Tombstone (Uzbekistan)


Tombstone (Uzbekistan)

This photograph is of the tombstone of a Crimean Tartar, located in a cemetery in the suburbs of Samarkand, in Uzbekistan. The tombstone displays a national symbol, an inscription in Arabic drawn from the first sūra of the Koran, the name of the person entombed here, the place and date of their birth in Crimea and that of their death; the inscription in Cyrillic has the same content except for the phrase from the Koran. Tombstones of this kind populated this cemetery from the middle of the 1960s until the end of the 1980s.

The cemetery is outside the “BAM”, a neighbourhood of large residential buildings constructed in series, analogous to those that can be found in all Soviet cities from the 1970s. If one continues from here along the main street in the opposite direction of the city centre one encounters a group of houses built in the 1950s-60s that form a kind of village. Here lived workers and employees of various local factories that made construction materials and of the large chemical plant SUPER that is still operating. Before arriving at the chemical plant, one passes near a third, isolated neighbourhood composed of little houses of only one floor and full of greenery. All know this place as “Yalta”, the name of the Crimean city. A few kilometres further is SUPER, the plant that induced the demographic growth of the area. SUPER, founded in the 1950s, is an emblem of Soviet modernization and became the principal producer of phosphates used in all the cotton plantations at the cost of massive pollution.

The builders of these neighbourhoods and of the plant were primarily Crimean Tartars. They were deported during the course of World War II and settled in this peripheral area of Samarkand, banned from entering the city proper. Most of them did not survive the illnesses and famine that affected them in the following their deportation; those who did were employed as construction workers.

The cemetery, in which can be found the tombstone, contains several hundreds of tombs of Crimean Tartars. It was created when the deportation was still a state secret. Then, in the 1960s, the Tartars were rehabilitated and became Soviet citizens with full rights. They then began the journey of integration into society and into the apparatuses of local administration. Some of them even moved into other neighbourhoods in the city centre.

The collective rehabilitation of the deported Tartars also entailed the official recognition of their existence in the city. The Tartars were not permitted to organize themselves into a distinct national group, nor to return to Crimea, but they were now given the right to mark their presence. They therefore began to have their own cemetery in which their names and their places of birth in Crimea inscribed on their tombstones.

When the Soviet regime collapsed, several hundreds of them still lived in “Yalta.” Today, there is no longer any trace of their presence: they have since returned to Crimea from Uzbekistan, and from there many of them moved elsewhere in search of work. Uzbeks recently arrived from the countryside and even some families that have transferred from the city centre due to rising rents live in the Tartars’ former homes.

These tombstones bear witness to the passage of the deportees, who were first hidden and who have now disappeared.

Marco Buttino, Professor, Department of Cultures, Politics and Society, University of Turin