Surreal. This is the first word that springs to mind when you wake up remembering the events that happened two years ago now. Ten days that shook the world. Ten days that changed the old reality forever. A handful of people changed the usual course of events, so that life would never be the same again.
For a long time it felt as though this was just a game – that the government would put a stop to all this in a week, ten days. The Russian flags and incessant patriotism, the infamous “little green men”, the prohibition of all things Ukrainian, the ban on Crimean Tatar media, the cancellation of all flights, and everything else – all this happened later. The sunny, early spring days of 2014 did not bode ill. Flowers started to bloom, just as they had done for hundreds of thousands of years, along with a course of events which over time has not only worsened the situation of the Tatar people, but also barred the way to a sustainable future.
On the morning of 27 February, when the “little green men” seized the parliament and the Cabinet of Ministers, nobody knew what to do. My boss phoned me and begged me not to come to work. He said: “You are a Crimean Tatar! Who knows what they will do to you!” As I rushed into Simferopol, I remember noticing how the city had changed. It was empty and everyone was afraid, waiting for orders from Kyiv which never came. That was when we Tatars understood what had happened.
Then the game to buy the Crimean Tatar vote at the referendum began. Their leaders were promised positions, money, and privileges. Russia would do everything that Ukraine had not done for the people. The leaders of the Mejlis were openly opposed because they knew what their people really felt about “reunification” with Russia. These feelings were fear and reluctance to once again be a part of the country they had fought against for 200 years. Every family had a fear of once again being expelled from Crimea. Memories of Stalin’s deportations were still raw and no amount of assurances from President Vladimir Putin could appease them. I remember interviewing the head of the election commission in Bakhchysarai, where many Crimean Tatars live. We asked her if many Tatars had voted. She said: “The Tatars are against us and the referendum. They do not like Russia”.
So the Tatars had no part in the so-called Crimean Spring. We supported the Ukrainian soldiers who remained blocked by Russian troops to the bitter end. We took no part in the “reunification” celebrations. Locals are well aware of this and hold it against us.
Anyway, in accordance with Crimea’s Declaration of Independence, we are citizens of Russia now. Immediately after the referendum we faced the dilemma of whether to apply for a Russian passport. The fear of once again losing our homeland triumphed – we applied, but without giving up our Ukrainian one. A few people have sold their souls to the occupier, but generally our hope never dies that we might soon be returned to Ukraine. Every family asks: “How much longer do we have to wait? Can we go back to Ukraine?” But we know that this idealism might be dangerous – we live in a hostile environment where even other Caucasian peoples perceive us as “agents of the West”.
The first step Moscow took was to get rid of the only national body of the Crimean Tatars – the Mejlis – by banning entry to Crimea for Tatar leaders for five years. Many Tatar media outlets have stopped broadcasting, people go missing, and there are constant police searches at the homes of ordinary Tatars. Sometimes whole villages are simply surrounded and they go into every Tatar house with machine guns. There is no actual search; this is simply a case of bullying the locals, leaving them once again traumatised. People I know burn books at night lest they suddenly appear on a list of banned literature.Living conditions have become appalling with no more than three hours of electricity a day. The local Russian media has blamed these hardships on “bandits” from Ukraine, meaning Tatars specifically.
Inevitably, people started to leave. Around 10,000 people have left, many of them Tatars. The most active and talented people leave for Kyiv and Lviv, as Crimea is no longer a place for pro-European youth.The ones that remainare isolated from the general population. Crimea no longer belongs to them. Refugees from the Donbas and various Russian regions are all resettled here on a permanent basis. In these circumstances, all we can do is keep our heads down and focus on preserving our culture. The recent blockade of Crimea by mainland Ukraine just adds fuel to the fire.
Overnight patriotism certainly adds to the madness of this world. Seemingly normal people suddenly get high on God knows what, become aggressive, and split families down the middle, turning children and parents, husbands and wives into enemies, destroying the bonds of old friendships. “No blood, no war”. This is how the government explains its conviction that nothing would happen, that families would not be split up, that there would be no risk of losing the last vestiges of our national culture, nurtured so carefully over decades, returned to the motherland to be planted once more in the fertile Crimean soil.
This surrealism touched anyone who was opposed to the changes in Crimea. Small businesses had to deal with changes in the legislation, all sorts of legal restrictions, and a more pressing need to regularly visit government offices to “pay one’s respects”. Now everything is different; the rules have changed. Children are faced with a new curriculum, new textbooks, and new realities which must be overcome so as not to have a problem with their exams and subsequent university applications. So you want to study? Go and recite new historical facts and promote the invention of this “old–new” country to the masses.
