“I Will Always Be a Crimean Tatar First”

A Crimean Tatar woman Şefiqa talks about her Crimea, its past, present, and future, about growing up under occupation and the challenges that are yet to be resolved through de-occupation, decolonization, and the establishment of the Crimean Tatar state

Crimea is ours; Crimea is yours. Crimea is Ukrainian; Crimea is russian. The ownership of Crimea is discussed by people of many opposite political beliefs, but they all miss a crucial point: its indigenous population, the Crimean Tatars, continue to live and fight for their existence on the peninsula. This blindness may be intentional or not, but in any case it’s rooted in colonial policy: using the land of the indigenous population without consulting them, which is what the russian and Soviet authorities have practiced with the Crimea and its people since 1783. In discussions where Crimea is considered a valuable economic, political, or military platform, the indigenous sovereignty of the Crimean Tatars is always left out.

This is my conversation with Şefiqa (name changed), who was born and raised in Crimea, spoke only Crimean Tatar before school and grew up during the russian occupation. I am a half-Crimean Tatar who grew up in russia. We are peers who have experienced the changes after the annexation of Crimea, on both sides of the Kerch Strait. Initially, this publication was conceived as an interview, but I soon realized that such framing depersonalizes my respondent, turning her into a representative of an entire group, and not a living person with a unique experience. Therefore, it is important for me to frame our conversation with Şefiqa as an exchange between two Crimean Tatars from different worlds (in which Şefiqa, of course, remains the narrator).

Crimean Tatars remain on the land from which their ancestors were banned, despite the attempts of the Soviet government and its successor, russia, to destroy the Crimean Tatar statehood, culture, history, and national identity. For many, their very stay on the peninsula is an act of resistance, as it was in Soviet times, when returning to the Crimea for a Crimean Tatar led to an unequal struggle with the state apparatus. The experience of living in occupied Crimea is too distant from the Crimean Tatars who left for Ukraine after the annexation of the peninsula, while the historical and colonial context makes it different from the repressions in russia too. Over the last nine years, the security forces have constantly been persecuting the Crimean Tatars: cases are cooked up against entire groups, mass searches and raids are conducted in mosques, people are routinely kidnapped and killed, lawyers, journalists and activists of the human rights group Crimean Solidarity are persecuted. Crimean Tatar prisoners are tortured and killed without any access to medical care, and during the military mobilization, more than 90% of the summonses in Crimea were delivered not to the Slavic population but to the Crimean Tatars, forcing many to leave. Out of 180 political prisoners in Crimea, 116 are Crimean Tatars. Typical terms for those involved in the Hizb ut-Tahrir case are ten years or more.

“Supporting culture is important, but political prisoners are still incarcerated”

Today’s repressions are inseparable from the russian Empire’s settler colonialism in Crimea and the genocide of the Crimean Tatars in 1944. Sometimes this connection verges on absurdity: as Alexey Soldatov, a researcher on the security services, told Meduza, an FSB insider shared that in 2014, while coming up with a strategy for the peninsula, the agency tapped into Soviet archives and followed the KGB’s preferred line, “fighting Crimean Tatar nationalism.” The “fight” against Crimean Tatars still continues: the occupying authorities ban car races on the Day of the Crimean Tatar Flag and commemoration of the deportation anniversary, the police detain car race participants and try to outlaw national symbols. In 2016, the russian Armed Forces designated the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People an extremist organization.

Şefiqa is just one of thousands of those Crimean Tatars who did not leave Crimea after 2014 and are now experiencing all the pressure of the russian repressive and occupation machine.

Do you remember the rally on February 26, 2014, in Aqmescit [Simferopol], or any other events during the annexation? How did you experience what was happening then, what did you think and feel?

I remember the Maidan events very well, the first unmarked russian soldiers and the days before the referendum dragging on endlessly. After it, the whole of 2014 rushed by without me even noticing, as if there was no acclimatization or pause. I remember the Maidan and how my family and I watched the news every evening. I remember the first inscriptions that said “Anti-Maidan” in Crimea and how naively I laughed at them. I just didn’t believe it. But then the mood began to change, guards appeared around the monument to Lenin. And after that came the unmarked soldiers and military vehicles.

I will never forget February 26, 2014. I was at home and the whole family watched the live broadcast on ATR TV [Crimean Tatar TV channel]. Our friends were at the rally, and we were watching. I still remember the tension and anxiety of that day.

ATR TV kept playing “Vatanim” by Asan Khayretdinov, and every time my mother and I cried. This song is about love for the Motherland, about hope and about fears. I’ll always associate it with the beginning [of the occupation of Crimea].

