Five years later – the occupation through the lens of young Crimean Tatars
Alexandra Wishart and Dario Planert talk to young Crimean Tatars on their annexed homeland, Russian occupation, and music
Simferopol. 26 February 2014. Thousands of people gather midday in the Crimean capital, in front of the regional parliament, to protest against the occupation. Next to the building’s Ukrainian flag are yet more flags in the hands of the demonstrators. The flag is light blue and its far-left corner touts a yellow, tripartite emblem. It is the flag of the Crimean Tartars; on this day, they are the majority.
The demonstrators chant: “Crimea is Ukrainian,” “God is great” or “Send the gangs to hell.” Pro-Russian counterdemonstrators position themselves across from the crowd of people. The groups provoke each other, leading to an all-out brawl. Two people die. Those managing the occupation file a lawsuit, but by the end, only Crimean Tartars are put on trial.
A participant of the Demonstration remembers.
Djemil: A friend calls me while I’m still asleep. He said, “a demonstration against the annexation is going on right now in town, don’t you wanna come and see for yourself?” We went and saw what was happening. I went to bed that evening with the feeling that finally, there was some radical shift in thinking taking place in Crimea, that we were finally having to give in to European values to make any progress. But literally the next day, the same friend called me and said “Did you hear? The center is blocked off.” He worked as a lawyer, and said that he couldn’t get through to the courthouse and that I should come quickly. When I arrived, I already saw the little green men. Subsequently, we went back to my home, ate pizza and watched the ATR station. I saw on television that some people supported this process; those by far weren’t the most dignified people of Simferopol. It was clear to me that we had lost.
This March marks exactly five years since the Russian Federation annexed the Crimean Peninsula, a region that has belonged to Ukraine since the Independence Declaration of 1991. It is the first time since the end of World War II that a European country’s territory has been forcefully taken by another. Therefore, it is an issue that is relevant well beyond Ukraine’s borders.
The upper levels of Russian leadership happily wield the argument of historical truth. Putin emphasizes to this day that Crimea has always been a part of Russia’s sphere of dominance; its succession from Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union therefore contradicts historical logic. Especially when the state of the world in the 21st century is ignored, whose order is primarily based on international treaties and observance thereof, the statement “Crimea is ‘historically Russian’” is indefensible.
In fact, Crimea is the only region of Ukraine where ethnic Russians form the majority. This has its roots in the resettlements enforced by Catherine the Great after Imperial Russia defeated the Ottoman Empire in 1774. Russian hegemony in Crimea lasted for nearly 250 years. However, this narrative completely disregards what happened on the peninsula in the last few millennia.
In the 7th Century BC, the Greeks colonized Crimea, but their reign lasted until the Romans came only 500 years later. Parts of the east Germanic Gothic people settled on the peninsula in the late antiquity period, and their dominance ended roughly 400 years later. Despite this, neither Angela Merkel nor Alexis Tsipras have made territorial claims on Crimea. That may sound like a bad joke, but consideration was given to colonize Crimea with German settlers during the time of National Socialism. The operation went under the name “Gotengau.” The argument: Crimea has always been German.
But let’s put jokes aside. This podcast isn’t about Russians or Nazis, or rebuking the Kremlin’s disinformation campaign. This podcast addresses the fate of a small, relatively unknown ethnic group for whom the annexation of Crimea represents a dramatic turn in the struggle for freedom.
‘It was there that for the first time I saw the sea’
The Crimean Tatars are originally a Turkic ethnic group whose language derives from the family of Turkic languages, and who have inhabited Crimea for more than 1000 years. In the 13th century the Crimean Tatars adopted Sunni Islam and in the 15th century the Crimean Khanate was established. As a consequence, they ruled the island for 350 years and Crimean Tatar became the Lingua Franca.
The history of Crimean Tatars in the 20th century is particularly tragic. After a few thousand Crimean Tatars joined the Wehrmacht troops in 1941, they, like other minorities in the Western parts of the Soviet Union, hoped for their arrival to end Stalin’s repression.
In 1944 Stalin collectively deported nearly the entirety of the Crimean Tatar population, nearly 200,000 people, under the accusation of national treason in cattle wagons to Siberia and Central Asia. Already during the non-stop, several day lasting journey in extremely cramped quarters, without water and rations, thousands of people died. Thousands more died following the inhumane conditions in exile. The events are known in the collective memory of Crimean-Tatars as “Sürgün” which in the Tatar language means deportation.
