If you imagine the worst possible confrontation with Russian bureaucracy, then multiply it by 200 … 1000 per cent.
Or you apply for a job. At the interview you are rudely told that, although you have the right qualifications, you are not going to be taken on because there is an unwritten agreement that Turks are not to be employed. Or, you are in the street at 10pm and someone tells you that you shouldn’t be out, because you’re not Russian and you should ‘know your place.’
Who are the Meskhetians?
Who are the Meskhetians? They are ethnic Turks, sometimes called Ahiska, speaking a language akin to the Turkish of East Anatolia. In the 16th century they settled in the Meskheti region of Georgia, where they lived until the Stalinist repressions. In November 1944, under the pretext of ‘fortifying strategically vulnerable borders,’ Stalin exiled them en masse to Central Asia (mainly Uzbekistan) and Kazakhstan. In June 1989, however, there was an anti-Turk pogrom, and nearly 100 of them were killed, their houses burnt down, and many people wounded. Now the Meskhetians live mainly in Kazakhstan, North Caucasus and Azerbaijan.
Approximately 80,000 of them live in the south of Russia, and they all encounter discrimination on a daily basis. Many of them still have Soviet passports (no longer valid), which red tape, compounded by nationalist politics, whether overt or covert, has prevented them from converting to Russian citizenship. They have nowhere to turn in the event of serious illness (without a passport there is no access to free medical assistance). So they carry on with their lives, pay their taxes, and bring up their children to believe that Russians are not enemies, even if they do call them ‘wogs.’
In the mid-2000s more than ten thousand Meskhetian Turks managed to emigrate to America under an International Organisation for Migration resettlement programme. Now three of them have organised the exhibition for those who remained in Russia.
The photographs show exhausted people, with major sufferings in the past, and feeling the aftershocks to this day. During the winter, the exhibition was shown in Moscow and some villages in the Rostov region, Stavropol Krai and Kabardina-Balkaria; it is currently on show in several US cities.
The exhibition has not been well received in Russia.
The exhibition has not been well received in Russia; a recent documentary film, which I helped to make, shows how regional authorities have turned the exhibition into a political event, hounding its organisers by trying to arrest them, spreading scandal about them; and threatening anyone who was involved.
In Russia, reaction has been vicious: ‘You’ve let these darkies spread all over Moscow, although the skinheads do what they can to keep them down. These monkeys know their place here. If ever….’ These words are always followed by a gesture indicating physical violence.
Such racism is ingrained, and typical of the Russian attitude to Meskhetian Turks. It was the governor of the neighbouring Krasnodarsky Krai, Alexander Tkachev, who formulated this policy of hate; a reactionary who made a strong stand against ‘illegal immigration.’
The Cossacks told us that they use physical violence to remind the Turks that Russia is not their homeland.
When we were making the film, the Stravopol Cossacks told us that they use physical violence to remind the Turks that Russia is not their homeland. They are by no means the only people who consider this kind of behaviour to be proof of patriotism.
In the Rostov region, the head of one of the local authorities rang up the local Cossack ataman (head man) in our presence with the following request: ‘The Turks wanted to talk to you, but I got rid of them. Now we’ve got our own journalists here, Slavs, so you can talk to them.’ By Slavs he meant our film crew – me and a colleague.
No homeland, no mosque
This man told us that a local Turkish imam, Kamal Mirzayev, had asked for permission to build a mosque. The Muslims are the second largest religious community after the Orthodox; there is a church there, but no mosque.
The imam was refused permission to build, although it would not have taken a single rouble from the local budget. Recently, all the inhabitants of one village, irrespective of their religious affiliation, had had to contribute to the construction of an Orthodox church. ‘The mosque will bring more Muslims in and they breed like rabbits – soon you won’t be able to hear any Russian spoken here,’ complained a local official.
