, but it was in the Hungry Steppe labour camps that I met Guli. She was no beauty, and she could barely read or write. But I was hardly one to talk, by then. I had got malaria from the mosquitoes that came after we irrigated the salt flats. My skin stuck to my bones, yellow as old cheese from the medicine. I shivered even in the heat of August, I was unable to eat, I hardly knew where I was, I couldn’t stir from my bed and I had no family left by then to help me.

Guli had never seen malaria, but she knew all about the cold. Because I wouldn’t stop shivering she brought her blanket and climbed into the bed with me and put her arms round me to warm me.

Her name meant ‘rose’. When I told her that she went pink as a rose but not with pleasure. “I’ve just got prickles,” she said. She was ashamed because she hadn’t known. She never did learn much reading or writing, she could swear like a soldier in Russian but she didn’t know much Crimean Tatar. I often made her feel stupid, and she knew she wasn’t pretty. But after they built a town where once was the Hungry Steppe and called it Gulistan, rose garden, she said, “They’ve named it after me, the nerve of it, the bastards never even asked.”

She was short-tempered and out-of-breath and she died when our son Alim was 18 and just getting interested in the Crimean Tatar National Movement. Alim brought home a girl he’d met on his first protest march and Guli didn’t approve.

“I don’t know what you see in her,” she complained, because the girl wasn’t pretty, had no family to speak of, couldn’t cook, talked of nothing but the protests. Alim was a handsome, clever boy, and Guli wanted a better bride for her son than she had been for me. But Alim was smitten. Soon he could talk of nothing but Crimea too, and I suppose Guli felt like she had lost both of us.

She was jealous of my memories of the Crimea we left behind. The stories I tell now to my granddaughter Safi started with my wife; I wanted to give them to Guli as a present, like one day I hoped to give her a real Crimean apple. But she knew there were things I never told her, perhaps she had heard them as I lay in her arms delirious with the fever. When she collapsed and they took her off to the hospital, the doctor said she had a hole in her heart. I came to see her and she patted my hand and said, “There you are then. There’s a surprise. I always thought you were the one with a hole in your heart.”

 

simferopol museum apple ads

Labels for Crimean apples and pears exported by the USSR in the 1930s (in Simferopol museum) 

I need you like I need the air

It feels as though everything has stopped, as governments tell us only the essential things should carry on in public – food supply and delivery, health care, dog-walking… We work out for ourselves what is essential, in terms of living our lives in more or less public spaces without putting ourselves and other people at risk too much.

While actually everything hasn’t stopped at all, as governments have such a strange idea of what is actually essential. Arrests in Russian-annexed Crimea for ‘terrorism’ and related court hearings, for instance, have been deemed essential to continue. The latest three arrests were on 11 March.

Think about it: unknown people invading your home, the place we’re all supposed to retreat to now to keep ourselves and others safe, and dragging you from it to share an utterly confined space which is crowded to the locked doors and tiny broken windows with other people, with lice, with violence, disease, neglect. To join those in pre-trial prison already for months and years on the same charges, who are still having appeals for house arrest turned down.

Court hearings in Rostov grind on, now closed to relatives and journalists, how convenient for keeping this whole ludicrous evidence-free process going with less transparency or accountability than ever. One accused, Server Mustafayev, has symptoms typical of COVID-19 – a high temperature, a cough. The Russian penal system still insists he appear in court.

We’re all being told to stay at home, and we’re worrying about feeling confined, bored, cramped, lonely; cabin fever; loss of income, of freedom; social and physical distance; a little piece of our lives take away from us. All these men who have never committed or called for an act of armed violence have been taken out of their homes and forcibly confined in unbearably close proximity to hundreds of others; no income; no family and friends; no internet; no occupation; next to no sanitary and healthcare provision. Years of their lives taken away.

At a hearing last week – when they were still open to relatives – the wife of one of the accused was charged for violating regulations after she went into the court building with a piece of paper on which she’d written to him: ‘I need you like I need the air’.

We all need air to breathe, that’s clear of disinformation and fear and selfishness and injustice. We all need other people, we need love like we need the air.

Here we are

A veteran of the Crimean Tatar National Movement, whose members fought a long non-violent struggle for the right to return to Crimea before 1991, said this to me in Crimea in 2016. His voice is in my head, now that Europe’s key human rights body the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has just voted to return Russia to the assembly, after suspending its delegation over its annexation of Crimea and interference in East Ukraine.

