Autumn in Crimea

I love this country in the off-season. The tiresome tourists are all gone. The North is already covered in snow, but here in Crimea, autumn still lingers in all its late beauty. The forests are full of colour; not just green, but all hues from mellow yellow to a violent violet. Vineyards display more shades of red and purple and yellow than Microsoft could ever imagine. Playful rivulets run down the steep slopes, from the flat and barren highlands to the deep and placid sea, spawning pretty waterfalls on their way. The roads that cross these hills at such impossible angles are now empty, and the Crimean palaces I visit share the unique history of this land with me alone.

crimea1The most bewitching is the Garden Palace of the Crimean Khans; slim, delicate and slender with well-proportioned rooms, many verandas, lush gardens, the Falcon tower for Khan’s falconers, and two delightful fountains remindful of Alhambra in Grenada. The Golden fountain murmurs so gently, so quietly that one has to strain to catch its soothing babble. The Tear Fountain drops its large tears from one cup to another, silently weeping for days of past glory. The palace lent its name to the small town, once a capital of the Khanate, to be forever known as “Garden Palace”, or Bakhchi-Sarai in the Turkic language of Crimean Tatars, the aborigines of this land.

I sit in the divan with my friend and master of the palace, the Khan, as we call him jokingly, for the palace is a museum and he is its director. Server Abu Bekir actually retired last year after twenty long years of managing this national treasure, but he does not stray far. He is himself a priceless fountain of stories about the land and its history, and I always leave a wiser man. On this visit we reminisced on the days past, on the hopeful story of his people, and of my strange involvement in that.

When the fury of the Palestinian Uprising at the end of the Eighties and its bloody suppression drove me out of Palestine, I came to Crimea to seek consolation.

Crimea is a kind of sister to Palestine, for they both share the same landscape and character, the same Byzantine and Turkish heritage and the same refreshing sea breeze. Crimea may be slightly cooler and greener than Palestine, its mountains may be higher and steeper, and its wilderness less arid, but the feeling is familiar. After enjoying the vineyards with their sweet Muscat grapes, the free-flowing springs and olive orchards covered by black olives bursting with purple juices, I discovered that these two sisters share the same sad history of deportation and expulsion. The Palestinians lost their homeland in 1948; the natives of Crimea had lost theirs some four years earlier. Their villages were taken away by foreigners, renamed and rebuilt in a rather charmless East European way, forever burying the Oriental touch.

The stories of the rape of Crimea struck a powerful chord in me. In the late Sixties, I arrived in Palestine, just another young settler from Russia blissfully unaware of what had happened twenty years earlier. I discovered it one story at a time, roaming the land on the back of my donkey named Linda. I noticed that the land was strewn with lonely ruins, with rounded niches and blocked-up wells under fig trees. I innocently asked the locals and learned that these were venerable historic villages mentioned in the Bible and described in the chronicles of the Crusades. The foundations were overturned and their inhabitants expelled in 1948, as the Jewish state was established. Later I met some of the refugees in their squalid camps, and over the years I have seen them in their new lives; never again were they allowed to return to their shattered ancestral lands.

Two Arab words, Nakba — the expulsion of 1948, and Awda — the expellees’ dream of homecoming became keys that unlocked many mysteries for me. When I translated Ulysses and Odyssey, the long journey of Ulysses to Ithaca became an Awda, and when I celebrated Easter, it combined the Nakba of Crucifixion with the Awda of Resurrection. This meme immediately resonated with my youthful Zionism, but it soon exposed it for what it was — an illusion. My triumphant return to the Holy Land turned out to be little more than a visit to a beautiful, but foreign land. I did not regain my homeland for it was just a dream, and the Palestinians lost their homes. My dreams had destroyed their reality. The refugees now dreamed of a real home in which they had really grown up, and of the real spring waters they once had sipped beneath real olive trees. If I couldn’t really go home, I at least wanted to see these refugees return to their homes. An uprooted victim of Zionist dreams, I now dreamed of helping others to return their own, real roots.

When I left Palestine in the late Eighties, this dream was still as remote as it was in the Sixties. But when I crossed into Crimea, I suddenly discovered an actual Awda in full bloom. In 1989, the expelled Tatars began their trek homewards. In Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus says: “We can’t change the country, let us change the subject.” Joyce was wrong: it is much easier to change a country than to change one’s subject. My subject remains fixed somewhere between Nakba and Awda.

crimea2_DVThe Nakba of the Crimean Tatars began in 1944, when the Red Army drove the Germans out of the lush and beautiful peninsula. After establishing control, the Russians began to load the natives onto trains and deport them to Central Asia. They accused the Tatars of collaborating with the Nazi enemy, though among them there were many brave and distinguished soldiers who had fought on the Russian side against the Nazis. The Soviets dealt with them as arbitrarily as did the Americans with their own native tribes: some two hundred thousand people, 15 or 20 per cent of the total Crimean population, were declared ‘hostile traitors’ and shipped away.

Years passed by in exile; the Tatars managed well, their children received good education, they built houses in their new country. In the 1960s, this label of ‘hostility and treason’ was removed and the Crimean Tatars were suddenly free to go wherever they want — as long as it was not to Crimea. Crimea was by then known as the Russian Riviera; the villages and homes of the deported Tatars had become resorts and dachas for the privileged. “The Tatars have taken root in their new place”, declared the government.

The Tatars did not agree. “Do they think we are saplings, that they can transplant us wherever they please?” They did not forget their home country, and they began their long struggle to return. Throughout the 1960’s they demonstrated, they organized successful “sit-ins” at various offices of the government and even in front of the president of the Soviet Union; their campaign was second only to the better-publicised and funded Russian-Jewish Let-My-People-Go campaign, but chronologically, it was the first one. The Tatars inspired the Jews; at least they inspired me, a young dissident, and they led me to my Zionism. Dissident Jews were active in many causes, just as they were active in the Civil Rights Struggle in the American South. A Russian Jewish poet Ilia Gabay became a key supporter of the Tatar movement; he was sentenced to three years in jail, duly released, and then he committed suicide, despairing and heart-broken; a tragic and poignant figure of a man who was ready to feel others’ pain until it became too much to bear.

The Tatars were doing things unheard-of in those days of Soviet preeminence, things like demonstrating at Red Square and picketing the Kremlin. While picketing Moscow, the Tatars did not neglect the “facts on the ground”, the fait accompli. They continuously infiltrated Crimea, slowly, against formidable odds, against all regulations and prohibitions. The authorities forbade the Tatars to visit Crimea. Tatars could not buy rail or air passage to the peninsula. Tatars could not obtain registration of residence in Crimea — and without such a registration one could not find work.

They still seeped into Crimea, as inexorably as water passing through brick, as unstoppable as salmon swimming upstream. When caught and deported, they gathered at the border and found other ways in. The Tatars carefully built up forward bases in preparation for their return, shifting their families from the far-away cities of Bukhara and Samarkand.

In the late Eighties, the Soviet Union began to disintegrate. The central authorities weakened, the old regulations lost their sting, and the Tatars began to come to Crimea en masse. That was the time I first met the Khan, Dr Server Abu Bekir, and heard from him the stories of the Tatar’s struggle. Over the years I have met many Tatars: they are a likeable people, usually educated, hard working, good-looking, of open and friendly character. They are a people accustomed to making friends and fitting in. The returnees weren’t looking for trouble with the Russian majority population; in most cases they established friendly relations with their new neighbours.

Surprisingly, the locals accepted them rather well, too. At first they were patently nervous about the invasion of the ‘Nazi collaborators’, but it did not take long for them to recognize good neighbours. The Tatars are not weak; they learned to stick together under difficult circumstances, but neither were they looking for a fight: they purchased or rebuilt their homes afresh, integrated into the contemporary Crimean mosaic, and became part of the community. They did not shrink from work; they opened many cafes, good food for a reasonable price, and this was something Soviet Crimea had not yet experienced.

At the time, I wrote a piece about the Awda of the Tatar people for the Israeli Haaretz newspaper; my article concluded with a hope to someday witness the homecoming of the Palestinian refugees. The newspaper published the article, but cut off the last sentence. I translated my article into Russian and gave it to the Moscow’s Literaturnaya Gazeta, a very important central weekly of the time. They ran the article, and they included the final sentence. The Haaretz chief editor received some complaints from Moscow Jews, and this prominent liberal sacked me on the spot. That was the end of my writing for the Israeli Hebrew media, but it’s not the end of the story.

1990 was a turbulent year; nobody knew what was going on and what was going to happen next. The wily Tatars presented my piece published in the Moscow central newspaper to the local Crimean officials as proof sterling that Moscow had signed off on their return. In Soviet days, such a publication would mean exactly that; in 1990 it meant very little in Moscow, but in far-away Crimea it still passed for the real thing. The Tatars were allocated little parcels of land all over Crimea on the basis of the same article that had me sacked, so though it was painful for me, it was well worth it.

Twenty years passed before I visited Crimea again. Crimea is now a part of an independent Ukraine, and is a by-product of the kind of Balkanization that follows Neoliberal economic crisis: a kind of preview of an independent Scotland, or Catalonia. Many Ukrainians, as well as Russians, regret this separation and would prefer a restoration of the Union, if given a choice. Kiev’s hold over Crimea is precarious; if forced to choose, the bulk of the Crimean population would choose to join Russia.

To offset the Russian influence, the Ukrainian authorities cater to the Tatar minority, and the Tatars have thrown their support to Ukraine. The Tatar numbers are still too small to be an autonomous minority, and so they will support an independent Ukraine for as long as they are well treated. Ukrainian independence has been good to the Tatar returnees, and now they indeed have taken root in their ancestral country.

They have problems like everybody else; twenty years of Ukrainian capitalism has left a mixed record: not an unmitigated disaster, as some say, but not much of a blessing, either. The countryside is just as beautiful as it ever was. Some Soviet eyesores have been removed, and some post-Soviet eyesores have been added. Yalta and Gurzuf, two of the most delightful spots on the southern coast, have become over-commercialised and over-developed. An amusement park has been built on a historical promenade once trod by Chekhov. Prices are high and nothing is free; they charge you to visit the beach, they charge you to take a walk in the mountains. It’s a typical Neoliberal Success Story, with the typical catch: the Ukraine has a very high level of unemployment, and so does Crimea. Young people have no chance for a real job other than catering for tourists.

Tatars and Russians alike tell me that their education is wasted under the prevailing economic conditions. One needs to be well connected to land a job, even after graduating with a university degree. The returning Tatars are not yet well connected, do not carry degrees from local universities, and are saddled with the additional problem of having to find housing. While the local authorities prefer to sell public land to wealthy investors and to Moscow’s newly rich, the persistent Tatars simply squat on land until they can afford the bribe necessary to legalise their possession. I visited the charming house a Tatar built near the perennial spring of Jur-Jur, in the village of Ulu Uzen (officially, it is called “Generalskoye”). Theirs is the only restaurant and the only place to stay in the vicinity, for the Tatars are more entrepreneurial than the local population. They are friendly and willingly share stories of their deportation and return.

The Tatars have restored a local colour to Crimea; in fact, they are fashionable. The best (and most expensive) restaurant along the South Coast serves Tatar cuisine in a restored palace, and it is owned by a Moscow couple. Tatar painters and Tatar architects are sought out to add the Tatar touch. They have rebuilt their ancient mosques, like the Baybars Jami in Old Krym; this mosque was built in the 13th century by the Sultan Baybars, a native of Crimea who stopped the Mongol invasion near Ain Jalut in Palestine. Islam is making great inroads among the Tatars: they were never especially religious, but now they are being influenced by the Saudis and Turks. This religious influence has turned many young men away from the alcohol and drug abuse that plagued them in the 1990’s. In any case, I never saw a woman in chador, and bearded men are quite rare.

The Tatars make up only 15% of the Crimean population, and yet are found at every level of economic life: they drive taxis, teach, practice medicine and grow vegetables. In short, these people have successfully integrated with the local population of Crimea with a minimum of fuss. Someday the deportation will be remembered as little more than a bad dream.

