Posts Tagged 'Crimea'

Ukraine jumps the shark

On the two days Arkady Babchenko was killed and then came back to life to announce his death was faked by Ukrainian security services (SBU) and police, there was an international forum on disinformation in Kyiv. Never let it be said the SBU lacks a sense of humour.

I described to some conference participants how it felt in 2014 in Crimea during annexation and in Donetsk when the war started, surrounded by disinformation. Absolutely everybody lied about absolutely everything, from corpses poisoning the water supply to the presence of Russian forces. The lies made no internal sense, let alone tallied with what people were actually seeing and hearing. It was, literally, like drowning in bullshit. There were no facts, no objectivity, no two sides, not when everybody was lying about everything. The final question for me, and one I still haven’t been able to answer, is how much people knew, and on what level they knew (or know) that they were lying to themselves. How much they knew they were being fooled; how much they were fooling themselves.

And here we are, 2018, fools drowning in bullshit.

If we’re being honest (an out-of-date commodity these days) the bewilderment and moralistic outcry over Babchenko’s fake death is not quite so much because it’s another lie, but because we were made to look stupid. No one likes to look stupid, and particularly people like journalists and spokespeople and politicians whose ego and livelihood depend on being taken seriously. I am sure MIA advisor Anton Herashchenko and SBU head Vasyl Hrytsak massively enjoyed making fools of the press in and on Ukraine, which, if we are being honest, can be insufferably self-important and self-righteous. I’m sure the SBU loved making fools of reporters who are always going on about how corrupt and useless the SBU are, to the extent of carrying out their own investigation into the murder of journalist Pavel Sheremet in Kyiv two years ago. I’m sure they loved poking with a bullshit stick the CPJ and RSF who’ve come close to suggesting, on no actual hard evidence, that the Ukrainian state may be involved in Sheremet’s killing.

But Sheremet is dead, and no one is going to bring him back to life, and two years on the police and security services have named no suspects and made no arrests. A murder happened and was never solved. And now we have a murder that didn’t happen, so that it could be solved. We have an incompetent – or worse – SBU that lets murder happen and never catches culprits, and a SBU so damn clever that it fakes murder in order to catch culprits. We have accusations of Russian involvement in murder that is never proved, and we have (allegedly) proof of Russian involvement in a murder that didn’t happen.

My head hurts.

Those people justifying the Babchenko fake by citing other incidents of faked deaths of police officers to catch local criminals are being disingenuous. Local police officers or officials and criminals do not provoke a public statement from the prime minister blaming a neighbouring state, and from ambassadors and politicians around the world engaged in a major geopolitical conflict. The SBU didn’t just trick some pesky journalists with the laudable aim of saving lives. The stakes are so high: MH17. The war in east Ukraine. Crimea. Syria gas attacks. The Skripals. Literally, thousands of dead and injured, all drowned in lies.

If we’re being honest, none of us were objective over Babchenko’s killing when we thought he was dead. In retrospect, there were a number of peculiar anomalies. But if we (I) thought about them at all, we put them down to Ukraine’s frequently unprofessional and crass way of doing things (Herashchenko publishing that photo on facebook, anyone?) We believed it, because it was so very, very likely to be true, it confirmed every worst scenario we have already lived through and are going to go on living through.

No one likes admitting they’ve been fooled – or that they’ve fooled themselves. And of course we’re relieved and glad he is alive. My god, of course we are.

A civil activist called Server Mustafaev was arrested by Russian forces in Crimea almost two weeks ago, and charged with Islamic extremism. Server described himself as a citizen journalist, and was untiring in documenting other people’s arrests and detentions and disappearances before his own. The CPJ has said nothing about his case. No open letter like the one they’ve just written to President Poroshenko over Babchenko, no outrage. They wrote no open letter to Putin over the ‘extremism’ conviction of Crimean journalist Mykola Semena either. In Server’s case they’d argue, I’m sure, that he is not a journalist as he was not published in any mainstream media and mainly posted livestream videos and photos online. And if we’re being honest I can see the point; it’s pretty hard to define these days who a ‘journalist’ is. But when no ‘real journalist’ in mainstream media covers such obviously fake cases in Crimea, except Russian media which covers them all the time to show how special forces are winning the war against terrorism – what’s a person to do but pick up a camera, and court persecution with no protection?

