Fate of Meskhetian Turks

From Troubled Water: A Journey Around the Black Sea, by Jens Mühling (Armchair Traveller series; Haus, 2022), Kindle pp. 34-36:

When he revealed to me on our first taxi journey that he was a Turok – that is to say, a Turk – I studied his face somewhat quizzically from the side. The skullcap; the pointy, hawklike face; the salt-and-pepper moustache; the gold teeth.

‘A Turk?’ I asked. ‘You mean, a Tatar?’

‘A Turk.’

‘Really? Türkçe konuşuyor musunuz?’

His answer in Turkish was fluent, unlike my stammered question about his language skills. Having taken a Turkish course in Berlin a few years earlier, I’d been capable of ordering a kebab quite fluently ever since. Pasha, on the other hand, had grown up in the language.

It took me a few taxi journeys to understand that he and his parents were Meskhetian Turks. That is, Georgian Turks – or Turkish Georgians, depending on your point of view. The Meskhetian Turks had lived on the southern margins of Georgia, close to Turkey, since the sixteenth century. Where they originally hailed from remained an unresolved matter that only attracted their neighbours’ interest when the Turks and Georgians along the border discovered nationalism. In Turkey, they were henceforth regarded as Turks who had emigrated and assimilated to Georgia, whereas to the Georgians they were Georgians who had adopted Islam and the Turkish language under Ottoman influence. And so, both the Georgians and the Turks claimed the Meskhetians as their own while also viewing them as a bastardised, second-class people of mixed heritage. In this sense, Pasha’s ancestors shared a fate with countless ethnic minorities in the regions bordering the Black Sea. They fell through the cracks in the mosaic of emerging nation-states, and it was not they themselves but rulers in distant capitals, irked by this melee of peoples on the margins of their supposedly pure nations, who decided to which state they should belong.

One aggravating factor for the Meskhetian Turks was that Ioseb Jughashvili – aka Joseph Stalin – though no fan of nation-states, was a partisan of good old Russian-style imperialism. Scenting an opportunity to annex border areas of Turkey during the Second World War, the Soviet dictator pre-emptively expelled the Meskhetian Turks from their homeland. In light of his plans, they suddenly struck him more like Turks who might just, who knows, feel more loyal to the enemy than to the Soviet motherland. Stalin was an advocate of simple solutions. Justifiably or not, the Meskhetian Turks were a headache. No more Meskhetians, no more headaches. They had to go.

Pasha’s parents were newlywed at the time. His father was twenty and his mother eighteen when, out of the blue, one winter’s day in 1944, soldiers came pounding on their door in the southern Georgian village of Zarzma. Along with over 100,000 other Meskhetian Turks, they were herded into cattle wagons that rolled eastwards from Georgia and only came to a halt several thousand miles later. Roughly a third of them died during their deportation or shortly afterwards from hunger, thirst, hypothermia, disease, or a broken heart. Ultimately, Stalin’s planned expansion into Turkey came to nothing, but the ‘leader of peoples’ had managed to purge his mind entirely of one.

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Filed under Caucasus, migration, nationalism, religion, Turkey, USSR

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