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Crimean Tatar's History A Backdrop For Current Pressures


We're turning again to Crimea this morning. And, David, you roamed around that peninsula that Russia took over this past spring and are bringing us, all this week, stories from there.


Yeah, it really was a fascinating trip, and we went to a lot of places. And it was a really rare chance to see this place in transition. And, you know, it - just meeting people was the biggest part of it that has sort of stuck with me. You just felt how when borders change like these, lives really change, too.

MONTAGNE: About those borders, the West of course, including the U.S., says Russia broke international law by annexing a part of Ukraine. And, David, obviously Russia has a strong response to the West's view of that.

GREENE: Yeah, and we heard it when we stopped in Moscow on the way to Crimea, and we met this Russian lawmaker. His name is Konstantin Zatulin. He has been one of the leading voices fighting to take over Crimea for years. And we got to his office, he made us wait and wait for like an hour, and that is very Soviet. It's what bureaucrats did, and what he did. You kind of have to marinate for a while if you're a guest trying to meet an important person. And the image that sticks with me, Renee, there was this calendar on the wall while we were waiting with a photo of the head of the KGB from the '80s, and this was a 2014 calendar. So that tells you something. But - so we finally get into his office. He's talked to us, and listen to this - he said, imagine that the United States and Great Britain were at some point part of a union. Something like the Soviet Union. And...

KONSTANTIN ZATULIN: President of United States give Florida to United Kingdom, because we need to show that we like Britains, and we'll give them Florida like a guarantee of our friend.

MONTAGNE: And so, David, he's making a comparison to the time when Khrushchev, back in the '50s, gave Crimea to Ukraine because it was all part of the Soviet Union.

GREENE: Exactly, didn't seem to matter at that point, but then it did matter when the Soviet Union broke apart and Crimea fell away with Ukraine. And so Zatulin went on to say, what if something like that happened, if this union between the United States and Great Britain broke apart but Florida was still stuck with the U.K. and the people there weren't happy?

ZATULIN: And the people in Florida establish an uprising. They want a referendum, and 90 percent of us said, we want the United States. And new American president said, OK, if these people want to go to United States, in this case it will be United States. Crisis all over the world.

MONTAGNE: He's mocking there

GREENE: Totally mocking. Basically saying, why is the West so upset that Russia would do this? And you know, Renee, if you go to Crimea, as we did, there are a lot of Crimeans who feel the same way. They say, we wanted to be part of Russia. This is what we wanted, get the West off our backs. But as we've heard the last few days on the air, there's one community that is very frightened about what has happened. And that is this ethnic Muslim minority, the Crimean Tatars. And we spent a lot of time with them in that community, and there's one day that really stands out to me.

We spent the day in Bakhchysarai. It's the heart of Tatar culture. We went to a mosque. They were marking this Muslim holiday, Eid al-Adha, and I have to say, it was the last place I ever would've expected to see one of Putin's guys, a Russian official. But they are everywhere in Crimea right now. So we're walking up to this mosque. This beautiful music is playing. We're with a Crimean Tatar journalist named Nadjie Femi.

NADJIE FEMI: We have a lot of sad music in our culture because the history of Crimean Tatars has a lot of tragical pages.

GREENE: That history, starvation, shipped by Stalin to Central Asia in boxcars and this year their libraries shut down by Russian authorities, some of their young men have disappeared. But Nadjie says, just listen to this song; it's really about hope.

FEMI: It's divided into two parts. It's our history in the sad parts, and after sad and slow parts will be faster more cheerful part.


FEMI: Faster, and it's like our hope for more happy future.

GREENE: So if we walk around to the other side of the mosque, away from the musicians, there's a tile pathway, and there's an animal that has been delivered here, tied up. It's a sheep.

A sheep with its legs tightly bound by string. Standing over the animal, a guy in a gray business suit. He's the one who's delivered it here.

FEMI: It's our new mayor.

GREENE: The new mayor of Bakhchysarai, appointed by Moscow - Russia's man, Putin's man, in this Tatar community.

And the mayor has brought this sheep, which is now at his feet, tied up as a gift.

FEMI: Yes it's a gift, it's - understand, it's like something for some kind of dialogue maybe. It's not understandable now today, but it's like, we are celebrating you with a holiday. We are guests today on your holiday, so we come with our gifts to him.

GREENE: It's a gift to be sacrificed. Three Tatar men come pick the sheep up off the tile path, and they carry it into the grass and prepare to slit its throat. It's part of a Tatar tradition, and the meat will be part of this day's feast. And the mayor wants to speak with us.

VOKOV KONSTANTIN: (Through translator) You are our guests. Where you from?

GREENE: Washington.

KONSTANTIN: Washington.

GREENE: He seems pretty determined to remind us who is in charge of Crimea, or in Russia, Creem.

KONSTANTIN: Welcome to Russia, to Creem. I'm glad to see you here.

GREENE: Thank you.

KONSTANTIN: I am from the administration of President Russia in Creem. My name is Vokov Konstantin. This is a Muslim holiday today and....

GREENE: He switches to Russian.

KONSTANTIN: (Through translator) There are a lot of Crimean Tatars here in Crimea, and we are glad that they are very peaceful and that they are following the same politics as the Russian country.

GREENE: Same politics. It makes me wonder about Tatars who've been peacefully resisting Russia's takeover.

This seems like such a wonderful day of celebration and togetherness. But, you know, as we look at this, we've also, you know, read stories about Tatar leaders who've been sent away from Crimea and are not allowed to come back. Can you tell me why that's happened?

KONSTANTIN: (Through translator) Of course there are people who are not following Russian legislation and who are acting like extremists. But it's a holiday now, and I don't want to talk about politics. And I just want to talk about better things now in this very good day.

GREENE: And with that, he says goodbye, with one more reminder of where we are.

KONSTANTIN: Thank you very much. Welcome to Russia.

GREENE: Thank you very much. I appreciate it.

If you walk away from this tile path, into the grass and around to the back of the mosque, there is a guy standing cooking over a fire, fresh mutton with vegetables and rice. It's a dish called ploff. It's from Uzbekistan, and Crimean Tatars learned to make it during their decades long exile in Central Asia, where Stalin shipped them in World War II. That history is the backdrop for the pressures they're feeling today.


GREENE: And we'll continue our reporting from Crimea tomorrow. We'll meet a business woman who fears Crimea will now be as isolated from the West as it was during Soviet times. But she is willing to make that sacrifice. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.