At least two generations of Crimean Tatars were born and raised in banishment. Even after the death of Stalin, the Soviet leadership refused to let them repatriate to their ancestral homelands. Dissidents such as human-rights defender Mustafa Jemilyev organized themselves underground. Jemilyev spent years in prison for his political convictions. Finally, under perestroika the first Crimean Tatars were able to return home. Many families followed suit during the 1990’s, among them the families of Jemil and Sabina, part of the generation born in Central Asian exile and later as children moved to Crimea.
Djemil: Hello, my name is Djemil. I hope one could call be a human being. I was born in Uzbekistan at the end of 1985, the year of Perestroika in the city of Tashkent.
Sabina: Hello, my name is Sabina and I was born in Uzbekistan in the city of Samarkand. In 1999, me and my family relocated to Crimea.
Sabina remembers vividly her birthplace.
Sabina: I’ve had many very pleasant memories of home because I lived there until my eleventh birthday, so they’re all childhood memories. [Samarkand] was a beautiful city, sunny, warm and its inhabitants were very pleasant. But mostly I remember the ancient historical places the city had to offer, but also my school friends with whom I am in contact to this day.
Back then there used to be compact settlements by Crimean-Tatars, in one of them not far from Samarkand called Juma, which was where my family used to live. The majority of my relatives lived there, but there were also other families who were spread wider across the country. Likely due to the fact that Uzbeks themselves are Muslims, the situation for Crimean-Tatars was slightly less difficult than for the ones who got deported to Siberia. Because of this, I cannot claim that in my family there has ever been a case of discrimination from Uzbeks or even Tajiks. On top of this, Samarkand was an incredibly multicultural city.
In the 1990s, a complete exodus of Crimean Tatars to the home of their forefathers began, leaving behind the places of their decades-long exile.
Sabina: Previously up until 1995, we never discussed any of this. To me the question of identity until about a year ago has never come up, as in 1995 our relatives began repatriating in great numbers. Moving back then was a process of nearly four to five years. My grandparents told me back then that they wanted to go home. Regarding our social-economic status we were doing well, and we could have potentially continued this way. But in 1999 our whole family repatriated, and that is why my parents ultimately decided in favor of moving too.
I was eleven years old. Since 1995 we had already been to Crimea more frequently to visit my grandparents. Back then I associated this place mostly with vacation and the sea. It was there that for the first time I saw the sea. Then they started telling us kids about how this is our home and when we relocated, it meant that we were finally going home.
Djemil: I remember that my parents back then organized a goodbye party for our friends before the final moving process. I went back home together with my grandmother and saw that our home was full with people. My father back then taught journalism at the Tashkent State University and many of his friends had come to say goodbye. There was one guy with a huge camera who filmed everything. They informed me just that day and time that tomorrow we would move to Crimea, and not by plane but by train. The journey took five days in total.
In the early 2000’s the Crimean-Tatar minority on the Crimean penninsula had reached 12% of the total population. The Crimean Tatars became Ukrainian citizens.
Djemil: First and foremost, I understand myself as a Ukrainian citizen and I think that Crimean Tatars in Ukraine have the best possibilities to develop themselves. During the Russian Imperial period, the Soviet Union and now in the Russian Federation, multiple factors existed that inhibited this process. Therefore, I feel the freest as a citizen of Ukraine.
Sabina: The question of citizenship and self-identification are two different questions. I obviously identify myself fully as Crimean-Tatar. But I also have Russian blood; my grandmother was Russian. Nevertheless, I perceive myself in my entirety as Crimean-Tatar. And yes – I too identify myself as citizen of Ukraine. Not by being Ukrainian based on nationality, but by citizenship.
The relationship of Crimean Tatars towards Kyiv has not always been characterized by endless harmony. In Ukraine, too, they had to fight for their independence. This was especially true for the conservation of their language. But at least it was a fight without corpses. One of the biggest successes for the Crimean Tatars was gaining the right within the Ukrainian Constitution to their own popular representation.
But a majority of the inhabitants of Crimea were still Russians. Which impact did that have for life on the island? Where there any prior signals that would have indicated the events of 2014?
Sabina: There were warning signs, but you know, I only realize that now in retrospect when I am putting the pieces together. My high school, the Open Cosmic Lyceum, worked very closely together with the “Russia-Crimea foundation.” At least, that’s what I thought it was called. The cooperation mostly entailed the organization of lectures and cultural events. They invited all the students in our school to join their events.
The events were on a large scale, and the foundation was always visible. There were no Ukrainian or Crimean Tatar organizations of comparable size and significance. That’s one of the things I recall in particular. Back then I was not very politically involved and not very much interested in what was happening inside of the Verkovna Rada.
Regarding the overall atmosphere, I can only say that it has always been straightforward.
