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Crimea’s native tongues

Russian-annexed Crimea has three official state languages. In practice, languages other than Russian are being squeezed out through a policy of persuasion, coercion and repression.

April 12, 2019 - Lily Hyde - Articles and CommentaryHot Topics

The Ozbek Han Mosque built during the reign of Uzbeg Khan in 1314 is the oldest mosque in Crimea Photo: Piotr Matyga (cc) wikimedia.org

Stary Krym, in east Crimea, has an important history for the Crimean Tatars, Crimea’s indigenous Muslim, Turkic people. The oldest mosque in Crimea is located here, in what was the medieval capital of the Golden Horde. In 1990 Ayshe Chabanova, a teacher of Russian newly arrived from central Asia, opened the very first Crimean Tatar language class in Crimea since before World War 2. There were 17 children, and no text books.

It was the beginning of a grass-roots revival of language and culture, led by Crimean Tatars finally allowed to return to the peninsula almost fifty years after the Soviets deported the entire population to Siberia and central Asia in 1944. Activists cited the new Ukrainian constitution and set up schools in the face of official indifference, or even hostility. By 1998, Chabanova in Stary Krym had over 200 pupils. Classes were in shifts, lit by paraffin lamp because of power cuts. Parents threatened to take to the streets to demand better premises, until the then mayor allotted a school building.

Twenty years on, the school opened this academic year with 448 pupils. Yet its teaching is under threat, and Crimean Tatars fear their gains in cultural revival are being deliberately whittled away. After Russia annexed the peninsula from Ukraine in March 2014, language rights have become a key issue in the larger war over Crimea’s status, and Russia’s violation of the rights of its minorities and dissenters to freedom of expression, identity, and even existence.

“It’s not just a question of human rights; it’s the right of a nation to self-determination,” said the school director, Fevzi Balbek. “When as a nation in your homeland you’re told you can’t speak your language, you can’t dance at your celebrations, on your day of grief you can’t meet and remember what happened but you are told which days you should celebrate, that’s far worse than violating my personal human rights.”

Three state languages in name only

On the Crimean parliament’s three-sided entrance in central Simferopol, gold letters state the building’s purpose in three languages: Russian, Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar. After Russia annexed the peninsula, a new Crimean constitution adopted here named all three state languages, to reflect the peninsula’s ethnic make-up – 65.2 percent Russian, 16 percent Ukrainian and 12.6 percent Crimean Tatar (Russian state statistics for October 2014).

The three languages however don’t reach as far as the other side of the parliament building, where a new plaque, in Russian only, commemorates ‘the restitution of historical justice: the return of Crimea to the Russian Federation’.  The reason for just one language, perhaps, is that Ukraine, and international law, considers Crimea to be Ukrainian territory; and the vast majority of Crimean Tatars, with a long memory of Russian and Soviet repression, openly oppose its annexation and occupation by Russia. 

One justification for annexation, and its support by many Crimeans, was the alleged repression of Russian language under Ukraine. The new constitutional language provisions are often cited by Russia to forestall any counter allegations.

In fact, Russian was always the dominant language of teaching and learning in Crimea. At the start of the 2013 school year, 90 percent of Crimean schoolchildren were educated in Russian. Over I2,000 children were getting some education in Ukrainian, including at seven Ukrainian schools; and fifteen Crimean Tatar schools were teaching 5,510 children in Crimean Tatar.    

Five years on, Ukrainian language teaching has fallen drastically. By the 2017/2018 academic year, just 318 children were being taught in Ukrainian in one remaining Ukrainian national school and 13 classes. The authorities say numbers have declined because of lack of interest from parents, who must write an official request for their child to be taught in one of Russia’s other state or minority languages.  

Yet Russian statistics show that teaching in Crimean Tatar has remained the same, with 5,835 Crimean Tatars receiving education in their native language in 2017/2018. There are now 16 Crimean Tatar ‘national schools’ (a school with some teaching in Crimean Tatar language; there is no such official term in the Russian education system). On 1 September 2018 a record number of new pupils arrived at the national school in Stary Krym. In the decorated school yard, other than two speeches in Russian from local government representatives all the official words of welcome were in Crimean Tatar.

But behind the celebratory balloons and bunting, teachers like Chabanova are despairing.

“We always fought, for every stone and every roof beam; for every decision. And we’re still fighting,” Chabanova told me. She stepped down as school director in 2015, but is still actively concerned with the school’s future. She was furious because this year local education department planning has cut Crimean Tatar language and literature classes from five hours per week to three. Russian language and literature hours had been increased. “I can’t make my peace with it,” she said.

