Crimea is an in-between world, a peninsula still tied by a thread to Ukraine yet on the verge of drifting away at any moment.  In its attempt to sail off southwards it pushes out into the Black Sea, its cliffs plunging into the waves opposite the distant shores of Turkey. In sociological terms Crimea could well be an island. A part of Ukraine by bequest, its heart is nevertheless Russian, and its soul Tatar. Historically it has served as an arena for bitter disputes. Its earliest known inhabitants, the Crimean Tatars, were widely respected and feared as great warriors and slave traders, holding sway over the Slav population until the mid-18th century.

Greater Russia subsequently worked hard to remove all trace of Tatar identity, colonising the peninsula and driving the indigenous population out, towards the Ottoman Empire. After the Crimean War (1853–56) Russia was forced to give up the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles straits, as well as its plans for further expansion into the Mediterranean, yet it managed to turn Crimea into a seaside holiday resort where aristocrats, and later party nomenklatura, could stay for a while to forget the harsh climate of the great northern cities.

The Tatar population became a negligible minority, hardly mentioned until 18 May 1944 when Joseph Stalin decided to punish the remaining representatives of this down-trodden community, and various other ethnic groups, for allegedly cooperating with the Nazi foe. In a single night, 200,000 Tatars were deported to Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan, forced to give up their homes, land and schools to Russian families who resettled there at the end of the Second World War. Although the Tatars regained a degree of recognition and legitimacy under Nikita Khrushchev (who ruled the USSR from1953–64), the majority of them were only able to return to Crimea after the break-up of the Soviet Union inthe1990s.

The road that runs from Simferopol, the capital of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, to Sevastopol, a port with a glorious past, cuts straight across the fields, only allowing itself a few bends as it approaches the hills along the south coast. Crossing this landscape, the visitor’s eye is drawn to long lines of small detached houses on either side of the road, evenly spaced with a small gap between. As pieces on a checkerboard, they stand there with no apparent function other than to occupy the land. Deliberately abandoned, these small structures, which only have room for a single bed, have no real use as housing. They have a door and a window, and in most cases a roof, but no one lives there, nor are they likely to do so. The Russians refer to them as ‘toilets’, their size being roughly equivalent to that of a traditional garden outhouse. However, despite their harmless, almost comic appearance, their real role is more lofty: they exist as testimony, guard-dogs built to lay claim to land which officially belongs to the state. Wandering among these huts conjures up the impression of being in the middle of a vast game of Go, each one akin to a pebble on the board.

Yet this particular game concerns a whole people, who play slowly; slowly, because they know their most effective weapon: patience.

Alban Kakulya (2011)


Taking Land was produced by Foto8 with Alban Kakulya and published in 2011 in association with the Zoi Network and UNEP