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Letter from the Crimean border

In southern Ukraine, Crimean Tatars from displacements past and present are building a life for themselves.

The Dzhankoy Region of Crimea, as seen from just across the Chongar strait, in territory controlled by the Ukrainian government. Photo (c): Maxim Edwards. All rights reserved.

Crimea’s annexation continues apace. A spate of recent detentions demonstrate the Russian authorities have chosen repression over accommodation in their dealings with the Crimean Tatars.

The community were among the strongest opponents of the peninsula’s annexation in 2014 — its political leaders from the Mejlis, the Crimean Tatar representative body, fled to mainland Ukraine (the organisation was banned in Russia in 2016).

“Counter-extremism” is Russia’s preferred approach. The new head of the Russian security services in Crimea, Viktor Palagin, is known for his heavy-handed “anti-extremist” work in Bashkortostan, a republic in Russia’s Ural mountains. On 11 October, FSB agents raided the homes of six religious men, all outspoken opponents of the annexation, in the Crimean town of Bakhchisaray. They were accused of membership of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, an Islamist organisation banned in Russia.

Ukrainian journalist Anton Naumlyuk has called this latest crackdown, which has led more Crimean Tatars to flee, a “hybrid deportation”. It’s a loaded term, but a poignant one for Crimean Tatars — in 1944, Stalin deported the entire ethnic group to Central Asia after accusing them of collaborating with the invading Germans.

“Russia’s attitude to the Crimean Tatars hasn’t changed since Catherine the Great — they just have better gadgets to spy on us”

Last month, 100 Crimean Tatars protested in solitary pickets across the peninsula, with signs reading “my people are not terrorists”. Over 40 were bundled into passing cars and detained in police stations. Crimea has become a place where “extremism” is defined elastically.

These days, Crimeans’ links with the rest of Ukraine are weakening, and at least half of the estimated 40,000-60,000 Crimeans who’ve left the peninsula since 2014 are Crimean Tatars (who number just 10.6% of the peninsula’s population).

Last month, I headed to the Kherson region of southern Ukraine to meet those who’ve fled — and learnt that Crimean Tatar history tends to rhyme.

New borders and bureaucracies

“Russia’s attitude to the Crimean Tatars hasn’t changed much since the days of Catherine the Great,” begins Ruslan Ibragimov, a humanitarian worker in Kherson. “All that’s new is that they have better gadgets to spy on us.”

After Crimea’s annexation, this sleepy regional city found itself in a borderland, coming with a host of new bureaucratic and humanitarian responsibilities. For Crimean Tatars like Ibragimov, the local office of the Mejlis plays an important role.

I meet Abmejit Suleymanov, a Mejlis representative in the city since 2015, outside the council’s building. Suleymanov had to leave Crimea in 2014 due to his human rights advocacy. “I’m of more help here than alone, crying out from a cell window,” he adds, nonchalantly.

Here, Abmejit helps Crimean Tatars on the peninsula obtain birth, death and marriage certificates from the Ukrainian authorities — aiding future generations to hold onto Ukrainian citizenship. The bureaucracy is unenviable. For example, a Crimean Tatar who refused to take Russian citizenship in Crimea isn’t automatically counted as an internally displaced person (IDP) in Ukraine unless they personally register as such.

Abmejit Suleymanov, representative of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis, in his Kherson office.

In February 2015, somebody attacked Abmejit’s offices with a grenade. Pro-Russian Crimean Tatar Duma deputy Ruslan Balbek explained the incident as a sign that locals were “fed up with [leader of the Mejlis Mustafa] Dzhemilev’s plots and intrigues”.

A handful more pro-Russian “provocations” blamed Crimean Tatars. Disinformation about the “Islamicisation of Kherson” abounded online, accompanied by reports in 2015 of a fictitious “citizens of Kherson movement” which had risen to challenge it. Even the president of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic Ihor Plotnitsky weighed in, declaring solidarity with Kherson against “Crimean Tatar and Turkish bands” and vowing to help a future “Kherson People’s Republic”.

While the “Tatar takeover” of Kherson is a myth, Serhiy Nikitenko, a journalist and editor of local independent newspaper Most adds that many locals still overestimate the number of Crimean Tatar refugees. There are officially 13,400 IDPs in the Kherson region, primarily from the Donbas. Roughly 2,000 of those from Crimea are Crimean Tatars.