These aren’t the only cuts. Unlike the Ukrainian system where students could study throughout school and complete their final exams in Crimean Tatar, under Russian rules native languages other than Russian can only be an additional, un-assessed subject in upper school (after 9th class). Final exams must be in Russian. Thus Crimean Tatar or Ukrainian in upper school is tacked on as an extra subject, often in after-school hours, and does not contribute towards a student’s overall marks – or towards any further prospects in the peninsula. (Ukraine introduced a new law in 2017 which also restricts minority language teaching in higher school classes; Crimean Tatar however is excepted, as an indigenous language).  

“It’s a fiction that Crimean Tatar is a national language in Crimea,” Balbek, the current director, said in his office after the 1 September celebration was over. To illustrate his point, he quoted from a recent booklet from the ‘First meeting of Russianists of the Crimean Republic’. “This is better than anything I can say to explain the situation,” he said.

The booklet begins: ‘Russian language unites all languages in itself’.

A text from the head of the Crimean Civic Chamber reads ‘There is a crude understanding that if Crimea has three state languages, then all inhabitants must immediately learn and speak them. But a civilised understanding of a state language is as follows: the state is obliged to provide citizens with the option to speak, study, and communicate with the authorities in a state language. Learning state languages (with the exception, of course, of Russian) is required only on a voluntary basis.’

Knowledge of Crimean Tatar and Ukrainian is not a requirement for a government or public sector post in Crimea. Other than teaching in a national school or class, or working for a dwindling number of Crimean Tatar print media or the unpopular State-run TV channel Millet (which replaced the larger and more professional independent Crimean Tatar channel ATR, forced to shut down and move to Kyiv after annexation), there is nowhere graduates in Crimea can use Crimean Tatar in their professional lives. And this language is not spoken by any nation anywhere else.

Balbek believes that Crimean Tatar needs some obligatory status for its designation as a state language to actually mean anything. Without such support the language, and with it Crimean Tatar ethnic and cultural identity, may soon disappear.

“If a person can’t think and reason in his own language he’ll never preserve it,” he said. “The individual code is broken… We’ll lose our language and with it the depths of our mentality.”

 Coercion and assimilation

The issue is not only what constitutes a ‘state’ language, but what constitutes ‘voluntary’. The Russian regime in Crimea appears to be not so much allowing people to choose to study in Crimean Tatar or Ukrainian, as actively encouraging them not to, with the intention that Crimean Tatars and Ukrainians with their opposition to Russian rule will indeed disappear.     

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights notes in its 2017-18 report on Crimea that ‘pressure from school authorities, assimilation in a predominantly Russian-speaking environment, the departure of thousands of pro-Ukrainian residents and various deterring factors explain this persistent decline’ in teaching in Ukrainian. One of those factors, it further mentions, is that allegedly anyone requesting teaching in Ukrainian is automatically reported to the Russian security services.

According to a 2017 Crimean education road map, schools are obliged to publicise the right to native language education, as well as inform parents directly at three meetings in February, May and August. But in practice few do so, says Crimea-based human rights lawyer Lenura Yengulatova. If parents do make the required requests, they are told there are no teachers, class rooms or textbooks, or that classes are an unnecessary burden for children.

Schools “use any excuse to dissuade parents; it’s psychological pressure and manipulation,” Yengulatova said, citing a headteacher in Sevastopol who, in a conversation recorded by parents, asks them why their children should study in Crimean Tatar when the exams are in Russian, and accuses them of “taking decisions for your children”. Other parents have been accused of bringing up their children to be separatists. Some schools including the one in Sevastopol have refused to accept requests, or distributed forms to be filled in that actually request ‘education in Russian’.

Text books are available on the Crimean Ministry of Education website, and schools just have to order them. They are legally obliged to find rooms and teachers. But “Parents don’t know this, and many just give up, especially in remote villages where there’s only one school and the director is often on the same level as the head of the local administration,” said Yengulatova.

Yengulatova has acted on parents’ behalf. An appeal to the local education department led to one class being opened in the village of Svetochny last Autumn. In September 2018, when I met her, She was preparing an unprecedented court case for discrimination and violation of Russian education regulations, on behalf of nine parents from the Sevastopol school whose director had been recorded saying she refused to open a Crimean Tatar class.

I asked if I could talk to the parents concerned. Yengulatova said the group’s spokesperson had recently asked her not to give out contacts any more, because he had been put under pressure at his workplace in a city hospital.

In late 2018 Yengulatova and her colleagues dropped the case at the request of the same father, who was afraid he would lose his job if it continued.

