I Am a Crimean Tatar

Pavel Nikulin

Illustration by Cody Cobb

The bread cart

I don't remember much of my childhood. I do remember when my uncle got married in Sudak; my sister Indzhifei was dancing with our father, and our grandmother gave baklava to my brother and me. I also remember how we used to collect almonds. Back then we had an orchard of nut trees.

My father had five brothers. He was taken off to war with two of them, both of whom were shot by the Germans. The elder of the two was called Ibragim and he was the first secretary of the executive committee. The second brother was called Rishid, and he was the chairman of a collective farm.

Aishet, Ibragim's wife, baked bread every day, put it in a cart, and sent it off to the partisans. One day she sent another of my uncles, Ismail, along with it. He was to tell the partisans that Sudak will soon be surrounded, and that they must retreat.

Ismail got there, but for some reason he and the partisans couldn't escape in time, and so he too was trapped. He hid down by a reservoir, covering himself with torn-up grass. At night he slept in the trees, and during the day he hid by the water. All he had for food was bark. It was a long time until we saw him again; he made it through the war and ended up living in Uzbekistan. He always looked very thin.

They shot Ibragim and Rishid. Someone betrayed them and said they were communists. So at six in the morning the village was rounded up, a court was set up and they were shot. All the villagers were told that it was Russian communists that had been shot. No one spared a thought for who was a Crimean Tatar, and who was not.

I was four years old when we were deported. We were given fifteen minutes to pack our things. What my mother managed to tie up into a bundle was what we took. We had neither mattresses nor pillows. They took us to the station in a ZIL flatbed truck. Our cow ran over to us as the truck was setting off, a beautiful cow, black and white. I am seventy-four years old, and to this day I still remember the cow lowing as she trotted after us.

I don't remember how we were taken to Uzbekistan. Once we arrived, they put us in barracks not far from Tashkent in the Begovatskii region. We were in what was called a DVZ, a remote settlement zone. The barracks was a very long building; four families lived in it, one in each corner.

Then Ibragim's wife died. Like me, her name was Aishet. As she lay dying she asked for grapes. Crimean Tatars always crave something before death. So my mother and my brother Memet walked a very long way, 18 kilometres, to fulfil her last wish.

At the end of the war my father was working in Tula. When he found out that we were suffering in Uzbekistan, he sent us a parcel of two saucepans and a sieve. Even now I still remember it. Then he ran away from Tula to be with us. He had just arrived and found work on a construction site when two policemen came after him and he ended up in jail for one year.

My brother Memet then started working. By the time he was eleven, he already had a job as a repairman in a factory fixing tractor engines. Tractor engines were always in need of fixing. He was very good at it too; they even made a special bench for him, otherwise he would have been too short for that kind of work.


School was closed from September to November for cotton-picking; we started going to the cotton fields when we were in third grade. Our daily quota was 40 kilograms while for my older brother and sister it was 60. When we had picked all the cotton we picked kuraga; cotton still sealed in its boll. The quota for kuraga was 120 kilograms and after it was picked, the closed bolls were transported to our homes where we sat through the night extracting the cotton.

When their turn came, our children picked cotton too. My daughter Elvira was terrible at it; her name was always on the board of shame.

From fourth grade onward I was always fighting. I fought because they were calling us traitors. It was mainly the Russians, the Uzbeks left us alone. They were Muslims too after all.

One time our history teacher Yuri Danilovich broke up a fight: 'Aishet, stop fighting, I don't want to see that again! You aren't guilty of anything. It's just that they needed to give Crimea to other people.' That's what he said. I then read somewhere that Stalin had wanted to resettle all the Jews in Crimea. He couldn't, so in the end he sent them to Birobidzhan. I don't know if that's true or not.

We were always fighting. It was terrible. How our Tatars fought with the men returning from the war! You couldn't even attempt to call a Tatar a traitor; you wouldn't have had time to open your mouth. In the town of Begovat there lived a Tatar who worked as a truck driver and every one of his children knew how to drive his truck. One time a fight broke out, and the truck driver's seven-year-old son drove off with the truck to go and help the Tatars.

We looked after each other back then.


