Gulnara Bekirova: “Those who stay in Crimea and those who left are in an equally difficult position, albeit their tragedies differ”

18 May 2016, 11:34

How do you see the foundation of Crimean Tatar identity today?

—  It stands on several pillars. The first one is territorial commonness: Crimea is the center of gravity for those who consider themselves Crimean Tatars. One of the tragedies of our nation is that Crimean Tatars who live in Crimea are a minority, while the majority of them are scattered all over the world – not only after deportation in 1944, but also as a result of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 1783. That one was followed by the massive emigration of Crimean Tatars. As a result, the people turned from a statehood-shaping nation into a minority in its homeland over just a century and a half.

No matter what, for those Crimean Tatars who currently live in Crimea – it’s a promised land of sorts for all Crimean Tatars – the peninsula is a symbolic embodiment of our nation. Other pillars of identity are language, religion and culture and, importantly, common historic memory, particularly that of the deportation in 1944. I think that most Crimean Tatars share the memory of deportation regardless of their political preferences.

Your first articles were published in the early 1990s. They were probably the first materials about Crimean Tatars since deportation. How much progress have Crimean Tatars made in learning their history in the past 25 years?

—  Indeed, most episodes of our past had been kept secret for a long time. During the last years of the Soviet Union I wrote articles about the emigration of Crimean Tatars in the late 18th century and early 19th centuries and a thesis on the historiography of Crimean Tatars. In the process, I discovered many facts that I hadn’t known before. Had I not studied in Moscow, I would probably have not had that opportunity: the Russian capital was the only place where certain documents were available. We, Crimean Tatars, didn’t understand why nobody wrote about our nation, why other students would give us awkward looks in schools, and why people associated us with the Mongol-Tatar yoke.

After the deportation, Crimean history was profoundly falsified, while the list of ethnicities didn’t even have the ethnonym “Crimean Tatar” after the mid-1950s. An unspoken ban existed for the admission of Crimean Tatars to humanities-oriented universities. The authorities were taking care of erasing historic memory. That forced us to do what I called “catacomb historiography”. That historiography was preserved in documents of Crimean Tatar national movement and in the statements sent by our activists to various institutions. A group that loses its memory is exposed to the loss of orientation and doesn’t know what to aspire to.

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For this reason, the Crimean Tatar national movement always focused on the revival of historic memory. By the way, the first criminal charge against Mustafa Dzhemilev[1] was for his “Description of the History of Crimea” book. The formal charge was imprisonment for refusal to serve in the army, but I found documents of the Prosecutor General’s Office in the archives later indicating his history study as the reason. Thanks to such people as Mustafa Dzhemilev, human rights activist Aishe Seyitmuratova, leader of Crimean Tatar National Movement Yuriy Osmanov, Crimean Tatar philologist Refik Muzafarov and supporter of national equality for Crimean Tatars Rollan Kaliev our historic memory was gradually revived and preserved. In the Soviet Crimean studies, however, Crimean Tatars were either enemies or traitors or they were not mentioned at all. In 1975, Soviet historian Oleksandr Nekrich completed a book titled “Punished Nations” and sent it to be published in the West – the chances of publication in the USSR were slim to none. He was among the first to speak about the deportations under Stalin and had therefore to emigrate immediately. In addition to that, Nekrich did not rely on archive documents as they were inaccessible, rather on the testimony of our activists. After the 1989 Declaration on Repressed People by the Soviet Union Supreme Council, the ban on ethnonym “Crimean Tatars” was lifted. Then St. Petersburg historian Valeriy Vozgrin began publishing his works and they came as a revelation to us. In 1994, I defended my thesis on the historiagraphy of Crimean Tatars from the late 18th century to the 1940s at the History and Archive Institute in Moscow. Crimean Tatar Professor Refik Muzafarov published the “Crimean Tatar Encyclopedia” in the early 1990s. While there were many inaccuracies in the publication, it provided a huge amount of facts.

We collected testimony about the 1944 genocide through our Unutma campaign: people sent us letters of their experience and photographs, and many interviews were taken. With the support of Lenur Islyamov, the owner of the ATR TV channel, we created a digital archive of materials collected during the campaign. I think the time of gathering facts is in the past. Now is time to summarize.

Are average Crimean Tatars profoundly interested in their history, or is this interest limited to intellectuals?  

— History is a very important component in the mentality of Crimean Tatars. However, it is difficult to satisfy this interest en masse in the current conditions. Ever since Crimea was occupied, demonstrations commemorating the deportation have been banned, while many Crimean officials have been saying that Crimean Tatars should stop mentioning it. The ban to commemorate the 70th anniversary of deportation was a spit in our face in the second month of annexation: the event was preceded by long preparations. Fortunately, Haytarma, a feature film on the deportation, had been released prior to that ban. It would be impossible to do this now. We had plans to publish books with testimony of the deportation survivors, but then March 2014 came. The only success was the publication of the book “We Saw Hell On Earth” in Russian in May 2014 in Kyiv. It describes the Unutma campaign and contains testimony from the deportation survivors. However, we had to postpone a more profound research. I speak regularly about the deportation and the years that Crimean Tatars were banished in Tarikh Syedasy, a show on the ATR TV channel which was forced to move to Kyiv from Crimea in 2015. ATR also organized a campaign titled Khatira (“Memory”) about the history of Crimean Tatars shown through individuals and images. On the upside, many more people in mainland Ukraine are now showing more interest in the history of my people.   

