Ukraine, May 30, 1999
A true Workers' ParadiseThere is a look Russians get in their eyes when you say the word "Yalta." A far away look of remembrance and of a time long lost. They always brighten up and start in about how grand it really was back in the Soviet days. Even the youngin's, like Lidia, who are really too young to remember much of USSR life, have fond memories of the place. But just memories.
No one that I know has taken a Yalta vacation in recent years. I always found the difference between the great memories and the present disinterest quite odd. No, make that very odd, for even with New York's and their Coney Island or Atlantic City boardwalk, both in a state of disrepair, most people will still return to a place of fond memories time and time again. It was only when I crested the hill overlooking Yalta, while riding the longest trolleybus in the world (two & a half hours!), did I understand. Only then did I understand why the Soviet State lasted as long as it did and with such an agreeable population.
Yalta is beautiful, nestled between high mountains and a dark blue sea. It has very Mediterranean flora and fauna, reminding me of all the movies and pictures I've seen of Greece or Rome. The people, mainly Russians, are much friendlier than their northern cousins are, and the sky is always clear and blue. None are the reason for the strong memories of Russians though. None matter as much as what sits on each high ledge overlooking the sea, or hides back behind thick, sculpted gardens.
Yaltieze Sanatoriums were the key in the whole Soviet experience. They are massive, glorious, temples to the Worker State, even if it really didn't work. I am not one easily impressed, and after two years in the CIS, I sure am not impressed by Soviet architecture, so it was a complete surprise for me to see such beauty in stone and concrete. It was only after the second day that I stopped asking which Tzar, prince, or count build the stately mansions and palaces around Yalta, and started reading the nameplates instead.
The Youth Komsomol, The Steelworkers Union, The Artist's Guild, and the Railroad Union. These were the builders of such magnificence! This was the pinnacle of the Workers' State!
Can you imagine can you comprehend what it must have felt like for the average worker? After a long eight months of winter, working in Factory 35, making railroad ties all day. Going home to the two-room apartment you shared with your wife, your kids, your parents, and your sister's family, with Mom moaning from waiting in a bread line all day? Your kids looking at you funny when you speak of going to the dacha the first day of spring, to plant the food to live through next winter. And then, after that long winter ended, and after the hard spring planting was done, taking them all to a seaside palace for two weeks of sun, sea, and fun, for a few kopecks? You know the father was proud of Factory 35 for the next six months!
The Railroad Worker's Sanatoria
Now I also understand why no one really goes back. Oh, of course a few go because of nostalgia, and few cuz it is still very cheap, but nothing like the crowds in the Soviet era. Now all the Russians who can, and a few who can't, go to better seasides in Cyprus, Egypt, and Turkey, where visas are not a problem and the sea is cleaner. For all that Yalta is, it still cannot come close to the most basic Turkish resort. The sanatoria, while the cream of Soviet architecture, and quite impressive after Moscow and Kyiv, are not exactly the 90's standard.
First and foremost, they are staffed by Russians, and no matter how much life has changed here, the babushka walking the hallway is still the queen of her floor. No matter how hard they try, Russian activities, cooking, and amenities cannot match the power of a smiling Turk. And no matter how much the Russians skim from the IMF, they can't hope to match the Western investment sent to countries where the corruption is at least tolerable.
So, in the end, Yalta will fade in the minds of Russians, and as the years pass, it will become a summer home for the rich nationalistic Ukrainians (don't forget, Yalta is in Ukraine these days), but not much else. There are too many seasides, unexplored by the average Russian, and much better than Yalta, for it to regain its once glorious past.
April 19 1999, Reuters News Wire
Crimea's Yalta torn between Ukraine, Russia
By Sebastian Alison
YALTA, Ukraine, - While Russia's Black Sea fleet prepared to sail from its home base of Sevastopol to monitor the Kosovo crisis, the pace of life in neighbouring Yalta, long Russia's premier seaside resort, reflected a mood of holiday, not war. But neither Sevastopol nor Yalta are in Russia.
Both cities are on the Crimean peninsula. And while the Crimea was part of the Soviet Union until its demise at the end of 1991, it is now part of an independent Ukraine. The Soviet Union's Ukrainian-born leader Nikita Khrushchev decided arbitrarily that the Crimea should be handed over to Ukraine as a gift in 1954.
This made little difference to the peninsula's status during the Soviet era, when both Ukraine and Russia were part of the same country. But now it does. Russia's home port for its Black Sea fleet is merely leased from Ukraine, and Yalta, the top holiday destination for Russian tsars and commissars for generations, is on foreign soil.
