Rethinking the Crimean Tatar national movements through magical realism

book cover 'Ak Bure. Crimean Tatar Saga', publishing house Blitz. Author Renat Bekkin

book cover “Ak Bure. Crimean Tatar Saga”, publishing house Blitz. Author Renat Bekkin

Within the framework of the recent confrontation between Russia and Ukraine, the Crimean Tatars are often disregarded in the international media — as if the events of 8 years ago are entirely unrelated to today's realities.

Meanwhile, Crimean Tatars live not only inside the Crimean Peninsula but are also spread throughout Ukraine.

The national identity of Crimean Tatars within Ukraine is becoming stronger, especially in the film industry, as directors and actors like Akhtem Seytablaev or Nariman Aliyev become well-known outside of Ukraine. This national identity and national movement are increasingly being noticed by researchers around the world. Global Voices interviewed Renat Bekkin, an orientalist, writer, and researcher, author of fiction and documentary works, a Tatar by nationality, and last but not least, the author of Hawa-laand “Ak Bure. Crimean Tatar saga.” The book itself was published in 2021 on the 100th anniversary of the Crimean ASSR.

Renat Bekkin discussed the national movement of the Crimean Tatars, which he reflected through the prism of relations between the Kazan Tatars and Crimean Tatars in his book. Renat rightly clarifies that “Tatars” and “Crimean Tatars” are two different peoples with their own history, destiny, and culture.

Bekkin explains that since there is a lot of contradiction around this history, he has not only relied on historical sources like archives and memoirs, but also representatives of the Crimean Tatar nation, such as the veterans of the National Movement of Crimean Tatars: Ruslan Eminov, Gamer Baev, Ayder Emirov, and others. Bekkin even recorded video interviews with some representatives of the Crimean Tatar nation about their national movement.

The novel “Ak Bure. The Crimean Tatar saga” explores the history of three generations of a Crimean Tatar family. The main character of the novel, Iskander (Crimean Tatar), will have to figure out whether his father, in the past an active participant in the national movement of the Crimean Tatars, is a romantic hero or a traitor and a coward. The story is linked with important events in Russia and Crimea's history.

Bekkin was drawn to research this story after discovering that in different geographical localities, people understand or perceive the history of the Crimean Tatars and the history of the National movement of the Crimean Tatars differently. While some in the Western region know of the political and historical figure Mustafa Dzhemilev and the Mejlis, East of the Ukrainian borders Yuri Osmanov and the NDKT (Национальное Движение Крымских Татар – National Movement of Crimean Tatars) are more familiar.

Thus, in “Ak Bure” the author reflects on which path the Crimean Tatars should take during the Perestroika (the 1980s) — following the NKDT's more liberal path, which is longer and more restrained, or choosing a more radical decisive path as the West did through the Mejlis. The author emphasizes that only the Crimean Tatars themselves know what is useful for the people.

Renat, explains that because he is not a Crimean Tatar, it was a rather bold decision to choose a Crimean Tartar as his main character.

Renat Bekkin (RA): Normally, writers apologize for taking, for example, an Indian for the protagonist, not being an Indian, or a Negro, not being a representative of one or another people. I did not want to apologize, but still I was worried about how the representatives of the nation that I put at the head of the plot would eventually react. But despite all my fears, the Crimean Tatars received my book very warmly. They were glad that the topic was covered by a person from the outside, but they regretted that none of them [Crimean Tatars] took it on.

Bekkin notes that many Crimean Tatars often avoid digging into their still-fresh wounds. And yet, there is a completely different understanding between those who are in or from Ukraine in the West, and those in the East, in the countries of the former USSR.

“It is also surprising that the perception of the Mejlis in Crimea, is completely different than in the West,” said Bekkin. Many people have developed a negative perception of the Mejlis, especially among older generations.

To understand these nuances, it must be noted that historically, Ukraine's national policy did not account for the Crimean Tatars’ own autonomy. Those who are older remember that the leadership of the then-Soviet Ukraine would not allow Crimean Tartars to return to their homeland. However, by 2014 the perception of the situation changed again, and many Crimean Tatars adopted an ambivalent attitude toward the states at that time, in spite of the crisis. Many younger Crimeans also have a negative perception of Russia.

This left the Crimean Tatars between a rock and a hard place. And in Ukraine itself, the moods of the Crimean Tatars were ambiguous, there is no monolith, there is no united front to “return to the Motherland,” which was typical in the USSR, instead there is a split. Yet Crimean Tatars in Ukraine and Crimean Tatars in Russia occupy completely different worlds.

RA: The main protagonist of the book, Iskander, has his own path, he did not become Ukrainianized by 2014, for him the main language is Russian — after all, he lived in Tashkent since childhood, then in the 90s he studied in the international environment of the city of Kyiv. It is necessary to understand the atmosphere of Kyiv in the 90s, where, apart from Ukrainians, Russians, Jews, and Crimean Tatars lived. Indeed, the Iskander family lived for some time in the Crimea, but at that time, the main issue was survival, or the struggle for survival, the issue of self-consciousness, identity was not a priority.

EL: I noticed an interesting parallel between Nariman Aliev's film “Evge (Homeward)” (2019) and your novel “Ak Bure” (2019), the description, which is not often mentioned, namely the proclamation of Crimea — as the “Promised Land,” somewhat an Israel for the Crimean Tatars. In the film, it was a main idea, but in your book, it was not even suggested by the protagonist.

RA: In my story, this comparison is rather used by the Kazan Tatar, the antagonist of Iskander — Dinar-Hazrat [an islamic honorific]. He offers an alternative to his ideological Turkic project, “Crimea is a land for the Turks, as Israel is for the Jews.” In this vein, he only argues. But one must distinguish between the Zionist project and the national movement. Nevertheless, the Zionist project was planted by force, through the purchase of land, and armed seizures, moreover, a thousand years ago, where so many peoples ceased to exist and others formed from some ethnic groups. Whereas the national movement of the Crimean Tatars (through the NDKT) saw a peaceful path, it is still the same national, people's movement, but not through squatting.

In his book, Renat unpacks issues specific to Crimean Tatars (or Tatars and Tatarstan), that are normally invisible to people outside of these communities. He introduces Tatar philosophers, authors, writers, leaders, Turkic literature, and spiritual Islamic rites, and at the same time, ridicules the specific features of some leaders, familiar at its best to those who are “in the know.” At the same time, Renat sprinkles the story with magical characters who represent those in power, like security officers, and spiritual leaders.

EL: Iskander ( “Iskender” is also a name of Aleksander the Great used in Turkic languages) is leading us through the streets of Kazan, its cozy places and makes relations with people of different religions and even races. He also takes the reader through the history of his family, through different centuries and various locations where many Crimean Tatar families were destined to visit, in many cases involuntarily. Can you talk about this?

I wrote for those who are interested in the path of this representative of the Crimean Tatar who ended up in Kazan, his interactions with the Kazan Tatars. I cannot avoid topics such as muftiates and succession, about another future of Russia, which is characterized by leaderism.  At the same time I provided the alternative way of the future’ development, through the history of this Crimean Tatar, when there can be miracles and life without strong leaders. Individual leaders still cannot move the block called Russia. For those who are interested in the perspective of a popular movement in the context of a national minority.


Image courtesy of Giovana Fleck.

For more information about this topic, see our special coverage Russia invades Ukraine.







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