In the haunting chorus of "1944", the Ukrainian singer Jamala invited viewers of the 2016 Eurovision contest to sing in the Crimean Tatar language. This week, on 19 and 20 May, postgraduate students from across the United Kingdom will be learning to speak the language in an innovative workshop on Crimean Tatar culture at the University of Cambridge.
The two-day workshop, organised by the Cambridge Ukrainian Studies programme, is a first for any British university. Featuring ten language lessons and seminars in literature and music, it seeks to forge new directions in Ukrainian and Black Sea Studies and in the study of the Crimean Tatars, the Sunni Muslim nation indigenous to Crimea.
Jamala’s victory at Eurovision introduced millions in Europe to Crimean Tatar culture for the first time. Her song "1944" paid moving tribute to her great-grandmother, who was among the hundreds of thousands of Crimean Tatars deported from their ancestral homeland at the hands of Stalin’s NKVD in May 1944. According to estimates, the event led to the deaths of at least thirty percent of the entire population – mainly women, children and the elderly.
In the Soviet period, Crimean Tatar activists mounted a peaceful, effective and ultimately successful grassroots campaign to return to Crimea. Yet today many of these same activists are accused of "extremism" by de-facto Russian authorities, who have incarcerated and even exiled Crimean Tatar representatives since the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.
Last month the elected Crimean Tatar leadership, known as the Mejlis (council), was banned in a move condemned by Amnesty International as "repugnant". The European Parliament declared the ban nothing less than "an attempt to expel [the Crimean Tatars] from Crimea."
The Crimean Tatar workshop at Cambridge on 19-20 May will offer postgraduates a much-needed look beyond the headlines.
"The living language and culture of the Crimean Tatar people are too often neglected in geopolitical debates and in academic discourse, even in the fields of Ukrainian and Black Sea Studies", said Dr Rory Finnin, Director of the Cambridge Ukrainian Studies programme and Head of the Department of Slavonic Studies, who has studied the Crimean Tatars for over a decade. "We need to understand Crimean Tatar society on its own terms, and now more than ever."
The workshop will feature language lessons by Ms Zenife Seydametova, a leading Crimean Tatar language instructor and journalist. It will also include lectures on Crimean Tatar literature by Dr Finnin and on Crimean Tatar music by Dr Maria Sonevytsky, a pioneering ethnomusicologist and musician from Bard College in the United States.
The idea for the workshop was conceived by Dr Finnin and Dr Vsevolod Samokhvalov, Research Associate with the Centre for Development Studies and the Cambridge Central Asia Forum. In 2015 it won funding support from the Centre for East European Language Based Area Studies (CEELBAS).
For more information, please visit the Department of Slavonic Studies.
Image credit: Rustem Skibin (www.artpole.org).