Tatars of Donbass: 'People, parishioners fully experienced all the hardships of shellings'

How does a large Tatar diaspora survive in the republics of the DPR and LPR?

The conflict in Novorossiya has become a personal tragedy for many families. A large Tatar diaspora has been living in the republics of the DPR and LPR for several generations. Since the beginning of the war, many Tatars have left the conflict territory and gone to Russia. Is it possible to call it a return to the Homeland or a move to a new land? Karim Gaynullin, a columnist of Realnoe Vremya, expert of the Centre for Islamic World Studies, talks on this topic with Ruslan Ilkaev, a resident of Donbass.

“A Tatar of Ukrainian origin”

Ruslan Ilkaev, 42 years old

Ruslan, how did your ancestors end up in the Donbas?

My grandfather comes from a Tatar village in Mordovia, most of the Donetsk Tatars have roots from there. During the Great Patriotic War, he fought on the Second Ukrainian Front. After the victory, he was in Ukraine for some time. Apparently, it impressed him, and he wanted to move there, which he did in the early 1950s.

My grandmother came a few years later, because my father was born in Mordovia. My own uncle was born already in Donetsk. What is interesting: when it was time to get married, my father went to Mordovia and married my mother there. Then they returned to Donetsk together.

My sister and I were born already in Donetsk. . But I still have my grandmother, uncles, aunts, cousins and second cousins in Mordovia. I also took my wife from Mordovia, which also added relatives to me.

But I myself am probably a Tatar of Ukrainian origin who returned to historical homeland. My wife and child were no longer in Donetsk.

How did the Tatars in the Donbas live in the Soviet and post-Soviet periods until 2014?

Due to my age, I remember the Soviet period poorly. In 1991, I was 10-11 years old. During the Soviet period, there were — you can't call it meetings — friendly gatherings that the Tatars held at home. Religious holidays were not openly celebrated, but they were held at home, everywhere it happened.

After the collapse of the USSR and with the beginning of independent Ukraine, religious and national movements also began to develop. My family at that time was non-religious, the only thing was my grandmother, who read the prayer for the rest of her life. There was no religious infrastructure at that time as such.

But already in 1993-1994, an Arab, let's say, Sunday school appeared. There was a study of the Arabic language, the basics of religion. Arab students from Ukraine were the teachers. Already in 1994-1995, the first stone was laid in the construction of the Donetsk Cathedral Mosque. It appeared just in my neighbourhood. It is still standing now, called Ahat-Dzhami. There were always a lot of parishioners there.

I was 13-14 years old. My acquaintance with Islam and the Arabic language began with this school. Then I didn't attach much importance to it: it was just interesting. But Islam already began to quietly come out of the shadows. There were no prohibitions. They began to openly hold holidays, the Muslim community in Donetsk was organised. Assembly halls and gyms were given for these meetings.

Until 2014, I did a lot of things: I worked and had my own business. In 1999, I had already gained knowledge about Islam and got an elementary religious education. In general, he lived an ordinary life, like everyone else, with an eye to Islam: without drugs and alcohol.

How was the life of the Muslim community and the Tatar community organised during that period?

There are a lot of Muslims in Donetsk itself and in the region. Everything was functioning perfectly. The chairman of the Muslim community, Rashid Evgenievich (Bragin), and the head of the Tatar Cultural Centre, Farida Rafikovna (Khafizova), have a special merit in this. May Allah give them all health.

Sabantuy began to be held in Donetsk. There were held various events, exhibitions, clubs of the Tatar language and literature.

Until 2014, the whole of Donetsk flourished: both Muslims and non-Muslims — everyone lived perfectly.

What about after 2014?

The war began. Donetsk Mosque, my hometown turned out to be right near the separation line, one and a half kilometres from the infamous Donetsk airport. The people who lived in this area, the parishioners, fully experienced all the hardships of shellings. A very difficult time.

In religious terms, nothing has changed much, except that, in principle, it has become harder. Of course, they began to gather for Friday namaz in a group of 4-5 people: it became very dangerous. From 2014 to 2016, I served as the imam of the Donetsk Mosque. There were repeated hits to the mosque. At first, it was hard and scary, but you get used to everything. The value of life is completely different. You begin to understand: any day can be the last. You treat life completely differently.

After 2016, truces began, all sorts of Minsk agreements did their job. Then I left, but it got quieter. They even started to hold Sabantui again, however, away from the district.

How did you leave?

My wife is Russian. I was just going to marry her then. In 2016, I left for Russia, where I stayed. My documents are Ukrainian: I had to get by with casual earnings. I could earn money in Moscow somehow, but after the birth of my son I had to go to Mordovia. It is quite difficult in Mordovia itself.

Then I met local Muslims, made new friends, even managed to get a job as a manager, get a stable income. Got citizenship. Moved to Moscow.

Russia is another country, other people, other places. Relatives and friends remained in Donetsk. But I coped with all difficulties.

Karim Gaynullin

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