Story #141: Writer Reveals Crimean Tatar History Through Personal Perspectives

March 19, 2024
Yevhenia Henova, a storybook author, collected memories of 14 Crimean Tatar families to cast light on the turbulent lives of the people.

When Yevhenia speaks about her own book about the stories of Crimean Tatars, her lips show careful consideration of each word she speaks. Recounting these stories requires great delicacy, as the retold memories are so fragile and speckled with tears traces.

We met during the presentation of her book in Istanbul. Her book is titled simply Crimean Tatar Families and some of its subjects were present at the event, grateful to be inscribing their families' stories in history.

"Nearly everyone whose stories I collected asked me, 'Why write a story about me? I'm just an ordinary person.' I explained that I was genuinely interested in learning about them, their experiences, their grandmothers, and their grandfathers. As they gradually recalled memories and shared their stories, we experienced both joy and sorrow together."

  • Over the course of several months, Yevhenia spoke with some of Crimean Tatars, delving into their and their families' pasts to make sense of their present realities by tracing connections through time and significant events. In her book, each family recounted stories marked by either deportation or fleeing from occupation. Through the lens of their personal experience, she intricately weaves together the history of the Crimean Tatar people as a whole.

Yevhenia is neither a Crimean Tatar herself nor from Crimea. She simply recognizes that the story of this beleaguered remains poorly known, even to some Ukrainians.

"I am from Odesa, which is home to many different nationalities. I've always understood that all people are different but equal because that's how I was raised. But the truth is that Crimean Tatars have not been equal for a long time."

Crimean Tatars have lost their homeland numerous times and under different circumstances. In modern Ukraine, many of them were deprived of home again in 2014, and once more in 2022, to which Ukrainians nowadays may relate.

By now, I think, all Ukrainians have come to understand that the reason one can be evicted from their home is simply because someone else wants to have it.

However, many Crimean Tatars have chosen to defend their country and families in the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Among them stands the name of Asan Seydametov, whose passing signified for Yevhenia that it was time to finally write her book.

He was known by the call sign Tataryn (Tatar), and often wore a Muslim skull cap, believing it would bring him protection. He entrusted the cap to his comrade shortly before he was killed in action.

"At the beginning of 2023, I saw the news of Asan's death. His family was the first I visited: his wife, four daughters, and his granddaughter. Asan had previously fought in the ATO, so this was his second time at war."

This story of Asan's family is the first in Yevhenia's book. Although it was extremely hard for the loved ones he left behind to talk about him, they did so to keep his memory alive. This, Yevhenia says, shows a difference between Crimean Tatars and Ukrainians.

"Ukrainians often say that their grandmothers and great-grandmothers were afraid to share the truth about their lives even after 1991 due to the profound trauma. The fear was so intense that even children were forbidden to discuss it.

However, Crimean Tatars approach this differently.They typically share the details of their experiences with their children and grandchildren. As a result, each member of the Crimean Tatar community is well aware of what deportation means. They don't question whether it really happened or think, 'maybe we deserved it.' No. Preserving their family's memory is above all else to them."

Although their history has many cruel chapters, Yevhenia's work also brought out happy memories. 

However, in the case of Gulnara, one of the book's live characters who was also at the presentation, Yevhenia managed to uncover certain small episodes that were the markers of quite bigger problems.

One such illustrative example she shared was that Gulnara's classmates had to get parental permission to sit next to her in school. Otherwise, the teacher would not let the other children share space with a Crimean Tatar.

This racist humiliation, even towards a child, was a common occurrence during Soviet times, rooted in a disregard for the dignity and lives of Crimean Tatars. This treatment offered post-facto "legitimation" of the Crimean Tatar deportation in Soviet society.

"I touched upon the main points that usually came up when Crimean Tatar people are asked about what they or their ancestors experienced. But, of course, everyone had certain intermediate stages that were especially important for their families."

Memory is the only thing some Crimean Tatar families have to rely on, as their photographs were lost to Russia's occupation. However, some people were lucky enough to keep their family treasures safe.

I asked my subjects to look for their photos. For some, it was easier, while for others, it proved impossible. When some of them sent me photos, they said, "Please, don't lose these and send them back as soon as possible." I replied that I was sending it back immediately because if I were to get hit by a missile, their family treasures would perish along with me. We shared these sorts of dark jokes.

These photographs were precious not only because they captured a moment in time, but also because they were the only link some Crimean Tatars had to the homeland that has once again been stolen from them.

"When Crimean Tatars were finally allowed to return to Crimea, however terrible it may sound, they simply wished to look upon their former homes.

They did not seek to reclaim them, even though they theoretically could have, as there is precedent in international law of countries returning property stolen long ago. They simply wanted to touch the walls, a sentiment shared by many of the elderly. The occupants were, naturally, descendants of those who arrived in 1944 --- Russians."

And the history machine has made its cycle again, they must have thought, when Russia occupied Crimea in 2014. This time, Crimean Tatars faced not direct deportation, but rather being squeezed out of their homeland by a Russian government determined to make their lives in Crimea unbearable.

Yevhenia visited Crimea in 2016, two years after it fell under occupation, and found it to be completely unrecognizable.

There was an atmosphere of fear. You get on a bus, and everyone is silent. In Odesa [where Yevhenia lives -- ed.], people talk about everything: politics, our president, our city mayor, and this is normal life. In Crimea, you can't say anything. Everyone is watching each other and looking around.

"One time, I went for a walk at dusk. I was in Simferopol, a big city, where I had been a few times before. In 2016, all the streets were empty. The locals told me that it's really better not to go out at dusk because that is when people disappear. It was terrible. And now Russia has imposed a curfew, and we cannot go outside at dusk, either."

However, some Crimean Tatars have chosen to stay in their homeland, and Yevhenia says that this is reason enough why Ukraine must not give up on bringing Crimea back home.

"Crimea is not just a beautiful land with sea, rocks, sun, grapes, and chebureki. No. Crimea is a part of our common soul."

That is why Yevhenia delves into this soul, which consists of many people's story fragments. Finding them one by one, the author slowly fills the lacunas of one big body. This is the body of the Crimean Tatar nation, and it will only remain alive so long as people are willing to care about it.

Lisa Dzhulai
Journalist at UkraineWorld