“In February 2014, the events spiraled out of control. Following the pro-European Revolution of Dignity taking place at Maidan Square in Kyiv, the then-president Viktor Yanukovich fled from Kyiv to Russia and as a consequence was dismissed from office. At the same time soldiers in green uniforms and without national symbols appeared all over the Crimean Peninsula which colloquially are called “little green men”.
Djemil: Back then on the weekends, I played in a band and we regularly drove to Sevastopol. Around the 28th of February or the 1st of March we were supposed to play at a concert there. It was a very snowy day and the news had already announced that a checkpoint had been established on the route towards Sevastopol. We started driving in our van but were quickly stopped by members of a civil defense unit and a couple of guys with beards who spoke Serbian. They checked our luggage, controlled whether we really only had musical instruments on us and let us pass.
This convoy consisted of regular Russian soldiers, as President Putin later publicly admitted, as well as mercenaries from abroad. These “little green men” occupied the most important strategical junctions of the peninsula, held the Ukrainian troops in check and closed the border to the Ukrainian mainland. On the 16th of March, this puppet government forced a referendum regarding the accession of Crimea to the Russian Federation onto the population. It was a farce, at this point of time Crimea was already under total Russian control.
Among the Crimean Tatars, the occupation triggered old fears and memories of the darkest moments of their history. Their popular representation univocally rejected the annexation. However, the reactions of older and younger generations towards the event differed.
Djemil: Back then I had talks with my father, who belonged to the circle of people who said that they did not return to Crimea to leave again. But to me it soon became clear that life, in the best-case scenario, will become quite unpleasant. My father suggested back then that we should behave like turtles and hide ourselves in our shell, meaning that we should keep our disdain and opinions about the situation to ourselves. My friends did not believe at first what happened, but after it did they just
Sabina: The old generation obviously reacted very strongly to the events. Even though they were not among the ones that consciously experienced the deportations, they were born during this time, and they still grasped the seriousness of the situation a lot quicker. The generation which was already born in Crimea was split. Even though they were not outright supporters of the Russian government, there were still some among them for which Russia represented a window towards Europe, even though nowadays this turns out to be the exact opposite. But often this was not dependent on people’s political views but a question of education and culture.
Djemil: I already told you about the conversation with my father in which he tried to convince me to stay in Crimea using the comparison of the turtle. But I don’t agree with this comparison. In the first place it isn’t fair to us, because for their generation this problem didn’t exist. They had possibilities to develop themselves, even during the times of the Soviet Union, they continued their paths and succeeded at what they were able to succeed at. The maximum. Education or what they wanted to do. Therefore, the conflict lies probably in the question of how to continue life instead of accepting the status quo.
Sabina and Jemil stayed initially. While life was tailored more and more after the conditions of the Russian Federation, both weighed their options whether they were able to have a future in Crimea.
Djemil: Back then I was already together with my current wife. She was still studying and we thought that she probably wouldn’t receive a normal degree. But the crucial point came in September 2014, when I was working for the Television channel ATR. Via the internal mail provider, we were informed that the Russian anti-terrorist unit had asked the channel to hand out all names and information of their employees. Then I thought to myself, this is the time to become active. Best to vanish, because then it became clear to me that they will shut down the channel in any case since they decided not to become henchmen for the occupiers.
‘After 2014, the grandmothers stopped chatting with each other in the corridors’
But how does the situation look like today five years after the annexation? The position of the Russian government seems to not have moved significantly since 2014. The European Union and its partners prolong the sanctions year to year. In the international sphere we see gaping stagnation.
How is the situation in Crimea? Have its inhabitants, who once so passionately protested against the occupation, learned how to live with the situation?
Djemil: Yes, many have accepted the situation. They were forced to accept new documents and any type of work offered to them. Obviously, they try to hide their opinions in public. Simultaneously you can find fences and walls with the tag “PTN PNH” all around Crimea, which symbolize a certain level of opposition. But thankfully the FSB was unable to pin somebody down who did it. You know, the real irony is that the generation which was born around 2002 grew up with the Ukrainian national anthem and they had to stand up every morning in school for it. How would it be possible for them to quickly forget something like that? It’s a guarantee for protest and not only from Crimean Tatars. Many people hide their real opinions from the public.
The abbreviation „PTN PNH” in Russian stands for a direct request to president Putin to leave the stage, to phrase it diplomatically. As harmless as these actions may sound, under the current circumstances they do not go without risks; the security service is driven by paranoia.
