“How can Ukraine protect ethnic minorities when it is struggling to defend its own territory?”
Summed up in one, simple question, this is the harsh reality which now faces the Crimean Tatars – a people who, just thirty years ago, were finally able to return to their homeland following a ruthless deportation under Stalin.
Shevket spread his hands beseechingly, as if demanding an answer.
“What can we do now? I left because I didn’t want to become part of Russia again – it was as easy as that.”
Four months ago, Russian troops marched across the border into Crimea. Ukrainians called it an invasion; Putin claimed he was guaranteeing the safety of the referendum. Soon after this, Shevket boarded a train with his wife and children and arrived at Lviv central station, ready to set up a new life.
It wasn’t spontaneous.
“Do you have kids?” he said, with a meaningful look.
I shook my head.
“If you have kids you’ll understand that nothing is spontaneous.”
He told me that he knew things were changing in Crimea, back in February – a month before Russia annexed the peninsula.
He decided to set up a restaurant serving traditional Tatar cuisine, just off Lviv’s Rynok square in a sunlit, side alley. Modestly decorated, a few plastic chairs and parasols surround the entrance. The voice of a mongolian folk singer blares out from a flat screen TV.
It wasn’t that hard: Turkish and Tatar cuisine grows ever popular in Lviv as fast food falls out of fashion. He found a niche and ran with it.
Over a steaming bowl of plov – a turkic dish of spiced meat and vegetables – he proudly explained how the Crimean taste is like no other: renowned for the quality of its products due to the warm climate and resourcefulness of the coast, the fusion of tastes is rich and varied.
“You’ll notice that we don’t use mushrooms or chicken in our dishes – those are for the poor.”
On the door of the restaurant, there hangs the bright blue flag of the Tartar nation: a definiant nod to Shevket’s national identity.
Shevket’s father is 77 years old. He’s seen the Crimean flag change five times during his life-time and he says it’s always the same: each government thinks that it will last forever.
“It’s all to do with the imperial project. Everything is constantly changing.
“Russia consists of many territories and it stretches far beyond one nation.”