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Space as Part of Crimean Tatar Identity: A Millenial's View


An Interview and Comments
By Brian Woods

The Crimean Tatar experience is unique. Their social
aspects both parallel and drastically diverge based
on unique cultural attributes. This paper explores the
realities facing Crimean Tatars through qualitative inquiry.



The feeling of being the "new" personÖweíve all felt it at least once. The sensation that all eyes are on you, that everyone present is watching youóeven worse, evaluating you. There are situations that magnify this feeling: a first date, an important job interview, teaching your child to parallel park. At any of these moments, we have stepped outside our comfort zones. We are in a situation where anything can happen. The outcomes of these situations might well mark us for the rest of our lives. Step outside the local, immediate context, though. Think about people in other countriesócountries that donít work so hard to make you safe or protect you from making the wrong decision. What happens if the wrong decision could cause lives to end? Imagine for a moment how you would make a decision in that context.

This is the kind of decision with which Hatije A. was faced. In the early 1990s, in the aftermath of the Soviet Unionís collapse, she, her husband, son and daughter were living in a civil war, as Tajikistan battled itself over what direction it would take when it was no longer a Soviet Socialist Republic.

Housing for early Crimean Tatar returnees

Housing for early Crimean Tatar returnees

Hatije speaks plainly about the situation they faced. She could hear the fighting happening in the distance. A colleague in the local militsia, or police force, helped keep an eye on her 12-year old son when he traveled between school and home, and when he set out to play. Her eight-year old daughter was easier to take care of simply because she was always closer.

To reveal that Hatije and her family survived this ordeal does not rob it of drama or tension. Her family does not emerge on the other side intact. But Hatije is not the primary focus of this paper. Instead, this paper will look at the transition from one home to another, from a space where acceptance was part of the enforced societal order to one where people were suddenly free to act as they wanted for better or worse.


Alie Y. was born in March, 1983 in Tajikistan. Her name is pronounced A-lee-YEH, but she doesnít like the way it looks when spelled phonetically in English. I met her between the Khanís Palace and the Bakhchisaray City Library in the first half of March, 2008. She was interested in America and Americans because a volunteer in the U.S. Peace Corps named Anna studied Crimean Tatar with her mother, Hatije.

This place, the Old City, is a place she considers home. The sights and sounds here, the street vendors, the tour buses, the smells of chibureki and shashleek cooking, these are the things that combine to make this place herís. Later she suggested her mother might be my Russian tutor. It was because of that suggestion that I was invited into the lives of her family and came to know their story.

Space in the Soviet Union

Brian: Tell me about your home in Tajikistan.

Alie Y.: It was just an apartment [a] typical Soviet Union three room apartment on the 5th floor with [a] very small kitchen.

Brian: Was there communal space outside the apartment building?

Alie: Like what?

Brian: Was there an area where people from the building would get together and talk?

Alie: Yes, kind of. There were benches in front of the doors [to the building] and an empty pool always full of trash, but after rain all the kids were there catching frogs. It was fun! Usually I hung out at my grandmotherís place. It was cleaner and safer for kids. It was right by our apartment building, but the difference was huge. It was smallerótwo rooms. They had small places for gardening and areas with benches where they could sit with their kids. Usually gardening places were only for families who lived on the first floor, so they kind of owned it.

Brian: Why do you think there was so much difference between how people used the space at the building your family lived in compared to your grandmotherís?

Alie: First, I think it was because our building was "new" then. It was built like around í86Ömaybe í85. Families there were younger, like 25-35 years old. It was a "new" generation then.

Brian: And they just hadnít learned how to use the space?

Alie: I think they were busier, and different ethnic groups lived thereÖa lot of Tajik people. Usually Russian-speaking people didnít spend time around them. The cultures are too different. Like at my grandmotherís place: There were people from different ethnic groups, but all of them were Russian-speakers, like Germans, different kinds of Tatars, Russians, Ukrainians and I donít know who else, but all of them, they spoke Russian [and] were closer to "European" culture, I would say, so they gather by this characteristic.

Life in the Tent

Tents that sheltered early returnees

Tents that sheltered early returnees

Brian: How did things change in the Ď90s?

Alie: Everything was about the Soviet Union collapse. People started to leave. Basically Germans went to Germany, Russians to Russia, etc.

Brian: And your family?

Alie: It was a "great" migration for us, too. We were thinking of moving to Crimea, Ukraine, because we are Crimean TatarsÖwell, most of our family. My mom was always thinking of coming back to Crimea. I say "coming back" because it was the place where her family was from, even though she had never been there. She always wanted to live in her parentís land.