If Crimea returns to Ukraine, could the Crimean Tatar language become a fully functional one?

— At the moment, many Crimean Tatars are not fluent in their native language. However, I am convinced that this issue is not difficult to resolve and it should be done through education: everyone in Crimea should study it in schools alongside Ukrainian and Russian. Then we will have a full-fledged knowledge of the language and this, I am confident, will be beneficial for all. I’m somewhat in two minds about this next example, but I’ll still give it: those who know the Crimean Tatar language can also understand Turkish and many Turkic languages. Prior to deportation the majority of Crimean residents knew the Crimean Tatar language – this proves that representatives of other ethnic groups can learn our language. Until 1944 the Crimean Tatar language was considered a “lingua Franca” in Crimea. If introduced as a compulsory language, it wouldn’t be too difficult to learn. Of course, this is impossible under the current occupation of Crimea.

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The Crimean Tatar language today is an optional subject in schools, so we can’t really speak of any compromise on the part of the Crimean authorities. On TV, you have news on the former state TV and radio company Krym in Crimean Tatar, while the hosts of Tilde, fikirde, ishte – birlik talk show only start and end it in Crimea Tatar. They can speak the language perfectly, so can their guests, such as publishers or editors of Crimean Tatar publications. But they speak Russian on air instead. At this point, I do not see any prospects for the Crimean Tatar language in Crimea. Does it have any future in mainland Ukraine? I don’t know, but I would like to believe that it does. I think the Crimean Tatar Faculty at the Taras Shevchenko National University in Kyiv was quite popular this year.

Apart from feeble statements of Ukraine’s and EU’s officials about never recognizing it as part of Russia, do Crimean Tatar intellectuals have any reasons to believe that Crimea will eventually return to Ukraine? What would that take?

— I think that for many Crimean Tatars the issue of Crimea’s return to Ukraine will always be on the agenda and there are objective reasons for this, in particular our history over the past 150 years. Naturally, the postulate that Crimea is a part of Russia is a lie and the international community understands this perfectly well. The fact is that Crimea is occupied. And the Russian leadership also treats it as an occupied territory. They treat dissenters just like the Nazis did in 1941-1944.

The top priority for any occupied territory is de-occupation. However, I believe that the return is impossible until Ukrainians realize that “Crimea is ours”. Ask anyone in Russia, even a 5-year old boy: who does Crimea belong to? He will confidently respond: Crimea is ours. If you asked that question to any Ukrainian citizen two years ago, and especially today, the respondent would hesitate.

However, the transfer of Crimea to the Ukrainian SSR in 1954 was not a gift by Nikita Khrushchev. Crimea is a territory that we must struggle for as it is existentially Ukrainian. Currently, it is only the Russians and Crimean Tatars who are fighting for it in the political arena. The forces are clearly incomparable. Two more forces should join this fight: Ukrainians should say “Crimea belongs to us”, while in the EU and USA, not only politicians, but average people should be aware that Crimea is part of Ukraine.

Also, Ukrainians themselves should honestly comprehend the recent developments. We must realize that “the little green men” came to Crimea, not to Lviv or Vinnytsia. We should admit that they had necessary social ground, one that had been nurtured and nourished by the Ukrainian leadership for 23 years. In fact, it surrendered Crimea gradually and consistently. First, by resisting pro-Ukrainian Crimean Tatars. Second, by taking zero efforts to make the rest of Crimea pro-Ukrainian. Having five or six schools with education in the Ukrainian language on the entire territory of Crimea was a total joke. Meanwhile, the encouragement of Russian separatism only increased over the years. One of the tragedies of Ukraine’s Crimea is the fact that the biggest patriots of Ukraine there were Crimean Tatars. If Crimea had 500-600,000 pro-Ukrainian Ukrainians, would we be talking about all these things here now?  

And, finally, why are people cooperating with the Russian government today? In short, those that sympathize with Ukraine and hold it in their hearts and souls remain in Crimea, but they see no efforts on the part of the Ukrainian side to return Crimea. This is a great discouragement for a pro-Ukrainian position.  

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Let’s imagine that Crimea will one day become part of Ukraine again. Do Crimean Tatar intellectuals have a vision of what it should be after that?

— The concept of the Ukrainian Crimea would clearly be Crimean Tatar national autonomy within Ukraine.  This format is justified by the fact that Crimea is the only homeland of Crimean Tatars. This is the place where they were formed as a nation. The Crimean Tatar state existed on the territory of Crimea for more than 340 years. Crimean Tatars feel and remember their statehood. In fact, the Crimean Autonomous Republic existed from1921-1945 exactly due to the fact that the indigenous people known as Crimean Tatars lived there. We know that if we don’t have this, we will lose all we have with time. A nation’s right to self-determination is actually exercised within a national autonomy. Many top officials in Crimea (for example, the head of the Central Election Committee or the Crimean premier) prior to being banished were Crimean Tatars. I found archive documents whereby a Crimean Tatar woman had chaired the Crimean parliament prior to World War II, in 1940.

We have no detailed roadmap at this point. But I assure you that all this can be outlined and organized within a month. Few groups here have the self-organization capacity equal to that of Crimean Tatars. Look at the civil blockade of Crimea. It was initiated by a handful of Crimean Tatar activists who later found out that they have many allies in mainland Ukraine. Skeptics said that the blockade would be over in a few days. Instead, it has been in place for four months and already gives results. This is testimony to the fact that people are taking responsibility for this territory. The main thing is to avoid distrust and prejudice towards Crimean Tatars from Ukrainians (that had been a case before), and others throwing up roadblocks along our way. All those prejudices and fears stemmed from the Soviet era when the authorities needed to impose some concepts to justify the deportation. The stereotypes include the idea that the Russians are always friends and brothers, while Crimean Tatars are always enemies, even if the actual situation points to the opposite.  

I have been promoting history for two decades now, and sometimes I wonder whether all these efforts are vain when the same old stereotypes stay in place for so long? The way people think takes very long to change. Actually, if it hadn’t been for the annexation, we would probably never have found out how poorly Ukrainians know the history of Crimean Tatars. In 2014, I began to lecture in Kherson, Lviv and Kyiv, and was shocked to find out that that all people in Ukraine know about Crimean Tatars are the stereotypes imposed by the Soviet and later Ukrainian textbooks.

Is there a schism between Crimean Tatars that relocated mainland Ukraine and those that remained in Crimea?

— This is definitely a problem that is clearly visible in social media, though I would not exaggerate its scale. It is more emotional in nature and such emotions are irrational. If to look at things objectively, life is difficult both for those who remain on the peninsula and for those who managed to leave Crimea. What makes the position of Crimean Tatars more difficult is that they struggled to return to their homeland after deportation and can’t just leave it now. This is precisely that imperative that despite all things keeps many people from leaving Crimea. The majority of pro-Ukrainians left for the mainland, but most pro-Ukrainian Crimean Tatars can’t do that. Desperate, many of my students and colleagues asked me in the spring of 2014: “What should I do? Leave or stay?” I said to them and say the same to all those who ask today: if you know that tomorrow nobody will come after you, that you are under no threat of being arrested and if you can just stand living there, then stay. If you have that possibility, live your life there, remain silent, have children and nobody will cast a stone at you because you’re under occupation. But some of those who stay in Crimea now say that life must be much easier for those who left. Is it? All those who resettled to Kyiv, Lviv, Kherson and Vinnytsia are renting apartments. They left everything they had behind. Some people can’t go back to Crimea because they will be arrested immediately.

I believe that those who stay in Crimea and those who left are in an equally difficult position, albeit their tragedies differ. For those who left the tragedy is that we cannot live in our own home. Those who stayed essentially live in a reservation. Intellectuals have only two options in Crimea if they want to stay alive or out of jail: they can either cooperate with the authorities or keep silent, so that nobody assumes that they think differently.

Despite all the heroic efforts to preserve ATR in Crimea, the authorities there realized that it’s an alien body just because it tried to speak the truth, and not serve those in power. If you are in the opposition, you will be squeezed out no matter what. It is painful for me to see that some of my friends have surrendered. But I understand that this is a strategy of survival under occupation. I cannot cast a stone at any person that lives there. I think that this divide evident in social media will be easily overcome once Crimea returns to Ukraine.  

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The only people I can’t accept are those who overdo it in an attempt to be liked by those in power today: they sling mud on those whom they praised just a year ago. They act as if not hoping to meet with us ever again. But will one day see each other face to face, and perhaps this will be in Crimea and very soon.


Gulnara Bekirova was born in Melitopol, Zaporizhzhia Oblast, and studied at the Historic and Archive Institute in Moscow. In 1994, she defended her thesis on “The History of the Crimean Tatar People in Russia in Russian Literature (end of the 18th century to the 1940s)”. She worked for the First Crimean Tatar Channel ATR and is the author and anchorman of Tarikh Syedasi (Echo of the Past), a program on history. Before moving to mainland Ukraine, Ms. Bekirova lectured at the Crimean Engineering and Pedagogical University. Today she resides in Kyiv. She is the author of 11 books. In 2009, she was awarded the Bekir Çoban-zade Award for her monograph “Crimean Tatars. 1941-1991”.


[1] Mustafa Dzhemilev, 72, is former Chair of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People and currently MP at the Verkhovna Rada. A dissident in Soviet times, he was nominated for Nobel Peace Prize several times.

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