A true Workers’ Paradise
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
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.
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
A paradise of gardens and grass
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
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.”