Posts Tagged 'historical memory'

Crimean apples

This is an extract from the original draft of Dream Land, which never made it to the published version. Like everything in the book, it’s a fictionalised combination of several first-hand accounts of the years of exile after all the Crimean Tatars were deported in 1944.

I’ve sadly lost the notes and recordings that made up the research for the book. I remember three people who were sources for this particular story, all then living in Bakhchisaray with children and grandchildren. The last of them died last year.

It’s a sort of physical anguish when people go forever taking their memories with them, leaving behind we who were preoccupied or absent-minded or reluctant to listen and record them when we could. Today, 18 May, is the anniversary of the deportation. I’ve been reading accounts of Crimean Tatars about 1944; the memories that map onto and create newer memories; the things that remain, the things that are passed on, the things that are lost.

Guli didn’t know exactly how old she was. When we would all get together to talk through our memories, keep the soul of Crimea alive, she always said she’d been four or five when we were all deported. She hated it that she couldn’t remember anything about the land we left behind. “It’s like a dream,” was all she’d say. “Like things in a dream.” The one thing she said she remembered was apples. In Guli’s dream the apples of Crimea were the biggest and reddest and sweetest in the world. The blossoming trees in spring, tall as mountains covered with white snow.

Her three brothers were at the front in 1944. She only ever saw one of them again. The cattle trucks took the remaining three children and their mother along with hundreds of other Crimean Tatars to the Ural mountains. Barefoot, in light spring frocks, and they ended up at a labour camp in the wilderness on the edge of Siberia. That winter in 1944 came early. It was so cold; everyone slept in the barracks tight-packed in a line like sardines, and in the night if someone wanted to turn over he had to wake up the whole line of women and boys and old people and children, and they all turned over together.

They were cold and they starved. Six hundred grammes of sour black bread was the daily ration, and that only for workers – not the old people, nor the children. Later they were allotted rooms, one for each family, and one night Guli cried and cried and cried for her empty belly. She was only five or six and she had hardly learned to speak; some of the others thought she was backwards, maybe even a bit daft. The wooden partitions were so thin, you could hear everything; when Guli had cried for three hours without stopping the wife of the camp commander came in.

“Shut the child up! I’ve got visitors staying from the district and they can’t sleep because of her whining.”

She’s hungry!” Guli’s mother replied. “How can I shut her up when I’ve got nothing to give her to eat?”

The wife went back cursing and swearing, and Guli went on crying. And then a little later one of the commander’s guests came sleepily through the door, carrying a chunk of bread and a lump of sugar on the top of it. “There now, eat it and calm down, child.”

Oh but the whole family were so hungry! And none of them would take food from the littlest, but they sat in a circle around Guli, like dogs round a butcher’s shop door, begging. “Give me a piece, Guli. Just a little piece. Share it with me, Guli. Just a corner. Just a nibble. A crumb. Please Guli. Give me a bit. There’s a good girl.”

And little backward Guli, who never said anything at all, looked at them and said as clear as you please, “No, I won’t give you any, because I cried and I cried and I cried this piece of bread all by myself!”

When their mother died it was so cold that the body froze solid. The oldest sister went outside to scrape up snow to wash the body, but the middle sister had the idea to pretend the woman was still alive, so they could get her food ration. They kept it up for three days, chewing on black bread under the frozen eye of their mama. On the fourth day a doctor came to see what was keeping the woman so sick she couldn’t work. He found the three girls wrapped together in all the clothes and blankets they had, warming their hands round a candle, and the body sat up stiffly in bed all blue and ghastly.

“Mama’s caught a cold so bad she can’t eat, she can’t get out of bed,” Guli explained.

Well, they took her away after that but the ground was frozen so solid they couldn’t dig a grave, so they just left her lying outside until the thaw.

About ten years later Guli and her sisters were transfered to Uzbekistan, to the Hungry Steppe, to work digging irrigation channels for cotton. We came from neighbouring villages in Crimea, but it was in the Hungry Steppe labour camps that I met Guli. She was no beauty, and she could barely read or write. But I was hardly one to talk, by then. I had got malaria from the mosquitoes that came after we irrigated the salt flats. My skin stuck to my bones, yellow as old cheese from the medicine. I shivered even in the heat of August, I was unable to eat, I hardly knew where I was, I couldn’t stir from my bed and I had no family left by then to help me.

Guli had never seen malaria, but she knew all about the cold. Because I wouldn’t stop shivering she brought her blanket and climbed into the bed with me and put her arms round me to warm me.

Her name meant ‘rose’. When I told her that she went pink as a rose but not with pleasure. “I’ve just got prickles,” she said. She was ashamed because she hadn’t known. She never did learn much reading or writing, she could swear like a soldier in Russian but she didn’t know much Crimean Tatar. I often made her feel stupid, and she knew she wasn’t pretty. But after they built a town where once was the Hungry Steppe and called it Gulistan, rose garden, she said, “They’ve named it after me, the nerve of it, the bastards never even asked.”

