The ruins of Chersonesus.
The Victory Day Parade in Sevastopol.
A Russian submarine up close on our tour of the harbor.
Here I am sitting in front of the monument to sailors lost at sea.
Our Sevastopol friends who shared their holiday with us.
The month of May in Ukraine is a time of many holidays. The first of May holidays—International Workers Day—is followed by the May 9th holiday—Victory Day—which celebrates the end of World War II (called the Great Patriotic War) and honors those who died and the surviving veterans. And the numbers that died here are staggering—40 million in all of Russia which includes the 6 million who died in Ukraine, 2 million of which were Jews murdered in the Holocaust. Once I learned more of the history of the war here, I understood the tremendous importance the May 9th holiday holds for people in Ukraine.
May is also a month of commemoration for the Crimean Tatars. May 18th is the anniversary of the Deportation of the Crimean Tatars and is marked by a huge gathering in the center of Simferopol. This year another gathering of Crimean Tatars also occurred in May—a celebration of the spring holiday Hidirlez. In the past this holiday has only been marked by small neighborhood gatherings, but this year a huge outdoor festival was organized which attracted Crimean Tatars from all over the peninsula. Nadjie had told me about it weeks earlier and we had made plans to go, but obviously, that was not to be. I ended up going with the Seytaptievs, and my PCV friend Cheryl was in town so she also came with us. We got an early start, driving about 15 miles to a beautiful tract of rolling green land. Booths were already being set up and people were gathering, and soon crowds of people—almost all Crimean Tatars—thronged the area. There was a main stage with traditional dancing and singing, booths selling crafts, organizations like the library promoting their services, many kazans (large wok type pots) filled with plov cooking over open fires, traditional games, men proudly displaying their homing pigeons (a very developed hobby here), and much more. The crowd was estimated at over 10,000, and it was a great beginning to what is destined to become an annual event. And it felt joyous, hopeful—people laughing and having a good time—an antidote to the grief of remembrance that occurs for so many Crimean Tatars around this time, as the tragic stories of deportation come flooding into people’s consciousness. Neshet dragged Serdar out of bed and told him he had to come. He was a bit disgruntled by it all at the beginning, but I think by the end, he was perhaps glad he had the opportunity to experience this with his father. (Go to my library blog http://crimeantatarlibrary.blogspot.com to see photos of Hidirlez)
The day following Hidirlez, Cheryl and I took off for two days to Sevastopol. I have been in Crimea for almost two years, and I had yet to explore the most famous city of Crimea, the Russian dominated seaside port of Sevastopol. I had driven through it several times on the way to other destinations but had never lingered. Cheryl and I had received an invitation to visit from a woman we met when we did the professional women’s seminar in March, so we decided the May 9th holiday weekend would be a good time to take her up on her offer. And she was delighted to show us around. Turns out she has a twin sister—they each have a young child and live with their mother in a comfortable new apartment, where we stayed for the night. We spent the first day walking around the ancient ruins of Chersonesus with a knowledgeable English speaking friend of theirs as a guide. Chersonesus is the site of an ancient Greek colony founded approximately 2500 years ago on the coast of the Black Sea. The ruins were excavated beginning in the 19th century, and today it is a world heritage site and one of the most interesting archaeological sites in Crimea. It is a beautiful location and despite the cold wind we spent several hours exploring the ruins. Afterwards, we went to the panorama museum in the city center, another famous Sevastopol tourist site. It is an immense circular building that contains an amazing painting of the Crimean War and the siege of Sevastopol. The installation is a mix of the actual painting on the curving walls and life size replicas of battle scenes. It is very hard to tell where the replicas end and the painting begins. The building was opened in 1905, but like all of Sevastopol the Panorama Museum was destroyed in the Second World War--not a single building survived intact. It reopened in 1970.
The following day was the Victory Day celebration, which began with a parade of veterans of the war—ancient men with chests full of medals—and then soldiers from the present military forces. Sevastopol was an especially significant place to view the Victory Day parade—besides being the site of some of the most ferocious fighting of the war, it is also the present day location of the Russian naval fleet, so the Russian forces were very much in evidence and the Ukrainian and Russian sailors marched together. Crowds thronged the sidewalks to watch the parade and constantly shouted hooray and thank you as the veterans walked by, giving us some sense of how deeply imbedded the experience of the war is in people’s consciousness. There is not a single family in Ukraine that isn’t affected by the war, that had at least one family member die or suffer tragic consequences.
We spent the rest of the day wandering around Sevastopol, looking at all the Russian naval ships docked in the port, taking a short cruise of the harbor where we could see them close up, watching the crowds of people enjoy themselves on this holiday. The weather didn’t cooperate much—it was very cold for this time of the year—but it didn’t keep people from taking advantage of the holiday to party with friends and family. Later there were big fireworks, but by that time we were on a bus back to Simferopol. I was glad to have a chance to see some of Sevastopol, especially with people who lived there as guides. But I was also glad to get back to Ak Mechet. Sevastopol is so Russian—for years it was a closed city and no one but Russian citizens were allowed to live there. As a result, the Crimean Tatar presence seems to be pretty minimal. I did see a mosque, but when I questioned our hosts about the Deportation Memorial Day on May 18th, they did not know what I was talking about. And never in my two years of working at the library has there been any reference to the libraries in Sevastopol, and no one seems to have relatives there. I do know people who have lived there and they all love it—it is a beautiful city—but they are Russian. Russian rule of Crimea devastated the Crimean Tatar population and culminated in the genocide of the deportation, so it is no wonder that most Crimean Tatars have little connection to Sevastopol.
I came back with just a couple of days to get a lot of work done at the library on the upcoming seminar, and then I was off again to Chernigov, my training site when I first came to Ukraine. More on that in the next blog.
Love to all from Crimea.