Brian: What was it like for your family when you arrived in Crimea?

Alie: In 1992, we went to Crimea, but because of the war in Tajikistan, we couldnít sell our apartment (by that time we were allowed to privatize it). We came to Crimea where we didnít have anything. No job, no money, and the Ukrainian government wasnít able to help us. It was so messed up then. After six or nine months of fighting with [the] Ukrainian government and local administration, they finally gave us land where we could build our houses. It was basically districts only for Crimean Tatars. We call them microrayons. So we got this piece of land, but we didnít have money to build anything so we put a tent and lived there.

Brian: One tent for the whole family?

Alie: By that time, there were only three of us, but yes. Those who had money build small one or two room temporary houses, but we didnít, so we lived in the tent.

Brian: It was you, your brother and your mom. She was a Russian teacher in Tajikistan. Was she able to find work in Crimea?

Alie: She tried many times, but no one was waiting for us in Crimea. It was hard times for everyone then. The Soviet Union collapsed. People didnít have jobs and those who had had to wait for their money from [the] government for months. Plus, we were strangers here. For people who lived in Crimea for many years, they didnít want us here. They consider Crimea as their land. We, as Crimean Tatars, have our own opinion. Itís understandable from both sides, I think. But my mom couldnít find a jobónot in [a] school, anyway.

Better to Be Russian?

Brian: What was it like for you as a young girl to live as a refugee in a tent?

Alie: As I remember (I was nine then), it was hot during day time and cold after dark. And I remember I was always hungry. It was embarrassing. We were the only family that lived in a tent. I mean after our "topí three-room apartment, we moved to that tent. But sometimes we had fun. We cooked outside on [a] fire.

Brian: How did this affect how you thought about yourself?

Alie: Being poor is humiliating, I think. To survive, you have to do a lot of things that wealthy people would never do. Other kids were laughing at us when I went to school. Of course, teachers tried to stop it. I wasnít the most stupid kid in class, so they [the teachers] kind of liked me.

Brian: Did you feel discriminated against?

Alie: More yes than no.

Brian: Can you share some examples?

Alie: I had a Crimean Tatar name and a Russian patronymic name. Trying to hide my ethnicity, I used my Russian patronymic name to show Russians that I am Russian (which I am not). My mom couldnít find a job. [For the] first four months, no jobs at all. Any.

Brian: Did you see and hear people saying discriminatory things?

Alie: Very often. At school [they said] we are stupid, not able to learn. Itís better for schools to have Crimean Tatar [only] classes. I heard a lot of things like "Crimean Tatars are unwanted here. They are betrayers."

Brian: Were there people who werenít afraid of the Crimean Tatar?

Alie: Yes, of course. There were smart people. One of them, a Russian man, helped us a lot. He accidentally found out about our difficult situation and offered his help. He gave us a camper, and it was our home for one year.


Soviet era aparment building

An apartment building from Soviet era

Brian: Did things improve after that?

Alie: Slowly, but yes. The city mayor gave us a small apartment when my mom told him our story. It was [a] small, dirty place in [an] old house, but after having nothing, it was like a palace for our family.

Brian: Can you think of how you used the space around the tent, the camper and the apartment differently?

Alie: The piece of land that we had then was our space, and we had a garden there. We grew pretty good potatoes there. In the apartment, we donít do anything because there is no place for [a] garden and [on] the other hand, we know one day we will move from this place.

Brian: Is there less discrimination in Crimea now?

Alie: I think so. I grew up there with other Crimean Tatars and Russians. We know each other. I have a lot of Russian friends. Maybe my family played a role in changing the perception of Russians about Crimean TatarsÖa small contribution. People are not so afraid of us. I mean [the] differences between us. We are workingÖlearning.

Brian: It seems like in the beginning, you felt like something of an outcast. You lived in a tent. You were an ethnic minority. But do you still feel that way now?

Alie: I still identify myself as a Crimean Tatar, as an ethnic minority and a Muslim in a Christian country, but I donít feel like an outcast anymore. I mean, I have [a] pretty-good-for-this-country education, not the best one, but still not the worst.

Brian: When did you discover it was alright to be Crimean Tatar?

Alie: When I was in high school. I learned a lot about Crimean Tatarís history. I read books and talked to old people and realized that I am actually at home. Itís basically Russians who are actually guests here. My grandmotherís story helped a lot to understand it. I am lucky to have home. I donít mean my house. I mean the place that I belong to. Wherever I go, I know where the right place for me is. Itís my grandparentís land, my parentís land, my land.

