Rory Finnin on Literature in the Ukrainian-Crimean Tatar Encounter

March 30, 2016
Carlo Bossoli Khanpalast von Bachcisaraj 1857

Rory FinninOn Monday, April 4, at 4:15 pm, Dr. Rory Finnin gave the Bohdan and Neonila Krawciw Memorial Lecture at 1730 Cambridge Street, room S-020. Entitled ‘A Bridge Between Us’: Literature in the Ukrainian-Crimean Tatar Encounter, his talk addressed the role of literature in the cultivation of Ukrainian-Crimean Tatar relations since the late 19th century.

While introducing the audience to some of the Crimean Tatar works that are less frequently studied or well known than literatures in other languages, Finnin explored the interaction between Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar writers.

“I am particularly interested in the various ways Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar writers have engaged in processes of mutual recognition and ‘talked back’ to regimes of imperial power by referring to each other,” Finnin said in an interview prior to the event.

Crimean Tatars and their literature

As Head of the Department of Slavonic Studies at Cambridge University, Finnin also directs the Ukrainian Studies programme and chairs the Cambridge Committee for Russian and East European Studies (CamCREES). His research focuses on the interplay of literature and national identity of Ukraine, which is how he became interested in the literature of the Crimean Tatars.

“The figure of the Crimean Tatar repeatedly appears in decisive moments in the development of Ukrainian, Russian, and Turkish national cultures, so I have long been intrigued by how a comparative analysis of their literary representation might tell us more about the political and cultural dynamics of the Black Sea region more generally,” Finnin explained.

Carlo Bossoli Khanpalast von Bachcisaraj 1857“But roughly five years ago, I became particularly troubled by my ignorance of the Crimean Tatar language and of Crimean literature itself. My presentation [on April 4] will be in part an attempt to survey some of the Crimean Tatar-language works that I have encountered since then.”

In his lecture, Finnin closely examined a number of key Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar poems and prose works, including Lesia Ukrainka’s “At the Seaside”, Ivan Sokulskyi’s “Bakhchysarai”, and Shamil Aliadin’s “O, Great Ukraine” and “Tugai-Bey”.

Literature’s clues to national development

With the upcoming anniversary of the deportation of the Crimean Tatars (May 18) as well as the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, Finnin’s presentation was timely and relevant to our ongoing understanding of both events. Amidst discussions of national identity and culture, language and literature are often at the forefront, making it especially interesting to see how the literatures of two peoples interact.

Finnin noted that the relationship between the Crimean Tatars and Kyiv has often been taken for granted, passed off as a mere “marriage of convenience”. However, current events show us a much more complex story, one that literature can help us better understand.

“If the tragic events of the past two years have taught us anything, it is that there has long been a project of empathic solidarity between individuals evolving alongside this project of political solidarity between nations. At great cost to their own safety and standing, Crimean Tatar activists have consistently shown that ‘Ukraine = Home’ in their socio-cultural imaginary. In my view, we have largely overlooked this remarkable development from the perspective of Crimean Tatar-language culture, which will be part of the focus of my presentation.”

Crimean Tatar literary treasures

In addition to examining significant trends in literary engagement between the Crimean Tatars and Ukrainians, Finnin also takes interest in specific bodies of work that are of particular historical or artistic significance.

Taras Shevchenko Bohdan Khemlnytsky before the Crimean Khan 1857For instance, he noted that the first extant Crimean Tatar text to feature the voices of Ukrainians was lost to the world until a copy was discovered in 1925. The work is an untitled poem attributed to 17th century poet Dzhanmokhamed and was discovered on the southeastern Crimean coast by poet and scholar Osman Akchokrakli. The poet Akchokrakli was later murdered by the Soviet regime, but the text now remains available to us, describing the campaign of Islam Girey II and Bohdan Khmelnytskyi against the Poles.

Of course, Ukrainian works reflecting engagement with Crimean Tatars are also of interest. Finnin particularly likes a sketch by Taras Shevchenko, which “joins the het’man and the khan together in one harmonious visual field”. The 1857 piece, featured to the left, is entitled “Bohdan Khlemlnytsky before the Crimean Khan”. Bohdan Khlemlnytsky was a military leader (het’man) and led an uprising against the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth that resulted in the creation of the Ukrainian Cossack state. The khan ruled the Crimean Khanate, the Crimean Tatar nation that was connected to the Ottoman Empire as a vassal state during the 15th to 18th centuries.

These examples are just the tip of the iceberg. Finnin provided a fuller survey as well as a greater explanation of historical and literary significance at the event, which provided a lively discussion about this interesting interplay of literature.

Listen to the entire talk on SoundCloud

The Bohdan and Neonila Krawciw Memorial Lecture was established in the mid-1970s in honor of Bohdan Jurij Krawciw, who was a poet, journalist, literary critic, and HURI associate. The lecture series seeks to encourage scholarly discussions of Ukrainian literature with participation of leading literary critics, writers, poets, and playwrights and focusing on the issues that were of lasting interest to Bohdan Krawciw.