T h e U k r a i n i a n M u s e u m
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No Other Home: The Crimean Tatar Repatriates
Photographs by Alison Cartwright
In a kitchen in Marino, outside Simferopol, a fiery-eyed woman named Milara
In May of 2008, Maria Sonevytsky and Alison Cartwright traveled throughout Crimea (Krym) the scenic peninsula jutting out from southern Ukraine into the Black Sea gathering stories and songs that told of the Crimean Tatars' decades-long struggle to return to their motherland. Forcibly relocated by Stalin in 1944, the Tatars began to return to Crimea only in the last twenty years. The stories of the twenty-six families interviewed for this exhibit reveal how the memory of exile and uncertain prospects for the future manifest in their daily lives determine what "home" is for these people who have for so long lived without it.
Discussions over endless rounds of strong Turkish coffee in villages and cities throughout Crimea, now an autonomous republic under Ukrainian jurisdiction, inevitably led to this lament, which was repeated in a multitude of variations: "We are Crimean Tatars; we have nowhere else to go." It became almost an improvised incantation, a worn cultural narrative demonstrating the potency of an inherited place in the world. One can hear the same refrain in the idyllic village hills of Ay Sere…"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."
The month of May, chosen for the launch of this exhibit, is both a time of celebration and mourning for Crimean Tatars. Qidirlez is a holiday in the first week of May celebrating the beginning of spring and the anniversary of the meeting of two Muslim prophets, which is commemorated with tests of strength, beauty, and strategy. May 18 is the Day of Deportation when Tatars from all corners of Crimea convene in Simferopol's Lenin Square to remember and mourn the day their people were brutally exiled from their homeland.
Their banishment attests to the destructive strength of Stalin's Red Army. Accused of conspiring with the Nazis and betraying the Soviet Union, 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-language Muslim groups. Some 25 to 47 percent of the deportees died en route. Survivors were placed in "Special Settlement Camps" where they were held for more than a decade.
After the deportation, Tatar homes were given to ethnic Russian and Ukrainian Soviet citizens, and the peninsula was secured along with its strategic Black Sea port. In a fiendishly simple semantic maneuver that bears strong 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.
In 1954, on the 300th anniversary of a short-lived treaty between the Russian tsar and the Ukrainian Cossacks and 10 years after the forced deportation of the Tatars, Nikita Khrushchev, then the head of the Soviet Union, offered Crimea to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic as a token of friendship. Word soon spread of an aggressive Soviet action to repopulate Crimea with Slavs, for whom the temptation to relocate was understandable; in this mythologized Eden of the Empire, settlers were guaranteed homes, sometimes with beds already made and the previous summer's apricot preserves and canned tomatoes waiting in the pantry.
After being released from the settlement camps in the 1960s, Crimean Tatars immediately began agitating for an end to their exile. Following Stalin's death and Khrushchev's anemic apology for the atrocities carried out during his rule, Crimean Tatars were given the liberty to move freely around Central Asia and the Urals, but they were still forbidden to return to Crimea. Finally, in 1987, with the entire Soviet Union approaching collapse, Gorbachev granted Crimean Tatars the right to repatriation. Entire families, many of which had only ever heard stories of Crimea, immediately began making travel arrangements and gathering their belongings for the return to their ancestral homeland.
Today, there are an estimated 300,000 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' determination to return to Crimea. Those who returned tell stories of arriving in Crimea after half century, holding the same, rusted skeleton 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 those doors.
In the former squatters' settlements of the 1990s, diminutive ten-by-ten-foot brick structures stand littered between the towering facades of unfinished buildings, some of which mask meticulously constructed interiors would-be dream homes awaiting the cash needed for completion. Kerpichi, the pale yellow Crimean bricks resembling desiccated coral, are piled up in many lots the stuff of next summer's bedroom, chimney, or bathroom. Down the road is a three-story palace that was completed a decade ago, but still lacks running water and gas.
Such jarring contradictions between the exteriors and interiors are one legacy of a repatriation 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 are the children or grandchildren of the Tatars deported in 1944, and their memory of Crimea has been transmitted and reproduced through generations of storytelling and singing. Yet the conviction that this is their home is unwavering.
In his book The Meaning of Home author John Berger cautions 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 their 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 centered on the quest to recreate it. For a 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."
The sound components for the exhibit are fitted into repurposed, old soviet-produced telephones. Each telephone is a unique design with dialing instructions provided for listening to voice or music recordings related to a particular photograph or cluster of photos. The exhibit includes 32 photographs.
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