In the evening everything seemed to be resolved, but the next day proved otherwise. The date for a referendum was announced, and my parents, relatives, our neighbors, and acquaintances naturally did not attend. The entire Crimean Tatar people refused to vote.

All that time I didn’t realize what was happening until the last. Yes, there were soldiers and equipment on the streets, but I just refused to believe it. And on the day of “integration” of Crimea into the russian federation I still didn’t believe it and still expected to wake up from this nightmare.

The trauma of occupation, what is it like?

Things that would have horrified me before have become commonplace. Blatant injustice is now everywhere. I’m used to the absence of freedom. I’m used to having to keep silent. I’m used to having to delete things from my phone all the time. I got used to it a long time ago. You don’t trust anyone and keep pretending.

“Crimean Tatar Crimea … how many dreams and hopes in these words”

Recently, trenches were added to the Crimean landscapes, and I got used to them too. If you squint, you can pretend it’s not there. We got used to everything, but we never accepted it.

With the occupation, I became bitter. Occupation kills your personality and your stance. Before the full-scale invasion, I had almost turned into an average person who “stays out of politics.” Because hope died a long time ago.

Too many years have passed to believe in something and wait for something. Years of propaganda have not affected me, I have never believed russia or the russian authorities. But I no longer lived in Ukraine either. I lived in Crimea.

How did the occupation affect your perception of Ukraine and russia, their media space, politics, attitudes towards the Crimean Tatars?

For the first two years after the occupation, we followed the Ukrainian news. As for the russian news, I could never take it in. In fact, I felt lonely because no one cared about us. We were and are still one-on-one with our problems. Yes, Ukraine adopted some laws and took certain steps, but they never affected me here, in the occupation.

Russia and their politics? They are slowly destroying our people. The so-called russian opposition has never сoncerned itself with us: as Navalny said, Crimea is not a sandwich to take and give back. I am so sick of their tales about the native russian Crimea. These people committed the genocide of the indigenous population and now tell me their invented history.

Until 2014, Ukrainians and russians were best friends and their enemy in Crimea was the Crimean Tatars. An outright xenophobic anti-Crimean Tatar policy was in place. In 2014, my people came out in support of Ukraine and only then did Ukrainians realize something. Not all of them and not everything, though.

With the beginning of the full-scale invasion, Crimean Tatars, our culture, and history were mentioned three times more often on the Ukrainian Internet. How do you feel about it? Do Crimean Tatars that are based in Crimea benefit from such awareness raising?

Yes, with the beginning of a full-scale invasion, they remembered us, and some of the Ukrainians learnt about the existence of our people. Indeed, support is very important and simply necessary. I am very grateful for their interest, it keeps me afloat. But unfortunately, there is an abyss between us, we are based in different places. I can’t help them, and they can’t help me. After all, most of our people are still in Crimea (although many left after mobilization began). Supporting culture is important, but political prisoners are still incarcerated.

Do you think there is a gap between the Crimean Tatars who moved to Ukraine after the annexation and those that remained? Especially those who have grown up and matured in this environment, our peers?

Yes, I feel an abyss between us. People could visit Crimea, but they did not live here and cannot fully understand us. They have high expectations of us. Some seem to forget about the Crimean Smersh, Talipov and huge prison terms. There is no freedom of speech. I know that many call us traitors for nothing.

All these years we have lived different lives. Some wore vyshivankas, Ukrainian embroidered shirts, and some were surrounded by russian flags. Objectively, we belong to completely different worlds. The “Crimean” may not agree with how radical the “Ukrainian” is about various issues. And the “Ukrainian” will see the “Crimean” as indifferent. They have forgotten or do not know what it means to live in Crimea, and we don’t know what it means to live in Ukraine.

Before the full-scale war, one choice always came up: to stay in Crimea or to leave. Those who stayed did not always approve of those who left. The words “Qırımda yaşa” (live in Crimea) were constantly heard.

Of course, russification is a big problem. Ukrainian assimilation, though more gentle, is still assimilation. I will always be a Crimean Tatar first, and people find it radical. People look at everything through the Ukrainian lens, but I don’t, and I don’t want to. They don’t seem to feel their people anymore, although maybe I’m too shut down in myself.

Can this gap be the reason for the ongoing dispute about the self-designation: “Crimean Tatars” vs “Qırımlı”? What do you think about this dispute yourself, does it make any sense?

The dispute about self-naming has been going on for many years. Perhaps, recently it has been gaining a new, interesting momentum. The catch is that, as I feel it, the word “qırımlı” exists only on the Internet and in the “Kyiv hangout”, and those based in Crimea call themselves Crimean Tatars. Some believe that with the change of the ethnonym, we won’t be confused with the Mongol-Tatars and Tatars of Kazan.

