Crimean Tatar language

Journalist Mustafa Ametov on Crimean Tatar literature’s vital role in language preservation


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Mustafa Ametov is a journalist and the head of the Institute for the Development of the Crimean Tatar Language. He is also a laureate of the Qirim Inciri [Crimean fig] literary prize, designed to stimulate literature about Crimea. He spoke to Chytomo about the development and decline of Crimean Tatar literature, how the Russian occupation impacted Crimea’s national culture, and the challenges in popularizing the Crimean Tatar language today.


“The ‘critically endangered’ language (UNESCO) has a rich and politically complicated literary history — which may yet be the ticket to its preservation.”


Chytomo: Let’s start with the basics. When we say “Crimean Tatar literature,” what and whom are we talking about?

Mustafa Ametov: Crimean Tatar literature began in the 13th century. The first work known to us is the poem “Yusuf and Zuleikha,” by Mahmud Qırımlı. His original manuscript and its copies did not survive, but a copy of a copy remains. The poem tells the story of the prophet Yusuf (or, in the Bible, Joseph) and a woman named Zuleikha who fell in love with him.

Mahmud Qırımlı


The golden age of Crimean Tatar literature, if we can call it that, is the period of the Crimean Khanate [the state that existed in the Crimean territory of the 13th and 14th centuries]. This is the medieval “literature of diwan,” or the literature of the palace and the nobility. It was written in a language that was radically different from the one spoken by ordinary Crimean Tatars. These are complex works that are almost inaccessible to today’s Crimean Tatar speakers.


What we now know as modern Crimean literature can be attributed in large part to the writer Ismail Gasprinskyi. [Gasprinskyi was a Crimean Tatar writer, teacher, cultural, and public-political figure of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, who laid the foundations of the short story and novel in Crimean Tatar literature. He was the publisher of “Terjiman,” a Pan-Turkist weekly magazine in which he published the works of young Crimean Tatar writers.] Gasprinskyi believed in the idea of unification of all Turkic peoples with the help of a common language. Therefore, his understanding of the language differs from both modern Crimean Tatar and the one that was started as a literary language in the late 1920s.


Chytomo: Who are the central figures of the Crimean Tatar literary canon?

Mustafa Ametov: Two poets of the Crimean Khanate period come to mind: Ashik Umer, a representative of the folk Ashik literature, and Gazi Geray Bora, a writer of Saray edebiyati [“secular literature”]


Gazi Geray Bora


After the first Russian annexation of Crimea by the Russian Empress Catherine II and the liquidation of the Crimean Khanate, the country experienced more than a century of decline, known as Kara-Devir [“black century” or “black epoch”].


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Literary writing was revived with the appearance of Ismail Gasprinskyi. Before him, Crimea had almost no artistic prose. Except for epistolaries or poetry here and there, most Crimean texts were historical or religious treatises. It was Gasprinskyi’s followers — writers Eshref Shemy-Zade, Bekir Choban-Zade, Shamil Alyadin, and Yusuf Bolat — who began to develop Crimean Tatar literature as we know it today. 

Ismail Gasprinskyi


After the 1944 deportation [when Joseph Stalin deported around 200,000 Crimean Tatar people to Central Asia, accusing all  Crimean people of treason] and to this day, in my opinion, Crimean Tatar literature is primarily an effort to preserve the language and pass it on to future generations.

Chytomo: So in other words, “Crimean Tatar literature” refers to prose and poetry works written in the national language. What about texts by Crimean writers who wrote in other languages?

Mustafa Ametov: Most of the other works are in Russian. But I have not read these works and I do not want to. This is my personal point of view: Everything that was published in Russian by Crimean Tatar writers was published due to the influence of Soviet propaganda on Soviet literary circles. It was either about Lenin, Stalin, or the so-called Great Patriotic War [World War II  from the point of view of the USSR]. 


Chytomo: Were any eulogies for Stalin written in Crimean Tatar?


Mustafa Ametov: Yes, I own a collection of [Communist Party] poetry with a portrait of Stalin on the cover, in which all the poems are dedicated to him. This is extremely degrading literature, but it is written in the Crimean Tatar language, which is what gives it research value. 


