March 8, 2017

Crimean Tatars: Traditional Dress Tells Story of Community’s Struggle Through History

Photo courtesy of Tasya Kudryk @Vogue

While most original pieces of Crimean Tatar traditional clothing were already lost or destroyed during the ethnic cleansing and deportation ordered by Stalin between 1944 and 1947, today’s Crimean Tatars who fled the Russian occupation of their ancestral lands are again facing the challenge to preserve their cultural heritage. For a photo shoot with the prestigious Vogue fashion magazine, four Crimean Tatar women who now live in Kiev managed to get out of Russia-occupied Crimea several pieces of traditional dress in order to tell through photographs the story of their people’s subjugation by Russia.

Below is an article published by Vogue:

Four women pose in thick caftans and embroidered fezzes with turquoise ornaments dangling from their inky black hair in a studio in Kiev, Ukraine. The women are Crimean Tatars, a Turkic Muslim ethnic group, who have lived in Crimea since at least the 13th century and are wearing their cultural costumes for a shoot. Like most traditional dress, the clothing has a rich, ancient history. The embroidered caftans run the rainbow of feverish violets, ruby reds, and emerald greens, all with gold filigree-style embroidery.

Among the four women, there is designer Edie Karimova who hails from the town of Yevpatoria and now resides in Kiev. She wears a red jacquard dress, a reproduction of something that would have been worn by her great-grandmother more than a century ago. Edie’s sister, Alime, wears her shoulder-length hair in tiny hanging braids, a symbol of an unmarried woman in Crimean Tatar culture. Elnara Abdullaieva, a dance instructor, dons a velvet dress with gold embroidery and a green fez. There is also model Evelina Mambetova: She wears an altyn fez, a fez with golden coins and, a kokuslyuk, a bib of gold coins. This is the sort of clothing that manages to glint through photographs, that evokes a radiant warmth, and adds a bit of pink to their cheeks. The four Crimean Tatar women are in a celebratory mood. Call it a miracle.

See, it’s not easy to find the real-deal traditional clothing of the Muslim minority. It’s amazing that local stylist Nadiia Shapoval, who helped out on the shoot, was able to get a dress out of Crimea, a now-Russian-annexed territory that was once a part of Ukraine. And it’s incredible that Esma Adzhiieva, an advisor of the minister of culture of Ukraine and the head of ALEM, an NGO that specializes in preserving Crimean Tatar culture, has brought a 100-year-old silver belt with her.

Much of Crimean Tatar clothing has been destroyed or lost, following the tragic diaspora and forced relocation of Crimean Tatars. The grandparents of these women were among the roughly 200,000 Crimean Tatars deported from their homeland in May 1944, by the orders of Joseph Stalin. They were crammed into sealed cattle cars and sent off to Central Asia (mostly Uzbekistan), Siberia, and the Ural mountains. (Stalin claimed that the population was a threat and had collaborated with the Nazis. The charges of treason and Nazi collaboration were later dropped after Stalin's death.) With no prior warning, Crimean Tatars were often given 15 minutes to gather their belongings and then were forced to take a multi-day train ride across the continent.

“My grandma said that it was a nightmare on the train without food and water,” says Mambetova. More than 8,000 people on the trip died from disease and starvation. (Crimean Tatar singer Jamala won the 2016 Eurovision competition for Ukraine with her song “1944,” which describes the harrowing trip.) Between 1944 and 1947, what many have considered an act of ethnic cleansing resulted in the death of around half of the deportees. (According to the Deputy Minister of Information Policy of Ukraine, around 46% of those who were deported, including children, women, and elderly, died on the way and in the first years of exile due to diseases and inhumane conditions.) Much of their culture—including the traditional dress—was killed off as well. Today, only a few original pieces of Crimean Tatar clothing remain.

During the late 1980s and ’90s, Crimean Tatars were allowed to return to Crimea. “My grandmother always wanted to go back to her motherland, Yevpatoria, and when in 1987 the Crimean Tatars were allowed to return back, my grandmother gathered all the family and they moved back to Crimea,” says Mambetova of her now 89-year-old grandmother. “It was very hard for them to leave all their belongings in Uzbekistan, but they were warmed by the idea that they were going back home to the land of their ancestors.”

Despite the atrocities committed against them, Crimean Tatars have attempted to rebuild their culture and reclaim their home. They have built mosques and speak their own language. But they have all integrated into the secular, Russian-speaking society, as well. Edie is a clothing designer, while her sister Alime is in graduate school for architecture. Abdullaieva holds two master’s degrees, while Mambetova has walked international runways. Despite assimilating, like most minorities, they have experienced an undercurrent of racism. “I was born on my own land,” says Alime, who was bullied in school for being Crimean Tatar. “But it was always made clear that I was a stranger.”

Violence and racism against minorities is spiking in the former Soviet Union. The pretty, warm peninsula of Crimea, once Ukraine, was annexed by Russia in 2014 and now the Crimean Tatar community is once again facing repression. Coupled with pro-Russia nationalism, violence against the ethnic minority is on the rise. Mejlis, the group’s representative body, has been banned, and during the 70th anniversary of the Crimean Tatar deportation, Russian troops blocked the commemoration site and banned the day in 2015. Since the Annexation of Crimea, as many as 30,000 Tatars have reportedly fled, mostly to mainland Ukraine.

Despite what can be described as another exile, these Crimean Tatar women have tried to stay in good spirits. In the studio, they seemed to draw strength from putting on these traditional costumes, which brought back childhood memories. Each woman had worn the fez caps and caftans while practicing traditional Crimean Tatar dance when they were little girls. “The Crimean Tatars are very friendly people,” Mambetova tells me. “No matter what the situation, everyone always supports each other in difficult and happy times.”