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Photos: One of Ukraine’s most nationalistic cities has become a refuge for nearly 2,000 Muslims

Elmaz and her husband Timur Barotov, refugees from Crimea who now live in Lviv.
Misha Friedman
Elmaz and her husband Timur Barotov, refugees from Crimea who now live in Lviv.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Among the million-plus Ukrainians displaced by the fighting in the east are thousands of Jews and Muslims. Life is complicated for both groups. In a previous photo-essay, Misha Friedman documented the Jews of Dnipropetrovsk; in this one, he highlights the Crimean Tatars, a Muslim community who, like the Jews, have a long history of persecution in the region. Thousands have fled Crimea since Russia annexed it last year, and many have gone to the western Ukrainian city of Lviv.

It’s an unlikely destination. While the city has a long and cosmopolitan history, reflected in its picturesque mix of architecture, its recent past has been less friendly. When Germany invaded in 1941, the city was in Polish hands, and its ethnic Ukrainian residents—at the time outnumbered heavily by Poles and Jews—enthusiastically helped the Nazi forces round up and kill Jews, and later took part in massacres of Poles. Since then the city has been a bastion of Ukrainian nationalism.

Yet one thing unites the Muslim Crimean Tatars and the Orthodox Christian Ukrainians: their enmity towards Russia. And so, for now at least, the Tatars are welcome in Lviv. By the time Friedman visited in January, some 1,700 had made it their home, and more were arriving. (Except where noted, all photos are by Friedman; text is reported by Friedman and written by Gideon Lichfield.)

People congregate after Friday prayers. There is no mosque, so they use a space rented by another Muslim diaspora, the Dagestanis.

Diaspora is nothing new for the Crimean Tatars (who are not to be confused with the Volga Tatars in central Russia). In 1944, after the Soviet Union had recaptured Ukraine from the German army, Josef Stalin ordered the entire Crimean Tatar population—some 180,000 people—deported, allegedly for collaborating with the Nazis. They were given 15-20 minutes to collect some belongings, and packed on to trains. Most were sent to Uzbekistan. Not until the mid-1980s, under Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika reforms, were they allowed to start coming back.

Alim Aliev, founder of Crimea SOS, a local NGO that helps new arrivals fit in, at its office in Lviv.

By the time of the 2001 census there were 240,000 Tatars back in Crimea. It’s estimated that fewer than 10% have left; Russia conducted a census late last year but hasn’t released figures about ethnicity (pdf, in Russian).

Like the displaced Jews in Dnipropetrovsk, the Tatars who have moved to Lviv have had to find new professions. “I didn’t meet anybody who does what he did back home,” Friedman says. Yashar, a former high-school French teacher, learned to make plov, the rice-and-meat stew that is Uzbekistan’s national dish, when he was living there; now he cooks and sells it from a street stall in Lviv.

Yashar, a high-school French teacher from Crimea who now cooks and sells Uzbek plov at a street stall.
On a good day Yashar sells two large pots’ worth of plov at around $2 a serving.

Ernest Abkelyanov, 44, owned a convenience store in Simferopol. He came to Lviv with his wife and four children and is now unemployed. He acts as a religious leader for the community and helps deliver humanitarian aid and orient new arrivals from Crimea.

Ernest Abkelyanov, a former convenience-store owner in Crimea, and his family in Lviv.

Suleiman, a truck driver, came to Lviv with his wife and six children. Also unemployed, he works part-time making dumplings at the Crimea, a café frequented by Tatars. The café’s name is a kind of local joke, Friedman explains. “The men spend a lot of time in the café, and when someone calls their phones and asks where they are, they say, ‘I’m in Crimea!'”

Suleiman, who was a truck driver in Crimea, with his family.
The door of the Krym (Crimea) cafe in Lviv, a hangout for the Tatar community.
Suleiman and Ernest say a prayer during a Muslim naming ceremony for a two-week-old baby, born to another Tatar family in Lviv.
Suleiman at the baby-naming ceremony.

Lviv wears its nationalism on its sleeve. The people killed during the Euromaidan protests in Kyiv in 2014, which led to the ouster of Ukraine’s pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, are martyrs here as much as in the capital.

Graffiti commemorating the “heavenly hundred,” the people killed during the Euromaidan protests in Kyiv in 2014.

Unity Day, a government holiday on Jan. 22, is taken especially seriously in Lviv. It marks the unification of eastern and western Ukraine in 1919 and their brief existence as an independent country before the USSR and Poland took over and redivided the country in 1920. Members of the Crimean Tatar community join in the ceremonies.

New army recruits sing the national anthem at a ceremony on Ukrainian Unity Day.
Alim Aliev (center) singing the national anthem on Unity Day.
Ernest Abkelyanov and his daughter at the Unity Day celebration.
A protestor during Unity Day celebrations with posters demonizing Russian president Vladimir Putin. “Putin, remember how Hitler ended” is one of his signs.
Though his signs compared Putin to Hitler, the old man told Friedman, “The Yids are to blame for everything.”

In Dnipropetrovsk, Friedman had encountered the family of Asher Cherkassky, an Orthodox Jew who fights in one of Ukraine’s volunteer battalions against the pro-Russian separatists. In Lviv, he met Timur Barotov (link in Ukrainian), a former Ukrainian naval officer who joined a volunteer battalion to fight the Russian forces in Crimea. When Russia annexed the peninsula, some members of the Ukrainian military there switched their allegiances to Moscow. Barotov left instead, and has become a minor celebrity, playing a part in a film about Ukrainian history (link in Ukrainian). Barotov’s wife Elmaz (pictured with him at the top of this story) is Crimean Tatar; he himself is part Ukrainian, part Tajik.

Timur Barotov, a retired naval officer in Crimea who joined a Ukrainian volunteer battalion to fight against the Russian invasion.

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