This Cambridge Life

The Crimean Tatar who wants freedom for Ukraine to sing again

Displaced journalist and scholar Elmaz Asan arrived in Cambridge from Ukraine in October 2022. She sees her research as a chance to fight back against the Russian invasion of her homeland, “to make a difference, no matter how small”.

I was awake an hour before dawn on 24 February 2022 when my brother phoned me. He told me that Kyiv was under attack by the Russian army. The war had started.

Overwhelmed with panic, I called my first guest on the programme I’d been preparing for as a journalist for the Ukrainian Crimean Tatar TV channel ATR. He told me that he too had heard the sound of bombs and was worried about his young children.

Memories of my grandmother flooded back. She had been alone at home with four young children when, in 1944, the Soviets knocked on her door at 5am and gave her only 15 minutes to pack. She was among the Crimean Tatars deported from Crimea by Russian authorities.

Tens of thousands died as a result of forced exodus, leaving their homes and native land behind forever. My family had to begin again in our place of exile, Uzbekistan, where I was born.

When I was 16, my family was finally able to return to Crimea. Crimean Tatars fought the Soviet regime for 50 years in order to return to their historical homeland. I remember it as a time of optimism and promise. It was the period of independent Ukraine. We began to restore our education, buildings and national heritage. We had our freedom, we played our music, we sang our songs.

But history repeats itself. Seventy years after my grandmother was exiled, Russian tanks again rolled into Crimea in 2014 to annex our country. Any manifestation of our identity was forbidden. Just a few month ago, an entire Crimean Tatar family was arrested for playing Ukranian songs at their daughter’s wedding. False accusations of extremism led to closure of the ATR television channel, which had been one of the reliable sources of truth in Crimea after the invasion.

My colleagues and I were forced to relocate to Kyiv. There we continued to report on the realities of life for Crimean Tatars under occupation. I made documentary programmes that exposed the challenges faced after 2014.

Elmaz Asan preparing to broadcast on Ukrainian Crimean Tatar TV channel ATR

Preparing to broadcast on the Ukrainian Crimean Tatar TV channel ATR (credit: Elmaz Asan)

Preparing to broadcast on the Ukrainian Crimean Tatar TV channel ATR (credit: Elmaz Asan)

Nine years later, Russia invaded Ukraine and I am once more without a home. I am very tired. The pain and trauma of these moments will never fade away. The unfathomable devastation, the rubble, the tears, the dead… what’s happening now in Ukraine will never leave me.

When the war began, many universities in Europe offered a lifeline to at-risk students seeking to continue their studies abroad. In Kyiv, as well as being a journalist, I was studying for a PhD at the National University of Ostroh Academy.

Air raid sirens wailed in the background as I filled in the paperwork to apply for the University of Cambridge’s Ukrainian Academic Support Scheme. I made it clear that my mission was to tell the world about the Crimean Tatars and to raise awareness of the atrocities that were unfolding before our eyes in my beloved Ukraine. This was my chance to fight back against the senseless violence and make a difference, no matter how small.

I arrived at Cambridge Railway Station in mid-October to be greeted by Rod and Chris Mulvey. These incredibly kind people opened their home to me. By offering support like this, Cambridge people like the Mulveys are doing something beautiful.

Elmaz in the University Library

Elmaz in the University Library (credit: Lloyd Mann)

Elmaz in the University Library (credit: Lloyd Mann)

It has been a lifelong dream to study in Cambridge. My research explores the history, traditions and heritage of the Tatars and dispels some of the myths about Crimea spread by Russian propaganda. Most importantly, it exposes the lies that Crimea is Russian territory and that those who defend its right to be part of Ukraine are terrorists.

Here, I am experiencing something new. As a Crimean Tatar, I know all too well the humiliation and discrimination that come from being targeted on the basis of one’s nationality. Cambridge is diverse in its nationalities and yet there is respect, kindness and consideration. This is what the civilised world looks like – a place where people of different backgrounds and beliefs come together in harmony and understanding.

Elmaz in the University Library

Credit: Lloyd Mann

Credit: Lloyd Mann

I am immersing myself in historical sources that would have been inaccessible. Here, I can find them in the University Library or I can ask the Library to request materials from other Libraries around the world. I’m currently reading first-person accounts by British travellers during the first illegal annexation of Crimea in 1783. They were appalled at the destruction they witnessed.

They say that a good teacher is a gift of fate and meeting my PhD supervisor Professor Hubertus Jahn is exactly that. His professional help is worth a lot. He is also an amazing person who understands and supports me.

The academic community has been so welcoming. Dr Rory Finnan [Associate Professor of Ukrainian Studies] has done much for the Crimean Tatars. Fluent in Ukrainian, Rory has introduced the world to Ukraine and Crimea as being an integral part of a single whole. Dr Olenka Pevny [Associate Professor in Ukrainian Studies and in Medieval and Early Modern Slavonic Studies] has become like my sister. I live through the wall from her house. I love her and her beautiful mother Mrs Khristina very much. They are my family. I am sure that my Crimea will be free, and that Hubertus, Rory, Olenka and the Mulvey family will be the dearest guests in my house.

My hopes for the future? I want to write a book about what has really happened in Crimea between the first illegal annexation in 1783 and the second in 2014.  I want to build on this new connexion between Cambridge University and Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar scholars. And I want to continue to make documentaries for ATR and do everything possible for the liberation of my homeland.

When I introduce myself abroad, I want to be able to say “I am from Crimea” and people will know that Crimea is an integral part of Ukraine and the only homeland of the Crimean Tatars.

Elmaz Asan is a PhD student in the Faculty of History and is supported through the University of Cambridge’s Ukrainian Academic Support Scheme.

Cambridge University Help for Ukraine: read more

Published 18 May 2023

Interview: Louise Walsh

Photography: Lloyd Mann

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License