The politics of memory – Return

As I mentioned in the previous post, the first feature film to cover the  deportation of the  Crimean Tatars was released in Ukraine in May 2013.

Haytarma (Return) is about Amet-Khan Sultan, a famous pilot who was twice awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union medal for bravery during the Second World War. He was also half Crimean Tatar, and was in Crimea on 18th May 1944, when the Crimean Tatar population was sent away.

Haytarma poster: the text reads ‘The story of one nation’

Sultan managed to save his family, and continued a distinguished career as a Soviet test pilot after the war (legend has it he even trained Yuri Gagarin). He didn’t live to see the Crimean Tatar people’s return to their homeland.

Haytarma shows some of the skill and danger – and joy – of flying fighter planes, but more memorably it shows in almost unbearable detail how the Crimean Tatars, along with other minority groups,  were rounded up and forced onto the trains which took them away into exile. Most of the cinema audience when I saw the film in Simferopol was in tears by the end. This is the first dramatic reconstruction of historic events which Crimean Tatar people have grown up with in family stories, or even witnessed themselves as children.

Haytarma also finds time to show the beauty of Crimea and the humanity of individuals even in the midst of war and atrocity. I’d recommend it to those who have an interest in Soviet or WW2 history, but also to people who know nothing about the real events it is based on.

I think there is an interesting discussion to be had about how this film (and my book) uses fiction to retell historical truths, which I’ll save for another post. Meanwhile, Haytarma’s importance in the politics of memory became clear right away at the premiere, when a group of pilots trained by Sultan, who had flown in from Moscow to see it, were told not to go after all by Russian Consul Vladimir Andreyev, because, he said, the film “did not reflect the Crimean Tatar people’s mass betrayal during the Great Patriotic War [WW2]”. You can read the whole story of the ensuing scandal here.

This is not quite the whole story. Although the Russian government responded (I think) sensibly and correctly to Andreyev’s remarks, politicians in Crimea were not so measured: after his resignation, the ‘Russian Community of Crimea’, which is headed by a Crimean parliament deputy, awarded him honorary membership.

(To me, one of the saddest things is that six out of the eight pilots obeyed the consul and did not go to the premiere. This despite the fact that Andreyev had not even seen the film. I saw them on TV, a bunch of doddery white-haired old men in their dress uniforms weighed down by rows of medals. I expect they were looking forward to a nice little holiday jaunt to Crimea, to being feted with cognac and champagne, to boring everyone with reminiscences of flying with the great Amet-Khan Sultan; maybe after the premiere they’d fit in a trip to the seaside and have their photos taken on the promenade in Yalta…

They are old men and they’ve lived in a Totalitarian state and served in the army where you do what you’re told. But it’s not the Soviet Union anymore. Sad that only two out of eight decided to make up their own minds about Haytarma.)


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A novel about the Crimean Tatars' return to their homeland

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