The above interview was conducted in 2011. While revisiting this piece in 2015, I presented Alie with a few more questions.


Brian: How did the events of March 2014 impact your family?

Alie: Strongly. Everything is different now. Everything that I believed in is ruined.

Brian: Whatís an example?

Alie: Imagine a bookcase. Itís big and full of books. For thirty years, I was building an order there. Some things I could control. Other things I couldnít. Like, you put those books in order that makes sense to you, and you know all of them and their content.

Brian: Then what?

Alie: And then, someone came and knocked down the bookcase. Now all the books are mixed. They are not in order and they do not make any sense.

Brian: What about the people?

Alie: I thought I knew some people. But now they donítÖNow I donít understand them. I thought that I knew them, and I thought that I knew where they went on that shelf. I thought that I knew their content. But I learned that I never really understood them. What I learned was that there is a huge, huge gap between Russians and Crimean Tatars and Ukrainians.

Brian: Do you still talk to any of your Russian friends?

Alie: No. None of them. I stopped talking to my Russian father.

Brian: Why?

Alie: Itís just too hard. Too hard to have him say things about meÖabout my familyÖmy country. He thinks that I am a facist, Banderovka (a follower of Ukraineís World War II hero/villain Stepan Bandera) just being a supporter of my country. For me annexation was first a state of denial. I was denying that it happened. I thought, "Itís going to be ok. It canít be the way that it is." Slowly, I came to [the] realization that that is how it is, and I have to live with itÖaccept it. My hope is just dying every day a little bit.

Brian: Can things ever be like they were?

Alie: Never.


In my time in post-Soviet Ukraine, I learned that not all was as American propaganda presented it to youth growing up in the Cold War. People were people. Churches and mosques existed, although they were rarely officially recognized. Some things were true, though. People did distrust each other. Certainly Crimean Tatars were specially singled out for negative propaganda. (Pohl, 2000)

Even though she was young, Alie still remembers how place and space were demarcated. In her building, which was new and where her family had one of the best apartments Soviet living could offer, the cultures that were mixed into the building didnít have enough in common to coalesce into something more. At the same time, just down the street, a building of the elderly where different ethnic groups mixed, Russian language was enough to bring them together.

Where at Alieís building, public space was disused and featured an empty swimming pool, the other building had open areas that people used to congregate. Even without modern surveillance, one building appeared to model "representation of space" while the other Alie remembers as having "representational space." (Mitchell, 1995) It does suggest Soviet authorities were practicing their own social engineering as exampled in the New York Times article about Starrett City. (Barry, 2007) Older people less likely to become problems were located in one building while young families of non-Russian ethnicities were given apartments in another. Using buildings and city design to control people and define their use of space has a long history. (Manning, 2004) One wonders how the buildings would have been designed had the Tajik people been in control.

Hatijeís thoughts were normal among Crimean Tatars. Their people had been forcefully displaced and accused of crimes they didnít commit. This kept them separate from the other ethnic groups around them. Eren states:

Even though many Crimean Tatars were born in Central Asia, adapted to the local conditions, and became fluent in local languages, and even though many remain there, the vast majority regard themselves as alien to the dominant culture and to the people of Central Asia. (Eren, 1998)

As Cresswell states, understanding "place" is both simple and complex. (Cresswell, 2004) How do you adapt to your surroundings without giving up your own identity? There was a solution. The Crimean Tatars defined Crimea as "their" place. Regaining that place was part of a collective desire as discussed by Uehling in Beyond Memory. She states:

Öit is not the status of Crimean Tatar nationalism or their "identity" that preoccupies the majority of Crimean Tatars as much as the idea that they are connected to, and responsible for, a land where they belong. It was not so much an issue of their relations with other groups driving Tatar repatriation, as their relation to place. (Uehling, 2004)

This is exampled in the connection Hatije felt to Crimea based solely on the stories she heard of it from her mother and father. The conditions they lived in didnít matter. That her husband left the family wasnít a factor. They were home.

"Öno one was waiting for us in Crimea," Alie says. Her family was one of the first to return. Though Gorbachov had begun allowing Crimean Tatars to return, few families had been approved before the Soviet Union ended. There were no institutions to welcome them or ease their integration into post-Soviet Ukraine. The Crimean Tatars fought for the space, a struggle that continues today as more return and seek to homestead.