Few locals seemed happy.
"It's bad, very bad," said Vadim, a Yalta taxi driver, repeating the word "bad" in English to make sure he had put his point across. Himself an ethnic Russian, born and brought up in Yalta, he insisted he and all his fellow citizens still felt Russian. Russian is spoken by everyone. On a recent week-long visit not a word of Ukrainian was heard from the endless radio stations broadcasting at ear-splitting volumes throughout Yalta's beautiful parks and gardens.
Yalta certainly feels Russian.
Vladimir, a Belarussian who moved from Minsk to Yalta 17 years ago and now works in the tourist industry, was typical of many who regretted Ukraine's sovereignty over the Crimea. "I was born a Belarussian and a Belarussian I will die," he said. "But Russia should control the Crimea. If it is no longer Russian, then at least it should be held in common by all Slavs," he said, adding that "things had got worse" under Ukraine's stewardship.
But if Yalta has got worse, it remains magnificent, offering a heady mix of sunshine, mountain scenery, sea, stunning vegetation rarely associated with Russia such as palm trees and cypresses, and buildings and monuments which reflect the region's long and varied history.
The setting for the Post-War settlement of Europe
Yalta itself became a fashionable Russian resort last century, and the town contains many pastel-coloured classical 19th century Russian mansions more commonly found in St Petersburg and Moscow which look incongruous beside the palm trees. But there are also innumerable wooden houses with overhanging balconies, redolent of Tbilisi in Georgia, with other architectural reminders of Azerbaijan's capital, Baku, leaving the visitor in no doubt that Yalta is part of The South.
The city was popularised by Tsar Alexander II, who built a palace at Livadia just west of Yalta in the 1860s. This was replaced by another Livadia palace built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, in 1911. This palace, now open to the public, was used by the imperial family on only three occasions and is on a far more intimate and human scale than their other homes such as the enormous Winter Palace in St Petersburg.
The Vorontsov Palace
But its lasting fame is as the scene of the Yalta conference of February 1945, when Soviet leader Josef Stalin, U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt and British prime minister Winston Churchill met to settle the fate of post-war Europe. The palace has some rooms laid out exactly as they were for the conference, while others are unchanged from the days of Nicholas II's summer holidays, creating a bizarre sense of time warp.
Downstairs the main dining room is still decorated with 1940s conference furniture and Soviet, U.S. and British flags, with photographs of the three leaders. The bedroom of the ailing Roosevelt, just two months from death, is as it was. Upstairs a cosy dining room for the imperial family with stunning views across the palace gardens and Yalta bay is laid for breakfast just as it was shortly before the 1917 revolution which brought down the House of Romanov.
A paradise of gardens and grass
Gardens are the main glory of Yalta, where the temperature rarely falls below freezing in winter and rarely rises above 30 celsius (86 Fahrenheit) in summer, and where a mountain range protects the narrow coastal strip from the worst of the winter. The Nikita botanical gardens outside Yalta were laid out in 1812 and are as much a pleasure for their views across the bay to the city as for the gardens themselves. The Vorontsov palace at nearby Alupka is also surrounded by magnificent gardens.
Chekhov, the playwright and short story writer who lived in Yalta from 1899 until his death from tuberculosis in 1904, surrounded his striking villa with an exceptional sub-tropical garden. But the public gardens and parks in the city itself are also a source of wonder, spectacular and beautifully maintained, itself a surprise in a country where economic hardship has meant such a luxury is rare.
As well as gardens, the generous climate nourishes plentiful grapes. Inkerman and Balaklava, famous battlefields of the Crimean war of 1854-1855 when Britain, France and Turkey took on Russia, are now vineyards. The region's most famous wines and one of its greatest prides comes from another palace, Massandra, just outside Yalta. Sweet, strong and sticky, and heavy to Western palates, many of them are imitations of such wines as sherry and port. At least they are cheap.
Crimea has been a centre of civilisation since at least the sixth century BC, when Greeks and Scythians coexisted there. Since then it has been controlled by, among others, Romans, Polovtsians, Tartars, Turks, Genoese and Venetians, Russians and now Ukraine. Every culture is represented. The choice of Yalta, where so much of European culture has merged, by the allied powers as a site to debate the future settlement of Europe, seems as good an option as any.
While many locals bemoan the latest transfer of control over the peninsula, and many Russians insist Yalta's glory days are over and the city is going to the dogs, to the first-time visitor it is at least the equal of any Mediterranean resort.