“Back in the USSR we were behind the iron curtain. There was nowhere to run to, not Europe, not America. But we had this absolute belief that if we could just somehow make a tiny hole in the curtain and reach through it far enough to knock on the door of the United Nations and say Hey! It’s us, we’re here, the Crimean Tatars! This is what’s happening to us… then the world would listen, because right was on our side. We knew in the 1980s Soviet Union we could go to prison or be locked up in a psychiatric hospital; we could be sentenced to three years for just ‘thinking of harm to the Soviet Union’. But no one just disappeared forever, or was later found dead, like now in Crimea. There wasn’t this dread of vanishing, of being left with the terrible not-knowing. There wasn’t any fear of not being heard, if we could just make that little hole and reach through…

Now there is no iron curtain. We can reach out whenever we like to the United Nations, the OSCE, the Council of Europe and say Hey! Here we are, the Crimean Tatars, this is what’s happening to us… And it makes no difference. No one can or wants to do anything.”

Crimean Tatar National Movement documents and samizdat

Guardian angels

I met Oleg in April 2014 in Donetsk, east Ukraine, just before the war started. I worried. I couldn’t imagine how such a fabulously, flamboyantly queer person could survive if the militants manning home-made checkpoints, beating and locking people in basements and handing out ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ leaflets that read ‘We oppose the seizure of power by oligarchs, extremists, paedophiles and homosexuals!’ had their way in Donetsk (they did).

Oleg moved to Kyiv, where I bump into him pretty often. Sometimes his hair’s black, sometimes blond, sometimes green or purple. He’s always smiley and gorgeous and ambiguous. On Wednesday he got beaten up on his way home from a film screening before this weekend’s Kyiv Pride equality march.

The far-right groups who publicly encourage and lead such attacks also say they oppose the seizure of power by oligarchs, extremists, paedophiles and homosexuals. They claim to be fighting in east Ukraine against the Russian-backed ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ (‘We oppose the seizure of power by oligarchs, extremists, paedophiles and homosexuals!’) and even complain that their one-sided violent fight against LGBTQ in the rest of Ukraine is forcibly taking them away from this battle.

For example, the far-right National Corps is an organisation of self-appointed guardians of national security and morality – a bit like those self-appointed militants on checkpoints in Donetsk beating up people and giving out leaflets, really. A statement last year from National Corps about Kyiv Pride reads: ‘National Corps won’t permit disdain of the traditions of Ukrainian society and the Ukrainian family, or violation of their moral principles, just as our members didn’t allow Putin to impose his will upon Ukraine and enslave us.’

I am still wondering why all the National Corps members, and the brave guys who attacked two women and gentle, gorgeous Oleg in Kyiv on Wednesday, have not joined the Ukrainian army to fight the Putin-backed war in the east, which is, after all, ongoing.

More than 13,000 people have died so far in the war in the east. Around 4000 Ukrainians a year die in car accidents, 3,700 of TB, 8000 in alcohol related incidents.

Nobody in Ukraine has died because Oleg exists and is queer. Nobody ever got physically harmed as a result of the fact that someone else in Ukraine, or in the world, is L, or B, or G, or T, or Q.

What about National Corps’ ‘traditions of Ukrainian society and the Ukrainian family’? According to the Ministry for Social Policy, 10 percent of Ukrainian (heterosexual; same-sex is illegal) marriages end in divorce in their first year. In 2001, long before ‘gay propaganda’ was a thing in Ukraine, 17 percent of families were single-parent. In 2017, 70,000 children were orphans or removed from their parents’ guardianship (state statistics). A 2014 study found that 16 percent of women have experienced domestic violence.

Here’s a small story about prejudice. A friend just posted it on Facebook.

Sveta lives right on the breadline. She’s a single mother with two daughters; she lost her soldier son in the east Ukraine war (practically every mother I’ve met of sons missing or killed in the east Ukraine war is a single mother). Sveta went to pay her overdue utility bills, after being threatened with having her gas and electricity cut off. When she got to the cash desk she realised that somehow she’d left her rucksack open. The envelope with a large amount of money she really can’t afford to spend on bills, was gone.

When she got home to her flat she found the envelope and bills – which had her address on – stuck in the doorframe. All the money, every last note, was inside.