A handful more pro-Russian “provocations” blamed Crimean Tatars. Disinformation about the “Islamicisation of Kherson” abounded online

While locals tend to take a better view of those from Crimea, IDPs are not always popular here. Denys Chistykov, local head of the Ministry of Temporarily Occupied Territories, tells me that cash-strapped residents see IDPs as “competition for the government’s attention”.

That new competition is hardly living it up. Ukraine’s Ministry of Social Policy allocates IDPs just 442 hryvnia (£13) a month if they’re of working age, and 884 hryvnia (£25) if they have children. The full sum for one family can’t exceed 2,400 hryvnia (£68) a month, regardless of its size. Payments decline if recipients don’t search for work — this in a region Nikitenko describes as “comically poor.”

There’s little work but agriculture, and the annexation took its toll on local farmers, who now have to re-orient their exports north. This August, a publicity stunt even saw a river barge full of Kherson watermelons sail the length of the Dnieper.

Kherson lies on the northern bank of the River Dnieper, just a few kilometres before it flows into the Black Sea, and a couple of hours’ drive from the checkpoint into Russian-occupied Crimea.

If that advert for local produce doesn’t work, officials believe that with Crimea now inaccessible, Ukrainians can holiday down here (in September, governor Andriy Gordeev announced plans to build a “Batumi in Kherson”, inspired by the balmy seaside city in Georgia). A riviera is hard to foresee in Kherson; the small airport takes just two flights — one to Kyiv, the other to Istanbul (international travel to Crimea from outside Ukrainian territory is illegal).

In Chistykov’s office I meet Alme Emirsale, a former schoolteacher and Mejlis member from Bakhchisaray who fled Crimea in 2015. Emirsale now works as an adviser on Crimean Tatar issues to Ukraine’s presidential representative to Crimea Boris Babin, whose office relocated to Kherson in 2014.

Emirsale believes there may be more Crimean Tatar IDPs in the region than official statistics account for — some refugees keep out of sight, not approaching the authorities.

“When you first enter Ukraine, you’re seized with paranoia,” Ibragimov, the humanitarian worker, tells me. “You don’t know who to trust, then gradually you calm down. It’s a consequence of intense surveillance in Crimea.”

At the end of the line

I’m sitting in a mosque in a village just north of Crimea with two men who fled the peninsula a few months ago. They’re both believers, and loathe the Russian annexation of their homeland — the FSB’s knock on the door still came as a surprise. We drank tea together. They were tense, frustrated and afraid — there was little to do here but pray and search for odd jobs. They let me photograph them only from the beard down.

They were passing through, they said. There was little to no chance of work here, though the locals were hospitable.

Nobody would have imagined there’d be a direct train from here to Kyiv. Once, this village of Novooleksiyivka was just another stop on the journey from Kyiv to Dzhankoy, Crimea — now it’s the end of the line. All services into the occupied peninsula ceased in December 2014.

Lying 200km from Kherson, near the Sea of Azov, Novooleksiyivka is like most other settlements on the steppes — festooned with bright Ukrainian flags. But here, they’re rarely seen without the sea-blue and gold Crimean Tatar flag. Of this town’s 12,000 residents, around 5,000 are Crimean Tatars (who number 11,000 across the Kherson region). Since the annexation, it’s one of the only Crimean Tatar settlements under Kyiv’s control. When the screws tighten on fellow Tatars across the border, these villagers are among the first to hear.

I arrive at the house of culture, a Soviet-era fixture of any respectable village, halfway through a Crimean Tatar song and dance contest. The place is full; a camera crew from the ATR Crimean Tatar TV station have set up shop.

Festival of Crimean Tatar song and dance in Novooleksiyivika, Kherson region, Ukraine, October 2017.

In recent years, Novooleksiyivka and neighbouring Henichesk have taken on a special resonance — as a small island of Crimean Tatar culture, which locals sometimes contrast to the more assimilated Crimean Tatar life of Ukraine’s big cities.

UNESCO considers the Crimean Tatar language endangered, and Novooleksiyivka is playing a role in its preservation. As of this September, School No. 1 in the village is the only school in Ukraine where the Crimean Tatar language and literature are taught as a separate subject (following the footsteps of the village kindergarten in 2015).

Class is over, and I find Sabina, a teacher, tidying her desk. There’s a surprising amount to tidy — brand-new Crimean Tatar textbooks, courtesy of the diaspora in Turkey. She explains the class also uses textbooks issued in Crimea before the annexation, hence recognised by Ukraine’s ministry of education.

