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Speak Loudly and Carry a Big Meat Stick: Crimean Tatars, the Media and the Crimea Crisis

This was the first week someone had asked me to edit their guerrilla warfare recruiting propaganda.

We foreign visitors often get calls call asking for help translating some sort of document. You know, college application essays, university transcripts, CVs and resumes. A few months ago someone asked me to translate their Guinness Book of World Records Application for “THE WORLD’S LONGEST HALAL SHASHLIK”. They cooked a lengthy (but still halal) meat stick, and it was entered into the record books in part thanks to yours truly. But this was the first week someone had asked me to edit their guerrilla warfare recruiting propaganda.

What happened is that my friend messaged me and asked if I could check her English. The last time she did this, it was for her graduate school application in Public Relations. So imagine my surprise when I opened the file to read: “I am ready to die for my homeland. What are you ready to die for? For Putin’s ambitions?”

The file was a translation of a short video of rolling drums, deep basses, and handsome, strong men (with a close up view of the older men’s weathered beards and the younger men’s carefully-cultivated five-o-clock shadows). They are Crimean Tatars and they are ready to take up arms. They warn that people are coming here to kill us (Crimean Tatars, one assumes). We don't want to fight, they say, we need to. Why do we need to fight? Because we must stand together to defend our holy home. The next time someone is going to get shot at, it will be you. So you should be ready to defend each other, your families, yourselves. There is hope, because guerrilla warfare has never gone away and never will.

One of the talking heads almost cracks a smile when he boasts, “I am not a sniper, but 300 meters is a small enough range.” He may be speaking from experience in the army, but he is excited, telling the audience that this will be fun, glorious. Another boasts that it may be frightening, and he doesn’t want to leave behind his  wife and two kids, but, he has a duty. The mood is upbeat, with the romance of the righteous warrior off fight the good fight. The video is called “A Time of Heroes: Insurgents” (The translation is rough because the title is in Ukrainian,  which I don't speak).

My friend and I engaged in a quick back-and-forth:


Me:  I really don’t want to get involved in assisting war propaganda.


Her:  What war propaganda?


Me:  They’re asking people to take up arms.


Here: No, they’re talking about defending their country!


Me: What about the part where he says, 'Brothers, we must take up arms!'?


Her: Sorry.  [Smiley emoticon].  After all, they’re being forced to take up arms; they don’t want it, and didn’t ask for it.


The naivete I saw in this video of these Crimean Tatars and the idea that war might be glorious is matched and surpassed by the naivete about the Crimean Tatars in articles I have read about the annexation referendum. The BBC noted that Joseph Stalin deported the Crimean Tatars from central Asia to Ukraine in the mid 20th century. Sorry, BBC but you misread your source. Joseph Stalin starved and murdered the Crimean Tatars in the mid 20th century. The New Republic noted that the Crimean Tatars were the aboriginal people. I don't know which Wikipedia article they were reading, but the one I read said they came with the Khanate. Or maybe I don't understand what “aboriginal” means? Maybe there's no term for “we were here first”.

Either way, the only people who are on top of what it means to be a Crimean Tatar, no surprise, are Crimean Tatars themselves, and they are rather nervous about their fate. Making up about 15% of the Crimean population, the Crimean Tatars boycotted the referendum, which they accused of being illegal and rigged. It may give you a sense of how Crimean Tatars feel about Russian power in that they are willing to take their chances with an unclear interim government involved with some (though by no means a majority) right-wing nationalist fascists hanging in Kiev. The Crimean Tatars' grandparents probably passed down some pretty telling stories about Russia. I don't know if anyone is really coming to kill them, but some people out there are taking that threat seriously. Interestingly, the Kazan Tatars have taken an interest in their brethren and have sent envoys to ensure their safety.

What worries me is that people who are quiet, who just a year ago were busy getting their PR grad degree, are suddenly willing to pass around videos asking their brothers to take up arms. Somewhere at the heart of this crisis is a crisis of national identity.

The nobody is saying is war. The dismal economy is on the tips of everyone's tongue, but war is gurgling in their stomachs. Never-ending guerilla war. Could it happen?

The smiling, jolly amateur sniper from the video represents a nonchalant and unrealistic attitude towards war. Saying “this land is holy” deprives the word “holy” of its meaning. The point is to stir up emotion, or at least direct some emotion that is already there.

Thanks to no small number of Russian literary works about war in Crimea I have a pretty good idea of what horror this can lead to, and thanks to my 10th grade history teacher I know what happens to an ethnic minority (like the Crimean Tatars, or, let's say, the Kurds) that finds itself on a desirable piece of land.

But if you're in Ukraine now, you're seeing the Eastern media look at you and tell you  that you are surrounded by fascists, and the Western media look at you and make up facts about you like they're reading your tea leaves or consulting a phrenology map. You know that people disappeared without a trace during the protests, and that more might disappear again. And there you are, sitting at your cubicle at work. Where are these supposed fascists? Where is this chaos you are watching on TV? Spring is coming, the frost the protesters braved is melting away. How are you supposed to figure out what you want from all this when all international media reflects  such a false picture? And what are your real options? What is it you really want and why?

Crimean crisis aside, Ukrainians might actually be able to decide their own fates. They're going to find out how difficult it is to choose a fate, and how far they are willing to go to seal it.

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