I went outside the building entrance and I’m sitting on the bench, feeling a bit dizzy. And then my neighbour Aunty Nina jumps out at me from the bushes. Why, she says, don’t you close the entrance to the building!!! I just had to kick out a couple of thieves standing outside your flat! Two teenagers, she says, can’t even tell what sex they were, one with green hair, one with purple …. Drug addicts, probably, screeches Aunty Nina.

That’s what they’re like, it turns out, guardian angels))))

And I’d thought….) they’re white and fluffy, with wings

rainbow arch kyivsm1

Kyiv, 2017


 

Ayder Asanov 1928-2019

I want to to write about Ayder aga and I can’t find the words.

The happiness of arriving in Bakhchisaray, the old Crimean Tatar capital of Crimea, and turning down the path round the side of the Khan’s palace to the Usta crafts centre and there would be Ayder aga in his jeweller’s workshop.

Coffee in a jezver heated over a bunsen burner to drink; sweets to eat; all the beautiful filigree things he made to look at. And the talk. The wonderful, wonderful talk, about Bakhchisaray before 1944 full of workshops and fountains; about Uzbekistan and exile: the hungry steppe with its taste of salt on the wind, the faсtory where he was sent to work as a machinist for thirty years; about coming home to Crimea and working as a tractor driver and wedding musician. And all that time somehow his hands remembering the traditional Crimean Tatar skills of filigree silverwork that he’d learned from his father before he was seventeen and deported along with all the Crimean Tatars.

ayder asanov work1

Ayder aga revived those skills single-handedly at home and in the Usta centre in Crimea, when he was already 70, and passed them on to his daughter and granddaughter and to a new generation of jewellers. He passed on some kind of spirit of old Bakhchisaray as well, I always felt, and the history and the stories too, and the jokes. These, lit by his humour and wit, his amazing love of life, and knowledge and kindness, are things I’ll treasure forever.

The picture of Ayder aga’s work, and of himself in his workshop, are from the Ukrainian edition of Dream Land. Many of his stories made it into the book; the character of the grandfather is of course partly inspired by him (although I never managed to capture his humorousness and the sheer variety of his life in all its hardships and joys).

The Usta workshop passed into history in 2017, now Ayder Asanov has as well. I feel so blessed that I knew him.

ayder asanov

This isn’t just our story

kuku house.sm

“This is my father’s house. They came at five in the morning on 18th May: three Soviet soldiers burst in with guns. It’s just the same as now. They come in the night or the early morning, when you’re asleep and you’re not prepared, you can’t understand what’s happening…

Back then, it was still wartime. Dad was 12 in 1944 and he remembers: all the men had been mobilised in 1941 and sent away, so that when the Germans came in 1942 there were only women and old people and children who grew up for two years under the Germans. The boys, 16, 17 years old, were all put into German uniform; they were taken from their homes and given German uniforms in return for flour and sugar, or else they were told if they didn’t wear it their families would be shot. They had little choice.

When the Soviets took back Crimea pilots were flying over and shot through his house roof. Dad remembered when he came back to Crimea in the 1970s he saw the same bullet holes still there in the roof, covered over with stones. When people asked how he knew which house was his, he said: it’s the one with the bullet holes, and they let him in to look at it. But they never let him have the house back. I’ve never even been inside the courtyard.

Instead when we came back in 1993 dad fought to get an official land plot to build a new house. He always insisted on doing everything according to the law. We lived in a damp container for three years, we all got hepatitis. Me and my brother built the house together with our parents. I was 15, my brother was 17.

This isn’t just our story; practically every Crimean Tatar went through this. No one helped us, no one gave us jobs or land or rights. At school when kids pointed at us we had to say: we’re not immigrants overrunning Crimea, we’ve come home. People were scared that we’d demand our houses and property back, but in fact none of us had documents to prove ownership, because we’d had to leave in such a hurry in 1944. We were sent away as traitors and forced to live in reservations behind barbed wire, having to sign in and out, like we were under house arrest…

Our father was born in 1932. He died in June 2015. My brother’s detention destroyed him. He only lived for two months after that. He was so strong, but the disappointment, what they did to his son, ate up his strength, he just dried up and crumbled away in front of our eyes… After they tried to kidnap my brother, and then beat him up and detained him, dad went to the Russian security services in Yalta. It was a young officer who until 2014 was serving under Ukraine’s security service. Dad said: aren’t you ashamed? He called him a fascist. The officer pretended it was nothing to do with him and it wasn’t his fault…

