By Noah Goodwin Missionary/Staff Writer
“They didn’t tell us where we were going. It was just short, fast, get out. We didn’t think we’d live through it.”
The old shepherd paused, his rheumy eyes distant, remembering. His wife came in bearing a pot of steaming coffee, which she poured into the cups of Yevgeniy and the American guests. The room where they sat was furnished simply yet comfortably, its walls adorned with colorful embroidery stitched in centuries-old styles. The table in front of them was laden with a mouth-watering spread of breads and cheeses. Next to them lay a beautifully bound Bible, its gold lettering still shiny new. The shepherd encouraged his guests to enjoy the tasty fare, then leaned back in his chair to resume his story.
The Shepherd’s Story
“Our ancestors have lived on the Crimean Peninsula for 800 years, ever since the days of Genghis Khan’s grandson. It’s our home. Many other people have loved this land over the centuries, too. And with good reason! Have you ever felt such pleasant weather anywhere else nearby in Ukraine or Russia? We can grow such crops here, our animals have good pastures, and the beaches are magnificent!” He waved in the direction of the distant coastline. “And our location on the Black Sea is strategic for merchants and navies.”
He picked up the Bible and thumbed through the pages, watching the text swirl by. “We’ve kept our language and culture for hundreds of years. Even after spending half a century in exile.”
He hung his head for a moment, lost in thought. A sheep bleated outside. The old shepherd looked up and spoke in a clear voice.
“It was 6:00 in the morning, May 18, 1944, when we heard someone knocking on the door. The Russian soldiers read Stalin’s order: ‘For betraying your motherland you Crimean Tatars have to leave the country.’ How could they call us traitors? My father was gone, fighting in the Russian army!
“Our neighbor’s son was seven years old. He was very sick, but they started beating him and forced him to walk. They herded us into small trucks and took us to the train station at Simferopol, where they loaded us into boxcars. The air inside these cars reeked of moldy straw and trash; it was difficult to breathe.
“There were a lot of fleas and lice swarming all over the place. They were so big we were trying to crush them with our fingernails. The noise of the crushing was everywhere. The sick boy was very sleepy on the train. After we left the second train station, he died. They wouldn’t stop the train; we had to open the doors and throw his body out while the train was still moving. I saw that with my own eyes. And then we kept on going to Uzbekistan.
“The whole trip took 18 days. Nearly 200,000 of us going 4,000 miles like cattle on the trains. So many died. And life was so bitterly hard when we arrived. They put us on a collective farm. Everyone was looking at us, told not to talk to us. Then the hunger came. My mother had to give me to an Uzbek family for a year. More than a third of us died in those early years.
“We always wanted to come back. We tried and tried to get permission. Why didn’t they allow us to return? Some came anyway, and were forced to leave again.
“Forty-five years we waited! Finally in 1989 they started letting us return. Now something like 250,000 of us are back.” He looked out the window at the green fields where his sheep grazed. “It is so good to be here. Of course our old lands and belongings have long since been taken by others, but we have a new life here now.”
The shepherd slowly rose and led his visitors to his garden. He stood proudly among the vegetables and flowering bushes. His fruit trees glowed in the sun. “When I first heard that Christians were translating the Bible into the Crimean Tatar language, I thought it was absurd. Everyone knows that being Crimean Tatar means following the religion our ancestors chose!”
He shrugged. “But then I learned that even some of my people who follow our religion were working to get the Bible into our language. They reminded me that some of the early Crimean Tatars were Christians; I’ve seen the inscriptions on their tombstones. And our holy book mentions other books sent by God: the books of Moses, David’s books, the gospels of Jesus. The stories are there for us to read. The Bible is the Word of God Himself. And in order to have a good life, you need to know what God wants from you.”
“And besides,” he added, running his fingers over a grapevine, “the translation will help our language to stay vital and not go away.”
He laughed. “I never imagined that I would help with such a task as this. I use these hands to work, not write books! But the translators said they needed my help. Week after week Yevgeniy came to visit, often bringing his family with him. Whenever the translation team had finished translating a section of Scripture, they wanted to see if we understood the words they had chosen. Time and again for so many years! Sometimes the text would be so clear, so easy to understand. When it wasn’t, we would work together to improve it.
“It was hard work. At first that’s all it was—work. But Yevgeniy became my friend, and the longer we worked together the more I came to love him as if he were my own son. Yes, that’s what he is to me now—my youngest son.”
The shepherd smiled and winked at Yevgeniy. “He told me that sometimes he would spend ten hours poring over one verse before he really understood it. He said it gave him real joy to see us understanding that verse in our own language. Of course, he also told us about his frustration when he spent a whole week choosing the words to communicate an important idea, only to realize that he had to throw it out and start over because what he chose didn’t work!”
He smiled fondly as he looked over his carefully tended farm. “Yevgeniy and many others worked very hard for 16 years to give us the Word of God in our language. Now we will see the fruits of their labor.”
United in Song: Celebrating the Crimean Tatar Bible
On March 12, 2016, the Crimean Tatar people celebrated receiving the Bible. They became one of only about 550 people groups in the world to have a full translation of God’s Word—both Old and New Testaments—in their own language.