When I was young, food was always scarce, so my mother and Memet would go at night into the fields looking for radishes. They gathered whatever the tractor had left behind. We ate the radishes instead of bread.

One morning my mother overslept and was late for work. A few days later she was summoned to court. They threatened her with two years. At home Mother wept; what would happen to her children?

As soon as Mum arrived at court she burst into tears again. There was one other woman present who tried to calm her down. The court asked Mother why she was late for work, so she told them that she lives in a barracks, that her children don't have blankets or pillows, that everyone sleeps on hay, and that there is nothing for the children to eat. She told them how she would go out late at night to gather radishes. The woman told Mother that they would check her story, and she was brought back to the barracks. For some reason, when we saw all those people and police officers, we thought our mum was going to be shot.

Once in the barracks, the woman from the court was shocked; after all, mum hadn't been lying. She and all the others left and then came back after an hour or two, bringing with them mattresses, pillows, and blankets.

We became wealthy.


I clearly remember how trips to the sanatorium were given to all those who had fought in the war. Only nothing of the sort was given to us, the Crimean Tatars. Even if we had fought for the Soviet Union, we were still considered traitors. Even our children, who had nothing to do with the war, weren't allowed to go to Pioneer camps. Only uncle Ismail, who had helped the partisans, was given a trip to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of victory in WWII. To Crimea. For old times' sake.

After hiding from the Germans, he had managed to make his way to the front. The war had taken him to Crimea, but once the war was over he had to return to his new home, Samarkand. He met his wife there and they had four children.

He was overjoyed to be given a trip to Crimea. But when he arrived and looked around him, he understood that to pack up and leave once more wouldn't be so simple. Ismail moved his whole family there. He bought a house, planted a private plot, and somehow started a life for him and his family.

But no one would employ Ismail. Neither would they employ his wife, nor the school take his children. Even his Russian and Ukrainian neighbours were outraged; they went and asked the local officials what the school was playing at. However, one of his neighbours had informed on him; 'look, there lives one of those Crimean Tatars with his house and his garden of planted vegetables.' A tractor came and knocked down the house and ploughed over the garden.

So Ismail and his family moved to another village and bought a second home. That house was also razed to the ground. They bought a third house. They knocked that one down too. After that his wife had a heart attack and died. After his wife's death, Ismail bumped into some relatives in Crimea and they invited him to go and live with them.

They lived in a place called Lenin, out there it's just steppe.

The stick

After school I went to study accountancy in Namangan, it was there I met my future husband. He had just returned from the army, back then you served for three years, and he was living in Mailuu-Suu. Our wedding was a modest one, there was hardly any vodka. I wore a white poplin dress, how I danced in it! We had three children together, Elvira, Gulya, and Server.

My husband and I then moved to Tashkent. I remember Elvira coming home one day in tears; she thought that because she was a Crimean Tatar she wouldn't be allowed to go to school. That's what the kids on the street had been telling her—spouting what their parents must have told them. All in all things turned out well for Elvira; she went to a school near our house and when she was in third grade, the headmaster instructed that she be transferred to a specialist maths and physics school. Even though she wasn't Russian she still won a medal for writing the best essay.

After I had my children I got a job working in a factory that made electrical substations for power plants. It was a well-known factory, with 800 employees including my husband, who was a constructor. The head of the factory was a Jew called Gizerskii and he hired me without any documents. I still hadn't squared things with my previous employer over my maternity leave, and they still had my documents. Gizerskii decided to help me, he knew that I was Crimean Tatar and he knew how employers usually regarded us. I got a job as an accountant in the accounts department. I would often stay at my desk until two or three at night; we didn't have calculators then, I worked with an arithmometer instead.

I shared an office with an old accountant working for the finance department. A malicious stick of a man, he had it in for me from the very first day. 'How do you, a Crimean Tatar, cope with working in the accounts department?' He always found fault with whatever I did. I had a young girl working with me called Lyuba; I had taken her off the shop floor to work as my assistant. She was a clever and beautiful girl, only she was lame, and had one leg shorter than the other. One time, when the stick started to insult me, Lyuba picked up a heavy glass full of pencils and shook them threateningly at him.