My father was asked to collaborate with the authorities in Soviet times. He refused. He went to prison for two years; he was in the Crimean Tatar national movement but they couldn’t prove that so they arrested him for hooliganism. Then in 2015 they came to my brother at work before and after they detained him for the first time. They said: we need you, you have to work with us. My brother refused, just as my father had refused even though they offered many times. They said: if you won’t help us then you’ll go to prison. My brother was a human rights defender, he was trying to find out what had happened to the Crimean Tatars who have gone missing since 2014. They couldn’t arrest him for working in human rights or for refusing to cooperate with them, so they arrested him for terrorism. They’ve got no witnesses, no victims, no case. All they have is the desire to put him in prison. And they found a way to put him there, just as they did with our father…

What my father wanted most was autonomy and rehabilitation for the Crimean Tatars, because this stain against us as supposed traitors from 1944 has never been removed. He wanted full rehabilitation, not just a signed piece of paper but restoration of all our property and rights. And when Putin really did sign a law on rehabilitation in 2014, for a short time he was actually as happy as a child. He said that in two months Russia had done what Ukraine had not done in 20 years.

But other than a piece of paper that says we are not traitors, there is nothing. Now my brother is in prison, and my father is dead.”

crimea tree crack.sm

The Crimean social contract

The Crimean Tatar civic organisation Kyrym (established after Russian annexation in 2014) has appealed to the Russian Crimean authorities for permission to put up a monument commemorating the Crimean Tatar oath of allegiance to the Russian empire, made in 1783. That was the year Russia first annexed Crimea, and the beginning of the decline of the Crimean Tatars on the peninsula.

However you view the ‘good’ or ‘bad’ of historical events, to whichever side you ascribe ‘civilization’ or ‘barbarity’ (see Ruslan Balbek’s quote to Russian media: ‘[the oath] confirms the civilised route that Crimean Tatars along with all residents of the peninsula, the Kuban, Taman, and the Azov region took nearly 300 years ago”), it does seem absolutely extraordinary for representatives of a nation which, from being independent majority rulers of Crimea in 1783, has shrunk under Russian and Soviet rule to a current minority of less than 300,000 recent returnees trying to rebuild their lives and language from scratch, to not only want to put up such a monument, but to ask for permission from Russia to do so.

Extraordinary is not quite the word.

crimean khanstvo monument stary krym

A pre-2014 monument to Haci Geray Han, who ruled Crimea as an independent Crimean Tatar state in the 15th century. Stary Krym, Crimea

A story: one day in Crimea in 2016 I got into an almost argument with a Crimean Tatar woman who said – a very common thing to hear from Crimean Tatars and Ukrainians – that “Russians have always been slaves and serfs, they don’t know how to be free”.

“Russians came and took our houses and got up on their hind legs and danced for the Soviet authorities to show how happy they were,” she said. She repeated a biblical quote used by a Crimean Tatar writer in one of his books: ‘Do to others as you would have done to you’ – meaning it to reflect on those Russians who moved into Crimean Tatar houses left empty when the Crimean Tatars were deported by the Soviets for alleged treason in 1944.

I told her the story (which I retold in Dream Land) of the Crimean Tatar who came back in the 1990s to find his old home taken by Russians, only to realise that in fact his own family had only begun to live there in the 1920s; they took the empty house themselves when the previous owner was sent to Siberia or executed.

The woman thought I was quoting a story told by prejudiced Russians. I told her that I had heard it from a Crimean Tatar. She said “Well if it did happen those people weren’t real Crimean Tatars. They were the ones who went over to Communism, who let themselves become like slaves.”

I quoted the bible back at her: ‘let those without sin cast the first stone.’

She said “Why are we talking about sin, when a whole nation was deported in an act of genocide?”

I had no answer, and didn’t know why I was arguing with her anyway; probably because I had failed to argue with the Russians who told me earlier that day and every day that all Crimean Tatars are traitors. Probably because I was so sick of the anger and stereotyping and racial discrimination which is Crimea these days.

Later I went to visit Crimean Tatar friends, and we tried to talk about peaceful friend and family matters until one of them – let’s call him Ayder – suddenly burst out: “I just can’t stand it! Sorry, but I have to share how I’m feeling, I can’t keep it in. You’ve seen it, right? These people! This dignified, respected, grown man, begging the tsar for mercy for Sentsov.”

