Crimea’s plight

Letters in a bottle

By John Scott | March 8, 2014

Our hearts go out to the Crimean Tatars. This photograph of a rally in Simferopol comes from a Crimean fashion journalist Adilebkk's blog.

The Crimean Tatars nurse painful memories of 1944, the year Stalin ordered 32,000 troops to expel them from their homeland – on May 18 that year, they were given 30 minutes to collect their belongings; thousands died in the cattle trucks that carried them off to Uzbekistan.

The Tatars have been a beacon of hope in recent years. Some families were eventually able to make their way home after decades of exile, though most of their houses had been occupied and it was only to eke out a living on the edges of towns that once belonged to them. Yet they are bright, energetic, hardworking, educated lot, these Tatars, and quickly became an asset. For starters they made the peninsula a more welcoming place for tourists, the peninsula's main source of income. Some 300,000 Tatars have now established themselves there – though many can only make ends meet with jobs in Istanbul (just an hour's flight away). 

We celebrated the land of the Crimean khans in a special issue of Cornucopia last year. Once more this extraoridinarily resilient people had taken its place in the rich mosaic of ethnicities that Crimea has always been, and it was a moving thing to witness. There was even talk of town names appearing on signposts in the different spoken languages: Russian, Ukrainian and Tatar.

Last week, the Crimean Tatar assembly in Simferopol studiously resolved not to take sides in the present conflict. They issued a statement – ‘The Federation of Crimean Tatars (KTDF) is not Party to the Rivalry between Ukraine and Russia’ – and distanced themselves from Russia's argument with Ukraine, blaming the quarrel on both sides: supporters of the EU and the former pro-Eurasian government, they said, were dragging the country and the region ‘to an abyss’. ‘Strategic rivalry’ in a transit zone through which energy is transported from East to West had made ‘divisions in domestic politics even deeper’.

‘At the start of the 20th century and during the Second World War, the Crimean Tatars acted together with Ukrainian nationalists and suffered the penalties for this political preference. They were exposed to harsh treatment by Russia and endured the great tragedy of exile... During the period of the break-up of the Soviet Union, half of the Crimean Tatar people migrated back to their homeland, the Crimea, at their own expense. But the half who lacked resources remained in exile and were unable to embrace their homeland... From 1991 until 2014 the new Ukrainian Republic established after the Soviet Regime has not given the Crimean Tatars their communal rights, giving the possible reaction of the Russian ethnic population as a pretext.’

For many Crimean Tatars there is a chance of survival as an independent culture within a European Ukraine. Unfortunately, Mars, as the world knows too well, is pulling the other way.

As Adilebkk says in her blog: ‘The situation in Crimea is complex.’ Approximately 15% of the population is Crimean Tatar or of some other non-Slavic ethnicity. ‘Ethnic conflicts that scarcely arose before are now increasing rapidly.’ Pro-Russian followers opposed the supporters of the Maidan protest (mostly Crimean Tatars and Ukrainians). ‘Vigorous statements by certain parliamentarians’ exacerbated matters. In short, she says ‘Crimea is being torn between Ukraine and Russia’, and the Crimean Tatars are in danger.

Confirming this, Natalia Antelava in her New Yorker blog, Who Will Protect the Crimean Tatars?, quotes a senior Tatar journalist as saying: ‘We are on a verge of losing our culture, our language, our identity,’ ‘Like most of the Crimean Tatars I have interviewed,’ she adds, ‘he believes that the community will be safer if the peninsula remains part of Ukraine. “For us, a European Ukraine is the only way of making sure that we survive as people,” he said. “We need European laws to protect our identity. After what happened in 1944, we can never trust the Russians.”’

Antelava also reports terrifying stories of intimidation in the quiet backwater of Bahçesaray, where Catherine the Great preserved the palace of the Crimean khans. Houses have apparently being marked with sinister crosses, just as they were in Stalin’s day. An unsubtle suggestion that they had better back the transfer of Crimea to the Russian Federation, or else. But according to Antelava, they were still determined to boycott the referendum on March 16. ‘Eskandar Baiibov, a deputy in the Crimean Tatar Mejlis, told me firmly that his community is unanimous in its backing for the government in Kiev.’ He is also terrified ‘of the price that they might have to pay for refusing to give the Kremlin the support it wants’. Many want to get wives and children out of Crimea, he says. ‘The men would stay.’

We can only pray that the wind miraculously changes, that boys, for once, will not be boys, and that ‘jaw jaw’ wins over ‘war war’. Though as troop carriers rumble across the achingly beautiful Kerch peninsula, a miniature steppe only a few feet above the Sea of Azov to the north, this seems less and less likely. Whatever the arguments, if violence breaks out, pity poor Crimea. The innocent will be the first to suffer. 

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