That really put the wind up him and he filed a complaint. Only not against Lyuba, but against me. The police were called to the factory. However before they came to see me, they made some inquiries on the factory floor. Everyone told them what a mother and worker I was; they all stood up for me. The policemen then came to me and said: 'Don't worry, we understand.'

After that the stick couldn't show his face outside of his office anymore and he resigned.


In the 80s, Tatars collected and sent money to Moscow every month, to the delegation for the National Movement of Crimean Tatars. I remember how Marlen Nebiev was always going to Moscow on our behalf. His father, Osan, had been first secretary of the executive committee in Simferopol. During the war Osan's relatives told him: 'Change your son's name, they could end up shooting him.' You couldn't go around naming traitors after Marx and Lenin.

Marlen completed tenth grade with a medal, was a member of the Communist party, and went on to work as a teacher in Tashkent. Wherever he went three to four KGB officers followed him. Even if he went to a Tatar's wake they would still be watching. Marlen didn't manage to achieve anything in Moscow, and then because of his trips to the capital he was fired from the school where he worked. They kicked him out of the party too. After all that Marlen ended up back in Crimea. He even organised rallies but then, seemingly because of his nerves, he became ill with cancer of the oesophagus and died.

It's no wonder Tatars die young, they go through a lot.

The return

My husband and I decided to return to Crimea in 1988. We sold our flat and transferred all our money onto our savings book. We loaded a twenty-tonne container and set off by train, taking three sacks of sugar and two sacks of flour with us. We knew where we were going and we knew it would be no plain sailing. Elvira and her family came after us. Somehow we made a home. We bought sheep, a cow, and we planted our own private plot.

No sooner had we arrived than our neighbours robbed us. They stole our gas oven and burnt our savings book. There we were, new arrivals, with no money and no hope of employment. We were granted no benefits or privileges. It was difficult for us to even go and see the doctor. Somehow or other Elvira managed to take her children to a polyclinic in Crimea. While she was sitting in the queue her kids began to run up and down the corridor. A Russian woman said 'Oh look at all the swarthy Tatars moving in, now we'll have even longer to wait for the doctor!' As Elvira grabbed her by the hair and started to fight, doctors ran out of their offices to break it up.

Life was hard in that house, just to get to the station we had to walk three kilometres. Our children were growing up and we all needed space to live. It was then that I started squatting. To begin with we organised rallies in Simferopol. I remember how we stood for a month on Lenin Square; we stood and demanded a solution to our problems, where to live and where to work. Eventually I couldn't stand anymore and I brought a chair with me. After a month had passed, our leaders sent us to Kamenka. We lived in tents at first.

Once we were there a man called Aider looked after us; he was so strict with us that we used to call him Pinochet. He taught us how to make Molotov cocktails, which we could use to set fire to the sheaves of wheat. In Kamenka, the wheat stood up to our waists; we harvested it and left the wheat husks behind. That was what we burned. Aider said that if there was smoke, we couldn't be photographed and then imprisoned.

There were thirteen of us women in the camp—we prepared food while the boys unloaded people's trucks and cars. Every day more came. There were young people who moved to Crimea with nothing more than a couple of plastic bags: two shirts and two pairs of underwear. That was it. They arrived like shells, washed up on the beach. Sinaver Kadyrov and Mustafa Dzhemiliev looked after them. Those two men told the new arrivals how to behave; they kept a close eye on them so there was no drinking, swearing, or fighting. I remember how small and thin Dzhemiliev was then, he looked like death! He grew up surrounded by hunger and cold after all.

There was also a squat set up in Sofievka. They had just started living there when the fighting began. Some of our boys went over but tractors were there already, waiting to level the ground. Russians or Ukrainians brought them, I don't know who exactly. When everything was demolished, the Russians, or Ukrainians, started to take dishes and crockery off the women. The women fought back. Everyone had pooled their resources, if the dishes were taken what would be left? Our men shouted at the women who had started fighting: 'What's the point in fighting over dishes? Tomorrow we'll find some money for more.'