Last week a civilian called Mikhail was killed by a bullet in the east Ukraine frontline town of Mariinka. He never really made it into Ukrainian, let alone international news. He was 35, disabled, and until recently lived with his mother (I say ‘until recently’ not because he’s recently no longer alive but because his mother died a week or so before he did. Before that a family grave in the cemetery got hit by a shell and blasted open). Not a very prepossessing subject for media attention, Mikhail. The head of the Mariinka civilian-military administration, as well as several townspeople, told me he was killed by a sniper’s exploding or expanding bullet, banned under International Humanitarian Law. I don’t know whether that’s true. A few days later a beautiful 15 year old girl with an extensive collection of lovely social media portraits was killed by a shell near Zalizne, not far from Mariinka. Unlike Mikhail the fatality appeared a lot in Ukrainian media and god forgive me I wondered initially whether it was true too, because she was so perfect for Ukrainian propaganda purposes. (It is true).

To be honest, I wrote that paragraph above about Server Mustafaev as a kind of trick, because I know you might read a piece about Babchenko. To be honest, I’m not sure why I’m telling you about Mikhail and Darya. No outrageous life-is-stranger-than-fiction story here. No affronted dignity. No one paid 40,000 dollars to get rid of them. No one rushed to put up memorial plaques and then, feeling weirdly ashamed, had to take them down. They are actually nobodies in the information war and the actual war. The OSCE and UN will record their deaths, and probably they’ll get added to the case Ukraine is putting together to bring to the Hague against Russia. The other side will have added its own deaths to its own case. And there will be relatives even after four years of war who are unable to believe it, who with some deep and vital part of themselves are waiting and hoping to hear the news that it’s not true, that Darya is alive, Mikhail is alive, all the missing and the killed are alive. It was a trick, these last four years of war and horror and loss are all a fake. It was lies and we were fools right from the beginning.

And it’s true, it was, and we were.

Advertisements

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.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

War takes a holiday

A photographer friend who has covered the war in east Ukraine since it began wrote to me recently from Odessa, where she spent much of the summer: “What is strange: no one spoke about the war. Not even one person. I felt it was unfair. And I always felt there was ghost of war right behind me and no one saw it.”

Kyiv too is full of ghosts, and no one talking about them. Every now and then you look up from the new bars and cafes full of beautiful people enjoying themselves and see the ‘bomb shelter’ signs on the walls; ghosts from August 2014 when everyone was convinced Russia was about to openly invade and attack Kyiv. Every now and again you wonder why all the money being spent on new bars and cafes isn’t being spent on wheelchair access to them; you look for the ghosts of wounded soldiers and civilians who will never drink there. Every now and then a crash wakes you in the night or morning, and instead of assuming it’s fireworks or thunder you know it’s the sound of explosions. (Sometimes it is: there are different kinds of war).

read between the lines graffiti

Kyiv graffiti

But who wants to talk about it? The horror and dread got boring, the war drags on like a ghost that can’t grow up, can’t change, can’t die.

War is boring. It’s a tedious corny song that has no chorus and no end. It’s boring listening to identical stories of horrific atrocity and violence from the sufferers of both sides, perfected by two or by twenty years of repetition and  propaganda. It’s boring hearing the same appeals from the same mothers and wives still asking someone, anyone, to help find their missing or release their captive loved ones. It’s boring being lectured that you can’t go to a march for gay rights or a religious procession or a music festival because ‘don’t you know there’s a war on’. It’s boring feeling guilty for having a good time, it’s boring being asked for money to help wounded soldiers, it’s boring trying to care about the daily casualty figures.

No one wants to know anymore. Those editors in the UK or the US write ‘this feels like we’ve covered it before’. Fair enough, they’re a long way away. But in Ukraine itself no one is interested. ‘It feels like we’ve covered this before’. Who wants to hear yet again about the suffering of those people stuck in the limbo of ‘grey zones’ in east Ukraine, being shelled? Who wants to hear again about Sasha or Kolya still in prison in Donetsk when they’ve been in prison in Donetsk for over a year and nothing has changed – what more is there to say?

Wives and mothers of imprisoned soldiers demonstrating in Kyiv

It’s boring being in that prison, stuck with the same faces you’ve seen for over a year, stuck with the same guards who might or might not treat you decently. It even gets boring to go through the unbearable hope and disappointment every time you’re allowed to make a phone call to a relative and ask ‘What’s new?”

It’s boring outside being shelled; that gut-deep terror that this next one might actually kill you gets so boring that you don’t even bother going down to the cellar to hide anymore. It’s boring trying to sort out the paperwork to get a measly pension from one side or the other. It’s boring waiting hours in line to cross de facto borders, and even more boring talking about it.