Staples discusses what it might be like in the United States if the Census stopped asking about race. (Staples, 2007) This was done to the Crimean Tatar after their deportation, but merely in an attempt to remove all official traces of them from Soviet society. (Pohl, 2000) The result was a redefinition of what it meant to be Crimean Tatar. Few things united a people than institutionalized discrimination.

Palmer talks about the performance of identity by Somali refugees in Australia. In public they reinforced their religious and ethnic identity. (Palmer, 2009) For Alie, this was not the case. She knew she was different in many ways from the other students, economically, ethnically and socially. To combat this, she used her fatherís Russian patronymic to hide her ethnic identity. This geography of fear is built around a childís need to be accepted into a place and culture that is still new and unknown.

The notion of Crimean Tatars as "betrayers" is the legacy of Stalin-era propaganda. (Pohl, 2000) Itís important to note that Alieís family was early in repatriation. They faced the fruit of discrimination planted almost 50 years earlier and reinforced for more than 10 years before Crimean Tatars were declared rehabilitated by Soviet authorities.

It was also a frightening time for Ukrainians. Their government had collapsed and they were thrust forward into a world they had only heard described by propaganda from that fallen government. Despite all their underlying uncertainty, these betrayers were coming back to take resources and what few jobs there might have been. It wasnít just this young girl who was fearful, but the entire country.

Here again the notion of space and how that space is used arises. The fact that there is no space that is their own at this apartment isnít a problem, though. They know eventually they will move into their own house, their own place. Again from Uehling:

The work on place enables us to see the Crimean Tatarsí attachment to homeland not as a dysfunctional manifestation of ethnonationalism, but a fully modern response to changing relations to place. Tatars are involved in processes of de- and Ėre-territorialization.
She continues:
The process of privatization that began in the early 1990s threatened to make the Crimean Tatarsí relationship to Crimea even more tenuous: it was primarily the Russians and Ukrainians, who had homes and were employed at collective farms, that were positioned to take advantage of the process. Crimean Tatars have tried to intervene, first by squatting on vacant land, and more recently by using political channelsÖKnowledge of the places they and their ancestors lost lend legitimacy in this process."

Cresswell suggests that "home" is an idealized view based around a heterosexual family. As we can see, "home" is something much deeper for Crimean Tatars. For a people removed from their land at gunpoint by the Red Army, home became something almost mythical. Home is tied to the Crimean Tatar word vatan. Home is returning to the homeland. This idea could be much more relevant globally. It makes Cresswellís definition and discussion seem almost myopic. Isnít a place to belong what most people want and strive for?

When people do return, itís a intricate process as they reconstruct their identities. For Alie, this meant wrapping what little Russian identity she had around herself like a cloak, or perhaps more prosaically, a cocoon. It took time to adjust to everything that was new, to accept everything that was lostóa home, friends, a whole world. It took lessons from family and in school to empower her enough to define what her own identity was. At the end of this process, she has gained something that not everyone ever really has: A place of belonging; a home.

For more than a year, arrests and cancelled protests have been part of the daily lives of Crimean Tatars in Crimea. There has been a great nation unbuilding, a process made easier because the prior work had all been built upon sand.


Barry, E. (2007). Brooklyn Tenants Reflect on Successful Experiment, from:

Cresswell, T. (2004). Place: a short introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, Ltd.

Eren, N. (1998). Crimean Tatar Communities Abroad. In E. A. Allworth (Ed.), The Tatars of Crimea - Return to the Homeland (2nd ed.): Duke University Press.

Manning, J. (2004). Racism in Three Dimensions: South African Architecture and the Ideology of White Superiority. Social Identities, 10(4).

Mitchell, D. (1995). The End of Public Space? People's Park, Definitions of the Public and Democracy. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 85(1), 108-133.

Palmer, C. (2009). Soccer and the politics of identity for young Muslim refugee women in South Australia. [Article]. Soccer & Society, 10(1), 27-38. doi: 10.1080/14660970802472643

Pohl, J. O. (2000). The Deportation and Fate of the Crimean Tatars, from:

Sukhov, Oleg (2014) Russia to Prosecute Crimean Tatar Protesters Over Unrest, from:

Staples, B. (2007, February 5). On Race and the Census: Struggling With Categories That No Longer Apply, the New York Times, p. 20.

Uehling, G. L. (2004). Beyond Memory: The Crimean Tatars' Deportation and Return. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Photo Credits: The first two photographs were taken by N.M. Altug during his first visit to Crimea in 1991 — Editor.

Posted: 27 June 2015

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