The older generation, on the other hand, is deprived of the opportunity to enjoy its national culture. Crimean national TV has been forced into exile, and all cultural activities can only take place under the supervision and approval of the new authorities. This ageing generation, which was hoping to heal the wounds of many years of exile, can only watch pro-government programmes and shows. Hopes of some sort of national revival have once again been dashed. The eyes are the window to the soul. They are a mirror of the people, the last sources of folklore, the true native language which finds it so difficult to survive in today’s context of globalisation and assimilation. The older generation is forced to live through political arguments and endless bad news once again. They are the ones to feel most sorry for now. And for a long time to come.
“No blood, no war”. This is how, peacefully and quietly, the land was handed over, forgotten by its previous masters. The game stopped being funny a long time ago and with each passing day became uglier. And even those who were at first completely swept up in the wave of euphoria and enthusiasm are now beginning to see the filthy mask of reality. “Crimea was never Ukraine”, says a representative of Western Ukraine, as if to say good riddance and bon voyage. But this is anything but a bon voyage. Crimea and its people are destined to go through difficult times. These events were inevitable ever since Ukraine became independent. Like a disease patiently waiting for a weakness in the body’s immunity in order to hit it, the question of Crimea was the weakness in Ukraine’s immune system.
One of my distant relatives is getting on a bit, but likes to keep up to date with the latest news. She is an active participant in civil society, and subscribes to magazines and newspapers. She has very mixed feelings about the changes that occurred two years ago. She loves it when the state TV channels show people happy in their new lives. She was happy to see the previous government overthrown, but at the same time dissatisfied with the new Russian one as it has not lived up to its promises. Pensions are not as expected, nor are the prices. There is more going on in the social scene, but somehow it’s not as interesting as before. However, because she is generally in favour of the changes, this has ruined all relationships with her relatives. This is quite normal, because only politics can affect such strong family bonds so much. Wives disagree with their husbands, brothers refuse to talk to each other any more, and parents kick their children out (or sometimes vice versa). What a couple of years! The schizophrenic consequences will affect the psyche of our people for a long time. And there is no logical explanation – they’ve just gone over “to the other side”.
Another example: a guy I know is also interested in the latest news and civil society happenings. He admits he finds it hard to go out. When he does, he constantly finds himself irritated at the new billboards, foreign number plates, political portraits, new party logos, and endless adverts which are plastered all over the place. It seems to him that this endless patriotism which has taken over people’s minds knows no bounds.
Even children (and he has three of them) are now “entertained” with stories about the new ferry ride across the Kerch Strait. A universal madness, problems with documentation, principled rejections of new Russian passports, businesses going down the drain – these are just some of the problems that have appeared out of nowhere thanks to a small group of people who happened to be in the right place at the right time. People have lost weight, old diseases and permanent neuroses have returned. My friend knows he is not alone. He realises that, as ever, under any government and laws, he can rely only on himself. But even he has never known such a volatile situation as now. And he never had such a nagging feeling that he was taking part in something driven by an invisible hand, being persecuted for some sort of Orwellian doublethink, which determines everyone’s behaviour. When I ask him why he has not upped sticks and left, he replies that Crimea is his homeland, where he belongs and would like to stay and work. If only for the sake of the older generation who returned to their native land only 20 years ago, to die in the land where they were born, from which they were brutally deported. Crimea is his land, with all its shortcomings, where he wants to heal the wounds and dry the tears of his people. To show that, in spite of all obstacles, you can find peace and prosperity, give life to a new generation, and help them on the road to the future.
There are many more such examples. Men and women, young and old, who discuss events a hundred times a day, quoting politicians, sometimes sowing hope and sometimes despair. To some it seems that there is no other news except what happens to them personally. Now new facts lead to jokes, stories, and fables. New words and euphemisms are being made up to reflect what is going on. People say that this is the only way to stay sane. This is not surprising – what else can we do? Anyway, as the French novelist Romain Rolland says:“Love [the dawning day] even when it is grey and sad like today. Do not be anxious. It is winter now. Everything is asleep. The good earth will awake again. You have only to be good and patient like the earth.”
This is my people – a people trying to find its place in the new reality. The reality of surrealism. They have lost faith in a better world, but are struggling with all their might to preserve their national identity, customs, and language. They have to survive time and again, as in past times, even though they had seemed to be finally back on their feet after years of trials and tribulations. They still have the courage to speak out against their oppressors, who monitor any sign of resistance day and night.
History and personal experience teaches us that the “Russian world” is dangerous and unpredictable. Since childhood, we have perceived this world in the light of the deportation of our ancestors. And once again this threat hangs over us. This is how Crimean Tatars see the world. We are people who know our past and our homeland. All our adolescence has been taken up with our return to Crimea and now we are focused on staying and living here. We are shaped by our experiences. We will stay in Crimea. The tragedy in all this is that we understand that we cannot go on living in the past. We would love to look to the future. But history just keeps trapping us in its unending cycle.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.