He was talking about Russian film director Aleksandr Sokurov’s public appeal to Putin to release Crimean political prisoner Oleg Sentsov, sentenced to 20 years on perfectly obviously fake charges of terrorism. Sokurov: “Let’s try to resolve the problem of Oleg Sentsov… Even if he has a different political point of view, he shouldn’t be detained in our northern, practically arctic prison. It feels so painful and bitter that we have to talk about it.”

Putin responds that the court sentenced Sentsov to twenty years and therefore he can do nothing.

Sokurov: “In a Russian, in a good Christian fashion, mercy is above justice. I beg you. Mercy is above justice. Please.”

Once again, extraordinary is not quite the word.

crimea tsar icon

A picture of Nikolai II, last emperor of Russia, in a Crimean monastery, 2016.  

Somehow most Crimean Tatars, like my friend Ayder, still have the idea that a government should be elected by its citizens to serve them, and is itself governed by a system of justice, rule of law, and a social contract. Recent elections in Ukraine, I would say, show that most Ukrainians have the same idea. And of course the reality disappoints them. But in Russia, well-known public figures beg their country’s leader to intervene in a case of obvious miscarriage of justice, ordered from the very top, by placing mercy above justice. “These people will always be serfs,” Ayder ranted. “They don’t know how to be free.”

I haven’t asked Ayder what he thinks about Kyrym’s appeal to the authorities to allow them to erect a monument commemorating his people’s sworn fealty to the Russian empire. Kyrym prefaces the request thus: “bearing in mind that representatives of the Crimean Tatar people, on an equal level with other national minorities, made a worthy contribution to the historical chronicle of Russia…”. The same document also requests that Crimean authorities accept 1000 candidates from Kyrym to the ruling ‘United Russia’ party, and that Crimean Tatar language get some state support.

In response to the request for the monument, someone posted online the Crimean Tatar national anthem, Ant Etkenmen. The verses were written by Noman Çelebicihan, leader of the short-lived Crimean Tatar national republic. He was shot by the Bolsheviks in 1918.

I’ve pledged to give my life for my nation
What’s death to me, if I can’t dry my people’s tears?
What’s life to me, even a thousand years as king?
Still one day I will answer only to the grave

The more things change

Ended up walking from Ukrainian president elect Zelensky’s glitzy, fashionable and ecstatic election HQ (in former president Yanukovych’s helicopter landing spot, symbol of Ukraine’s corruption) through busy downtown Kyiv and then past the ‘memory wall’ to soldiers and volunteer fighters killed in the war in east Ukraine. The only people there were a group of foreigners; someone was explaining in approximate English that it was a monument to “police and people on Maidan.”

kyiv memory wall

I keep reading that Ukrainians voted for Zelensky (or against incumbent Poroshenko) because they are ‘sick of the war’. But as a friend pointed out to me this week, most Ukrainians are practically unaware of the war these days. It’s never on the news. It never really reached beyond the army and the confines of half of two regions in the east where no one ever went anyway unless they absolutely had to. On the way though central Kyiv to this wall I’d passed Ukrainians out with their kids in nice pushchairs or riding scooters; people in cool expensive clothes hanging out in great bars. It’s unrecognisable from Kyiv twenty or even ten years ago. It’s unrecognisable from Kyiv in 2014, when the air still smelled of smoke and shops had collecting boxes for bullet-proof vests for soldiers and there were newly painted ‘bomb shelter’ signs everywhere.

Kyiv is a bubble of course, a world within Ukraine. But the friend who said this to me doesn’t live in Kyiv, she lives in a village. Her neighbour still lugs out her old Soviet twin tub to the garden to do the washing once a week because there’s no running water in the house. On the other side the neighbour recently drank himself to death. The body was taken away for a post-mortem; when it was brought back in an old bus the driver refused to unload it until his family, alcoholics all, paid for the services of the morgue with money they didn’t have. My friend and other neighbours had to run along the street collecting contributions to get the body back. The Ukrainian Orthodox priest wouldn’t bury it without being paid. The evangelical pastor, who most of the village despises, did it for free.

The street was recently renamed for another neighbour who was killed fighting in east Ukraine. No one calls it by the new name; the only sign that indicates it is on the house of the bereaved family.