Perhaps now Israeli readers will understand that al Awda does not have to be a disaster, but can be a new opportunity. Perhaps now Israeli readers will be able to stomach the line I wrote twenty years ago: “inshallah the Palestinian refugees will also find their way back to their villages.”

The Ukrainian generosity in dealing with their refugee issue shames Israel’s miserliness; their deportees are now home, while Israelis still do not consider the Nakba a crime, and even the most enlightened Israelis reject the Awda.

Why They Were Deported

Recently, this peaceful picture has become troubled: some young people attacked a Tatar squat near Simferopol, a Tatar child was mistreated; tensions mounted. This sudden worsening of inter-communal relations began in May 2012, when the Tatar representative in the Ukrainian parliament proposed a Restitution Bill describing the ethnic-based deportation ‘a crime’, granting the deportees some compensation and returning historical names to their villages. The parliament (Rada) received the proposal with keen sympathy, and speakers of various fractions were ready to approve it after some minor alterations.

Speaker Petro Simonenko took the floor and turned the tide against the bill. He spoke of Tatar treachery, of their support for Hitler. He said that the deportation was not a crime but a rescue, without which thousands of Tatars would have been shot for treason or lynched by patriots. His speech derailed the proposal and the bill was rejected.

Simonenko was speaking on behalf of the Communist party, and the Communists do not want another crime being placed onto their doorstep. Furthermore, if you want to claim victimhood, be prepared for complaints from the people you have victimized. When you start digging up history, everyone’s skeletons come out.

But what really happened?

Alan W. Fisher, in his capital study of the Crimean Tatars, writes that the reasons for deportation are far from clear. The Tatars did not collaborate with the German invader more than any other people under occupation, including Russians and Ukrainians. They had nothing similar to a Bandera, the Ukrainian pro-Nazi leader, or a Vlasov, the Russian pro-Nazi general. They did not fare better than other ethnic groups under German rule: over 60 Tatar villages were burned by the Nazis, sometimes together with their inhabitants. The Nazis had plans in place to exterminate or deport the Tatars when the war was over; the only reason they did not begin immediately is because they did not want to create problems for their potential ally, Turkey, home of a large Tatar community.

Moreover, one month after the deportation of the Crimean Tatars, all the other native minorities of Crimea were also deported: the Greeks, the Bulgars, the Armenians, and Italians (yes, they had even a few hundred Italians). Only the native Jews, Karaites, and Krymchaks were allowed to remain in Crimea alongside the Russian and Ukrainian majority. Why only these minorities, Fisher could not answer.

I found the answer myself, in Moscow, where certain documents of the period were made public. These documents point to the infamous case of the Jewish Antifascist Committee (JAC). The JAC was created in 1942 in order to bridge the gap between US Jewry and Soviet leadership; to mobilise the American Jews to help Soviet Russia and the Soviet Jews in their struggle against Hitler’s Germany. Many of their contributions were valuable, and their work was appreciated by Stalin – until they crossed a red line.

In 1943, two prominent Russian Jewish JAC leaders, theatre director Samuel Michoels and poet Itzik Fefer toured the US. They spoke Yiddish, were clearly non-Communist, and behaved like perfect examples of “the people’s diplomacy”, as described by historian Eugene Lobkov. They were exceedingly well received by both Jewish and non-Jewish Americans. It was a very successful wartime propaganda campaign, and the JAC leaders came home convinced of their own importance, of the great role America will play in the post-war USSR, and of the pre-eminent position of the Jews in all this. They decided to become the nucleus of a Jewish Lobby within the USSR, closely connected with and representing the interests of American Jews.

On the 15th of February 1944, three JAC leaders (Michoels, Fefer, and Epstein) wrote a letter to Josef Stalin and to Vyacheslav Molotov. In this letter they demanded that the USSR surrender the Crimea to the Jews. They declared that the peninsula should be elevated to a status of a separate Jewish Soviet Republic of the USSR, on a par with Russia, Ukraine, and Georgia. As a Jewish State, it would be entitled to leave the USSR if it wishes in the future. This was their alternative to the Jewish State proposed (at the time) in Palestine.

Lobkov describes the letter as “business-like, no thanks, no compliments, almost rude; it is a letter to a manager who is about to be dismissed. The Jewish problems can be solved only by creation of the Jewish Soviet Republic in Crimea. The US Jews will bankroll the operation, they wrote.”

What made these JAC leaders think that they could dictate to Stalin? In 1944, it was thought that the USSR might accept American leadership and money as did the other European states, for Russia was in a poor shape, worn and exhausted by the war. The Marshall Plan was in the offing, a plan offering reconstruction and prosperity, and all beneficiary nations need do was simply agree to US guidance — and this plan was offered to the USSR as well. Apparently, the JAC leaders were convinced that Stalin would accept Marshall Plan money and American guidance, including proposals by US Jewry such as the creation of a Jewish Crimean Republic.

Furthermore, they had found an ally in Molotov, whose wife, Mme Paulina Jemchujina, had strong Jewish sentiments (she described herself to Golda Meir as “a Yiddische Tochter” — a Jewish maiden). Another ally was Lavrentiy Beria, the powerful State Security boss. Some say (and others deny) that Beria was of Jewish origin, but he definitely had pro-Jewish and pro-American leanings. Beria was friendly with many prominent Jews as the curator of the Soviet Nuclear Programme; he personally dismissed the Doctors’ Plot Case and released the arrested Jewish medics in March of 1953, after Stalin’s death. Beria publicly floated a proposal to free East Germany and transfer it to the Western control in exchange for economic help. He knew the JAC plans and proposals, and he was just the kind of man who would gladly accept the Marshall Plan and lead the USSR into American patronage.

Intelligence officer Pavel Sudoplatov wrote that both Beria and Molotov closely followed and supported the activities of the JAC; they saw the draft of the letter to Stalin, they knew and approved of the plan to create the Jewish Crimean Republic.

The allegations of Tatar collaboration with the Nazis were built up from the reports of one man: Leo Mekhlis, nicknamed “The Inquisitor”, the chief editor of Pravda and an ex-Zionist. Beria used Mekhlis’ reports to persuade Stalin to deport the Tatars. It is probable that both Mekhlis and Beria were guided by JAC demands; Beria discussed a Jewish Crimea with Averell Harriman, the US Ambassador in Moscow, as late as in 1947, according to Sudoplatov.

As for the Marshall Plan, Stalin was of two minds. At first, he leaned towards accepting it, until Donald Maclean, the First Secretary of the British Embassy in Washington (and a Soviet spy) reported to Moscow in June 1947 that the real purpose was to ensure the American economic dominance in Europe. He revealed that all funds were to be carefully controlled by US industry and banks. This was also the view of Professor Varga, an important economist who had Stalin’s ear. After a long period of hesitation and discussion, Stalin decided to reject the plan. As we now know, Marshall Plan conditions included removing all Communists from the governments of beneficiary countries, accepting the US dollar as the universal currency, and opening markets to American goods. The beneficiaries indeed gained much in the short term, but in the long run they were saddled with US dominance.

Stalin’s rejection made the JAC plans irrelevant. While the Jewish Crimean Republic never came to existence, the Tatars and other Crimean minorities had already been deported. This story makes clear that the tragic deportation had little, if anything, to do with alleged collaboration: this historical event was caused by the efforts of a Jewish and American Lobby within the Soviet leadership. Perhaps this will cool off Comrade Simonenko, and maybe he and his friends will stop instigating anti-Tatar feelings in Crimea.

Perhaps we should all cool off. We have seen how Stalin was very nearly hoodwinked by his trusted aides. How easily do we allow ourselves to be led by false reports and double-dealing? Let’s stick to the facts. We have seen how al Awda can work. Is Palestine so different from Crimea? Are the Tatars so different than the Palestinians? Is the Israeli public so different from their Ukrainian counterpart? Good will is all that is needed to reintegrate the refugees, to unite society — and to unite family. That is why Homer ended his epos with homecoming and restoring the wanderer to his wife and son.

Israel Shamir champions democracy for Israel and Palestine. Read other articles by Israel, or visit Israel's website.