So the imam started building an ordinary house. He had previously used his own house as the mosque, but he has four small children and elderly parents, so there was no room for all the believers. His new house was intended to accommodate not just dozens of people (like the old one), but more than 100. He wasn’t allowed to build that one either. The local authority considered that the imam was contravening town-planning regulations, in the wasteland where he was building his house. Kamal Mirzayev is still trying to prove them wrong. Soon he will have to take his case to the Supreme Court.
While the authorities were insisting that Kamal has no right to a bigger house, unknown local inhabitants were pulling down the brick walls of the unfinished building. Once they tied a live pig to the structure; it subsequently died of hunger. A journalist, who works for the newspaper belonging to the local administration, explained to me with a smile that ‘they wanted to defile the house.’ The imam buried the pig and regularly puts the scattered bricks back in their place. He has no intention of leaving the area, though he has been warned more than once to take his children, parents and himself away somewhere else.
Operation Whirlwind Anti-Terror
Wherever there were plans to show the exhibition, the local authorities did everything they could to be obstructive
Wherever there were plans to show the exhibition, the local authorities did everything they could to be obstructive. In one village of the same Rostov region, a special operation called ‘Whirlwind Anti-Terror’ was set up in honour of the exhibition (this all happened just before the December terrorist attacks in Volgograd). During this operation the police stopped the organisers’ car, and ordered one of them to go along with him – apparently he had no medical insurance. However, the law enforcers’ demands were instantly withdrawn when the organiser, a Meskhetian Turk with US citizenship, rang the American Consulate.
Russian police took away the passports of the organisers of an exhibition on Meshkhetian Turks to check that they weren't 'internationally wanted crinimals'. Photo: Elena Vlasenko
In the village itself, the club was closed on the day the exhibition was supposed to open there. It had worked for ten years without a hitch, but on that one day the building suddenly became ‘unsafe’. ‘We can’t risk people’s lives,’ explained the deputy district head.
In Rostov oblast again, the deputy head of one local administration, and the mayor of one of the villages, summoned the exhibition organisers to ask if it contained any extremism. At the meeting, the local authority asked for financial help to buy a school bus. This was agreed, and the officials approved the exhibition, even expressing a wish to visit it. A few hours later, however, the day before the exhibition opened in the village, the police and the cossacks showed up. They brandished a document they had received from the very same officials that the organisers had seen that morning; to the effect that ‘an unsanctioned gathering of Turks is just about to take place in the village of N.’
The police took away the passports of the organisers, and mine and my colleague’s too. ‘You may be criminals,’ the local deputy police chief said to me, when he saw my press card, and heard that we were making a documentary about Meskhetian Turks. ‘We shall have to check that you are not on the international register of wanted criminals.’ All our passports were returned to us, but only after I had rung the Press Department of the Interior Ministry in Moscow.
While the deputy police chief, Major Ponomaryov, was checking that I, my colleague and the exhibition organisers were not criminals, the road police had effectively blocked off the entrance to the exhibition venue, for the Turks who were trying to visit; the police had suddenly decided to check that none of the car owners had any outstanding unpaid fines and that they were all using safety belts.
As Slavs, to their mind, we must share their contempt for the people ‘overrunning our country.’
After that we had more and more frequent encounters with Cossacks and regional officials. They told us (on the eve of the Sochi Winter Olympics) that there is no nationalism in Russia… although, with the microphones and cameras turned off, they unguardedly let slip such terms as ‘monkeys’ and ‘fanatics,’ as they often call non-Russians; talking about their having to ‘know their place’ while they were in ‘our country.’ They gave themselves away in this fashion because they regarded us first and foremost as Slavs, rather than journalists. As Slavs, to their mind, we must share their contempt for the people ‘overrunning our country.’
Notwithstanding the stonewalling and petty officialdom, the exhibition did get to be seen. Some Russians have now seen for themselves what it means to be a Meskhetian Turk in Russia. But can an exhibition of photographs change such hateful attitudes? Perhaps not, but it can show them up.
About the author
Elena Vlasenko is a Russian correspondent writing for Sovershenno Sekretno and Index on Censorship.