Repression targeted all Crimeans, including recent supporters of the Party. They were declared enemies of the nation and executed. On April 17, 1938,  there was a mass shooting of the Crimean Tatar intelligentsia in Simferopol, the capital of Crimea. Then came the war and deportation, during which it was forbidden to mention anything related to Crimea, or even use the word itself. Writers referred to Crimea using terms like “our homeland,” “mountains of our homeland,” “sea of ​​our homeland,” etcetera.


The first collection of Crimean Tatar language works was only permitted to be published as of 1957, a few years after Stalin’s death. Writers who survived the deportation — an extreme few — collected  works that they had published before the war and reprinted them in that collection.


Chytomo: What’s your take on the perception that until 2014, and even shortly after the start of the Russian occupation of Crimea, Crimean Tatar culture and literature were primarily intended for “internal consumption”?


Mustafa Ametov: In general, I agree. We had several publications for the general public — for instance, the newspapers Qırım and Yañı Dünya, and the literary magazine Yıldız. Their editions range from 1,000 to 3,000 copies at most. And that’s all. 


But it’s about the consequences. Why were so few books published? First of all, there was a lack of education in the native language. Many people blame the Ukrainian government for this, as during 24 years of independence, it either could not or did not want to pay enough attention to the issue. At the same time, Moscow had a significant influence on Ukraine and on Crimea, specifically. And, of course, the state prioritized many other expenses over culture, art, and literature. 


If people’s basic needs are not met — consider how difficult life was in Ukraine in the 1990s and 2000s — you just have to throw free publications at them so that every family has that book at home to explore. Later, this interest will turn into demand. After all, you cannot immediately expect that people will pay for something that doesn’t interest them.


Literature, like cinema or any other art, must first be entertaining and accessible. Only then, on this foundation, can you build something more serious.


First, we have to teach people to speak and to read. Our linguists clearly outlined this problem back in the 1990s and 2000s. Crimean Tatar exists. As a language, it has been well preserved. It is not inferior to any other language ​​in terms of development or vocabulary. But it is only understood and used by a narrow circle of intelligentsia. 


Chytomo: UNESCO included Crimean Tatar in its list of endangered languages, adding that only 20–25% of Crimean Tatars speak it. But this report dates back to 2010. How realistic do you think these numbers are today?

Mustafa Ametov: In fact, we do not have recent data. Sociological studies on this topic have not been conducted for a long time. Based on what I’ve observed, individuals from the late 20th-century generation, who are now in their 30s and 40s, generally understand and can apply the language in their daily lives. However, knowledge appears to be declining among younger generations.


Chytomo: The full-scale Russian invasion provided a powerful impetus for Ukrainianization of our Russian-speaking citizens. Ukrainian language, literature, traditions and culture became more popular, in part due to state propaganda, causing a new wave of interest in Ukrainian culture. Did the occupation of Crimea have a similar effect on the younger generation of Crimean Tatars?

Mustafa Ametov: Interest was growing even before the beginning of the occupation. Sometime in the mid-2000s, with the introduction of our national media (Meydan radio and ATR television), the demand increased for better media representation. Internet connection was already fast, with access to media from mobile phones, YouTube channels, and social media. Then a certain demand for our own began to form.

Oleh Borysov, Meydan radio studio


Before that point, the public television and radio company “Krym” (Crimea) allocated just  2–3 hours of airtime, one day a week — just like other newsrooms for national minorities. At that time, news, interviews, and some mediocre programs were aired. These were primitive documentaries, not studio productions and talk shows.


Thanks to online broadcasts, people were able to hear the language live and hear each other speaking it publicly.


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How did this affect the community’s sense of belonging?


Mustafa Ametov: Social networks have narrowed the world and changed our understanding of the borders of one’s country and its people. We became closer to each other. People saw that others think like them, and share similar ideas and problems. Substantial national cultural events began to be organized in Crimea. Together, all this activity encouraged people to open up and start speaking, reading, and consuming content in their native language.


Everything stopped after 2014. I am watching what is happening in Crimea from Kyiv — the posts on social networks, the videos, articles, discussions… There is a demand for Crimean Tatar literature, but Muscovy’s policy of oppression everything Ukrainian has not changed since Peter I.


The majority of the Crimean Tatar intelligentsia remained in Crimea during the occupation. But literature, both prose and poetry, is not only about love. There is extremely strict self-censorship. On the one hand, people have learned to restrain themselves in order to avoid going to prison. On the other, there is constant propaganda. One state TV channel created a subordinate Crimean Tatar channel, where the station recruited loyal employees and taught them how to speak the language ‘correctly’ in the eyes of the state and which messages to promote.