In its own way, these villages have become a small island of Crimean Tatar culture

Sabina teaches a first-grade class of eleven, who study six hours a week. Crimean Tatar language is elective, and it took some convincing to get local parents to send their kids to class. Sabina explains that parents were concerned about their kids’ prospects — there’s little work here, and what use is it to be unemployed and trilingual?

Nevertheless, teachers are cautiously optimistic. Eleven kids isn’t bad for a school in a small town, they say, but there are logistical problems. This is also the only school in Ukraine where other subjects are taught in the medium of Crimean Tatar. Eventually teachers will need the terminology to teach biology, geography, or maths — all in the language.

“Hello, class!” reads this message in Crimean Tatar in school No.1, Novooleksiyivka.

The initiative for these classes came from school director Lenur Lyumanov, who’s taught the language for 20 years, and also serves as head of the Kherson regional Mejlis. Lyumanov, whom I met upon his return from a teacher training course in Kherson, says the plan is to gradually introduce classes for the second, third, fourth, and fifth grades over the next four years.

But these classes aren’t just for the children of Novooleksiyivka. Lyumanov explains that as Ukraine’s government doesn’t recognise Crimean school certificates, the school started a distance learning programme for Crimean Tatar children on the peninsula. As of this school year, 57 kids study under the scheme.

Crimean Tatar is spoken in Novooleksiyivka, but it’s hardly in rude health. For many families, it’s primarily a spoken language, and Sabina adds that some parents were afraid (perhaps embarrassed) that they wouldn’t be able to help their children with Crimean Tatar homework. Many hadn’t studied their native language in childhood — instead, they learnt Uzbek.

To explain that, one needs to know how Crimean Tatars came to call this village home.

Yesterday’s tragedies

Given their own histories, Tatars in this corner of Ukraine have a deadening sense of déjà vu. While parallels have been drawn between today’s troubles and the events of 1944, people here are reminded of another deportation. This tragedy isn’t grandfather’s, but Mum and Dad’s — for Crimean Tatars, being a refugee runs in the family.

Despite the intention to annihilate them as an ethnic group, the Crimean Tatars’ deportation to Central Asia instead created a simmering homeland nationalism. That Khrushchev had left the Crimean Tatars out of his 1957 decree “forgiving” rehabilitated peoples only fuelled the frustration, and Crimean Tatars started openly demanding to return to Crimea. In 1967, the Politburo miraculously relented. In its own way.

That year, Moscow issued an official statement “correcting” past charges of treason against the “Tatars resident in the Crimea”, but noted they had since “taken root” in Uzbek society. With one fell swoop, the Kremlin rehabilitated the Crimean Tatars, but denied them the right to return home.

Crimean Tatars protest in Novooleksiyivka, demanding to return to the peninsula. 1980s. Photo courtesy of the Ziyadinov family.

For many Crimean Tatars, that would have to do. The “special settlement regime” that restricted their movement was lifted, and thousands headed for the peninsula. Those who reached Crimea found it unrecognisable; it had become the Soviet resort of choice, an elite’s subtropical playground. Crimean Tatar villages were home to several hundred thousand Slavic settlers.

Returnees soon realised Soviet bureaucrats had no intention of allowing them to resettle ancestral lands, and only a handful of families were ever officially registered. The vast majority were outcasts; confined to squats, barred from administrative jobs or higher education. Some scraped a living selling vegetables or working as part-time drivers. These Tatars had only a brief taste of life in Crimea — and a bitter one.

Tatars who reached Crimea had only a brief taste of life in the peninsula — and a bitter one

In 1978, police set out for the home of Musa Mamut to expel him from Crimea. Mamut had served several brief prison sentences and endured harassment from the authorities ever since he arrived from Uzbekistan three years earlier. When they appeared at his door, the 45-year old Mamut set himself alight, immediately becoming a symbol of Crimean Tatar rights, a victim of the “second deportation”.

In contrast, some returnees lived in Crimea for barely a month before law enforcement evicted them. By the 1980s, thousands of expelled Crimean Tatars were living in regions adjacent to the peninsula. Some 3,000 lived in Kherson city, others in the Kuban region of Russia. Many ended up in Novooleksiyivka, which even became known unofficially as “Novotatarka”.

Crimean Tatar refugee and local in Novooleksiyivka.

When Soviet rule collapsed, the road to Crimea opened again. Around 20% of the Tatars in Henichesk and Novooleksiyivka returned — most couldn’t afford to, having already built lives in this borderland. Their graves stand out from the thicket of the local cemetery — engraved with the Khan’s Palace and Mosque in Bakhichisaray, immortalised in the poetry of Alexander Pushkin.

