Tartar, Goodbye!

Tartar, Goodbye!

December 8, 2010

Yesterday, my wife’s father died. He was a Tartar. Stubborn, wily, and independent, he refused the medical assistance that would keep him alive but deprive him of his dignity. The last time we were in a restaurant together I asked him what he would like to drink, and he replied, “A bottle of vodka.” More than a decade earlier, shortly after meeting his daughter, I was informed that if I ever mistreated her, he would kill me. I never doubted this word of advice.

The original Tatars inhabited the Gobi desert and in the 13th century they were driven westwards by the advancing army of the grandson of Genghis Khan. In a series of bloody wars the hoard defeated the Kyivan state and the other main principalities of Vladimir-Moscow-Suzdal (which would later be called “Russia”). The Mongols banished free speech, conducted censuses of citizens five hundred years before they became widespread in Western Europe, and implemented a strict process of conscription and tax collection. It was a foretaste of the strong central government that has come to typify Russia until today.

Though it is barely recognized in Western Europe, the Mongol hoards were stopped in their tracks in Ukraine, and the flowering arts and cultures, that characterise the Western European lifestyle and which we take for granted, were spared debasement.

A Tartar stronghold was established in Crimea and between the 15th-18th centuries they were responsible for a process the Tartars called, ‘harvesting the steppe.’ After Africa, the second greatest source of slaves was from the lands that now constitute Ukraine. Some scholars estimate that more than three million people, predominantly Ukrainians, but also Russians, Belarusians, and Poles, were enslaved and the majority were exported via Kefe, the modern day town of Feodosiya.

During World War II the Crimean Tartars incurred the full extent of Stalin’s wrath. On the pretext that some Tartars had collaborated with the German forces, in May 1944, a month-long operation began to relocate the entire Tartar population. More than thirty-two thousand members of the police and security forces went from house to house and demanded the occupants leave within five minutes. They were taken to rail junctions and crammed into rail carriages to begin their eastward journey. Thousands died of suffocation or starvation during the journey and perhaps 40 percent of the survivors died in the first two years of resettlement, mostly woman and children.

My wife’s father was the child of a Tartar who survived Stalin’s wrath.

We shall bury him tomorrow according to tradition: wrapped in a carpet, in the seated position, facing eastwards. RIP.

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