ISTANBUL — Last winter I was asked to prepare English subtitles for a TRT documentary, "Kırımoğlu: Documentary of the Struggle of a People." I was vaguely aware of the Crimean Tatars' struggle to regain their homeland, but reading the quotes from Crimean Tatars added an entirely new dimension to this limited information. Shortly after this, my husband suggested taking a trip for spring break in Crimea. I immediately rang Neşe Sarısoy Karatay and Zafer Karatay, the director and producer of the documentary, and asked if they could provide me with some contacts there. They put me in touch with a lovely lady who headed up a Crimean women's nongovernmental organization and was a writer for a local Crimean Tatar newspaper Yeni Dünya (New World). When we arrived in Crimea, I rang her and we arranged to meet in the hotel lobby.
She arrived with a delegation of friends, all Tatars, and we sat and chat about what they were doing, what their problems were and what they wanted from life.
In a nutshell, these people, who were driven from their green homeland 70 years ago, wanted to re-establish their community on the Crimean peninsula. In 1944, Stalin gathered up approximately 200,000 Crimean Tatars (mostly women, children and the elderly) and exiled them from their green and temperate land, sending them into the deserts of Uzbekistan.
More than 10,000 died on the way. Russian citizens were brought into the peninsula and given the houses, land and livestock of the Tatars. The Tatars only managed to return to this region in the late 1980s to early 1990s.
Their homes and land were not restored to them. In fact, the Tatars do not even ask for such a thing, as they understood how difficult it would be for the Russians to leave these villages they now called home. The Russians too had been forcibly moved from their former lands. However, finding themselves homeless, the Crimean Tatars squatted on the land and started to gradually build their houses.
When we asked our hosts what is the most serious problem they face, they said it is the loss of their culture.
Every Tatar greets you with "Assalamu alaikum" [a common greeting among Muslims meaning "Peace to you"].
But their Turkish was rusty and their knowledge of their culture and religion basic. The imams sent out by the Directorate of Religious Affairs commented that there was great interest among the older people, but the young people were forgetting their culture, language and religion.
We were given a living example of this at an old Tatar farmhouse transformed into a social museum, set up as Tatar houses used to be. We were invited in by a young lady, who greeted us in the Tatar language (which was close enough to Turkish for me to follow). She asked us to sit down, but my friends were curious. They started bombarding her with questions. Helplessly she looked round and then bolted out to the kitchen, crying out, "Aunt! Aunt!" An older lady came in and started answering their questions in Tatar. She then turned to us and said, "This young generation! They do not know the language of their elders." The aunt gave us a tour of the house. Lagging behind, I found myself in the nursery with the niece and two Turkish friends. They, of course, had a number of questions. I struggled in my halting Russian, she in her halting Tatar, and in the end communication was established. Many people would make the fair comment that there is nothing wrong with the younger generation learning Ukrainian and not knowing Tatar.
That is, assimilation should not be discouraged. Indeed, in many instances it is a sign of progress. What is the point of keeping languages artificially alive? Let them die their natural death. However, the death of the Tatar language and culture is not a natural death. The Tatars did not immigrate to a foreign country. They are not strangers in someone else's land. They were driven from their homes, and fought their way, tooth and nail, back. For them, the death of their language, their allowing the Ukrainian or Russian language and culture to take over the country, would be a defeat. It would mean that Soviet leader Joseph Stalin's plan to eliminate them and their culture was fulfilled.
Perhaps it would be wisest for the Tatars to just let nature take its course. But humans are emotional creatures and language is the best way to express emotion. To cut people off from their past, from their history, from their literature, is the fastest way to destroy a nation. Stalin removed these people forcibly from their homes, from their land, from their language. I cannot blame the Crimean Tatars for wanting to maintain whatever they can of their culture. Today, with the current situation in Crimea, the question seems, unfortunately, not whether the Crimean Tatar culture will regain a foothold, but rather whether the dominant language will be Russian or Ukrainian.
As a result of the protests that started at the end of November 2013, Ukraine was for all intents and purposes split into two. Today, Crimea has its own parliament and is autonomous from Ukraine. After a referendum on March 16, Crimea, a peninsula to the southeast of Ukraine, was "absorbed" by Russia.
The situation in Crimea is, naturally, tense and angry. The soldiers who marched into the Ukrainian parliament on Feb. 27 trampled upon all existing Ukrainian laws and the parliament was convened even though more than half of the members of parliament were absent. The referendum, originally scheduled for May 25, was changed to March 30 and then to March 16.
Before the referendum had even been held, the head of parliament (a parliament not recognized by the people of Crimea) congratulated the peninsula on being (re)united with Mother Russia. On the official referendum web page, it was predicted that 78 percent of the people would vote to join Russia, while 24 percent would opt for remaining independent. This means 102 percent of the people were going to vote. This became the joke of the week, a sad, ironic joke, in Crimea. A large number of Ukrainians, Crimean Tatars and even Russians boycotted the referendum. However, according to that ever-reliable source, Wikipedia, the referendum was observed by 135 international observers from 23 countries and no violations were registered. International observers stated that the referendum was conducted freely and fairly. Over 96 percent of voters supported joining Russia, with a turnout of 80 percent. The speaker of the Russian Federation Council, Valentian Matviyenko, said, "If the results of the referendum mean joining the Russian Federation, then all rights that are given to the Russian people will be given to the Crimean people…The Crimean Tatars will have national and cultural autonomy." According to what this speaker said, the Crimean Tatars will have rights that they were denied until now. The Tatars will be able to speak their own language and enjoy their own culture. The Crimean Higher Council and the Russian Federation entered talks, trying to sort out the future of the peninsula. However, during this process the requests of the Crimean Tatar National Movement for national-regional autonomy were forgotten. That is, the Tatars will be supported in enjoying their own civilization/culture and language, but will be denied any other rights.
The Crimean Tatar National Movement listed the following demands: they will join Crimea as a Crimean National State with borders that existed before they were exiled and their language will be recognized, as will their culture, national curriculum and historical place names. They will also be represented in official state bodies. None of these rights to date have been fulfilled. The Tatars never made demands for rights or laws that pertain to them alone. Rather, they just want to be given the same rights as the other residents of the peninsula.
As of today, the Crimean Republic declared its independence from Ukraine and is seeking U.N. recognition. In addition, it requested to join the Russian Federation. Russia recognized Crimea as a sovereign state. The Crimean Tatar community convened on March 25 to discuss the situation, deciding on whether they should accept Russian citizenship.
If they do so, they cannot keep their Ukrainian citizenship as under Ukrainian law dual citizenship is forbidden. An extraordinary meeting will be held in Bakhchesarai, the former center of the Crimean khanate, on March 29. On this date, the future of the Crimean Tatars will perhaps become a little clearer.