At the village mosque after Friday prayers, the bearded young guys slurping tea in the courtyard direct me to Zevri-agha, who strolls past in a traditional kalpak hat: “He’ll tell you about those times!” And he does. “Football,” sighs Zevri Ibvidullayev, expelled from Crimea in 1980. “Moscow played football with us”.

That evening, I drink coffee with Adile Medzhitova. She was born in exile in 1947, in a barrack in the forests of the Mari ASSR, and then sent to the city of Guliston in Uzbekistan.

“Football. Moscow played football with us”

Adile is intensely proud of her father’s role in Crimean Tatar dissident circles in the 1970s. She opens a stack of his notebooks, showing drafts of appeals to Soviet leaders on behalf of the Crimean Tatars. One phrase stands out amid the spidery writing: “Dear Leonid Ilyich [Brezhnev], I write to you in the spirit of Lenin...” A futile attempt to “speak Soviet” to seek recompense for what happened to his people.

When the decree of 1967 was issued, the local KGB were probably pleased to see the last of him. “You can go anywhere,” went the authorities’ refrain to Crimean Tatars — “anywhere but Crimea!”

Crimean Tatars pretended to obey, and the Soviet police pretended to believe them. In 1967, Adile and her parents arrived in Dzhankoy, Crimea. In 1970, the family was expelled, and after one more attempt to resettle to Crimea in 1976, they stayed for good in Novooleksiyivka, their resources and resolve exhausted.

Adile remembers nothing of her early childhood save the cold of the forest. Given that a Crimean Tatar born on a train in 1944 is now 73 years old, eyewitnesses of the deportation are few. Ibragim Muratov, born in 1927, lives in a cottage on the outskirts of Novooleksiyivka. He’s frail, though sounds as though he’s shared his story many times before.

90-year old Ibragim Muratov recalls the deportation of Crimean Tatars to Central Asia by the Red Army in 1944.

While his father was away at the front, soldiers arrived at Ibragim’s village and herded local Crimean Tatars into cattle wagons. “When the train stopped, we were taken out to the sidings to be fed, but were sometimes shoved back in before we had eaten,” begins Ibragim. “They would throw the corpses out into the dirt, and we would depart.” Ibragim’s family survived the 18 day journey, reaching the Jomboy district of the Uzbek SSR.

Ibragim was put to work as a driver on a cotton farm, where he remained for several years. Many survivors of the deportation attest that some local Uzbeks, forewarned about “traitors” by the authorities, didn’t always welcome the newcomers from Crimea with open arms — but pelted them with stones.

In 1979 Ibragim arrived in Simferopol, Crimea. Here, too, he worked as a driver — the authorities wouldn’t register him, let alone allow him a decent place to stay. These were no conditions to bring up a family — and later that year, he was expelled to Novooleksiyivka.

In 1944, Ibragim’s village was renamed Shchastlivoye — “happiness”. He never headed back.

The boys from the blockade

Down south, there’s a whiff of brine from the sea and occasional exhaust fumes from passing vehicles. A tired-looking guy in fatigues saunters over to me, doing knife tricks with a lethal open blade. “That’s a strange greeting,” murmurs one of my companions from Kherson.

“I only walk around with it because they won’t let us have proper weapons,” smirks the soldier. Nobody laughs.

“They” are the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence in Kyiv, and I’m at the barracks of the Noman Çelebicihan battalion, a militia named after a Crimean Tatar leader executed by the Bolsheviks in 1918.

The place turns out to be nearly empty today. A huge portrait of Çelebicihan stares out over the training grounds.

An “Asker” from the Noman Çelebicihan Crimean Tatar battalion, near the Crimean border at Chongar.

Driving here from Novooleksiyivka, you head towards the Sivash, the shallow lagoon dividing Crimea from its Ukrainian hinterland. The village of Chongar is one of the last before Ukrainian control ends. (“Russian occupants ahead!” warn graffiti by the roadside). These Crimean Tatar volunteers have waited here for two years for incorporation into Ukraine’s military.

Chongar made headlines in September 2015, when a group of Crimean Tatar and Ukrainian nationalists blockaded the road into Crimea, determined to stop the “trade in blood” with Russian occupants. Nevertheless, Crimea still depends on Ukraine for essential resources; some 80% of Crimea’s electricity comes from the mainland, as does 85% of its water.

