Sunday, 15 April 2012

The Crimean Tatars

Recently I found an amazing poem on youtube. The poem was written and is read by Lilya Takosh, chief editor of the Crimean newspaper Первая Крымская. It is about the return of the Crimean Tatars to their homeland, from where they had been deported by Stalin in 1944 (an English translation is under the video on youtube).

After being deported to Uzbekistan in 1944, the Crimean Tatars were only allowed back in the mid-1980s, by which time their land had long been occupied by Ukrainians and Russians. This led to tensions upon their return, and the UN had established a special branch office in Simferopol, the capital of Crimea, to somehow help alleviating conflicts between the different ethnic groups. Back in 2006/2007, I did a 4-months internship at this office.

During the internship, I lived with an elderly Russian lady in the settlement of Pnevmatika, above Simferopol, which looked from afar a bit like a gigantic alien spaceship:

Every morning, a large breakfast was waiting in the small kitchen, because allegedly I was much to thin (on the table you can see a portion of kasha, steak with potatos, blinchiki, a tomato and pepper salad, chocolate cake, fruit and a large cup of coffee, while on the wall is a map of the Crimea). These were good times!

During my stay, the situation between Crimean Tatars, Ukrainians and Russians deteriorated. The Crimean Tatars were frustrated that although having been granted a legal right to be compensated for the land they had lost in 1944, the land they received as compensation was often of inferior quality. While they had lived before on the southern shore and around the central mountains, they now were given land situated mainly in the infertile northern steppes of the Crimea.

As a form of protest, they started in early 2006 to massively occupy land, building small symbolic houses, as in this picture of a hill south of Simferopol:

When the authorities tried to dismantle some settlements, it came to clashes. Fearing escalation, the state backed down, and an uneasy stalemate ensued.

At the UN, we were writing reports about the situation, although I think nobody ever read them (during my stay, a consultant from UN-Habitat was working on a more comprehensive study of the issue, which can be found here). There were also a couple of programmes trying to promote mutual understanding between the different ethnic groups. Some worked quite well, as this project to provide financial help to parents' associations in local schools (the idea was that Ukrainian, Russian and Crimean Tatar parents should spend their Saturday afternoons together, renovating their childrens' classrooms):

Eventually, the situation calmed down somewhat. When I came back for a visit in 2008, some of the occupied areas had become genuine small villages, and people were constructing real houses:

However, with the coming to power of a new pro-Russian government in Kyiv in 2010, worries about possible future tensions remain  (this reportage on Al Jazeera provides a recent update).

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Magnetic Mountain

At about 5am in late September 2010, I stumbled out of my cold room in the hotel Yuzhny Ural in Chelyabinsk, to get on the first bus to Magnitogorsk. The journey takes about five hours, and after two hours on the road it was slowly getting light. We were driving through the southern Russian steppe, past an enormous coal-fired power station, some churches with golden cupolas, and a group of riders guarding a flock of what looked like wild horses. Around 9, the bus stopped at a small service station, and we had a coffee. On an iron fence nearby, somebody had written:

That was where we were going.

Soon afterwards, the sky became somehow darker, although there were no clouds. Then all of a sudden the bus passed between two hills, and there it lay, like a huge living beast:

Magnitka. Magnetic Mountain.

The steel factory was build in the early 1930s, as part of Stalin's industrialization
drive that aimed to provide the Soviet Union with heavy industry beyond the reach
of  the country's potential enemies. Princeton historian Stephen Kotkin has written
a book about the construction of the factory and its sourrounding city, a true

There is also a Soviet movie about the factory's construction, Время, Вперед! (Time, Forward!), from 1965. The soundtrack by Georgy Sviridov is brilliant, so much so that until 1991 it was used as the opening theme for the main evening news on Soviet television.

A second, less known film about the building of Magnitka is the documentary Song of Heroes (1932) by the Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens. Unlike in Время, Вперед!, here much of the footage is original, which makes the documentary most interesting to watch.

During the first years, a number of foreign volunteers and specialists participated in the construction of the steelworks. One of them was the American John Scott, whose book Behind the Urals: An American Worker in Russia's City of Steel makes you feel as if you had been there yourself.

Despite countless difficulties, the factory was build in record time, and played a crucial part in the Soviet defence effort during WW II. Facing the factory, a huge monument commemorates this contribution, depicting a steelworker handing a sword to a soldier:

However, in later years Magnitka faced increasing difficulties due to lacking modernization, inefficient production and environmental pollution, so that by the late 1980s, the future for the factory and its workers looked bleak (as documented in another brilliant study by Kotkin).

When I was there in 2010, I was thus surprised to learn that the Magnitogorsk Iron and Steel Works (MMK) were again economically very successful. To my knowledge, there is no study investigating how the factory managed to become one of the world's most successful and competitive exporters of steel in the short time period since Kotkin's last study, although this question is hugely interesting. If somebody has some spare funding for two years, I would be more than happy to investigate this more closely. 

After having spent a day walking round the factory and the sourrounding hills, I went back to the bus station in the late afternoon. The town of Magnitogorsk lies on the other side of a lake, opposite the steelworks, and was very peaceful after the drumming and banging of the factory, with the sun blinking through autumn leaves:

Near to the station was another monument of a steelworker, which you can see at the beginning of this beautiful shortfilm by Shasha Aleksandrov (the film is edited in precise correspondence with technical operations in sheet metal manufacturing at MMK):