I heard several stories of dissuasion by schools, from relatives who had not in the end pushed for classes for their children. Few agreed to give me their names. One who did, Ibraim Chegertma, told me that his nephew was one of 12 parents who asked for a Crimean Tatar class in a village school near Simferopol. Last August, as the school term was about to begin, the school asked his nephew to write a second request because he was the only parent left who still wanted his child to study in Crimean Tatar. All the rest had changed their minds after being told there was no teacher or text books. “They said to him, ‘how can we have a class with only one child in it?’” Chegertma said. His nephew withdrew his request.  

Chegertma is one of the many Crimean Tatar intellectuals and educationalists who revived their culture and language from the 1990s, and who have been pushed aside by the new regime. The state publishing house where he worked for over 20 years was liquidated in 2014. The Crimean Tatar schoolbooks he’d produced were sent for recycling, because they featured the Ukrainian flag on their pages (some have now been reprinted, minus the flag). He was offered a job in the Gasprinsky media centre, which under the Russian-Crimean National and Minority Affairs Committee now produces materials in Crimean Tatar, but was recently forced to resign, he said, because of constant informing about his activities, such as visits to Kyiv, and pressure to attend state propaganda events.

I asked him if he intended to fight his forced resignation; he said no. “I already lost my work, I lost my team. I had nothing to fight for, nowhere to go,” he said. “Russia doesn’t need specialists like us.”

Silenced opposition

When I asked Balbek if parents in Stary Krym opposed the reduction of Crimean Tatar language teaching, his answer was indirect.

“Of course everyone is upset,” he said. “Unfortunately…” There was a long pause, as he chose his words carefully. “It was possible in a democratic country that people’s opinions counted for something with the government. But here it is not quite like that. Here decisions are taken and people who express a different opinion automatically become enemies.”

Twenty years ago, parents in Stary Krym were ready to protest on the streets to get a school building. But since annexation there have been no public protests about Ukrainian or Crimean Tatar schools or language. Under Russian rule, ‘unsanctioned meetings’ are illegal and getting the required sanction for a meeting that does not support the authorities is next to impossible. Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar activists have been banned from Crimea, beaten, harassed, fined, arrested or forcibly disappeared. In such a climate, it’s unsurprising that people keep quiet about their children’s education.

It is impossible to divorce the language question from the wider situation of free speech, historical memory and identity, says Balbek.  

“The problems we raise about language are not my personal problems, but those of my nation, our region, but now they’re viewed in terms of the state’s image,” he said. “Try taking such a difficult event for us as the 18 May deportation. We’re not allowed to commemorate it. We should forget it, so as not to put a stain on the state.”     

In Stary Krym, a small monument to the mass deportation of 1944 is the only place in the town where Crimean Tatars, who make up more than 30 percent of the 9000 population, are allowed to gather in small numbers to mark this event. Large public meetings, like those held before 2014, are banned. Locals have been fined for driving past the monument flying Crimean Tatar flags from their cars.

The pressure not to pursue Crimean Tatar or Ukrainian language comes not only from state intimidation. Families may be convinced it is too much work for their children on top of other lessons, or that it is useless or even prejudicial for their futures. Sometimes even if the school has set up a class with teachers and textbooks, parents don’t want it, Yengulatova says. “Parents are afraid their children will have problems with studying. Not all Crimean Tatar families have language skills themselves; they speak together in Russian.”

After decades of assimilation and Soviet repression, 23 years of work in Ukraine by activists like Chabanova and Chegertma may not have been enough to embed Crimean Tatar language into a new generation of Crimean Tatars, so that it could survive Russian rule.

Apart from official signs on government buildings, dutifully written in the three state languages, it is hard to find anything in today’s Crimea publicly written in Crimean Tatar or Ukrainian. Street names, and signs on historical monuments or memorials erected since annexation are in Russian only. Crimean Tatar cafes rarely have menus in Crimean Tatar. Despite the several ‘large national publications’ in Crimean Tatar listed in a report from the Russian-Crimean ombudsman for human rights, it is a struggle to find them on sale in a shop or kiosk. While in Crimea I was given a copy of the Ukrainian language newspaper Teren; two days later one of the contributors to it had her home searched by the security services, and later left the peninsula.

Inside the hall of the national school in Stary Krym, everything except the Russian safety and anti-terrorism notices was written in Crimean Tatar. Children spoke with their teachers in their native language. But outside in the playground under the balloons celebrating the start of a new school year, children and parents chatted together exclusively, as far as I could hear, in Russian.

Lily Hyde is a British writer who has been living in and travelling around Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union and the far east for over fifteen years. In addition to writing fiction, she covers Ukraine affairs for international media including The Guardian, The Times, Foreign Policy, Newsweek, New Internationalist. Lily also works as a consultant in public health and human rights.

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