The other thing I keep reading is that Ukrainians are ‘desperate for change’. The village is a decentralised ‘hromada’ (amalgamated community) now, with its own budget and decision-making powers. It’s not so easy for a hromada to blame corrupt distant oligarchs and politicians and the president for everything that’s wrong. The roads in this village are still awful. The (awful) hospital has closed down. The school has been rebuilt though, and got indoor toilets for the first time in history. There are new gates, house repairs, even new houses everywhere. Even new bird houses.

bird houses

The east Ukraine war has cost about 13,000 lives over five years – the vast majority in 2014 – and has settled into an intractable, dreary, utterly miserable low-level conflict a long way away from most of the country. Over 4000 Ukrainians died preventable deaths in road accidents in 2017. More than 3,700 people in Ukraine die annually of tuberculosis, also preventable. About 8000 people each year die alcohol-related deaths. All this is largely independent of east and west, Ukrainian and Russian, peremoha or zrada. It’s largely invisible – you don’t see monuments to any of the victims. They don’t feature in presidential election campaigns. Neither did decentralisation, or the number of families in Kyiv who can now afford to hang out in nice bars and buy scooters for their kids to ride around on.

The East Ukraine war memorial wall is out of date; the last deaths it records are from June 2018.

Quixotic

Five years ago today Reshat Ametov was buried in Crimea. His body had been found near a village called Wild Strawberry and another called Russian. He’d been tortured over ten days before being killed. Now around the anniversary of his death his last Facebook post pops up in my time-line, ghost-fashion: Going on Monday to the Cabinet of Ministers to stand in protest. Have you got the guts???

And the video keeps showing up. Shot in central Simferopol on that Monday, 3rd March 2014, it shows Reshat standing alone in front of Russian soldiers in unmarked uniform guarding the Crimean Cabinet of Ministers. Passersby, journalists and camouflage-clad members of the ‘Crimean self-defence’ mill around; police sirens wail. For over an hour, Reshat Ametov just stands there. He doesn’t say or do anything. He hasn’t even got a protest sign. Then some of the men in camouflage take him to a black car and drive him away.

The people who saw him alive after that, who are clearly visible in the film, and the people who killed him, have not been charged. It’s as if they didn’t do anything, just as Reshat didn’t do anything.

Reshat’s brother Refat talked to me once about Don Quixote when he described Reshat. Honestly, he sounds a bit impossible in ordinary, peaceful times, always picking up on obscure laws and regulations and trying to get them implemented because he was so sure he had the right, and this was the way the world should be. And when the times stopped being ordinary and peaceful, he went and stood there by the cabmin “because he was convinced he had a right to. Why didn’t he have a right to be there? He’d always had that right,” Refat said. “You know Don Quixote tilting at windmills. It was something like that.”

I never knew Reshat. I feel Refat is a bit quixotic though, the way he’s doggedly trying to bring those people who killed his brother to justice, after five years of nothing happening to further the investigation in Russian-ruled Crimea. Five years of the myth of the Crimean Spring when never a drop of blood was shed as Crimea ‘returned’ to Russia.

I think about Reshat and Refat whenever I see photos of single pickets, which is the only way people in Crimea can still register their protest (Russian bans any kind of group meeting or demonstration that isn’t in support of the authorities, and has detained people for having unsanctioned football matches or carrying ‘unsanctioned flying devices’ – otherwise known as balloons). A single picket is where you stand alone somewhere holding a sign saying, for example, Crimean Tatars are not extremists. Such picketers have been detained and fined; it is now apparently a extremist offence to say that you’re not an extremist.

Reshat Ametov didn’t even do that of course, he didn’t even have a sign.

You can read Don Quixote as comedy, as tragedy, as social commentary, as metafiction and even fake news – in book 2, (fictional) Quixote sets forth on new adventures in order to debunk a fake (real work of fiction by a rival author) Quixote.

You can read in it the wonderful, awful ability of people to create their own reality in the face of violence, ridicule, disbelief, historical memory, international law, common sense and facts on the ground.

You could call ‘Crimean Spring’ quixotic, in that sense. The adherents of Crimea Spring are fortunate though: all local information channels and most facts on the ground in Crimea do everything to confirm their reality, even if the rest of the world doesn’t.

For quixotic people like the Ametovs it’s harder. These are people desperately trying to live in one reality when everything around tells them they are living in another. There are lots of them in Crimea. Mostly they stay at home, talking to their families and to a dwindling circle of acquaintances they can trust. They’ve turned their backs on any kind of public, civic life, because there is no place for this in Crimea anymore. Their reality, where there is international law, where there are alternative narratives, where there is justice for the disappeared and the murdered, and simply the possibility to stand in silent protest, gets smaller and smaller.

