The occupation of the Crimean peninsula was not all of a sudden. Russia had been preparing informationally and politically for a long time, took a chance while the state authorities were being re-elected at the beginning of 2014, and dared to occupy Crimea. Since then, once a promising touristic region has started to turn into a training area for the Russian military. In Crimea, there are still thousands of occupation opponents, with whom Russian authorities systematically fight and are sanctioned by the civilized countries. In continental Ukraine, there are thousands of Crimeans who have not had the opportunity to come home for seven years.
The scent of lavender that grows on the downhills around Bahchesaray (Qt — Bağçasaray), ripe figs from grandpa’s garden near Alushta, grandma’s warm yantyks (Qt — yantıq, Crimean Tartar half-moon shaped meat turnover — tr.) fresh from the frying pan, juniper on the southern coast of the peninsula, and the dust of Crimean back roads in summer. Most of us have favourite scents, things, places, and memories that are associated with home.
Where the home starts, anxiety and uncertainty vanish. Home holds us like strong roots hold a tree, tells us who we are, where we are from and what path we follow. For the heroes of this project and also for many other Ukrainians, Crimea is their native home. And today they know well how it feels when your home is taken away, and you cannot go back there for a long time. Childhood memories, favourite sceneries, relatives — all of these remind them of their currently inaccessible home. And what if they can travel there for a short time?
“We are Crimea” is a series that we have created together with Ukrainian Institute. In the series, our heroes observe places in Crimea significant for them with the help of a VR headset, they share their thoughts and memories of the native peninsula.
“My cousin and I were on the way to Bahchesaray. It was July and the weather was really hot. I opened the window in the Zhyguli (‘Lada’, a Soviet car, still produced in Russia — tr.). At the entrance to Bahchesaray, the landscape began to change — I saw mountains and smelled the lavender. At the time, there was a lot of lavender planted around Bahchesaray. Since then, the smell of lavender has been the first feeling of returning to the homeland.”
Photo by Oleh Pereverzev.
For actor and director Akhtem Seitablaiev, Bahchesaray, and the Khan’s Palace in particular, became a real “place of power” ever since his family came back to Crimea from deportation in 1989. These places were shown to the sixteen-year-old Akhtem by his cousins on his first day on the peninsula.
“I’ve been there (in the Khan’s Palace — ed.) so many times: bringing my friends there, filming some episodes of my movies inside the palace, and filming myself too. We staged my play ‘The Fountain of Bahchesaray’ right there, inside the palace. So many fond memories are associated with the palace. There was a feeling that I knew it completely.”
Since the beginning of the occupation until now, Russian occupation authorities have been actively exporting artworks belonging to museum collections from the peninsula to Russia, and also started the so-called ‘restoration’ of the cultural heritage sites, thus putting their conservation in danger. Now the major historic and cultural site of Crimean Tatars, the Khan’s Palace in Bahchesaray, is in such a situation. It is the only official residence of the Crimean Khans on the territory of Ukraine and the only sample of the palace architecture from the Crimean Khanate period in the whole world. Today, part of its buildings is under scaffolding and buildups.
“It looks like a UFO. It looks insane, like a stadium. The occupation government claims that it is the conservation of the palace. As far as I am concerned, from my personal sources and from people who worked in the palace and know the matter, it is actually the destruction of the Khan’s Palace, because ancient beams and roof tiles are being replaced with modern materials.”
As long as you speak about home, even if it’s unreachable, it cannot be forgotten. One way to speak about Crimea and be heard is to speak through art. Jamala is a Ukrainian singer with Crimean Tatar roots. Her family, like thousands of other Crimean Tartar families, had been living in deportation in Central Asia for decades. The song “1944”, dedicated to the matter of deportation of the Crimean Tatars from the peninsula in May 1944, which Jamala performed in the final of the 2016 Eurovision, gave Ukraine victory in the contest. This way, the singer speaks about her home, her people.
“It seems to me that today people do not speak about Crimea much. There is a feeling that everyone already gave up. Everyone got used to having a border, then that there are two borders; then got used to the limited communication with Crimea; then — used to the opinion that it is good that they stayed there, they are betrayers; then used to the fact that these betrayers are constantly jailed for unknown reasons; then used to the fact that those imprisoned do not come back, they disappear and no one speaks about them. You know, it is a bad thing that a human can get used to absolutely anything. When you live somewhere where you cannot say anything — you get used to it, where you can speak — you get used to as well. The only recipe for changing the situation is to speak about it. Without double standards. Ukraine is a European country, and we move toward a future together and remember that Crimea and Donbas will return, that people who live there are our people. However, we are gradually forgetting about them. At some moment, they become our enemies and we throw stones at them, because it is convenient for us. We are sad, we are fed up with speaking about the war, we are fed up with speaking about the annexation. We are tired. Tired? And how did Crimean Tatars come back to Crimea after deportation in 1944? How many years did it take to come back? And what if they were tired? I would not know what Crimea is. And we got tired in seven years. Seriously?”
Today, in Ukraine there is a range of organizations that are “the voice” of Crimea on the mainland. They were created to inform about the situation in the occupied Crimea, documentation of human rights violations on the peninsula, legal and other assistance for the forced migrants. The most well-known is Crimea SOS founded by volunteers at the end of February 2014, on the very first days of the occupation.
The best-known cultural organization that deals with the Crimean discourse in the informational space of Ukraine is “Crimean House” that has been led by Akhtem Seitablaiev since 2017. The organization unites refugees from Crimea and helps them preserve their language, culture, and history.
Photo by Oleh Pereverzev.
To assert the right to return
The family of the world-renowned human rights activist, the leader of the Crimean Tatar people Mustafa Jemilev was deported from Crimea twice during Soviet times. Today he, like our other heroes, is experiencing one more so-called hybrid deportation. They are either prohibited to enter the territory of the Russian Federation (Crimea is considered to be part of it by the occupation government) like Mustafa Jemilev and Oleg Sentsov, or they do not go there for safety considerations.
Mustafa Jemilev was in Crimea on April 19, 2014 for the last time. At one of the checkpoints that separates Crimea from the continental Ukraine, a Russian army officer read out to Mustafa the order stating that he was prohibited to enter the territory of the Russian Federation for five years. At present, the prohibition time is prolonged.
“I asked, ‘Why did you decide to prohibit me entering the territory of your state?’ Then they said, ‘Crimea is part of Russia as well.’ I replied, ‘You must be very optimistic to think that you will stay here (in Crimea — ed.) for five years.’ I really thought so. I thought that this occupation would not last for so long. I was mistaken. It is the seventh year that I cannot go there. Almost all my relatives and friends stay in Crimea. During these six years, a lot of my relatives died, and I could not attend the funerals.”
Since the occupation has started, the Ukrainian activists’ and Crimean Tatars’ arrests and searches of their dwellings are continued According to the Crimean Tatar Resource Center, in the period from 2014 to 2020, 218 persons (including 150 Crimean Tatars) acquired the status of political prisoners and persecuted for the falsified criminal cases, and half of them are still imprisoned today.
Dissident Mustafa Jemilev, who was imprisoned by the Soviet authorities for seven times and who finally spent 15 years in jail, compares Soviet repression activities with what the Russian authorities are doing in Crimea today.
“The Soviet authorities carried out search operations among otherwise-minded people, I experienced about ten searches. They came and said, ‘According to the information we have, you keep at home materials and publications that dishonour the Soviet form of government and its political system. We request to give them away voluntarily, otherwise we will have to conduct a search.’ Obviously, it was just a formality, because even when they were given something, they still carried out the search. Now it does not happen. Now the house is surrounded by the people in masks, no one introduces themselves, no search warrants are provided. They just break into a house. Force everyone to lie on the floor. Start searching. They conduct searches doing maximum damage to property and humiliating human dignity.”
When you come back home after a long absence, you notice the dust that accumulated on all the familiar surfaces which you have not touched for so long. Perhaps, the entrance door is different — someone has replaced it. Perhaps, there have been new buildings erected, and the street now looks different. However, there are things like the familiar scents of lavender, fig and juniper that remain unchanged. The feeling of home and the desire to come back.
“We are sure that this occupation will definitely end, because there is no other way. But this is probably the question of time. I think that after returning, a lot of things will be different in Crimea.”
Photo by Oleh Pereverzev.
A Ukrainian film director, writer and activist, Oleg Sentsov has become one of the most well-known political prisoners since the occupation of Crimea. His detention, prosecution, and arrest in a Russian strict-regime penal colony became one of the most resonant cases of the violation of human rights in the occupied Crimea. In 2014 in Simferopol, the film director was detained by the Russian police who accused him of preparing a number of terrorist attacks. Those who witnessed against him were forced to give false testimonies as they were tortured. The occupational authority sentenced him to 20 years of imprisonment.
In May 2018, being imprisoned, Sentsov started an indefinite hunger strike with the demand to free all Ukrainian political prisoners in Russia. The hunger strike lasted for 145 days, until the colony’s management decided to put Oleg on artificial alimentation. Mass events in support of the political prisoner were held in dozens of cities.
After five years of the illegal imprisonment, Oleg returned to Ukraine in the exchange of Russian criminals for Ukrainian prisoners of war. He went through kidnapping, arrest and illegal conviction, and yet the occupied Crimea remains off-limits to him, as well as to thousands of others.
“We have to demand Crimea’s return, and work for the processes which will lead to deoccupation. Instead of trying to negotiate with this regime, which is just fooling with us. I’m also talking about Donbas, because in my view, it’s the same thing. It is a case of aggression by the Russian Federation. We must fight against it for our land and that’s it.”
This publication was produced jointly by Ukraïner and the Ukrainian Institute.
Involved in the preparation of the material 23 volunteersSupport the project