Last week I had the opportunity to visit Crimea, a very different part of Ukraine (and in fact, it only became a part of Ukraine—then a Soviet Republic—in 1954). A peninsula on the Black Sea, Crimea’s strategic location has attracted seafarers, explorers and others for centuries—from Genoa to today’s Russia. So many people have come to Crimea, but one group’s story is about return as well. That group, Crimean Tatars, have had an experience that is so strongly about the combination of place and identity; about the ability to retain one’s culture under pressures most of us could hardly imagine; and about returning to a place once thought lost.
Beginning in the 13th century, Crimea became an important hub of Islamic civilization; today, such historic sites as the Khan’s Palace in Bakhchisaray (detail above) testify to their power and influence. Russian annexed the Crimean Khanate in 1783, beginning a wave of Tatar immigration to the Ottoman Empire. (that’s a very short history of a very long, complex story) On a single day in 1944, May 18, every single Crimean Tatar--hundreds of thousands-- were deported, by order of Joseph Stalin, who perceived them as a threat, to Uzbekistan and other far-removed Soviet provinces. More than half of those deported died along the way.
But perestroika and the end of the Soviet Union meant that deportation was not the end of the story of Crimean Tatars in Crimea. Today, more than 250,000 Crimean Tatars have returned to their homeland, leaving homes and livelihoods back in Uzbekistan. Some are returning to a homeland they never knew except from the stories of their parents and grandparents. Deportation Day, May 18, is commemorated every year with a rally in the main square in Simferopol and several projects are underway to document the Crimean Tatar experience and their rich traditional culture. Here's one such project: No Other Home, which has been exhibited at the Ukrainian Museum in New York City.
What will I remember about my introduction to Crimean Tatars in Crimea? First, in Bakhchisary, the workshop of a 85 year old master jeweler (top) who showed us his intricate filigree work while his young apprentices worked diligently, without lifting their heads, at this beautiful tradition, as the master spoke with us. Second was walking home at twilight in Ak-Mechet, a Tatar settlement outside of Simferopol where my friend a Peace Corps volunteer lives—as we walk, we pass the new mosque, lit up for services. Third, that great Crimean Tatar food.
But fourth, and most memorable, is the conversation with my friend's neighbor across the street in Ak-Mechet, who, after hearing what I did for a living, asked if there was any way I could help recover Crimean Tatar cultural materials from museums and archives in Moscow. His request speaks volumes about the power of objects, of cultural materials, that contain the stories and memories of a vibrant culture. Sitting in a friendly kitchen, drinking tea and eating sweets, the museum world's sometimes theoretical discussions about repatriation became intensely personal for me. I was very sorry to tell him that I only could wish I could be of help to his community. The Crimean Tatars' story of return is far from over.