A ballad about ethnic cleansing was an unusual choice for Eurovision, a competition best known for glam, kitschy pop. But seven years ago Crimean Tatar singer Jamala swept Ukraine to their second victory in the song contest with 1944.
It told the story of the deportation of her entire people – hundreds of thousands of women, children and men – from their ancestral home to central Asia on Stalin’s orders.
The Tatars’ exile lasted decades, and when they were finally allowed to return, their centuries-long history had been all but erased. Russians had moved into their homes, and the peninsula’s geography had been rewritten, with towns and villages all given new Russian names.
Music is particularly important to Crimean Tatars because the brutality of the deportations mean an entire people have been left with very few physical heirlooms.
Families were given just 15 minutes to pack for their long journey crammed into cattle wagons, could take only what they could carry and ended up selling almost everything of value to survive in exile.
Their culture survived mostly in intangible heritage that could not be taken away – music, language, stories, food.
“I was born to do this. I had to explain my existence; I had to explain our struggle – it had been with me my entire life,” said Jamala of her winning song, which Guardian music critics ranked the third best in the competition’s seven-decade history.
Last week Jamala joined the Eurovision celebrations in Liverpool to perform 1944 – which she says has taken on a life of its own – and present a new album of songs, Qirim, that showcase the peninsula’s heritage.
Her presence is important not just because she is one of Ukraine’s leading musicians. Her work and her life have given a rare platform to the Crimean Tatars and their long struggle against Russian oppression at a time when their homeland is under unprecedented international scrutiny.
Endorsing or accepting Moscow’s control of the peninsula has been touted openly by pundits including Elon Musk, and tacitly by some politicians outside Ukraine, as a possible route to peace.
But presenting the peninsula as rightfully Russian is predicated on embracing the effects of a centuries-long campaign to remove its indigenous people, begun by the Tsars and reaching a brutal peak under Stalin. The deportations were a foundation stone for Russia’s insistence today that “Crimea is ours”.
Today about 13% of Crimea’s population are Tatars. As recently as 1850, that figure was about 75%, said Rory Finnin, associate professor of Ukrainian studies at the University of Cambridge.
“That is not so long ago … When you speak about Russian Crimea, we have to acknowledge that hundreds of thousands [of Russians] are only there because the peninsula was ethnically cleansed,” Finnin said. “The tsars started the process and Stalin tried to finish it.”
Jamala’s memories of the deportation, and inspiration for her song, came from stories passed down by her great-grandmother, who was sent to Kyrgyzstan with five children. Her only daughter was one of thousands who died crammed into cattle cars.
She started writing when Russian troops seized the peninsula in 2014.
“When the Russian occupation started, I felt this desperation that this is happening again, history is repeating itself. I couldn’t pull myself together. Then I remembered my great-grandmother, how brave she was. This song was dedicated to her.”
Some of the Crimean Tatars who had spent their youth and middle age in exile were once again forced to leave their homes, this time under political pressure.
They have been more heavily targeted than any other group in Crimea. Despite making up fewer than one in five people on the peninsula, they account for 113 of 180 political prisoners in Crimean jails.
“Their presence always speaks to this insecurity that the Kremlin feels, that’s why they are such a target. They can’t be active or have agency,” Finnin said.
It is why a musician like Jamala, and her project collecting folk songs, is so threatening to Vladimir Putin. The musicians performing the songs came to Ukraine to record them in 2021, before the full-scale Russian invasion.
The project was so important to her that her producer returned to a besieged Kyiv early last year to rescue the tapes. Now she worries constantly about the performers’ safety.
“Musicians who played for these songs are in Crimea and [some have been] taken away by the Russian authorities for interrogation,” she said. “I am scared to call them. This project should be pure joy, and I can’t even call because I fear that because of my call they may be arrested and go to jail. That’s my reality.”
The timing is particularly poignant: the Eurovision final comes just a few days before the Crimean Tatars mark the horrors of the Soviet deportation and exile, or Sürgünlik, with a day of national mourning on 18 May .
