Archive for the 'Crimean Tatars' Category

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.

Unsanctioned meetings

I recently joined a local historian for a guided tour of central Simferopol, in Crimea. She was a woman in her 50s who told me – it was almost the first thing she said to me – that “Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin] is a strong leader, and we adore him.” The tour, with six or seven middle-aged local women in tow, started by the statue of Generalissimo Suvorov – who fought the Turks in Crimea for Catherine the Great – apparently still “looking towards Karasubazar and Kaffa, for Turkish enemies” of the Russian empire. “But now Crimea is in safe hands again, and there’s no need to keep watch anymore.”

I was really puzzled why, when she stopped to tell us about a church, a former palace, Crimea’s first cinema, the former Ukrainian central bank building (which still has a fancy sign outside saying that’s what it is), the guide would herd us into an unobtrusive huddle on the other side of the road, or even round the corner, so we often couldn’t actually see the building in question. She seemed ill-at-ease.

I finally realised she was worried that we might be mistaken for an ‘unsanctioned meeting’ – a punishable offence in Russia – like the group of teenagers in Crimea who gathered this week for a football match, and were reported to the police. Recently ten people were arrested for five days for holding an ‘unsanctioned meeting’ after they spontaneously came to stand outside their neighbour’s house when it was being searched by Russian security services.

“Russia is watching us very closely, to make sure we have no illegal groupings here,” the guide told me after the tour was over. She’d refused to let me pay for the tour, she was just delighted to show her beloved hometown to a foreigner, so I invited her for tea. She took me to a Crimean Tatar café.

She told me she and her neighbours had used to be so afraid each 18 May, when Crimean Tatars had held big, peaceful meetings in the centre of Simferopol to mark the deportation of their nation as wartime ‘traitors’ in 1944 – the atmosphere, she said, was like a tinderbox just waiting to catch light.

She was glad that these meetings are banned now. “Now it’s all civilised, they have their monuments and sacred places where they’re allowed to [meet].”

Over Crimean Tatar sweets, she talked about how the Crimean Tatars had collaborated with the Germans during the war.

I mentioned General Vlasov.

“Mass collaboration was only observed among the Crimean Tatars,” she said. “And the Ukrainians.”

She was a nice woman in many ways, and genuinely knew a lot about Simferopol’s history, and Simferopol’s hearsay. She had a Tatar surname, and told me she was proud of it.

She made me feel sad.

sevastopol mural

2016 ‘Russia Day’ mural, Sevastopol, Crimea

 

When will there be good news?

Good news coming out of Russian-annexed Crimea is very relative, and even more short-lived.

On 25 January there was some good news from Crimea. Relatively. The Kyiv district court in Simferopol refused to extend the pre-trial prison term of Redvan Suleimanov, arrested in July 2016 on very unconvincing charges of sabotage. He would have to be released by the end of January because the investigation had failed to provide materials within the required seven days of the previous detention term’s expiry.

So you understand why this is good news in Crimea these days: under a regime which makes it abundantly clear that anyone can be arrested and sentenced, regardless of any truth of what they did or didn’t do, no one arrested on politicised charges of extremism or terrorism or sabotage or mass unrest has been found innocent. No one, once taken into pre-trial detention on these charges, has been released on bail or even house arrest. Around twenty people accused of such offences have been held in the horrible conditions of pre-trial prison for a year or more. They have not been allowed visits from their families. Two have been removed to prison in Moscow. The family of another Ukrainian arrested for sabotage in November didn’t know which prison he was in at all for over a month after he was arrested.

Suleimanov’s lawyer Emil Kurbedinov, who represents the majority of Crimean Tatars arrested in Crimea for ‘terrorism’ and ‘extremism’, reported the good news about his client on social media. On 26 January, the next day, he reported a house search by the FSB (Russian security services) of another Crimean Tatar activist.

On his way to the house, and while his own house was also being searched, Kurbedinov was arrested himself. He was charged with ‘public display or propaganda of banned symbols’, for a post on social media from 2012-13 (long before Russia annexed Crimea), and sentenced to ten days administrative arrest.

So relative is good news in Crimea these days, where anyone can be sentenced for anything, this honestly felt like a kind of good news. It is awful news, the arrest of the most prominent lawyer (out of a very small group) defending Crimean Tatars and others. But –  only ten days. Only administrative. It could have been so much worse.

