Posts Tagged 'Dream Land'

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.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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.

Geopolitics and fairytales

A profile here on ozy.com about my novel Dream Land, Crimean Tatars, fairytales, and why I can’t write fiction about Ukraine now.

On their own ‘strange’ land

Another in-depth review of Dream Land Ukrainian translation here, for Ukrainian speakers.

DL ukr and uk covers

 

The meaning of home

Crimea, Crimean Tatars and the meaning of home… Two very detailed, informed and thoughtful reviews of Dream Land Ukrainian translation here and here, for Ukrainian speakers

DL ukrainian cover


previous posts

A novel about the Crimean Tatars' return to their homeland


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