“A simple wish that on our own land we have a voice and it means something”

Opinions differ. Some think that this dispute splits our community and contributes to the disappearance of the people. Some have an opposite idea that truth springs from argument and we have to keep learning new things. Having different opinions is OK. Our people have always been like this. We are always divided: first by subethnicity, then by dialects, and now by the place of residence. I believe that we can discuss this topic, but do not forget that whatever we call ourselves, we must stick together. And always choose your own people first, not the next “masters.”

Do you feel any expectations because of your gender?

Everyday sexism is present, but it’s not too prominent. We have no tradition of stealing brides and arranged marriages are a thing of the past. Of course, I am expected to perfectly perform household duties, but it’s not an obligation. In general, most parents insist that their daughter get an education before all the rest.

There are more conservative families, of course, but most things can be worked out. Despite certain challenges I don’t feel that women are at risk.

I have not yet seen the status of Crimean Tatar women discussed anywhere on Crimean Tatar public platforms. Why do you think that is?

Because we are busy surviving. It always sounds like the mantra “survive survive survive”, but that’s the way it is. While fines are being issued for a rally with the Crimean Tatar flag, people simply do not have the resources, time and energy for other topics.

How do you see Crimean Tatar feminism, now or in the future?

It would be great if the community of Crimean Tatar feminists would talk about our problems and help girls. We should not forget that women’s suffrage was first introduced in the Muslim world by the Crimean People’s Republic in 1917.

In your opinion, is it possible to be an open LGBT person and a Crimean Tatar? How do people talk about LGBT Crimean Tatars? After all, others like us must exist, but it is an incredibly difficult topic to talk about, it feels like the rejection may be huge.

There is and will be condemnation. However, I don’t think that in the Crimean Tatar society it would come to murder, for example.

“I live in Crimea, and I love it as only we can love it”

In the occupation, nothing is possible. I joke all the time it would be ironic if I was jailed for LGBT propaganda, and not everything else. The rejection would be huge, I’m afraid of possible reactions, to be honest. But we’ll manage to approach this in the future. For now, the main thing is to survive.

Can you imagine coming out with your parents or peers?

Coming out to parents? Never. For my father, I will be a disgrace to the family. Mom might be supportive, but I don’t want to stress her out. Open up to friends? Maybe only close ones. Young people are naturally more tolerant, but still, it’s not that easy.

You are a Crimean Tatar. Can you be anything else besides that? Do you need it at all?

I am a Crimean Tatar, and I can be anyone I want. As a child, I suffered from bullying, and I wanted to be like everyone else. I even told my parents once that if I had been born russian, it would have been so much easier for me. Since then, I have come a long way, from worries about my nationality to taking pride in it.

Do the identities of a Crimean Tatar woman and an LGBT person, a woman who does not agree with the homophobia and sexism of our society, conflict?

I grew up in an ordinary Crimean Tatar family, all my relatives are homophobes. Our views on life differ a lot. I used to worry about it, but now I’ve accepted it. Not everyone among our people is like them. There will be those who support me, and I will support them.

What is most important for you in your experience of being a Crimean Tatar?

I always remember my roots because I am constantly reminded of them. On the bus, I’m looked at askance [because of my Crimean Tatar appearance], at school my name is mispronounced time and again. But I’m not afraid anymore. Every time someone greets me in my native language, I feel warmth only.

How do you see the free Crimean Tatar Crimea?

Crimean Tatar Crimea … how many dreams and hopes in these words.

I just want us not to be killed, not to be arrested, to be allowed to live in peace and develop our culture.

I would like to walk along any street in Crimea and understand that it is Crimean Tatar. To see that Crimean Tatar literature is not on the foreign literature shelves. And that the stands “On Crimea” are about indigenous peoples, not about imperial nonsense.

I am waiting for the cities and villages of Crimea to return to their historical toponyms.

I am waiting for the return of the Crimean Tatars to Crimea and I dream of a proper repatriation policy to increase the number of our people in Crimea. Reforms in education and inclusion of the Crimean Tatar language in the curriculum. Our people represented in the authorities, able to influence Crimean political life.

Less xenophobia and Islamophobia.

A simple wish that on our own land we have a voice and it means something.

Does living in your native land support you?

Living in my native land helps me to understand our people and my belonging to them. If I lived in any other place, I could have opposing views, but here in Crimea, I feel connected to our people.

I live in Crimea, and I love it as only we can love it.

Crimea for me is about my cultural identity and my love for this land. I do not idealize it and do not ignore the difficulties, but I am proud of my culture and our nation. And I believe that we will succeed.