On March 3rd, 2014, the 39-year-old political activist Reshat Ametov arrives at Lenin Square in Simferopol to protest against the occupying regime by himself. In a third-party video recording, three men dressed in camouflage without insignia approach him and force the resisting Ametov into a nearby car. Shortly after, he vanishes without a trace. On the 15th of March his corpse is found on a field in the South East of the peninsula. His perpetrators had duck taped his mouth, pulled a plastic bag around his head and gouged out his eyes. Even though the men on the video can clearly be identified as members of a pro-Russian civil defense unit, the occupation authorities reject undertaking steps to solve the murder, let alone find the perpetrator.
During the night on the 24th of May, 2016, the 30-year-old Ervin Ibrahimov is on his way home on a country road close to the city of Bachtschissaraj. He is a young, aspiring official representative of Crimeans and a prominent opponent of the annexation. The security camera of a nearby store records how men in uniforms from the Russian traffic police stop his car and force him onto the street. Ibrahimov attempts to escape by foot, but is his persecutors force him into the vehicle and disappear into the darkness. His relatives find his car on the roadside the following day, the key still in the ignition. Even though there aren’t any doubts, the authorities deny any involvement with his disappearance. His parents and friends are forced to search for him by themselves and regularly receive threats while doing so. Until this day, no traces exist that hint at the fate of Ervin Ibrahimov.
A report from the human rights organization KrimSOS concludes that in-between 2014 and 2016, 43 people in total were kidnapped, and in 36 of these cases there has been direct or indirect involvement by Russian security services. A majority of the victims were Crimean Tatars. In 17 cases the victims were found alive, six were found dead and two were traced back to Russian prisons. The 18 remaining people haven’t been found to this day.
The actual numbers could be even higher. KrimSOS points out that many families do not report the disappearance of their loved ones out of fear of repressions.
Sabina: When I came back to Simferopol for the first time after three or four months of me moving, I felt no happiness or nostalgia. The city had never been particularly green, but now all public places and parks are withering away. If you would ask the next-best passer-by about how life here is progressing, they would immediately tell you that they are building new roads here. You know, that is their ideal image of progress. I also dislike that people are behaving less tolerant towards each other. Already after the first week of the events of 2014, my neighbors stopped looking each other in the eyes.
That is what is most striking to me, that people avoid each other. In my neighborhood, the atmosphere used to be very friendly and people knew each other. But after 2014, the grandmothers stopped chatting with each other in the corridors. All the families started to isolate themselves. You arrive there and immediately feel this restlessness. It is like a weight on your soul. You get the feeling something could happen anytime, and you start living according to this expectation. You just feel unsafe.
Djemil and Sabina are currently living in mainland Ukraine. Both would like to return to their homes, but for that there are requirements.
Sabina: Of course, only when Crimea becomes a part of Ukraine again. With the Russian occupiers I can’t and I won’t cooperate. I can only return to Crimea with a clear conscience if the occupation ends.
Djemil: Personally, I would really like to return because I was forced to leave at a point in time when I absolutely did not want to. The circumstances surrounding it were such a shock for me that I somehow had to deal with. Maybe if Crimea would be underlying some type of international monitoring body. In reality, this would surely not be any Ukrainian body, but if there would be one by the international community I could imagine myself returning.
‘Let my people go’
Even before the occupation of Crimea, Djemil and a couple of friends had started the grunge-band Shatur-Gudur. The group’s music quickly reached nationwide fame, which probably has to do with their trademark: their lyrics are in Crimean Tatar.
Djemil: It was simply emotional. When we were recording this first track, I had a very special feeling while singing Crimean-Tatar in combination with this harsh guitar sound. It felt like on the inside of my throat a huge chunk of emotions would build up and explode.
Our sound is actually pretty trivial. A big influence to us was the Turkish Ska Punk Band called “Athena”. We particularly liked that they sang in Turkish, used national symbols and thematized important subject matters in their songs. But the biggest musical influence to us is actually Nirvana, which we regularly try to imitate.
He still remembers vividly what he believes to be the most important moment in Shatur-Gudur’s history.
Djemil: It was a gig back in Crimea, when it was still free. The concert was organized by ATR. At the beginning we played one of our fast, loud songs and then it transitioned to Louis Armstrong’s “Let my people go” with three female singers which we mixed different styles with each other. The venue was packed with people from all strands of life. It was actually rather uncommon to play such loud songs in front of such respectful figures such as Refat Chubarov.
It was no coincidence that they chose this piece. The traditional “Go down Moses” refers to the biblical story of the exodus and God’s command to Moses. He was meant to lead the Israelites from subjugation in Egypt back to the holy land. The chorus “Let my people go” is Moses’ call to the Pharaoh to free his people.
After they had spent half a century in banishment, the Crimean Tatars lost their home a second time. How long they will have to wait this time around remains uncertain.
Interview hosts & Writers: