Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Stand with Ukraine: Haytarma

In late 2020, Ukraine issued a commemorative coin in honor of WWII flying ace, Amet-khan Sultan, who specialized in shooting down and/or ramming German planes. That hardly sounds like the work of a Nazi-dominated government, as Putin’s propagandists would have us believe. Sultan was also a Crimean Tatar, who happened to visit home during Stalin’s mass Deportation of Crimean Tatars. Given the invasion now apparently underway, the U.S. should join other governments in recognizing the Crimean Deportation as a genocide. After all, it laid the foundation for Putin’s dubious justifications for his campaign of conquest. (There were a lot of Russian speakers in Crimea for a reason, because the Tatars were just starting to return.) Sultan’s shocking homecoming is dramatized in Akhtem Seitablaev’s Haytarma, which is available online.

Seitablaev starts slow, but he takes some time to showcase Tatar culture, especially the titular Haytarma dance. Eventually, Sultan departs on the leave he demanded from his commanding officer, much to alarm of political officer Maj. Krotov. He knows his NKVD masters have something ugly planned for the Tatar Crimea. Ostensibly, they accuse the Tatars of collaboration, but it is really just an excuse for more ethnic cleansing.

Much to his superiors’ surprise, Krotov chases after Sultan, intending to head him off at the pass. Of course, Sultan had too much of a head start, so he and his two companions, a French officer and fellow Hero of the Soviet Union Pavel Golovachev will be at the Sultan family home when the nightmare starts.

Haytarma just covers the events of round-up and deportation, but that is more than enough for any film to handle. Seitablaev nicely conveys the brutality and confusion of the dead-of-night operation (but it is important to remember most of the deaths occurred during transit or the Tatars exile in Siberia or other Central Asian Republics).

Seitablaev himself cuts a reasonably dashing figure as Sultan and he humanizes the war hero quite well during the time of crisis. However, the most interesting work comes from Andrey Mostrenko as the hardnosed but conflicted Krotov. (Presumably, he is fictionalized, because anyone challenging Stalin’s genocidal campaigns would be lost to history.)

There are some beautiful and terrible images in
Haytarma, Cinematographer Vladimir Ivanov opens up the grand vistas of the Tatar Crimea. Wisely, Seitablaev celebrates the positives of Tatar culture (largely in the first fifteen minutes) as well as mourns the state-orchestrated crimes committed against them. The film shines a light on a largely unknown historical atrocity that is directly relevant to the current crisis in Ukraine. It is time for the U.S. government to formally recognize the Deportation of Crimean Tatars as a genocide and unequivocally stand up with Ukraine. Recommended as a historical drama and a dramatic expose, Haytarma is available on Apple TV and YouTube (presumably legally).