We finally managed to settle down and then my husband started to drink. I left him. I just sat down on a train and went. I got off the train at the last station and burst into tears. Where was I going and what would I do? I didn't know. A girl gave me shelter for the night. She told me not to cry: 'Come with me,' she said, 'I live nearby.' I stayed the night. 'You can deal with it tomorrow.' In the morning I took a bus to the Arabat Spit, to the village of Genicheskaia Gorka. I found a place to live and began to work as a housemaid. I also found work as a guard for a guest house. They were tough times. I remember the owner of the guest house telling me not to poke my head out if someone broke in during the night. 'Better they carry off the whole guest house, rather than kill you.'

At that time there was a shift in politics and Tatars started to flock to Crimea. The government began distributing plots of land and soon everything had been allocated. If you had four children, no problem! Children big or small, each of them would get a plot! Even I, a single Tatar woman, ended up with one. The owner of the boarding house signed over his son-in-law's plot to me. I started building straight away, even though I had no money. I began by selling off my things, and then I started travelling to Dzhankoi where I would buy five kilos of onions and then sell them one by one. As soon as any money came in I would spend it on building materials. In Odessa I'd buy whatever I could get my hands on for 1,000 hryvnia. I built a small house and bought a goat; selling its milk gave me an income. Then I swapped with the children, I moved back to Kamenka, and they took my place.

Once on the Arabat Spit a girl approached my stall and asked in Ukrainian 'Skil'ky Koshtuye?'

'Young lady, I don't understand Ukrainian,' I said to her.

'But you live in Ukraine, you should understand,' she replied.

So I told her all about the Tatars, about our villages, about the deportation. I told her why that place was called Arabat Spit. That Tatar blood had been spilt there. She was ashamed.

All the same I only half-know my own language. When Mejdan is on or ATR is showing and they speak Tatar, I don't understand. I don't watch Zaman. My children don't understand Tatar at all. But then again they translate the instructions on my boxes of medicine for me.

I never really learned Ukrainian.


Our lights were switched off yesterday. A Tatar neighbour went out and bought a diesel generator so they could watch television. I don't know who switched them off. In the last few months I haven't been able to watch the television without tears in my eyes. I cry for the hundred who died in Maidan. For that Tatar that the Russians killed, who left three children behind. For that officer killed while patrolling a military base; his pregnant wife must surely be crying too. Weren't we living fine before this? What happened? What right did they have to kill?

I suffer through what I hear on Mejdan. Just recently they killed, what's his name, Muzychko. He is someone's son! How is this happening? Today in Ukraine everyone is fighting one another, imprisoning, dividing, flag swapping. It's a disgrace! Shame! They switched flags during the war too, but they're all the same to me now. If they would just show us some respect, even just notice us at all.

They are saying they'll notice us thanks to the unification. I don't really believe it. No one paid attention to us then, and no one will do it now. We didn't vote in the referendum. First of all we weren't asked to take part, and secondly we wouldn't have gone anyway. You think this is the first time they have tried to deceive us? I for one don't trust someone just because they knock on your front door and share some niceties; it doesn't mean they will start actually considering other people.

What will become of us Tatars after all of this? You think they'll give us land? They won't give us anything. We trust no one now; once bitten . . . So we sit and wait by the sea and see what the wind brings us. It's not clear what will become of the land I built on. I have a daughter in Ukraine; I don't know how we will see each other. It's all so alarming, what will happen to the children?

Our boys have also suffered from this crisis. On the twenty-sixth of February they came from all over Crimea to hold a rally in Simferopol. They were beaten up! There was also some kind of crush in the crowd. They had to rest up at home for several weeks afterwards. They didn't tell their parents anything. They couldn't even get up: everything was hurting.

Maybe the Russians will want to resettle us again. Everyone seems to be threatening everybody else. Not long ago I was on the trolleybus and there were some Russian women talking about us. They were saying that in Turkey, there are several million Crimean Tatars; one said 'God forbid they should all move.' Move where? To their home? The place that they come from?

When the Tatars were rehabilitated, we didn't celebrate. By then we were worn out. Look how the Russians celebrate: 'To Russia! To Russia! We've come home!'

And what have we returned to?

We live here too; there are just a few more Russians now.

translated from the Russian by Nathan Jeffers