The blockade wound down, though far from everybody felt it productive. However the “Askeri”, as this militia was known, stayed put; their tent camp grew into a training ground. In December 2015, with the support of Crimean Tatar businessman and politician Lenur Islyamov, the Askeri reorganised into the Noman Çelebicihan battalion (Islyamov attributes the refusal to incorporate the battalion to “negative myths about the Crimean Tatars” in Ukraine’s military establishment).

Some of its members volunteered to fight in the Donbas. The few dispirited Askeri here today say they’d do the same — provided top brass allowed them fight together, as a Crimean Tatar unit. “Our patience is not bottomless,” one hisses.

“Our goal is simple — we want to be the first to free our homes when Crimea returns to Ukraine.”

Two young Askeri agreed to meet in nearby Henichesk, under condition of anonymity. Both fled Crimea just after the annexation, first to Kyiv, then to Chongar to support the blockade. “Our goal is simple,” begins one. “We want to be the first to free our homes when Crimea returns to Ukraine.”

“We’re only a nuisance for separatists and those who do business with occupiers,” they declare. Relations with locals in Chongar weren’t easy at first, but after the villagers understood the battalion's mission, they claim, relations improved.

Everyone’s anonymous here, as they’re all expellees from Crimea. They daren’t risk returning there or causing problems for their families back home. As these Askeri see it, they’ve no better option than to stand guard here, just outside the official border zone. They’d like to be of some use.

An abandoned sentry post south of Chongar, painted in the colours of the Crimean Tatar flag.

Suspicions and paranoia run high along this border. Some old loyalties live on; one name that crops up is that of Saitumer Nimitullayev, former district chairman of Henichesk. Nimitullayev was an influential figure in the local Crimean Tatar community and led ousted president Viktor Yanukovych’s former party, the Party of Regions, in the Kherson region.

In early 2014, Nimitullayev fled to Crimea, where he founded the pro-Kremlin organisation “Qirim Birligi” (United Crimea) and called on the Tatars of this area to return to the peninsula. That October, Ukrainian authorities opened a criminal case against him for embezzling public funds.

From across the border, Nimitullayev declared he “continues to love Ukraine — the Ukraine that was.” It’s believed he still has influence in these parts, owning local land and assets. If that’s true, it’s more salt in a raw wound; another chapter of the often frustrated aspirations of post-Maidan Ukraine.

Fifty years have passed since Tatars arrived in Novooleksiyivka — or rather, were deposited there. And since 2014 Crimea, a stone’s throw away, is tantalisingly out of reach for the second time. You can call it intergenerational trauma; you can call it revenge — these Askeri favour the latter.

One Asker beckons me to an old pair of mounted military binoculars. I can’t make out much through its milky lenses save for a small village on the Russian-occupied side.

Homelandless and humiliated

If the latest crackdown is a hybrid deportation, then three generations of Crimean Tatars can claim to have been forced from their homes. I’m left wondering what the impact of that trauma means for their sense of self as citizens.

I sometimes questioned whether it’s fair to educate a girl born in Russia, Uzbekistan or Ukraine that she can never be whole or realise herself unless she returns to that green island in the Black Sea. I realise that in these circumstances, when past episodes of stability have been fleeting, the line between dogmatic homeland nationalism and self-preservation may be blurred indeed.

I return to the mosque in Novooleksiyivka with my two new acquaintances. I share these impressions with the young village imam, Usein Tokhlu.

A Crimean Tatar refugee holds a tea-bowl decorated with a map of Crimea, and the words “bon appetit” in the Crimean Tatar language.

“Allah only knows how many have passed through here since 2014,” he sighs. “It must have been over a thousand. For the first weeks after the annexation, we had people sleeping on the floor of the mosque.”

“In 1944, they accused us of treachery, when we betrayed nobody. In 1783 they annexed us, when nobody asked us whether we wanted to live under Moscow. You can’t humiliate a nation like that and expect them to trust you implicitly.”

“Tatars are fleeing Crimea. And we’re not simple people, we know what’s going on. Here in our town, we can’t do much. But we’ll help however we can, when they pass through.”

At the end of the line in Novooleksiyivka, the call to prayer rings out over the platforms, and I board the train back north.

All photos courtesy of the author.

About the author

Maxim Edwards is Commissioning Editor at oDR. He writes on nationalism, migration, minorities and memory, with a focus on post-Soviet countries. His articles have appeared in Al-Jazeera, Al Monitor, EurasiaNet and the Forward among other publications. Follow him on Twitter at @MaximEdwards.

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