I remember what a Crimean Tatar told me in 2015, back when he still thought he could play a public, civic role in Crimea. “If I say what I think they’ll put me in prison or exile me,” he said. “So I’ve learned to control not just my words, but my thoughts.”

The dictionary tells me quixotic means extremely idealistic; unrealistic and impractical. That’s not exactly my definition here. Nor exactly the one I think Refat Ametov had in mind.

crimea quixotesm1

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza on a Crimean Tatar gate in Stariy Krym, Crimea. (Cervantes metafictionally alleged that the story of Don Quixote was originally written by the Muslim author Cide Hamete Benengeli).

Not about nostalgia

I rarely talk about Crimea with my Crimean (Crimean Tatar, mostly) friends who have moved away from there. Or rather, we talk a lot, about the political situation, recent events (often arrests and house searches), the people who are still there… but rarely about how we feel, in ourselves, about this place it’s so difficult for us to get to now.

It’s unusually warm and bright in Kyiv, but this time of year is hard – nothing growing yet, and won’t be for weeks. This used to be the time I’d jump on a train and go to Crimea, for snowdrops and crocuses up in the mountains. Soon there will be tissue-thin almond blossom on the slopes below the Crimean war panorama in Sevastopol. Downy pasque flowers all along the sunlit rims of the plateaux around Mangup Kalye, those sleepy purple flowers yawning straight into the clearest, wide-awake, scouring wind and light.

crimea crocus1.sm

 

Crimea isn’t where I’m from, or where I grew up. It doesn’t belong to me in any way, or I to it. It’s not home. I just miss it.

That’s one reason why we don’t talk about it, I suppose. All I do is miss it.

There’s not much cosy nostalgia in my missing Crimea. I can’t just jump on a train anymore but I have been back since 2014, through a difficult, arbitrary process of visas and permissions and buses and border crossings. I can (so far) still do it. Some of my Crimean friends can still, so far, go back too. It’s always under question now though, because without having changed their citizenship or gone off to fight for a foreign country and betrayed their own, they have nevertheless lost the right to freely go home. The right has been taken away. Now when they return from trips to Crimea our inevitable talk is about ‘How was it on the border? Any problems? Are your family ok?’ There isn’t much ‘What did you think, how did you feel about Crimea now?’ Most of them spend the time with their families and hardly stir out of doors; maybe one or two trips to the sea side, or the mountains.

Some friends won’t go back, out of principle and fear. Some already can’t go back, even though it’s part of their country, it’s where they grew up and it belongs to them and they to it in a way that’s much more than a passport or a birth certificate, that’s difficult to put into words.

Some who left long ago, or after annexation, I think have realised they never really want to go back. I sometimes wonder if there’s a feeling of guilt about that.

Lots of us leave behind the place where we were born or grew up. Maybe we miss it, or feel a bit nostalgic, or we feel guilt and relief and achievement at making the choice to leave. But many Crimeans have lost that choice. Without changing their citizenship or betraying their country or otherwise doing something that might be worthy of banishment, they have had the choice, and their home, taken away.

And for what? So that Crimea could become Russian. Ukraine did not take Crimea from the Russians in 1991, as supporters of Russian annexation say it did. Anyone in Russia who felt a nostalgia for Crimea, a longing to see snowdrops or the place where they were born, could easily go there. They didn’t need visas or permissions, or to worry about being arrested or banned on the border. They could speak Russian in Crimea, they could buy property if they wanted, they could go and live there. It wasn’t part of their country anymore, but then, their country didn’t exist anyway by 1991 – not the Soviet Union, not the Russian empire. Those were countries they could only feel nostalgia for, like the nostalgia for the Crimea of their childhood holidays.

Yet when I’ve been to Crimea since annexation, wondering “for what?”, people there have talked to me of their feelings about Crimea. How they feel at home now, the way they never did when it was part of Ukraine. How they feel they belong to Crimea, and it to them, as it never did before. It’s odd; the people who told me these feelings were generally strangers met on buses, on park benches.

These were not the only feelings people told me, but they were the public ones. Perhaps it’s easier to repeat in a public place to a stranger an accepted national narrative that chimes with and reinforces your happy feelings, than to voice to a friend an unspeakable loss that you somehow have to live with.

It’s five years since Russia officially began annexation: 20 February 2014 is written on the medals later distributed by the Russian government ‘for the return of Crimea’.

crimea return medal orig.sm

 


previous posts

A novel about the Crimean Tatars' return to their homeland


%d bloggers like this: