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Shevki Bektöre (1888-1961)

By Atilla Bektöre

A Crimean Tatar poet and educator, Shevki Bektöre (Şevki Bektöre) was born in 1888 in the village of Kavaklar in Dobruja, Rumania. His parents were of Crimean Tatar stock, whose lands in Crimea were in jeopardy of expropriation as a result of the Turkish-Russian war of 1774 and subsequent loss of Crimea to the Russians in 1783. They had emigrated along with others in successive waves in the early 19th century from their ancestral land to Romania, which was still a part of the Ottoman Empire.

In their new home, they became prosperous farmers as in Crimea. But this was not to last. The same people were threatened again when Romania became independent after the so-called "Congress of Berlin" in 1878 and was no longer under Ottoman suzerainty. When Bektöre was 6 years old, his father who was a teacher and also the governor of township persuaded his fellow villagers to emigrate en mass and find protection in Turkey's Anatolian heartland. They settled in Polatli, 50 miles south-east of Ankara, now capital of Turkey. They named their village Karakaya (Black Rock). They were good farmers and became prosperous again in their new land.

Shevki Bektore, ca. 1926

Shevki Bektöre, ca. 1926

Shevki completed his primary education in his village and his secondary education in the town of Haymana in the same district. For his higher education, at the age of 17, young Shevki was sent to Istanbul where he was enrolled in the Divinity Faculty of the University of Istanbul. There he met fellow students of Crimean ancestry, some of whom had come from Crimea, which was already part of Russia. He became very active in the Crimean Students Association in Istanbul and had the opportunity to meet other young nationalists, who later along with him were instrumental in setting the Crimean Tatar identity and culture on a new course. Before World War I, he went for the first time to Crimea, to the land of his ancestors where he looked for his lost relatives. He studied Crimean folklore and their way of life and developed a love for the land. He was teaching there when World War I began in 1914 and Ottoman Turkey was at war with Russia. Shevki was an Ottoman citizen and to avoid internment he escaped to Turkey via Azerbaijan and Iran. He joined the Turkish army in the city of Van in eastern Turkey and later found his way back to Istanbul.

When the hostilities between Turkey and Russia ended in accordance with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in early March of 1918, a delegation of the Red Crescent (equivalent to western based Red Cross) took back to Crimea Russian prisoners of war in Turkish hands. A ship called Gülcemal was assigned for this task, and they set sail from Istanbul at the end of March, accompanied by a warship. Shevki Bektöre was with the delegation. After choppy sailing they arrived at Sevastopol, but were denied permission to enter. Accompanied by a Russian destroyer, they were directed to the port of Kefe on the eastern shore of Crimea, where they delivered the prisoners of war to the Russian authorities.

Bektore (right) and his friends, 1912

Bektöre (right) and His Friends, 1912

While in Kefe the Turkish delegation realized how chaotic the situation was in Crimea. Chaos unleashed by the Bolshevik Revolution prevailed on the land, where the Bolsheviks were fighting Makhno's Ukrainian Anarchists, and the Greens (the peasant bands protecting their interests) were fighting both of them. While there, Bektöre learned that in April 1917, the Russian Provisional Government had issued a proclamation that nullified the Tsarist laws restricting the rights of the national minorities and recognized full equality for all citizens of Russia. The Vatan (Motherland) Association of Crimea had declared sovereignty of Crimea. It was followed by the convention of the National Congress (Kurultay) in December 1917, which proclaimed itself to be the sole legal authority in matters concerning Crimean Tatars, and adopted a constitution based on Western democratic models. They elected as its President Numan Çelebi Jihan [or Çelebicihan] of Milli Firka (the National Party), which functioned as de facto Tatar government of Crimea and refused to recognize the legitimacy of the Bolshevik power.

Bektöre also learned that there was a Soviet (council) established in June 1917 in naval port city of Sevastopol where the Left Social Revolutionary and Menshevik parties were in the majority. They condemned the October seizure of power in Petrograd. Bolshevik members loyal to Lenin left the Soviet in protest and formed a Revolutionary Committee (Revkom), composed mostly of sailors, who later organized the massacre of Black Sea naval officers, dispersed the Soviet and had its Left SR and Menshevik leaders shot. The same Revkom sailors arrested Çelebi Jihan on 23 February 1918 and took him to jail where they murdered him and threw his body into the Black Sea. His Minister of Defense and Foreign Affairs, Jafer Seidahmed [Cafer Seydahmet Kirimer], had to flee Crimea. None of that was known outside of Crimea; borders were tightly controlled against any free dispersal of news.

Realizing that their own lives were in danger too, the Turkish delegation quickly returned to Istanbul, where Bektöre told the sad news of the death of Numan Çelebi Jihan. Shortly thereafter, Seidahmed, making his escape through Caucasus, came back to Istanbul and was met with enthusiasm by the members of the Society of Active Youth (comprised of Turks of Crimean descent). At that time, Shevki Bektöre was serving as its General Secretary.

Some of the Crimean Tatars living in Istanbul belonged to patriotic Crimean organizations. Inspired by the example of Çelebi Jihan, they were eager to return to Crimea and join their people's struggle for independence. Jafer Seidahmet and a small group of nationalists, including Shevki Bektöre, traveled to Crimea on a gunboat provided by the government of Ottoman Turkey. Shevki became a member of the Crimean National Board of Education. However, he did not stay there long, because he was asked by the Board of Education to go back to Turkey and recruit more teachers for Crimea. By the end of 1918, in the company of fifty or more teachers he returned to Crimea and the adventure of his life began. This time he had Hamide, his young wife at his side who was fully supporting him.