She was short-tempered and out-of-breath and she died when our son Alim was 18 and just getting interested in the Crimean Tatar National Movement. Alim brought home a girl he’d met on his first protest march and Guli didn’t approve.

“I don’t know what you see in her,” she complained, because the girl wasn’t pretty, had no family to speak of, couldn’t cook, talked of nothing but the protests. Alim was a handsome, clever boy, and Guli wanted a better bride for her son than she had been for me. But Alim was smitten. Soon he could talk of nothing but Crimea too, and I suppose Guli felt like she had lost both of us.

She was jealous of my memories of the Crimea we left behind. The stories I tell now to my granddaughter Safi started with my wife; I wanted to give them to Guli as a present, like one day I hoped to give her a real Crimean apple. But she knew there were things I never told her, perhaps she had heard them as I lay in her arms delirious with the fever. When she collapsed and they took her off to the hospital, the doctor said she had a hole in her heart. I came to see her and she patted my hand and said, “There you are then. There’s a surprise. I always thought you were the one with a hole in your heart.”

 

simferopol museum apple ads

Labels for Crimean apples and pears exported by the USSR in the 1930s (in Simferopol museum) 

Decommunisation

In the village, decommunisation continues apace. The statue of Lenin has been cut down by local stonemasons. Yellow-and-blue Ukrainian flags fly from houses. In the old cemetery there’s a new memorial to the Holodomor (the Soviet engineered famine of the 1930s). It says ‘We’ll always remember and we won’t allow you to forget’. There are many new memorials in the new cemetery too, to more recent deaths. Nina’s street, 1 May, is the latest to be renamed, after the village’s first fatality of the current war in the east – or at least the first to die while in service; two other veterans have died since they came home.

potiivka ATO graves

Graves for veterans of the war in east Ukraine

The village’s longest street, an earthen track running straight out into flat fields and marshland, doesn’t have to be renamed; it’s called Shevchenko, after the Ukrainian poet. Nina told me a childhood story about the very last house on this road:

“We went there for my father’s birthday, in secret. He was a communist. His birthday was on the 6th of January, and Orthodox Christmas was on 7th January, so all his life he was afraid to celebrate in case people thought we were celebrating Christmas. I remember going to my aunt’s house, which was the furthest house in the whole village, and my father took us such a roundabout route past the cemetery and through the fields so no one would see us. The house was one big room inside, with a stove and curtains to make room divisions. The main thing I remember is the music from the victrola.”

Nina, now nearly 70, left the village as a young woman to work in Kriviy Rih in the industrial east of Ukraine. When she arrived people called her a ‘Banderovka’, a vague half-joke, half-insult (it means a follower of the Ukrainian nationalist leader Bandera) that she didn’t even understand at the time. Everyone there spoke Russian, so she did too. She became head of a Trade Union and organised Soviet parades for 1 May.

Now that she has moved back to her native village, she speaks the local Ukrainian surzhik again and laughs a little at the loud new-found Ukrainian patriotism of her old friends from Kriviy Rih. “They’re a bit like children, always looking round to make sure you’ve noticed what they’re doing.”

Much of Nina’s life in the village is an uncovering or recreating of childhood memories – new memories laid over old ones, until it’s not clear what’s true now and what was true then, because so much of her childhood was based on secrets and evasions. “My grandmother died of hunger,” she told me this time, when I mentioned the new Holodomor memorial; she’d never told me that before. This time she also said “I suppose my parents were informers.”

Her communist-card carrying, ex-Red Army officer father was married to the village midwife, a surprisingly good post for the daughter of an enemy of the people: Nina’s grandfather, arrested and shot in 1938, about whom the whole family kept silent for years. The family was the first in the village to have a pram; as a child Nina remembers allowing the other village kids to take turns pushing her baby sister in it. Yes, I suppose it’s quite possible her parents were informers.

potiivka carts

As I walk along the long, long road that’s called Shevchenko I pass horse-drawn carts, their use and design scarcely altered since before communism arrived. The bundled-up drivers turn to stare at me. Old women in ancient, ageless felt valenky and headscarves ask me where I’m going, and – suspiciously – why I’m taking photographs. It’s hard to explain where I’m going, since when I finally reach it, the house at the very end is a ruin. All that’s beyond is acres and acres of bleak, flat, snowy country. A flock of bullfinches bounces on willow branches, rose-red breasts puffed out with the cold. They’re the smartest brightest thing in the world.

When I tell Nina about them later, she smiles over happy childhood memories of these birds in the yard of the family house. “You’re lucky you saw them before the khokhly [a pejorative name for Ukrainians] caught and ate them,” she said. “They don’t touch the blue tits of course. Because they’re yellow and blue.”

potiivka winter field

 


previous posts

A novel about the Crimean Tatars' return to their homeland


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