When I received my Peace Corps assignment to Ukraine, six months before I left the United States, I began to read about the country—its history, people, culture. A brief entry about the Crimean Tatar people, “a Muslim ethnic minority,” caught my interest. Who are these people that seem so different from what I think of as Ukrainians? I filed away the information I gleaned from books such as The Ukrainians: Unexpected Nation by Andrew Sullivan and began the process of packing up my life in America to go and live in another country thousand of miles away.
On April 1, 2009 I found myself with 35 other volunteers in the northern city of Chernigov to begin my 10-week training period in the Russian/Ukrainian language and the customs of Ukraine. As we struggled to learn the language and understand the peculiarities of life in another country, we continually speculated where we would end up in Ukraine, where we would be living and working for the next two years. Two days before we would be officially sworn into our service in the Peace Corps and depart for our site, it was finally revealed where each of us would be going. To my utter surprise and delight, when my name was called, I heard Simferopol, Crimea, and then to further intrigue me, I was told that I would be working at the Crimean Tatar Library in the name of I. Gasprinskiy. After a 15-hour train ride from Kiev to Simferopol with my new friend, my counterpart from the library Nadjie Yagya, I arrived in Simferopol and my new home, Ak Mechet, a Crimean Tatar settlement on the edge of Simferopol.
So here I am, one year later, living and working with Crimean Tatar people, a very different life than what I had imagined when I thought of myself as a “Peace Corps Volunteer in Ukraine.”
And exactly who are the Crimean Tatars? I have spent the last year trying to answer that question to myself, by reading what English language books and materials on Crimean Tatars that I could find, by talking in my very poor Russian with my neighbors and library staff, by observing and understanding as best I can, what goes on around me. Here is some of what I know:
The Crimean Tatars are a Turkic Muslim people who inhabited the Crimean Peninsula—the southern land mass of Ukraine surrounded by the Black Sea and Sea of Asov—for over seven centuries. For three hundred years, from 1441 to 1783 when Crimea was annexed by Russia, the Crimean Tatars ruled the peninsula through the Crimean Khanate. At the height of the Crimean Khanate, there were over six million Crimean Tatars inhabiting the peninsula, and at the time of annexation to Russia, they constituted 98% of the population. The intense Russification of the peninsula over the next century forced many Crimean Tatars to leave their homeland, and by the time of the Russian Revolution, there were only 300,000 Crimean Tatars left on the peninsula. Under the Bolsheviks a brief flowering of Crimean Tatar culture occurred between 1921 and 1927, and Crimean Tatar was made the official language of the peninsula along with Russian. However, Stalin’s repressive policies soon ended this “Golden Age” and resulted in further devastation of the Crimean Tatar people and culture, culminating in the mass overnight deportation on May 18, 1944 of all Crimean Tatars to Uzbekistan and other distant Soviet Republics. Over 46% of the Crimean Tatar population died during transport and in the subsequent camps, and almost all evidence of Crimean Tatar culture—mosques, place names, art and literature—were destroyed in Crimea, leading to the desired final solution of a “Crimea without Crimean Tatars.”
However, the Crimean Tatars--living in exile, not allowed to speak or teach their language, practice their religion, play their music, or write their stories--kept alive the dream of their homeland and formed a national movement which, after fifty years of nonviolent struggle, brought them back to their native land of Crimea. In 1985 the Crimean Tatars slowly began to return, a momentum that gathered strength as more and more restrictions were lifted, and in a 4-year period from 1989 to 1993, over 200,000 Crimean Tatars flooded back to Crimea. Today, an estimated 300,000 Crimean Tatars live in Crimea, constituting 13% of the population. They have an official governing body, representatives in the Crimea and Ukraine Rada (Congress), national schools that teach all subjects in Crimean Tatar, a university that educates Crimean Tatar language teachers, art and history museums, theater, radio and TV stations, and the Gasprinskiy Crimean Tatar Library where I so happily find myself working as a Peace Corps Volunteer.
This is just a very brief synopsis of who the Crimean Tatar people are, a culture that has a long history and is rich in many traditions. An excellent English language website to read more about the Crimean Tatars history, culture, and present activities is the website of the Diaspora group, the International Committee for Crimea, www.iccrimea.org.