Crimean Tatars sang and performed traditional dances in elaborately embroidered costumes. Speakers from several different countries, representing churches and organizations that partnered in the translation, delivered greetings and exhortations. Crimean Tatar believers from a host of denominational backgrounds set aside their differences to fellowship, eat, and sing joyfully together. The music team led everyone in heartfelt worship. At one point Yevgeniy’s young daughter walked up to him, smiling. He smiled back, picked her up, and gave her a kiss. He had good reason to smile; today’s ceremony was a culmination of much of his life’s work.
Yevgeniy and Amy Shved and their children, missionaries with Pioneer Bible Translators and Team Expansion, lived among the Crimean Tatar people for over 16 years. They learned the language and shared the joys and challenges of living in a Crimean Tatar community. Yevgeniy recruited the translation team, then labored with them verse by verse to ensure the accuracy and meaningfulness of the translation.
This was not an easy undertaking. But Yevgeniy’s motivation to serve these people came from deep within. Looking at the crowd of worshipping Crimean Tatars at the dedication, he commented, “Some of these people came to faith through the Word of God in their own language as we published Scripture portions over the years. Even if only one Crimean Tatar benefited from the translation, that’s all I would ask. That’s one soul more who will rejoice in front of God’s throne.”
When the time came to distribute the Bibles, the response was phenomenal. “There were cheers everywhere; it was something I’ve never experienced before. It was exciting!” “There was a lot of emotion in the room: tremendous joy, a sense of relief, and an immense sense of accomplishment to see this project come to fruition.” “As I handed the Bible to one lady she fell to her knees, crying in joy. Then she stood up and asked, ‘Can I have some more?’”
“Today many Crimean Tatars had tears in their eyes as they received God’s Word and heard about all of the people involved—not just translators, but people who helped check the translation, people who financed the project, people who were praying for the project,” commented team member Shannon Haynie, who was deeply involved in reading and studying the Crimean Tatar Scriptures with people in the community. “I think it really impacted the believers today to see how many people it takes to do a Bible translation and from where they come—all over the world.”
A Prayer for the Crimean Tatars
The Crimean Tatar Bible now has the potential to reach this group of people who have historically rejected Christ. Even though most Crimean Tatars follow another religion, they still respect the Bible as a Holy Book. They are also proud to have literature in their language, so the translation provides an open door to some who might otherwise not be interested.
Reading the Bible in Crimean Tatar is also a way to preserve and promote the language. Some Crimean Tatars fear that as an ethnic minority they are in danger of losing their language due to the widespread use of Russian. They are meeting and reading the Bible together with the express purpose of practicing their language.
For believers, the ultimate goal of heart-language Scripture goes far beyond linguistic curiosity or cultural preservation; it is to introduce a saving relationship with God through Christ. But Crimean Tatar believers who want to share their faith face many challenges, both from their own people and from the government.
Crimean Tatar believers experience persecution from those in their own community who oppose Christianity. One man moved to a different village to share his faith with his new neighbors. They ostracized him to the extent that he could not get a job and eventually had to move away.
A Russian law enacted in 2016 forbids evangelism and religious gatherings outside of approved church buildings. Some people have been fined for minor infractions such as going to someone else’s house for a meal at Easter. One evangelist was heavily fined for sharing an informational tract.
Lord, let the Crimean Tatar believers have wisdom, endurance, and boldness to live out their faith. May whole communities of Crimean Tatars come to know Jesus as their Savior.
Media sources have reported persecution of Crimean Tatars since the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation in 2014.
Lord, bring peace between the Crimean Tatars, their neighbors, and civil authorities.
Both the written translation and an audio recording of the Crimean Tatar Bible are available online. In these formats it has the potential to reach the hundreds of thousands of Crimean Tatars who live in Central Asia, Asia Minor, Eastern Europe, and the United States.
Lord, may Your Word reach the scattered Crimean Tatar communities.
The shepherd and his people continue to endure many trials. But thanks to his sacrificial labor and that of many other individuals, organizations, and churches, Crimean Tatars can now read the prophecy of Revelation 7:9-10 in their own language:
Бундан сонъ бакъсам, буюк бир топлам, эр бир миллеттен, эр къабиледен, эр халкътан ве тиллерден олгъан, эсабына етип олмагъан адамлар тахтнынъ алдында, Къозунынъ огюнде тура эди. Эписи беяз урба кийип, къолларында пальма пытакъларыны тута эдилер. Олар кучьлю сеснен: – Тахтта отургъан Алламыз ве Къозу къуртара биле!
– деп къычыра эдилер.
After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” — Revelation 7:9-10
Hearing these words in the language of their hearts and of their cultural identity, Crimean Tatars can choose to join that international throng in God’s presence and to sing His praises in their own language for all eternity. Pray diligently that many will make that choice.
You Can Pray:
- for unity of Crimean Tatar churches in fulfilling the Great Commission among their own people
- for courage to follow Jesus despite rejection and persecution
- for audio and printed Scriptures to reach Crimean Tatars living in other locales