Soviet propaganda tried to explain the ethnic cleansing of the peninsula by painting Crimean Tatars as Nazi collaborators – a lie with echoes in Putin’s claim that his invasion was needed to “denazify” modern Ukraine.
The influence and effects were not only felt in Russia – for many of Ukraine’s other citizens, the past 30 years of democracy have brought a slow education in Crimean Tatar identity and unlearning of the racist Soviet tropes.
“When I moved to Kyiv in 2004 there were a lot of myths and legends. People didn’t understand the [Crimean Tatars’] tragedy,” said Sevgil Musaieva, editor in chief of news outlet Ukrainska Pravda and one of the country’s most prominent journalists.
That was slowly changing. In 2012 a high-profile Ukrainian film, Haytarma, told the story of a Crimean Tatar war-hero fighter pilot who returns home just days before the Sürgünlik begins and is caught up in the horror.
Hugely successful, it contributed to greater popular understanding in the rest of Ukraine about what happened in 1944.
Then in 2014, Russia’s decision to send its troops to seize the peninsula, as it had done several times before, gave new life to an old alliance.
Crimean Tatars and Ukrainian Cossacks had often fought together against Moscow over centuries of trying to cling on to their national identities and independence. But that was a history that for obvious reasons had been energetically buried by Soviet historians and so was largely forgotten by ordinary people on both sides.
“In 2014, many people [in Ukraine] were really surprised that Crimean Tatars were against occupation, that we didn’t collaborate,” Musaieva said. The old propaganda stereotypes were still poisoning the image of Crimean Tatars, even in democratic Ukraine.
Horrors of the full-scale Russian invasion last year have deepened respect for Crimean Tatars, Mustaieva said. “Ukrainians [now] understand what happened in 2014 much better, and the tragedy of Crimean Tatars.
“Of course there are a lot of unknown pages in our common history, but I think we have more time for that, for better learning and understanding of our nations from both sides.”
The reality of Tatar resistance to Moscow meant many prominent and politically active members of the community were forced into exile again.
Not everyone left. “To live in Crimea” was for the long years after the deportation a statement of intent and of defiance, Musaieva said. Just existing on the peninsula was a political act which some have chosen to continue despite extreme, targeted repression.
But thousands of prominent Crimeans came to Kyiv, and some to Lviv and other cities, deepening ties with other parts of the Ukrainian elite.
“On the one hand culturally we didn’t mix too much [before 2014],” said Kemal, who owns a Crimean Tatar restaurant, Musafir, in Kyiv. “On the other hand I think there was very strong connection to the idea of Ukraine as a democratic country and hope in the post-Soviet space.”
He imagined the restaurant as not just a place to eat food from home – or to introduce it to other Ukrainians – but a kind of community centre where there would be music and gatherings. He was wildly successful: “All the Tatars came there. It was like walking down a street in Crimea – you could meet everyone you know.”
He ended up opening three venues, and the main one was one of very few that stayed open during the peak of the Russian siege of Kyiv at the start of the full-scale invasion.
It was a bomb shelter, an emergency kitchen for frontline troops and residents in need, and a gathering place for journalists, emergency workers and others, channelling a spirit of resistance Tatars believe will eventually carry them home.
“We are waiting for them to withdraw,” Kemal said. “We waited for many years from 1944 – we will outwait them again. It is our land.”
Despite the willingness of foreign pundits to treat Crimea as a bargaining chip with Moscow, there is an increasing sense of confidence that the Tatars may get their homeland, and some political autonomy, back.
Ukraine would never have taken the first military action against troops, but Putin’s invasion forced a military confrontation. An explosion last autumn which badly damaged Russia’s flagship road and rail link to the peninsula, the Kerch bridge, was a moment of wild joy.
“There is a lot of hope this thing could move with the war,” Kemal said. “We always thought we would prevail at some point, but now we think there is a military solution. We never thought that before. After the bridge [explosion], that was the first moment of tangible belief that it could actually happen.”
Artem Mazhulin contributed to reporting