by Maria on March 2, 2022

I visited Crimea in 2005, and just this morning found a half-written piece about it from ten years later. There was a whole strange adventure that followed in the fragrant midnight streets of Yalta. Maybe I’ll finish it some day. It’s not like any of us is ever going back there.


The official story is that Kruschev gave Crimea to Ukraine in 1954 to commemorate three hundred years of Russian and Ukrainian togetherness. But I heard he was drunk and sentimental one night and got carried away with a grand gesture. The story is better than the truth.

We were a group of academics, journalists, teachers and policy wonks traveling Ukraine the autumn after the Orange Revolution. In Kyiv, we met the student-leaders of Maidan Square, now focusing at their studies. They spoke MBA-accented English and fluent Powerpoint. They planned a bright future in a prosperous and west-facing Ukraine.

Breakfast in Kyiv cafes was cream with cream. Sometimes cream with pastry. But mostly cream. Kiev was like Petersburg, but smaller and more charming, with cobbled streets, markets stalls selling country produce and Soviet memorabilia, whimsical Orthodox architecture in primrose yellow. In city bars we skipped dinner and ate garlic-infused lard laid a centimetre thick on black rye bread, sliding it down with neat vodka.

I got chatted up at a reception by an attractive, louche man. His side line – everyone had one – was starting political parties in the north east of the country, around Donetsk. That was where votes were cheapest. Once they had enough support to elect a couple of MPs, He would sell them, just like Twitter farms raise and sell puppet accounts. The going rate for a political party was about a million US dollars, which seemed expensive if you thought of it as a way to buy influence. It was mostly a way to become and MP and buy immunity from prosecution. I asked him what his day-job was. Official at the Ministry of Justice, it turned out. It was all a great joke that everyone seemed to be in on. The only person not laughing was our guide, Valentin, a somewhat forlorn pro-Russian professor.

Come on, I told him a few days later in Crimea, These are just teething problems. Democracy will flourish. The Kremlin’s ‘political technologists’ have been sent packing. We were walking on a raised path decked in early autumn wildflower, by the deep and curved strait from the Black Sea into Balaklava. From the 1950s till the fall of the Soviet Union, submarines had coursed silently down the strait from a vast underground facility. They would lurk in the Black Sea, nuclear missiles armed and pointed silently at Europe’s capitals. Valentin gestured across the grassy hill that hid the underground caverns the subs had slept in, though the base had long since had its copper ripped out and sold to the new telecoms companies.

This won’t end well, he said. It never does.

We’d arrived by plane and bus in early evening Sevastopol, the most enduringly Soviet of Crimea’s towns. The two bars we found were shut, and the tolerably full restaurant didn’t feel like serving any more food. The capitalist imperative was nowhere to be found.

Later, we waited politely in an under-lit hotel lobby for an ancient, black-clad woman, radiating hostility, to rouse herself and check us in. She would check us in and take us, one at a time, up creaking stairs and down stained corridors to another desk in a hallway, staffed by an almost identical woman. A long and aggrieved-sounding conversation in Russian would follow, and the waving of a tired-looking docket from downstairs, until a room key was released and each guest showed to their room. Repeat, twelve times. It took well over an hour to check us in, though we were the sole occupants of the hotel.

In the morning, we visited Sevastopol’s war memorials, commemorating Russia’s defeat of Germany in the war of 1941-45. Well, that’s how they see it. This was 2006, so it was jarring to see Soviet realist sculpture of soldiers, sailors and farm-hands cherished in an entirely un-ironic way. No toppled or humorously askew heads of Lenin here, and no graffiti either. Just half a dozen newly-weds posing for photos by the names of the dead, clad head to toe in gleaming blue-white nylon, racing each other to the next monument in rose-bedecked Mercedes cars.

We ambled listlessly around the harbour, home to much of the Black Sea fleet. The nearest vessels seemed to have been moored and marooned at least a decade before. The submarines were peeling and sloughing off their anti-radar skin in hunks of perished black rubber. I peeled a little off and kept it.

One morning we met the deputy governor of the province. When I pressed, he insisted the Crimean Tatars, exiled en masse by Stalin to Central Asia in 1944, really shouldn’t ever come back and couldn’t have any expectations if they did. Let the past be the past, he said. He sat at the head of his boss’s conference table, surrounded by display cabinets heaving with the official gifts from governors of other ex-Soviet states. His presence was magnified by epic-sized pen holders in solid silver and realist sculptures of improving scenes; presumably the post-communist equivalent of framed posters that say ‘Teamwork’ and ‘Success’. It was almost unbearably dreary.

We went to Yalta.

Yalta, the sea-cure of centuries worth of aristocrats and decades of Party members. One of the few beach resort Soviets could go to, and the one the first wave of mini-oligarchs had abandoned in favour of Saint Tropez.

To Vorontsov Palace, a two-faced hillside perch with Scottish Baronial on one aspect, Delhi Gothic on the other. Two enormous sleeping stone lions dozed on the sea side, with the squashed-up faces of exhausted puppies conked out on a kitchen floor. Churchill stayed here for a few weeks during the Yalta conference, consuming heroic amounts of whiskey, rising only at noon and abandoning the Poles. As he left, he asked Stalin for one of the lions as a souvenir. Stalin said no.

From Vorontsov Palace, the Black Sea appears as if through a very expensive camera lens scrim. The quality of light over Crimea’s grey-blue waves is so delicately attenuated, it’s as if Victorian photographer Julia Cameron were standing between you and the sea, shooting it in barely-there colour.

Yalta is where soft and kindly colour makes its home. Honey, amber, rose and lilac, Yalta smells lightly of flowers. A square of city trees just out of sight is always wafting blossom parts and fragrance through the narrow streets.



John Quiggin 03.02.22 at 11:54 pm

So many beautiful places and happy lives destroyed by this war.


Maria 03.03.22 at 12:54 pm

Indeed, John. Just sickening.


nastywoman 03.03.22 at 2:49 pm

and how can I sit here –
now back in Germany –
and watch how a Insane Brutal War Criminal is destroying the country of one of my neighbours?
And –
okay – I’m NOT trained in warfare –
and I belong to the European Peace Movement –
but how can I just sit here and do nothing –
(besides giving money and clothes and medicine to the refugees?

Will I be like my (German) grandfather once who regretted the whole rest of his live that he just stayed ‘a Musician’ – instead of putting bombs together in order to try killing the (Nazi) Monsters?


Fake Dave 03.03.22 at 8:51 pm

Fantastic writing! You should definitely finish it. I’m sure there are a lot of people who are feeling the same nostalgia and regret for a lost dream of opportunity right now who would love to read it.


John Edward 03.03.22 at 11:16 pm

Your memory is much much better than mind, and much better phrased too…


Orange Watch 03.05.22 at 10:08 pm

Only peripherally on-topic, so I’d understand if it wasn’t acceptable on this thread, but this article offers a perspective (that of Eastern Europeans) that’s seemed sorely missing in Western discourse on the war, and the other threads are closed, so…


nastywoman 03.07.22 at 4:52 am

‘Mezzo mondo muove la sua diplomazia e va a sbattere contro cyborg Putin
Il presidente russo ha ricevuto telefonate da Erdogan, Macron, Bennett. Ma, per ora, non molla di un millimetro e tiene bloccate al freddo e senz’acqua 200mila persone a Mariupol, non rispettando il cessate il fuoco. La Ue tiene la linea della cautela, ma il tempo passa e gli ucraini continuano a morire’

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