Vienna, January 7 – More than most people suspect, memoirs, novels and films about a nation’s struggles often play a defining, even revolutionary role not only in uniting its members to achieve their common goal but also and perhaps even more important in presenting their case to the broader world more forcefully and effectively than any academic or legal study could.
No one Jewish or not can think about the Holocaust without remembering The Diary of Anne Frank. No one Armenian or not can think about 1915 without recalling the story of that terrible year as told in The Forty Days of Musa Dagh. And no one Ukrainian or not can think about the Terror Famine of the 1930s without recollecting The Yellow Prince.
But if many nations would benefit from having such a work, few do. Consequently, it is always an occasion for wonder and excitement when a book of this kind appears. That has now happened for the Crimean Tatars, and with the publication of Lily Hyde’s Dream Land,* that hard-pressed people now have their very own “Diary of Anne Frank.”
Lily Hyde, a British freelance journalist based in Ukraine, tells the story of the return of the Crimean Tatars to their homeland in the early 1990s from the perspective of Safi, a 12-year-old girl who comes back with her parents, brother, and grandfather to her family’s now destroyed village in Crimea from their exile in Uzbekistan.
While Safi’s grandfather provides background on the tragedies the Crimean Tatars have suffered over the last century, including Stalin’s deportation of the entire nation to Central Asia on May 18, 1944, this novel is especially powerful because it considers their situation now through the eyes of a girl who must wrestle with the question of where is her real home is.
Like most young people, Safi is more focused on the challenges posed by her immediate surroundings than on larger political questions. Will she be able to make friends in a new place? Why do her new neighbors dislike her family so much? What possessed her parents to move from their sunny and large house in Samarkand to what is little more than a hovel in Crimea?
Over the course of the book, she does make new friends, not only among other Crimean Tatars but also among Ukrainians and Russians. She discovers that none of these communities has had an easy time of it in the last century. And she watches as her father and mother build a house and open a teahouse to earn money to finish it.
After school – and going to school is so important for her that she misleads her parents as to why the Russian bus driver won’t drop her off where he is supposed to – Safi wanders in the mountains where she discovers both places of beauty that remind her of what Crimea could be and a Karaim cemetery that undercuts her conviction that the Tatars were in Crimea first.
Each of her experiences is set off by a story from her beloved grandfather, who was among those deported by Stalin more than half a century earlier. He tells her both about the heroes and victims among the Crimean Tatars and also about those among that nation who were taken in by the Nazis or the Soviets and behaved badly.
One of Safi’s grandfather’s most disturbing stories concerns the decision of the Soviet secret police to drown the residents of several Crimean Tatars they had originally missed when carrying out Stalin’s plan to exile all the Crimean Tatars from their homeland lest the Kremlin dictator find out about this mistake and exile or execute the NKVD men.
Hyde says in an afterward that she learned of this and other details from conversations with Crimean Tatars and that there is no documentation about the drowning. In fact, that is not quite so. The Munich Institute for the Study of the USSR reported it in 1958, and in 1992, the Moscow Institute of Ethnography documented it in a volume on the Crimean Tatar movement.
In the course of the novel, tensions build between the Crimean Tatars who are building houses without permits from the Ukrainian authorities, on the one hand, and Ukrainian and Russian residents of the peninsula who resent the return of these hardworking and totally committed competitors, on the other.
Finally, in the climactic scene, an unruly mob brings up a bulldozer to destroy the house Safi’s family has built. She throws herself in front of the bulldozer, not in time to save the house or to prevent herself from being seriously injured, but in a manner that forces the local authorities to decide that they must give her family at least permission to remain and build.
Safi thus becomes a hero, although she does not immediately understand why that should be so, and she feels about herself, as she sometimes feels about her grandfather and his stories, that they are “telling him” rather than he is “telling them,” a gain in self-knowledge that both recognize is an indication that she and her people are growing up.
In the course of the book, her grandfather begins each of his stories about the past of the Crimean Tatar nation with the words, “Bir zamanda bar eken, bir zamanda yoke ken” – in English, “Sometime it was and sometime it wasn’t at all.” But at the end, he tells Safi she must not focus on his stories of the past, however important, but must write her own for the future.
Safi’s life as recounted in Lily Hyde’s remarkable novel beyond any question means that the Crimean Tatars now are becoming more conscious of the complexities of their own past and present and thus well on their way to making her Dream Land ever more real for her, her people, and for us.
*Lily Hyde, Dream Land: One Girl’s Struggle to Find Her True Home (London: Walker Books, 2008, ISBN: 978-1-4063-0765-8).