After arriving in Crimea, Shevki and Hamide settled in the village of Kuruözen near Alushta on the south shores of Crimea, 30 miles northeast of Yalta. The village was located in a characteristically scenic part of the country, where there were 125 homes spread throughout a large area, but the residents were very poor. Illiteracy was very high, but most importantly there was a strange apathy towards everything on the part of the population; they did not care about anything except their survival. There was no school in the village; so Shevki set out to open one. The quiet setting of the village was conducive to writing, and he wrote a good deal, particularly patriotic poetry. In order to give the school children a sense of nationalism and patriotism, he got them to learn and recite his poems which included "Tatarlıgım" [My Tatarness], "Hakkım İçin" [For my Right], and "Tuvgan Til" [Native Tongue].

As his writings and poetry accumulated, he decided to publish them. He went to the city of Akmescit (Simferopol, capital of Crimea) to look for a printing establishment. He found one, but the building and the equipment were in ruins and abandoned. He found a typographer who once worked there and persuaded him to help him to set up the type boxes and printer. Together they managed to print his first book, Ergenekon, followed by others, which he personally distributed in towns and villages. Eventually, his poems and writings were widely read and known throughout Crimea.

In the meantime, the Bektöres had to endure some hard times. National independence did not turn out to be what had been expected; chaos reigned, law and order collapsed, the Russian Civil War was in full swing, and Bektöre was without a job. The remoteness of the village, provided them with a certain degree of security, translated into a sense of being part of an another world. Self-sustained remote villages could go on living for a long time, cut off from the rest of the world and the Bektöres survived because they lived in a remote village. The Bolsheviks took over Crimea in November 1920, and on 18 October 1921 the Communist leaders authorized the establishment of the Crimean ASSR (Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic), incorporating it into the Russian Federative Soviet Republic to placate the Tatar's yearning for independence.

Due to the increased emphasis put by the Soviet authorities on extinguishing national ambitions of the members of teaching establishment, it became outright dangerous for Shevki to remain in Crimea because of the wide distribution of his nationalist poems and writings throughout the country. Realizing that his ambition and dream of helping restore the national independence of Crimea were in shambles, he, with six fellow teachers, left Crimea in 1924 for Dagestan, an autonomous republic located east of today's Chechnya. He was to be a teacher of languages in the Pedagogical Institute in the city of Temirhanshura (now called Buynaksk).

Bektore at Home, Istanbul, 1960

Bektöre at Home, Istanbul, ca. 1960

In 1926, he participated as a delegate from Dagestan in the All-Union Turcological Congress in Baku, Azerbaijan, where the replacement of Arabic script in Turkic-Islamic lands by Latin alphabet was adopted. In addition, the adoption of a common grammar by the Turkic Soviet Republics was discussed. Consensus was for adoption of such a grammar for all Turkic Languages in the Soviet Union. However, as far as the common grammar was concerned, Moscow was not happy with that premise, and every Republic went its own way, but the transformation to the Latin alphabet was accomplished very quickly.

While in Baku attending the congress, Bektöre met the delegates from Turkmenistan who invited him to teach in Ashkhabat, their capital. In 1927, disappointed with the restrictions imposed on his teaching in Dagestan, he decided to take up on the offer of the Turkmens and moved to Ashkhabat, where he taught at the Turkmen Teachers School.

In March 1932, he was arrested by the GPU (State Political Administration (precursor of NKVD and later KGB) and accused of "belonging to the secret Turkmen Nationalist Organization." He was sentenced to 10 years of imprisonment and sent as an inmate, first to Zerefshan and later to Zengiata near Tashkent, both agricultural Labor Camps in Uzbekistan.

He persuaded his wife Hamide, then living in Tashkent, to leave the Soviet Union (she still had her documents showing her Ottoman citizenship) with their three children for Istanbul, where she had her relatives. Bektöre hoped to join them after his release from confinement in 1943. The Second World War interfered and he was not released until 1945. In 1946 he was rearrested and exiled for life to a town of Bolshaya-Murta on the Yenisey river north of Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, where he worked as watchman in Artel Worker's cooperative, producing bricks. Later he herded horses and cows and became a basket-weaver.

Bektöre's constant stream of petitions to the higher authorities to release him and allow him to join his family in Turkey went unanswered. After Stalin's death in 1953, during Nikita Khrushchev's rule, an era called the Thaw, he was finally given an exit visa. He returned to Turkey and joined his family in October 1956, after a confinement and exile for 24 years. He was elected as head of the Crimean Tatar National Center in Turkey in 1960. Bektöre died on 18 December 1961 in Istanbul and was buried at Edirnekapi, outside of the western walls of old Constantinople.


Shevki Bektöre, Volga Kızıl Akarken [When Volga Flowed Red]. Recorded by Saadet Bektöre. Ankara: Eroglu Matbaasi, 1965. (Autobiography of Bektöre).
Edward A. Allworth, ed. The Tatars of Crimea. Return to the Homeland. Durham: Duke University Press, 1998. Chapter 4, "Symbols: The National Anthem and Patriotic Songs by Three Poets" by S.A. Kirimca, includes an English translation of Bektöre's poem, "My Tatarness."
Mikhail Heller and Aleksandr Nekrich. Utopia in Power : History of the Soviet Union from 1917 to the Present, trans. Phyllis B. Carlos. New York : Summit Books, 1986.

Photographs of Shevki Bektöre: Courtesy of Atilla Bektöre.

© 2005 Atilla Bektöre

Posted: 16 March 2005

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