Russia's Annexation of Crimea: Using Fiction to Explain Real History

August 7, 2023
UkraineWorld spoke to Svitlana Taratorina, the author of the novel House of Salt.
Photo credit: UA Geek

Key points – in our brief, #UkraineWorldAnalysis:

1. On how her fantasy novel intersects with the Crimean Peninsula’s long history

As a Crimean, I could not start writing a novel immediately after the annexation of Crimea in 2014 because this event became a family tragedy. In 2019, I had two goals: on the one hand, I wanted to understand what happened to Crimea and why Russia had such an easy time annexing the peninsula, and on the other hand, I really wanted to find my Crimean identity and understand the history of the peninsula.

We know very little about the true, non-Soviet-imperialist history of Crimea.

The novel mainly takes place in an alternate, apocalyptic universe, where a disaster has changed the peninsula. Before the catastrophe, the peninsula was called Kimmerik, while afterwards it was called Dasht (a reference to the lands of the Cumans, whose land was called Dasht-i-Kipchak).

In the novel, this territory is no longer inhabitable for normal life, as the land has been salted and its storms change reality. The people who stayed on this land are also "saline". This territory is ruled by the Big Brothers, a military-religious organization that wanted to take over Kimmerik, but was halted after a catastrophe occurred which stopped the war and led to inevitable changes. They think they control this land, but it has changed and it is no longer possible to control.

Along with the main storyline, there are embedded novels that refer to different historical periods - from ancient times of the indigenous Tauri people as described by Herodotus, nomadic tribes, the Sarmatian queen Amaga, the Red Terror, and to the deportation of the Crimean Tatars.

I made it a fantasy novel to show how ancient the history of Crimea really is. And the Russian annexation is only a moment in the huge timeline of the history of the real Crimea.

House of Salt is a multi-layered metaphor. Salt is an integral part of human existence and of the Crimean steppe, with its abundance of salt marshes, despite the North Crimean Canal. The memorable beauty of the region, when the salt rises above the ground and glistens at dawn nourishes me. At the same time, when there is too much salt, it turns into poison.

2. On Crimean identity and vital myth for understanding the peninsula

Pavlo Kazarin once said that Crimeans have an island mentality. But this mentality was sponsored by imperialist Soviet myths that tried to tear Crimea away and turn it into an island in order to make people think that Crimeans have nothing in common with mainland Ukraine.

Water is what links the peninsula with mainland Ukraine. The metaphor of salt came to mind when the water supply stopped and when my grandmother, who came to Crimea in the 1960s, saw the Northern Chanel being completed and the supply of water from the Dnipro stopped.

Studies of Crimea were mostly conducted in Russian, so Crimeans had little sense of the presence of mainland Ukraine in the cultural space. Including Crimea and Ukraine in each other’s cultural spaces and detaching the peninsula from Russian mythologies will have to be worked on.

The Khanate also had influence on the mainland - the so-called Wild Fields, a wide strip of the Northern Black Sea steppes. Therefore, Crimean identity is linked to an island mentality and a lack of sense of roots.

Because all these deportations and settlement of others by Russian authorities have led to people not knowing who they are.

They need to find their identity. The key myth is the fairy tale of The Golden Cradle.

This fairy tale says that the hidden Golden Cradle in Mount Basman is a symbol of peace and tranquility in Crimea, and that whoever finds it will have power over the land. However, the tale itself says that it is a symbol of prosperity – while has not been found, peace will prevail.

This myth permeates House of Salt. In 2015, Crimean gauleiters hilariously presented Putin with a golden cradle, saying, "Here is power over Crimea." And this myth calls for fighting for one's land.

3. On why Mamai is a uniting figure for Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars

Ukrainians all know about Mamai, the triumphant trickster who is always on guard to protect his land. Sanin's film Mamai explores versions of this name, and one of them is that Mamai means "without a name." So it's not just a name, it's a form of address without giving one’s real name.

The Turkic peoples had a tradition of naming boys Mamai so that the demonic jinn spirits would not find out their real name and steal their souls. And the absence of a name is nothing more than an opportunity to fill the name with a different meaning, and on the other hand, to find a real name hidden under the nominal one. That is, Mamai is a metaphor for the familial, historical, unbreakable unity of Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars that we must recall.

4. On Crimea’s future

The occupier does not ask for anyone's consent to annex another’s territory; the imperialist does not care about the feelings of the people living in these territories. Readers note that the novel shows love for those "salty Crimeans" who are forced to stay on the peninsula.

In 2019, it was said that Crimea would be returned through diplomatic means, but 2022 has shown that this war will end only when Crimea comes home, as the slogan on the cover says, when Crimea is liberated from Russian occupation.

The novel contains many historical comments, notes in the margins, and references to real historical figures. And it was important that real names, such as General Hryhorenko and Petro Bolbochan, served as links to the discovery of the history of Crimea which we do not know.

Kateryna Kalytko's poem and its lines about children inheriting this land resonated with me. And in my novel, there are three main characters, including a teenage boy.

His line of "searching for the golden cradle" retains the pathos of hope for the future.

Daria Synhaievska
Analyst at UkraineWorld