It’s bewilderingly boring working out how to talk at all about a war that isn’t a war, an invasion that isn’t an insurgency that isn’t civil that isn’t military, about one country that is at the same time two or three. It’s boring knowing that whatever you say or write, you’ll be accused of being biased, unpatriotic, a Russian spy, a Ukrainian fascist.

Other people’s grief is boring. Your own grief is boring.

The war whines along quietly in the background, a dull song no one wants to listen to but that you can’t get out of your head. Like the ‘bomb shelter’ signs still there beside the fashionable graffiti and the café names and the people getting on with life, hanging out, enjoying sleepy summer August.

And then someone decides it was boring being boring, and makes up a story about ‘terrorist attacks’, ‘saboteurs’, ‘armed incursions’, and we go from indifference to panic in zero seconds.

Nothing happens in August except holidays. We took a holiday from the war, those of us who could. But the war didn’t take a holiday.

Cemetery for unknown soldiers from the east Ukraine war

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.)

Civil war (pravoseks vs homoseks)

Donbas, April 2014. At checkpoints north of Donetsk militants hand out cheap hand-xeroxed leaflets declaring their vision of the ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’. “We are against the seizure of power by oligarchs, extremists, paedophiles and homosexuals!”. On the outskirts of militant-controlled Slavyansk a comandeered police car screeches to a stop; armed men in black balaclavas jump out and race into the trees. “They’re looking for a homosek,” a local man explains. He sees I’m looking confused. “A pravosek,” he clarifies.

The beaten-up man the militants bring back looks neither particularly homosexual, nor from the Ukrainian paramilitary group Pravy Sektor (Right Sector) – although, who can tell. No one seems to care much who he is anyway; what he’s supposed to have done; where the armed men are taking him; what will happen to him.

May 2014, Crimea. “We’re gay patriots,” say Igor and Oleg, a gay couple long involved in HIV-prevention among Crimea’s gay community. They both joined the newly-formed self-defence militia in the beginning of March, to defend Crimea from Ukrainian fascists and Pravy Sektor, and they love Putin. They show me photos of themselves posing in camouflage on the gay beach, with medals handed out by Russian-backed Crimean leader Sergei Aksyonov. “The uniform’s so sexy.”

The summer season is gearing up, they say soon they’ll soon be back on the beaches and on Sevastopol quays giving out condoms and safe sex leaflets to handsome sailors. What about Russia’s ‘gay propaganda’ law? I ask. Won’t that make your lives and work in HIV prevention difficult?

“Oh no, we agree with the law,” they chorus. “Putin is only protecting the children.”

“If [LGBT] activists try to demonstrate in the region, our police and self-defense forces will react immediately and in three minutes explain to them what kind of sexual orientation they should stick to,” Sergei Aksyonov, September 2014.

September 2014. Donetsk. Two young men driving from the ‘DNR’ military police HQ tell us they support the ‘DNR’ because they don’t want to be ruled by Pravy Sektor fascists and they don’t wish to be part of ‘Gayrope’. “I mean, we’ve got nothing actually against gays, its not their fault I guess. But it can be cured. Russian science has proved that. It’s just wrong, homosexuality.”

One of the men earlier told us he and his wife were expecting their first child, a son. What will you do if your son turns out to be gay? we ask.

He looks at us in startled amazement. “That’s just impossible. It couldn’t happen.”

Why not?

He frowns. “It just couldn’t.”

June 2015, Kyiv. About a hundred and fifty brave souls turn out to defend LGBT rights at the Equality March, after Pravy Sektor leader Dmitro Yarosh publicly announced Pravy Sektor would have to abandon ‘other business’ (presumably meaning fighting in the frontlines against Russia and the ‘DNR’) ‘to prevent those who hate family, morality, and human nature from carrying out their plans’; and Kyiv mayor Vitalii Klitchko basically admitted he couldn’t do anything to stop them when he asked organisers to cancel the march.

There are people watching who are obviously there to stir up trouble. There are the ‘pravoseks’, young men in black balaclavas, who are actually more interested in fighting the hundreds of police than in hunting down ‘homoseks’. There are the random passersby, and the remarks they make.

“Where’s the parade of faggots?”

“I pay for the police out of my taxes. Why am I paying for them to protect a load of pederasts when everyone knows Ukraine is against homosexuality?”

“What’s going on?” “A parade of faggots.” “In front of women and kids? it’s not right…”

“Mum, they’re people having a peaceful demonstration about their human rights.” (In a minority, that one).

