Stories of Crimeans: Digital Activism and The Importance of Educating the World About Crimea

Meet Liia, a 21-year-old Crimean activist and volunteer. She uses various social media platforms to popularize the culture of Crimean Tatars and the history of Crimea among Ukrainians and international community. Liia was born and raised in Crimea, however, like many locals, she was forced to leave her home due to the Russian occupation of the Ukrainian Peninsula.

2. What inspired you to start your blog about Crimea?

It all started with the occupation of Crimea. My family refused to obtain Russian citizenship. Hence, we became aliens in our homeland and were forced to flee due to the occupying regime's persecution of pro-Ukrainian citizens. We have lived in Kherson since 2014, where we have consistently engaged in numerous marches and demonstrations for the liberation of Crimea.

In 2019, I moved to Spain, and it was during this time that I was offered an opportunity to speak about the occupation of Crimea and the repression of Crimean Tatars at the Royal Palace. As my speech was reported by Spain's most popular media, many people in Spain found out about what was going on in Crimea. That is when my activism began, I believe.

Following the full-scale invasion, I started spreading information on Crimea and the Crimean Tatars in Ukrainian language, because it seemed to me that only a few people were discussing the situation in Crimea at the time. So I took the initiative and created an Instagram account called @crimea.comeback, which immediately acquired popularity among Crimean Tatars and Ukrainians. Currently, my activism is oriented toward the international audience as I want people to associate Crimea with Crimean Tatars, not with Russians.

3. You are a Crimean and, understandably, Russia's inhumane treatment of the Crimean Tatars and other populations on the peninsula is a personal pain for you. You also posted about your family's history and the deportation of 1944. Can you recall what the day of Crimea's annexation was like for you? Were you there or in Ukraine? What did you feel? Did your family members stay there?

I witnessed Crimea's transformation from a peaceful Ukrainian peninsula into a Russian military base from the first day of the occupation. We started seeing Russian tanks and Russian servicemen moving with guns in our streets. During the process of occupation of Crimea, my school teachers began to actively push the ideology of the “Russian World” and hatred towards Ukraine on us. My Ukrainian language teacher repeated the old-school Russian propaganda about “Banderivites who will come to beat us for the use of the Russian language” or “Americans who want to take over Crimea.” She started convincing us that Ukraine is not our Motherland. At the time, I didn't see why I should abandon Ukraine and become a patriot of a completely different country that came to my land with war.

We had an opportunity to learn 3 languages at my school in Crimea: either Ukrainian, Russian or Crimean Tatar. Everyone had a choice. All subjects were taught in Ukrainian, and we performed Ukrainian folk songs and read Ukrainian poems. I viewed Ukraine as my only Motherland and the Ukrainian language as my native language when I was a child. My Ukrainian language class was replaced with a Russian one after the Russians invaded. The Crimean Tatar language suffered the same fate. Only one language, Russian, was dominating in Crimea.

I was only 12 years old at the time, but I wanted to express my opposition to the illegal takeover of Crimea. At the time when Ukrainian symbols and flags were being removed everywhere, my brother and my Crimean Tatar friend scribbled “Crimea is Ukraine” in the most visible location on our street. We didn't think about the consequences at the time because we were so used to freedom of expression in Ukraine. At that point, we could feel the changes even more vividly as, for the first time, we were chastised for our views and threatened with the FSB, so we had to quickly remove the inscription. Almost a decade has passed. I haven't changed my mind. Crimea is Ukraine.

4. One of the main arguments that Russian propagandists use is that “the population of Crimea wanted to be with Russia.” What are the real, most prevailing attitudes towards the Russian occupation and war against Ukraine among the indigenous population of Crimea?

From the start of the Russian occupation of Crimea, the Crimean Tatars made it clear: Crimea is Ukraine. Many Crimean Tatars have been persecuted and repressed for expressing pro-Ukrainian views, as our presence in Crimea contradicts the Russian narrative of “Crimean Tatars who want to be with Russia.”

A great number of Crimean Tatars who stayed in Crimea did not renounce their beliefs. They are waiting for liberation from the occupation and are willing to take up arms to assist the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

5. How are the Crimean Tatars currently resisting or protesting against the Russian occupation authorities?

Following the full-scale invasion, a military partisan force of Crimean Tatars and Ukrainians known as “Atesh” emerged in Crimea, fighting the Russian army from the inside of the peninsula. They assist the Armed Forces of Ukraine by gathering data about Russian positions, warehouses, and equipment, as well as coordinating attacks targeting warehouses and headquarters.

In Crimea, the “Yellow Ribbon” movement is also popular. The activists spread information on the movement of the Russian troops in Crimea, as well as left yellow ribbons and pro-Ukrainian literature around the peninsula. Many Crimean Tatars, who moved to the Ukrainian mainland, are either fighting in the ranks of the Armed Forces of Ukraine or taking political action, speaking out in the international arena about the atrocities of the Russian occupational authorities in their homeland.

Ukrainians in Crimea showing signs of support for the liberation.

6. Russia often claims that after the occupation of Crimea, the living standard has increased for Crimean Tatars. However, whenever the occupied territories are liberated, we find settlements in a devastated state. What is the actual situation in Crimea now?

Material goods are more important than freedom and human rights for individuals with an oppressed mindset, such as Russians in Crimea, which is exactly why they fell for the occupiers' misleading promises and believed in a “bright future together with Russia.” In fact, everything that Russians actually built in Crimea was not to improve the lives of the people but to achieve their goals regarding the attack on Ukraine. Instead of having a “bright future” the Russians in Crimea got isolated from the rest of the world.

7. Russians love travelling to Crimea. How do they treat the indigenous people of the peninsula?

The majority of them are unaware of the existence of Crimean Tatars. They visit Crimea as if it was their permanent residence. And, if they are aware of Crimean Tatars, they regard us as traitors and occupiers in Crimea because they associate us with Mongols. They continuously tell the Crimean Tatars to return to Asia, despite the fact that they are the occupiers of Crimea themselves and must return to Muscovy.

8. What do you think foreigners must know about Crimea?

Unfortunately, due to the russification of Crimea and Russian propaganda, the international community has forgotten about the Crimean Tatars, who once had their own strong state there – the Crimean Khanate. It is important to note that the Crimean Tatars formed as a nation on the Crimean Peninsula, and they are the ancestors of many peoples who lived in Crimea throughout different historical epochs. Cimmerians, Taureans, Scythians, Greeks, Italians, Crimean Goths, Polovtsians, and a variety of other peoples became Crimean Tatars. Also, the Crimean Tatars should not be confused with the Tatars, because they are two distinct peoples with distinct cultures, and their genesis occurred in distinct and independent ways. I wish foreigners linked Crimea with its indigenous peoples, the Crimean Tatars, Karaites, and Krymchaks, rather than Russians. Crimea has its own distinct culture and history that is worth remembering, learning about, and understanding.

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