Johnson's Russia List, October 13, 1998
Rouble slide hits holiday trade
Nick Haslam reports from the Ukrainian seaside town of Yalta
I came into Yalta at dusk, on the longest trolleybus ride in the world.
For 70km, the battered old vehicle connected to gleaming copper cables slung above the road, climbed laboriously up through the high mountains of the Crimea, passing vineyards where workers were busy getting in the crop of grapes. At sunset, we crested the col, and there below lay the dark misty mass of the Black Sea. As the bus, with brakes squealing, wound down the mountain side the lights of Yalta came on twinkling like a string of pearls along the coast.
Yalta's place in history
For more than 100 years, the Crimea has been the summer resort of all the Russias. Tsar Nicholas II, spent his last summers here with his family in the ornate Livadia palace where nearly 40 years later, Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt would convene the Yalta conference to decide the fate of post-war Europe. More recently, hotels in Yalta catered for the budget Soviet holidaymaker from the sun-starved northern cities of Moscow and St Petersburg, while their leaders and high-ranking politburo members stayed in plush state-owned dachas and sanatoria on the wooded slopes above the Black Sea. I had first visited Yalta two years ago, when I stayed with Larissa Denisyenko, a 70-year-old widow, who rented out a room in her small flat near the sea front. Once again I knocked on her door and Larissa was happy to see me, immediately, despite the late hour insisting on heating water for a bath. Her flat, like so many in the city, relied on a centralised heating system, which, as on my last visit, only functioned two days a week.
The velvet season
Late September in Yalta is known as the velvet season and as I strolled along the promenade next morning the Black Sea lay mirror smooth in the warm morning sunshine. But the wide corniche under the high mountains was practically deserted and the few tourists were outnumbered it seemed by pavement artists and souvenir sellers. All became clear when I talked later in the day to Yuri Lapshin, President of the Crimean association of tourist guides and interpreters. Yuri is in his mid fifties and has a dry sense of humour. "We had a bumper season until late August", he told me, "but when the rouble started to slide it was chaotic". Russian visitors account for 90% of the tourists who come to the Crimea, and many were stranded as their holiday money devalued by half more or less overnight. "The post office was besieged with tourists wiring for more cash to buy their train tickets home," he said. Yuri estimated that nearly all the Russian visitors had left, and none had come in September.
'Summer feeds the winter'
"This exodus will hit us hard" he said, "for in Yalta summer feeds the winter". That evening, I sat in a cafÚ on the promenade, watching the evening passeggiata where groups of young men from Kiev, with cropped heads, black shirts and the gold chains that are de rigeur with the new rich in Ukraine, trailed girlfriends in the shortest of miniskirts who teetered on high platform shoes. In the light of a golden half moon reflecting off the Black Sea, the impression, at first glance, was of affluence and ease. Yet the litter bin in the shadows opposite was visited three times in 10 minutes by a frenetic small boy collecting empty bottles. And dotted along the promenade - headscarves knotted over wrinkled faces - stood old babushkas, heads bowed with age, hands outstretched, begging for small change.
A hundred metres further on a group of musicians played Bach and they had told me they were members of the Crimean State Orchestra, busking for their living as their salaries had been unpaid for five months. I arranged next day to meet a friend, who had acted as an interpreter the last time I was in Yalta. Raisa Shevchenka teaches English at a primary school in Yalta's suburbs. An elegant woman in her mid fifties, Raisa was concerned that in the wake of the rouble collapse, the Ukrainian hryvnia had lost 30% of its value in three weeks. "My salary is now worth only $30 a month," she said with some anger. She lived with her invalid mother and told me that they hadn't tasted cheese for more than a year. "Yalta is a tourist town and everything here is more expensive than elsewhere in the Ukraine - I am really worried that this winter will be lean and hungry for us."
Hardship for pensioners
She came with me to as I went back to Larissa's flat to pick up my bags, for I would be leaving that afternoon on the trolleybus. Sipping tea, the two women compared notes, and Larissa said that many pensioners now could only afford to buy bread and potatoes. But, with the resilience which I had come to admire in the people of Ukraine she said that she had survived crises before, and God willing she would survive this one too. "I share what I have," she said with a smile, " and others help me. By supporting each other we will get through." True to form, as I shouldered my bag to catch the trolleybus, she gave a parcel of food to Raisa, and then kissed me goodbye. "Come again," she said. "Whatever happens you know we will be here."