Friends laughed at my naivety over this, and in welcoming the news about Suleimanov just the day before. Rightly. On 27 January, the same Kyiv district court in Simferopol heard Suleimanov’s case again. Kurbedinov of course, was not there to represent him. In his absence, the court extended Suleimanov’s pre-trial prison term.

When history turns its attention to Crimea

“If history turns its attention to Crimea someday, and if one Crimean Tatar searches for another, my writings may surface. It is quite all right, if this does not happen. Crimean Tatars lost their flag, their glory, and their land. What if I were to lose a few nights without sleep and days in grief …”

Thus wrote the Crimean Tatar linguist and academic Bekir Çobanzade (1893-1937), in a preface to a book of poems that was never published in his short lifetime. In 1937 he was convicted by Soviet authorities of supporting separatist national republics, involvement in terrorism, and being a foreign agent, and executed.

He was rehabilitated in the 1950s; I can’t help thinking that if he were alive today in Russian-ruled Crimea he could easily be sentenced again for those same alleged crimes. After all, the new authorities cancelled an academic conference to be held there in his honour in Summer 2014, apparently alarmed that it was a ‘provocation’.

Rare photos from 1930s Crimea - from a 2014 exhibition in the Crimean Tatar history museum in Simferopol

Rare photos from 1930s Crimea – from a 2014 exhibition in the Crimean Tatar history museum in Simferopol

I find those words he wrote painfully touching in their modesty. History has indeed turned its attention to Crimea – and so has that ineffable mix of politics, music and kitsch that is the Eurovision song contest, with Jamala’s win with a song about the Crimean Tatar deportation. I do hope that someone somewhere now is reading Bekir Çobanzade.

More on Crimean Tatar collective memory and literature, including my book Dream Land which is indebted to those memories, on the British Library European Studies blog. 

(And here is a Foreign Policy article I wrote in March about the Crimea Tatar battalion and blockade.)

The language of interethnic communication

I’ve been writing an article about Transnistria this week, a self-declared ‘republic’ sandwiched between Ukraine and Moldova; de jure part of Moldova. This has entailed transcribing my lengthy interviews with monolingual Russian-speaking Transnistrians who are driven to justify why they embarked on a war with Moldova to defend their native land and their right to speak Russian and not learn Moldovan, Romanian or any other language.

Russian was the language of interethnic communication in the Soviet Union, they insist. And that’s why we all lived in multinational multicultural peace and harmony and total linguistic freedom. We all spoke Russian here because it wasn’t prestigious to speak Moldovan. Of course, everyone should have the right to speak their own language. Moldovans didn’t really have much chance to learn their language at school or use it in the workplace but it was much better to speak Russian anyway, because that was the language of interethnic communication and we all lived in peace, didn’t we? What’s wrong with that?

(Is this what the Colonial English sound(ed) like? I wonder. Maybe that’s why these interviews are so long; why I keep returning to this question)

Transnistria now has three State languages, they say proudly: Russian, Ukrainian and Moldovan; yes, the only true Moldovan language left anywhere in the world (when I try to say, but isn’t that an obsolete form written in Cyrillic invented by the Soviets, which no one outside this made-up republic recognises?)

What a truly international republic we are, they say, unlike Moldova where everyone is forced to speak Romanian; yes they are, it’s true (when I try to point out that in the Moldovan capital Chisinau most people can and very frequently do speak Russian and English as well as Romanian which is practically identical to Moldovan).

Few people in Transnistria actually speak Moldovan, of course, they say. It’s an optional school subject, and most don’t opt for it. Why should they? Why should we, when the language of interethnic communication is Russian, and we all live in peace and harmony? It’s just not necessary, when only a few native people in villages speak Moldovan…

Ah, at last they mention indigenous people. But if it’s the native language and you keep telling me you fought to defend your native land, why are you so opposed to learning Moldovan/Romanian? I finally manage to ask. Why did they have to learn Russian? You keep insisting on the right to speak your native tongue, to speak whatever language a person chooses…

And at last, there it comes; the cry: but this is Russian land!

