Story #139. My Name is Ezra: An Activist Reviving the Lost Culture of Crimean Karaites

February 29, 2024
The artist and designer of Karaite origin revitalizes the culture of his great-grandfather.
  • Karaites are one of the indigenous ethnic groups in Crimea and Ukraine. Throughout their history, these people, similar to Crimean Tatars and Krymchaks, have faced intense pressure from Russian authorities. The second annexation had a significant impact on most Karaites, forcing them to leave the peninsula. Currently, the Karaite community is small, and obtaining information about the traditions, language, and history of this unique ethnic group is challenging.

In this piece, artist Ezra recounts his journey to self-awareness as a Karaite while attempting to preserve the history of his great-grandfather, Luka Ochan.

"For convenience, I usually refer to myself as an artist, clothing designer, and activist for Crimea's indigenous peoples. However, sometimes it can be challenging for me to articulate when I officially became an activist, as opposed to simply being someone who cares. There comes a point when you can confidently identify as an activist rather than just someone who is not indifferent. I am now learning to say that I am an activist. The main thing is that I paint, shedding light on important social issues through my art."

At a young age, Ezra learned about his family's history and affiliation with the Karaites from his mother's stories. As he grew older, Ezra deliberately began exploring his identity: he sought information from various sources and learned the Karaim language. Eventually, he realised that this important subject needed to be widely publicised.

"I observe that many Ukrainians are not familiar with the Karaites, and if they are, they often associate it with Karaim pies, which are not truly representative of our national cuisine. Currently, it is challenging to find comprehensive data about the Karaites. Information about them is scattered across the internet and the world. For example, there is a small Karaim community in Kyiv. They are not particularly active, and even our Kenasa (religious community) is not fulfilling its original purpose. The Karaites lack a representative body comparable to the Mejlis for the Crimean Tatars."

According to Ezra, gathering information took several years. It would have been a lot easier without the occupation of Crimea. Back then, it was possible to communicate with the elders. Some of them remain in Crimea because, unlike the Crimean Tatars, the Karaites were subjected to less deportation and faced less systematic pressure and oppression by Russian authorities.

In his activism, Ezra sees a mission in gathering and organising all of this information. With confidence in his accumulated knowledge, he intends to participate in educational activities as he approaches this layer of history with respect.

Ezra has not yet had the opportunity to visit Crimea. He was born in Kherson, raised in Poltava, studied in Slovakia, and then relocated to Uzhhorod.

Since the second occupation of Crimea in 2014, I have decided that I will not go there until the situation is resolved in rubles. It's especially dangerous, given my activism. I'm waiting for Crimea to return to Ukraine and be free.

"My great grandfather's name was Luka Ochan. He was a pure-blooded Karaite born in 1910. When he was eight years old, the Soviet Revolution swept through Crimea, and his family was dispossessed. They were a very large family, as historically, Karaites in Crimea were well-off regarding rights and wealth. The Russians deprived my great-grandfather's family of their possessions and killed them, most likely in front of my great-grandfather, who was just a little boy back then." Given his age, he was spared. They threw him on a random train, which brought him to Horlivka (Donetsk Oblast)."

"In Horlivka, my great-grandfather grew up among people who took him in, and from the age of 14, he worked in the mines. Later, he met my great-grandmother and they had children. They moved to Znamianka district, to the village of Dmytrivka. There were four more children born. This is how my great-grandfather, great-grandmother, and six children lived, bearing the proud and unbroken surname Ochan."

"After experiencing traumatic events as a child, my great-grandfather became silent and never shared his history with anyone in his later years. My great-grandmother and her brother discovered this by chance during a family gathering. My great-grandfather's brother did survive, but he was sent to a concentration camp in northern Russia."

At the age of 18, Ezra made the conscious decision to change his name.

"I felt it was necessary because it seemed unfair to me that the communists had distorted our family's history. My great-grandfather had a name common among Karaites; however, out of fear, he gave all of his children normalised 'non-Karaite' names. I was also given what I call a 'Soviet-normative' name. After all, my father is not of Karaite descent and somewhat does not acknowledge this aspect of me."

According to Ezra, it is common for a Karaite to live among "qazaqlar" (white people, as they call them) and use his true Karaite name only at home while using a regular one elsewhere. Thus, the widespread practice of double names emerged. For example, Shimon became Semen, Moysha, - Mykhailo.

I determined that there is nothing to fear anymore; we live in a free country. Therefore, I chose to completely transform this previous 'system of fear' into a 'system of pride.' I want everyone to know that I am Ezra. I want them to hear my name and ask about its origin, and I will proudly respond that I am a Karaite.

"Ultimately, I feel more authentic. People who got to know me after the name change often say that the old name doesn't suit me at all, saying, 'You look like Ezra.'"

At some point, I experienced a loss of self. After all, if you've been called one name for 18 years and now go by another, you'll have to rediscover yourself. However, everything has finally fallen into place. I adore my name, and it returns my affection."

Ezra's interest in fashion design stems from his mother, who also works in the same field. A few years ago, Ezra and his friend Safiye had the idea to promote Karaim culture through designer clothing.

"My friend Safiye and I once discussed creating humorous clothing designs with witty Crimean Tatar phrases that only natives would understand. However, we later realised that it would be disrespectful, and we abandoned it as a mere unrealized joke. So later, we came up with a clothing line dedicated to the Crimean mountains, as they hold a sacred significance for us. My favourite is Ayuv-Dag. If I were big enough, I would hug and kiss it," Ezra recollects.

Ezra recently released a new item: a long sleeve with the words "Millet, Vatan, Qirim," which translate to "People, Land, Crimea."

In addition to his artistic endeavours, Ezra has many ideas for civic activism and the revitalization of Crimea following its liberation.

"I have a minor problem: it's difficult for me to concentrate on the present, probably because I'm always thinking about the future. I'm wondering if my lifetime will be enough to realise all the ideas related to Crimea. I want to preserve Karaim culture by travelling to Kezlev (now Yevpatoriya, the former main centre of Karaims) to visit our Kenasa. I'd like to sit there, feel the sun's warmth on my face, and enjoy life. However, there is one nuance: in the backyard of Kenasa, there is a huge bust of Lenin. I want to demolish it."

I have an idea for the reconstruction of the embankment in Sevastopol, which I will develop with an architect after the victory."

I want Crimea, after our hands have touched it, to look as if 1944 never happened: as if something stopped and we have come to rebuild Crimea as it was back then. I want to help develop our culture and achieve territorial and national autonomy for Crimea because it is our land.

"I want Crimea to be in the hands of people who truly know it, rather than just a plot of land where you can set up shashlik and churchkhela stalls. I want to show people Crimea as I see it: through the lens of boundless love and flutter."

Nika Krychovska
Journalist at UkraineWorld