People in Crimea follow the news and understand the situation here. There is a certain connection and exchange of information and experience between us, but not everything is reflected in art and literature. It remains in people’s heads.


Chytomo: What currently feeds the demand for Crimean Tatar culture on the Ukrainian mainland? What new materials have appeared during the occupation?


Mustafa Ametov: Honestly, just a bit. Because there are no people here. It is said that between 25,000 and  50,000 Crimean Tatars left Crimea. 


With the help of public organizations and activists, we are trying to form a circle of like-minded people, friends, and colleagues. We communicate and support each other so we know who is doing what and where. Everyone tries to create and promote projects in their field — education, history, language, literature — especially now that the state has given us this opportunity.


Chytomo: Can you say more about this opportunity from the state?

Mustafa Ametov: First of all, there is the law regarding the Indigenous peoples of Ukraine and the 10-year strategy for the development of the Crimean Tatar language.  These initiatives create a certain opportunity for future work. For the first time in 30 years, the state turned to face us. The strategy was adopted two days before the start of the full-scale aggression; the law was adopted about six months before that.


 A few teachers in universities and schools teach Crimean Tatar, but this is not enough. Fortunately, there are online courses [e.g., “Crimean Tatar language lessons”, “Qırım: Crimea is us”— A.S.], which are delivered by people from Crimea, Europe, Asia, and America. And we have recorded and are currently editing online lessons for the integrated Crimean Tatar language and literature course aimed at Ukrainian fifth and sixth graders, which will be released soon.


All Crimean language archives were left in occupied Crimea. For the past few years, my colleagues and I have been collecting everything that has been published in the Crimean Tatar language to create an online library of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and periodicals, as well as translations and books about the Crimean Tatars.


We still want to publish an anthology of selected Crimean Tatar works. All that exists today are a few collections translated into Ukrainian and published in the mid-2000s and early 2010s. For example, we have amassed a series of prose works by our classic writers, published by “Master of Books.”


There are also major language projects in the near future, including the development of a spelling standard and a project to latinize the Crimean Tatar language. We are also planning to compile the first Crimean Tatar explanatory dictionary. 


Chytomo: Do you think there’s been adequate translation of classic Crimean Tatar literary works? Are there any current translation projects you’re aware of? 

Mustafa Ametov: Our predecessors have created such translations since the beginning of the 20th century. For example, Ukrainian poets Taras Shevchenko, Lesya Ukrainka, and Ivan Franko have all been translated into Crimean Tatar.


In the mid-2000s, two poet-translators did a simply titanic job — Yunus Kandim and Mykola Miroshnychenko published three volumes of an anthology of Crimean Tatar literature in Ukrainian. 


We must revive the commitment to two-way translations. However, at the moment we have neither enough specialists with sufficient knowledge and experience nor enough money for such projects.


Chytomo: What are your thoughts on modern authors who are Crimean Tatars, but who write literature in languages other than Crimean Tatar or about subjects other than Crimea?

Mustafa Ametov: In my opinion, modern Crimean Tatar literature is that which is written in the Crimean Tatar language. Of course, there are cases in which a person may want to write in the language or about Crimea, but they do not  know the language well enough, so they write in Russian, Ukrainian, or English. This choice is up to the writer, but it is my belief that such books do not enrich the language and or develop our literature.


Chytomo: In your view, is Crimean Tatar literature closer to Ukrainian or Turkic literature? Or is it something completely separate?


Mustafa Ametov: Crimean Tatar literature is about Crimea, so it is culturally Crimean and Ukrainian, but technically it is Turkic, because it is written in one of the Turkic languages. Today’s literary tradition was influenced by the Soviet worldview and the Russophone world, whether we care to admit it or not.


For Crimean Tatars and Ukrainians, our history is mutual. Accordingly, our literature reflects and describes our shared tragedy. 


We are also united by our mentality. We have many centuries of experience of living together in the same place, in Ukraine, with 30 years of Ukrainian independence. We have more or less learned not to see each other as foreigners, but have instead become a political nation. I think that, in the future, Crimean Tatar literature will become a part of Ukrainian heritage. It will simply be literature in another language, with its own national characteristics and history that have been shaped over centuries.



Translation: Milana Polova

Copyediting: Kay Pettigrew, Terra Friedman King