By the metro station, police and boys in balaclavas are busy beating the shit out of each other. Everyone else is standing around drinking kvas. “The march was 80 percent foreigners,” says an industriously gossiping blonde woman. “I saw it with my own eyes, there were at least a hundred Germans there. I mean I’ve got nothing against gays saying they want to be gay, but they were nearly all foreigners.”

The group round her nod. “Of course they were. I’ve got nothing against gays, but Ukraine isn’t Gayrope. Ukraine isn’t a gay country.”

Surgun

This was the day for true stories. It was the eighteenth of May, and the sun rose bright and blithe as if it had no heart. A day for picnics, for paddling in the sea, for lying in the grass beneath the knee-high daisies. There were tangles of wild roses on Mangup-Kalye now, poppies and peonies smelling of warm sweet cakes. The caves were round sun-traps, the valleys were lush with green and silver bird-full forest falling mile after mile to that line of light that was the sea.

It was a Crimean day that stood on tip-toe and shouted Look how wonderful I am! It was the day for remembering how the Crimean Tatars had to leave all this behind.

As the chartered bus swung into the station on the outskirts of Simferopol, the morning sun shone right into Safi’s face, dazzling her into seeing black shapes. She put her hands over her eyes. When she looked again, there were hundreds more shapes. The bus station was full of Crimean Tatars, standing quiet and purposeful, ignoring the police cars parked all round them. Pale blue banners marked with the Crimean Tatar tamga shifted gently over their heads, and a very low, wailing hum rose into the morning.

Bus after bus pulled into the station, bringing Tatars from Bakhchisaray and other villages and squatter’s camps west of Simferopol. […] The sun was high when at last the Tatars formed into a column and moved off. Along the road into Simferopol locals stopped to stare, and curtains twitched in the windows as though anxious inhabitants were watching from the safety of their homes. At other houses, doors opened and more Crimean Tatars came out to join the march. […]

Safi looked round at her parents. Mama had a steadying hand on grandpa’s arm and they were talking together, but papa saw her and his hard, fierce face softened a little, as if he’d seen something in her expression that worried him. Safi smiled at papa, glad he was there with mama and grandpa and Lutfi. This was the day for terrible stories, for remembering all the things the Crimean Tatars left behind, and what they lost on the way.

They walked until noon. The traffic had to stop for them, and some drivers got out of their cars and shouted insults, even threw stones. It didn’t matter. The pale-blue flags fluttered proudly over the swelling crowd, and everyone, no matter how poorly they were living, had dressed in their best clothes for this day. They chanted Our land! Our rights! Our home! They sang the old Tatar songs. And all the time the low wailing hum rose into the dazzling Crimean sky, the hum of stories being retold. Everyone had tears on their cheeks, not only the old people. Safi had not been born at the time of the Surgun, the deportation into exile. Her mother and father had not been born. But that meant nothing. She wiped her eyes along with the others because these stories belonged to all of them. This was what it meant to be Crimean Tatar. You weren’t one person, you were part of a nation, sharing a history, an identity, a family. The many stories blended into one story, the voices into one voice.

The eighteenth of May 1944. The soldiers came before dawn, to every town and every village throughout the whole of Crimea where Tatars lived. The fighting was over, there were no partisans and Germans to fear now, only the Soviet liberators. They had banged on the doors and ordered us sleepy Crimean Tatars outside, with fifteen minutes to get ready and no word of where we were going, only that the Soviet authorities decreed that we be sent away forever for treason to our country. They packed us into lorries and jeeps, then loaded us onto the trains like cattle. They took us away, and on the journey they let us die. No water, no air, no food in those railway trucks, only suffering. At one stop my mother ran for water, and she was late coming back. She reached out to climb into the truck, but through the closing doors I saw a soldier strike her hands away with a bayonet, and I felt her fall under the moving wheels. They came for my baby. I told them he was sleeping but they said he was dead. They tore him out of my arms and before he could scream they had tossed him from the truck. They killed my brother. He was told to dig the hole right there by the railway line where they threw the dead and the dying all jumbled together, no name, no marker. My brother refused, and they split his head with a spade and pushed him in with all the others.

Safi wept and wept. They all did. But they kept their heads up, and the Crimean sun dried the tears on their faces. There was one thought in all of their heads. We Crimean Tatars have lived through this. We have waited and struggled for fifty years. And we have come back. Nothing can stand against us, now we have returned to reclaim our homeland.

From Dream Land (2008)

Listen to this chapter read in Ukrainian here

crimea poppies.web

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


previous posts

A novel about the Crimean Tatars' return to their homeland

Advertisements

%d bloggers like this: