After fifty years in exile and twenty years of repatriation, the Crimean Tatars still yearn for home. (Please use headphones.)
In May of this year, I traveled with photographer Alison Cartwright through Crimea, gathering stories and songs that told of the Crimean Tatars’ decades-long struggle to return to their motherland. The Tatars were forcibly relocated by Stalin in 1944; only in the past two decades have they begun to resettle this verdant peninsula jutting out from southern Ukraine into the Black Sea. Our interviews with these families, conducted over countless rounds of strong Turkish coffee in villages and cities throughout Crimea, reveal how the Tatars’ memory of exile and their uncertain prospects for the future shape their daily lives.
Photo: Inside a makeshift home, known as a vremianka, in a Crimean Tatar squatter settlement. Music: A deportation-era anthem, “Ey Güzel Qirim” (Oh Beautiful Crimea). Sung by Fevzi Aliyev. Piano accompaniment by Maria Sonevytsky.
In a kitchen in Marino, outside Simferopol, a Crimean Tatar woman named Milara leaned over the table and spoke emphatically into my microphone: “There is nowhere else for us to go. We have no other home.” In the idyllic hillside hamlet of Ay Serez, we heard: “We are Crimean Tatars, we have nowhere else to go.” In a crumbling Soviet high-rise in the western resort city of Yevpatoria: “We didn’t have any choice, this was the only place for us, and we always knew we would be here.” In Alupka: “What do I need America for, if my homeland is Crimea!” I began to think of the variations on this theme as an improvised incantation demonstrating the potency of an inherited place in the world.
Our travels began during a time of celebration and ended on a day of mourning. The first week of May brought us numerous invitations to attend Qidirlez, the day when Tatars celebrate the beginning of spring and the anniversary of the meeting of two Muslim prophets, with tests of strength, beauty, and strategy. We left soon after May 18, the Day of Deportation, when Tatars from all corners of Crimea—now an autonomous republic under Ukrainian jurisdiction—convene in Simferopol’s Lenin Square to remember and mourn the brutal exile.
Their banishment is a testament to the destructive strength of Stalin’s Red Army. Accused of betraying the Soviet Union by conspiring with the Nazis, the entire population of Crimean Tatars—approximately 200,000 people at the time—was forced onto cattle cars and carted thousands of miles to be resettled among other Turkic-speaking Muslim groups. One of Stalin’s lieutenants, Lavrenti Beria, advised him that, “taking into account the treacherous activities of the Crimean Tatars and...the undesirability of Crimean Tatars further residing in the border zone of the Soviet Union,” there was no option but deportation. The official Soviet line was that a “humanitarian procedure” had been conducted to bring Tatars closer to their “brothers” in Central Asia and the Urals. Between 20 and 40 percent of the total population died en route to what is now Uzbekistan and other remote parts of the Soviet Union, where 150,000 Tatars remain to this day.
After the Tatars were deported, their homes were given to ethnic Russian and Ukrainian Soviet citizens; the peninsula, with its strategic Black Sea port, was occupied. For Slavic settlers, the temptation to relocate was understandable: In this mythologized Eden of the empire, settlers were guaranteed homes, sometimes with beds already made and last summer’s apricot preserves and canned tomatoes waiting in the pantry. In a fiendishly simple semantic maneuver that bears repercussions to this day, the modifier “Crimean” was dropped from the Tatars’ passports, making them indistinguishable from a multitude of other Turkic Muslims throughout the Soviet Union. Those who survived the deportation were placed in “Special Settlement Camps,” where they were held for over a decade. Then, in 1954, on the three-hundredth anniversary of a short-lived treaty between the Russian czar and the Ukrainian Cossack freedom fighters, Nikita Khrushchev offered Crimea to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic as a token of friendship.
Immediately after being released from the settlement camps in the 1960s, Crimean Tatars began agitating for an end to their exile. In the early days of this struggle, the samizdat Crimean Tatar magazine Emel
testified, “Deep in his heart, no Crimean Tatar, [whether he was once] a KGB agent or a movement provocateur, ever betrayed his desire to return home.” After Stalin’s death and Khruschev’s anemic apology for the atrocities carried out under his rule, Crimean Tatars were allowed to move freely around Central Asia and the Urals, but they were forbidden from returning to Crimea.
Finally, in 1987, with the entire nation approaching collapse, Mikhail Gorbachev granted Crimean Tatars the right to return home. Families, many of which had only ever heard stories of Crimea, immediately began gathering their belongings and making travel arrangements. Today, there are an estimated 300,000 Crimean Tatars in Crimea—less than 15 percent of the total Crimean population. In exile, keys to homes abandoned in 1944 became cherished symbols of the Tatars’ insistence on returning to Crimea. Those who returned tell stories of arriving in Crimea after half a century, holding the same keys they had used to lock their doors for the last time. The keys still fit the locks, but their owners had no right to open the doors.
When Milara uttered her version of the ubiquitous line, we were having coffee and cookies at her friend Gulnara’s home in Marino, a former squatter’s settlement on the outskirts of Simferopol. Milara and Gulnara met on the picket line in Moscow in 1987 and migrated to Crimea with their families soon after. Gulnara and her four children operate a tiny convenience shop for their neighborhood; whenever they have additional funds, they use them to improve the house, a typical home in these settlements: tin roof, earth floor, sandy spackle over yellow brick walls. Gulnara’s husband fought for the rights of Tatars throughout the 1970s and ’80s but has since succumbed to alcoholism and was living in a dilapidated burnt-orange wagon outside of the family’s house. Gulnara shook her head when I asked about him, saying simply, “Where there was a man, now there is no man.”
Like so many of the settlements where Crimean Tatars began squatting in the 1990s, Marino is a patchwork of houses in various stages of becoming homes. Diminutive ten-by-ten-foot brick structures litter the lots between towering facades of unfinished buildings, some of which mask meticulously constructed family rooms. These are would-be dream homes awaiting cash flow. Kerpichi
, the pale yellow Crimean bricks resembling desiccated coral, are piled up in most lots—the stuff of next summer’s bedroom, chimney, or bathroom. Down the road is a three-story palace that has been completed for a decade yet still lacks running water and gas.
Such jarring contradictions between surfaces and interiors are the legacy of a repatriation process that has stretched over two decades, a period punctuated by the economic instability and heightened political corruption that followed Ukraine’s declaration of independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Many of those who returned to Crimea are the children or grandchildren of the Tatars deported in 1944; their memory of Crimea is not firsthand, but the product of story and song. Yet that does nothing to diminish the unwavering conviction that this is their natural home.
So here is the lumbering question: What really motivated the Crimean Tatars to return? What convinced them to uproot themselves once more, abandon the homes built over four decades in exile, leave the careers they had established? Was it opportunism on a grand scale, as many opponents of the Tatar cause argue? The drive to reclaim a debt owed to ancestors? Or simply the momentum of a culture so deeply connected to a place that there were no options other than returning to it, as the songs of exile have reminded each subsequent generation?
For a person as uprooted as myself—an American daughter of Ukrainian refugees who was raised bilingual, a New Yorker who has carted her cardboard boxes full of books and used furniture to seven different apartments in the past five years, and, most recently, an ethnomusicologist doing fieldwork for her dissertation in Crimea—this conviction about one’s place in the world is foreign, even a little unnerving. Staking such a strong claim to a place implies a desire for stability, community, and continuity—all of which strike me as retrograde. Like many others, I am personally moved by the idea
of home, but the truth is I am living out the American immigrant’s inheritance: the impossibility of locating home, much less recovering it.
There are few superficial similarities between the image of home cultivated by the transient New Yorker and the one harbored by Crimean Tatars working to reclaim the territory to which they have returned. But the poetic and practical, the nostalgic and concrete dimensions of home, are universal. Among the forsaken squats and luxurious dream homes, the one-bedroom apartments inhabited by families of five or more, and the dusty mattresses dragged out onto future yards where children play while parents build, various narratives of home emerge. From impassioned convictions about an abstract ideal to the practical realities of building a shelter, these stories animate the idea of home.
John Berger has cautioned that “approach[ing] experience...is not like approaching a house.” But in the case of the Crimean Tatars, the house is the most instructive, heuristic symbol of the collective experience. The houses built, bought, and dreamed of by the Crimean Tatars contain the stories of ancestors, the aspirations and disappointments of returnees, and the obligations imposed by history. The stories and songs that follow lend insight into the experience of home by a people whose ethos has centered on the quest to re-create it. For people deprived of a voice for over half a century, stories told to friends and family were the only way to challenge a history that denied their basic identity, to remember events that were erased from public memory. “If every event which occurred could be given a name,” Berger writes, “there would be no need for stories. As things are here, life outstrips our vocabulary. A word is missing and so the story has to be told.”
Kamenka Settlement, Simferopol
Deportation was done in one or two days, but the repatriation still hasn’t finished. That’s it. The repatriation isn’t over.... That’s it.
Dobroye Settlement, Simferopol
means a temporary home without a foundation, without cement. You can live in your vremianka
while you build your house. It’s temporary housing. A normal house is permanent. We’re going to build a better outhouse [than the neighbors have]—not such a small one. I want a nicer one. I told my husband, if we’re going to build, let’s do it right, so that we can live normally. So we’ll build an outhouse first and then the house. All my life I had a home. Then I moved to Crimea, my mother died, my money became worthless [due to severe inflation], and I ended up without a home.
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So why did you decide to return?
Because everybody else left—all my family. I was the last one. I had no one to visit. My father-in-law died after everybody had left, so we buried him mostly according to Uzbek tradition. And understand, we Tatars have different funeral rites, different wedding traditions from the Uzbeks. They said if you are here, you should do everything the Uzbek way. But why should we lose our culture? Also, I really loved our art. There was none of our art there. I loved the music—when I heard Crimean Tatar music, I got tears in my eyes.
Of course, as children we didn’t see Crimea, but every family conversation always turned to the subject of Crimea. As a child, I remember that we had boundaries. We were not allowed to leave our settlements. So the biggest pleasure for Crimean Tatars was visiting one another in our homes. And when guests came over, no matter what topic you started to discuss, eventually everything turned to the subject of Crimea: how’s it’s going in Crimea, who we used to visit, about the natureland there. And we, as children, obviously heard all of this.
And with our guests, in our homes, we had very discreet conversations about the Soviet authorities and Stalin. For that reason, the Soviet propaganda did not encompass our thinking. For example, when Stalin died—I was still in school then—everyone was crying, and I noticed that the Crimean Tatars were the only ones who weren’t crying.
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When we found out about his death, the first thing my father said was, “The dog has finally died.” And here, everybody’s crying like it’s the end of the world. I even watched our school administrator and thought that he was pretending, because my father said one thing and this guy was crying like it was the end of the world. I thought he was pretending, and I followed him. He made a speech in front of the children, saying the great leader of all the people has perished, and then he stopped talking, started crying, and left. I thought he was pretending, and I followed him into an empty classroom, where he beat his head against the wall and continued to cry.
But none of us cried. So one guy—Reshat Bekmanbetov—ran up to us and said, “Listen, everybody’s crying. Only our people aren’t crying. We can be imprisoned for this. So I brought an onion to rub under our eyes so we’ll cry a little, too, otherwise we’re not able to cry.” And after this, we had a period of mourning, and the only good thing that Stalin did, was that, thanks to him, we didn’t go to school for three days.
If someone went to Crimea and brought a box of chocolates back, we would eat the chocolates and then hang the empty box on the wall. “This came from Crimea!” That’s how our parents raised us.
I had a good life. I was in Samarkand, had a house in the center. I owned a shop, a restaurant. I was the president of the karate society of the Samarkand region. I employed thirty trainers. I left it all and came to our homeland.
When I lived in Samarkand in the 1990s, for two years people were trying to talk me into coming to New York. There was work there—there was a restaurant. They said, “Come, you could buy it.” I understand the restaurant business. I didn’t go. I said, “No, I will go to my homeland, Crimea.” They went. They live there now, in America. And I came here, to Crimea. I had many friends—Chuck Norris’s students were with me for three days in Samarkand, I had an invitation from Chuck Norris to America. Chuck Norris has my picture in his office. But we came here.
You just didn’t want to go?
What do I need America for, if my homeland is Crimea! I wouldn’t trade Crimea for America or Europe or anything.
Ismail Bey Settlement, Yevpatoria
We began to return in 1987, slowly. The cost of houses rose. We couldn’t live. Nobody was waiting for us here. We left on trains, but we had to come back on our own, any way we could. We would buy houses. Immediately prices rose because of the big demand. And when we came here, there were no houses. People couldn’t buy houses; some didn’t have the financial means; some didn’t have the possibility. There were almost no houses at all; and owners, they hid the available houses. If a house was for sale, the proprietor wouldn’t say so. In general, in the first years, people were forbidden to sell their homes to Crimean Tatars.
Refat and Nefize Abdukarimov
To pack up and move here wasn’t difficult. What was difficult was to live here.
In what sense?
We needed land. Nobody gave us apartments. We had to wait for land. We stood for four months in a picket line so that they would give us land. When we finally got land, the Soviet Union started to dissolve. When it started to dissolve, building materials started to be became scarce, and that’s it.... And so it’s taken us eighteen years to build.
This house is my house. I was born here. After fifty years—after fifty years—I came back and bought my house. I gave it away for free and bought it back for money. I arrived on May 9 and came to an agreement with the landlord. I would buy the house. I left. But on May 30, he sold it to another man. When I returned, I kicked him out and occupied the house. “Yes, I was fourteen when I was exiled,” I said. “I am the rightful owner of this home.” He listened, listened, and he said, “OK, I am giving it to you—the house is yours.” He left, and I bought the house.
Asan, Azime, and Shevqiye Seytmemetov
I was in America for a month, and when I came back a lot of people asked me, “Why didn’t you stay there?” I never thought about it...and I will never think about it. Every day I was in America, I was thinking about my family, about my children. When I left Uzbekistan, I never thought about it either, even though we had built our own house there with our own fingers and our own hands. This is the place of our roots. They say if you are born in Russia, you are Russian. If you are born in Uzbekistan, you are Uzbek. And I say if you were born on a plane? On a train? What are you? You see?
...If you want to annihilate a person, make him move three times.
Zulfie Isamailov, Ayder Ismailov, Milara Settarova, and Sevil Ismailov
First, Crimean Tatar women want their children, husbands, relatives, and brothers to be healthy and happy. That’s the first thing. But for complete happiness, a person should not consider himself inferior in his homeland. What do Crimean Tatar women want? What did they want in Moscow in 1987? What did our ancestors want before that? They want to live in their homeland. They want their children to learn Crimean Tatar. They want the language to have official status in Crimea, as it was in 1921. And they want their rights to be restored, they want what is given in by the Ukrainian Constitution: the right to an education, the right to housing, the right to land, the protection of your honor and dignity. All of these rights should not just be formal but realized. And of course, I want Crimean Tatar autonomy—and I think everyone wants this. Our politicians, our Ukrainian brothers, I think, also want this. There are people who support this idea because we have no other home besides Crimea. There’s nowhere for us to go.
Seytveli and Galiya Settarov
Seytveli and his daughter Milara sing “Ural Dag.”
Marino Settlement, Simferopol
In my opinion, what we had before the war—from what they’ve told us—was a dream. For that reason, Crimea became holy. But today, when I came and saw it, what difference does it make? Instead of living this way, in conflict with one another, it’s better to live in a different country and to live well there. This fight takes away your strength. It’s fruitless. Instead of creating, you fight.
Abdullaeva is eighty-nine years old. Her son-in-law, Ibraimov (not shown), is speaking.
Is there such a thing as a nationality without a homeland? I respond to your question with a question: Is there such a thing as a nationality without a homeland? Is there such a thing as a person without a house? Can a person be without a family, without homeland, without relatives, without land, without a house? All of this is tied into rodina
. One word, rodina
, means house, land, nationality, tradition—all of this is everything that goes going into the house of humanity. All of this is rodina
. And Crimean Tatars have no other home. Understand? He has one homeland. This is it. This is what we have. Crimea. For twelve hundred years we have been here, but it turns out to be only almost our homeland.
Egiz is standing in front of his grandfather’s home, which he hopes to buy back from its Russian owners.
As children, we didn’t understand what fatherland is, as we do now, but we knew that it was ours and we must return. When my father first went to Crimea and came back, we were waiting for presents from Crimea there. We didn’t know what Crimea was, but we knew it was our land. We couldn’t explain how we found ourselves in Uzbekistan, and why we were born there, but the “dream of Crimea”—there’s no other way to explain it—also lived in us. And we always wanted to return to Crimea. When I came to Crimea, it was as a child, but I understood. I saw in the trees, and in nature, the land, that it was ours. I was searching in nature for something that was ours. We have returned. I told myself, “This is ours. We have returned.”
Sung by the Settarov family on May Day, 2008.
A traditional Crimean Tatar song, performed by Alie Khadzhabadinova.
Performed by Enver Sherfidinov, violin.