While working on this article, I’ve also been watching ATR’s TV marathon and countdown to April 1. ATR is the only Crimean Tatar TV channel in the world. Based in Crimea, it broadcasts in both Russian and Crimean Tatar, since after decades of ‘peace and harmony and the language of interethnic communication’ many Crimean Tatars – the peninsula’s indigenous people – don’t speak their own language.

ATR is – was – opinionated, high quality, sometimes excellent TV. Its outspoken and bloody-minded journalists toned down a bit after Crimea was annexed last spring: far fewer live debates and breaking news, more cultural shows and Hollywood films translated into Crimean Tatar. Back in March last year, just a week or so after annexation, the channel’s owner Lenur Islyamov told the Crimean Tatar qurultai or council, “the whole nation can’t be dissidents.” ATR was prepared to stop being dissident, if that meant it could continue supporting and representing Crimean Tatar identity by broadcasting concerts and films and historical programmes in Crimean Tatar language.

When Russia annexed Crimea one of many, many promises it made was that, like Transnistria, Crimea would have three state languages: Russian, Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar.

Just like Transnistria, in practice this means pretty much nothing.

The Crimean Tatar editorial of the Crimean state TV and radio company was effectively purged six months ago, supposedly for not providing Russian subtitles for its Crimean Tatar language broadcasts (no one insisted on Crimean Tatar subtitles for the Russian editorial’s broadcasts). Independent Crimean Tatar media outlets, which along with ATR include two radio stations, a children’s channel and an internet news agency (part of the same media holding), newspaper Avdet, and the QHA news agency, have all been unable to get a new license from Roskomnadzor, Russia’s media regulation body.

In most cases Roskomnadzor has returned applications numerous times asking for changes and clarifications, or simply not answered in time for the deadline of April 1. (It’s a tried and tested tecnique; independent media outlets in Transnistria are silenced the same way). Broadcasting without a license from April 1 could entail fines, confiscation, even criminal proceedings.

Crimean head Sergei Aksyonov accused ATR recently of ‘inciting interethnic hatred’ by suggesting to its viewers that Crimea might one day return to Ukraine. Now it is April 1, the ATR marathon is over, the world’s only Crimean Tatar TV channel has gone off air. All I can listen to now are my interviews with those Russian-speaking, post-Soviet Transnistrians, insisting on peace and harmony only when Russian is the language of interethnic communication. When Russian is the only language, and they have fought a war to be free to speak it.

The equivalent of such people in Crimea, who Aksyonov represents, will happily explain that they were ready to fight Ukraine, and support their brothers fighting now in east Ukraine, for the inalienable right to speak Russian and only Russian, that language of peace and interethnic communication. They’ll say there is nothing wrong with that, everyone should have the right to speak whatever language they want.

They might possibly be brought to admit in passing that a few native people in villages in Crimea speak Crimean Tatar (or maybe not, since Putin now says the indigenous people of Crimea are the Greeks).

I know that if I were to push a little on this question, sooner rather than later it will come, the battle cry: but this is Russian land!

0 days and 0 minutes til ATR,  the only Crimean Tatar TV station, goes off air

0 days and 0 minutes til ATR, the only Crimean Tatar TV station, goes off air

Crimea, books, blues

It wasn’t just me trying to get away from Ukraine horrors and headaches at the Lviv Publisher’s Forum. Four days of books, books, books and more; jazz, verse, philosophy, fairytales…

I was there to present the Ukrainian translation of Dream Land. And of course,  to meet friends and fellow writers from all over Ukraine and from Crimea – Crimean Tatars who had come to read their poetry, play music, walk the cobbled streets listening to the jangle of Ukrainian and Russian and English and Polish – and feel like they could breathe again.

“The people here are beautiful,” one said as we walked round Lviv. She didn’t mean their features or their clothes; she meant the feeling of freedom they carry around inside them. The feeling the Crimean Tatars have had taken away from them in Crimea.

We talked about how hard it would be to go back to Crimea when the forum was over. But how hard – now the Crimean Tatar Mejlis building has been surrounded and searched today by armed police, now yet more Mejlis members’ houses have been searched – I for one did not guess that.

It’s been a good few days for Dream Land, which has been nominated for Ukrainian book of the year. It’s been a horrible few days for the Crimean Tatars.

Time to start writing that sequel at last…? I don’t know if I can. But someone has to.


previous posts

A novel about the Crimean Tatars' return to their homeland


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