Posts Tagged 'Crimean Tatars'

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.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.)

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

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.

Three State languages, Crimean style

One of the promises made by Russia and new Crimean  ‘government’  was that Russian-ruled Crimea would have three State languages: Russian, Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar.

Translated into reality: signs on the Crimean parliament in all three languages were taken down just days after the March referendum on joining Russia. The building’s new title, in Russian, was promptly put up.

Those blank spaces on either side? That’s where the Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar signs should be.

gossovet krym

If Crimeans had a penny for every promise broken in Crimea since March, they wouldn’t need all those tourists who aren’t coming, to earn their living.

British Library Crimean Tatar collection

Good post here from the British Library’s European Studies blog, about the Crimean Tatars and listing relevant materials in the British Library collection. Anyone wanting to know more about the history and culture of the Crimean Tatars: you know where to go.

BL


previous posts

A novel about the Crimean Tatars' return to their homeland

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