From Iphigenia to Putin, Crimea has been reputed as a land of priestesses, wars and sanatoria. Khrushchev transferred the peninsula to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1954, and Putin grabbed it back from independent Ukraine in 2014. When we visited Yalta eight years before that, the Greeks were long gone, the Tatars still cast a shadow, and the Russians had never really gone away.
It was the Russians who interested me. I was working on a book called Compassion, whose characters are artists and writers, and I was treading in the footsteps of the poets Anna Akhmatova and Osip Mandelshtam, who both made numerous visits.
Like them, we arrive on the night train from Kiev. Yalta has neither station nor airport: everything stops in Simferopol eighty kilometres away, and you complete your journey across the mountains by road. At Simferopol, we are met with a pre-booked taxi by a young man called Slavik, who claims to have taught himself English by listening to pop music on foreign radio stations with his elder brother, back in the glory days when it was all forbidden. His British intonation is pitch perfect, and the BBC has a lot to be proud of. Slavik drives us to Yalta and drops us at the Hotel Bristol, near the sea front, which is not as English as it thinks it is, but considerably less Soviet than our hotel in Kiev.
Wandering inland, we find the market, and a stall selling excellent pelmeni. All the Central Asian specialities are on offer: laghman and plov and shashlyk. Since the nineteenth century Crimea has been Russia’s equivalent of the Côte d’Azur, but before that it belonged to the Tatars, a Turkic ethnic group which arrived with Genghis Khan. The Tatars ran a semi-independent khanate under the Sublime Porte, until the Russians kicked out the Ottomans in 1783. During World War II, the Tatars were deported to Siberia, but they’ve been drifting back again since 1989.
According to the guidebook, Yalta catered first to tsarist aristocrats with tuberculosis, then to Soviet citizens who had earned a rest in a sanatorium, and now it attracts the mafia. I have my doubts. From what we see, it’s still in Stage Two, and likely to remain so. Why would mafiosi want to spend their vacation in a place that has no Armani, no Hugo Boss, and almost no black Jeeps? The town has a gorgeous setting – mountains rear up just behind it, and lush vegetation pours right down to the sea – but it’s been ruined by too much concrete development. The main sea-front promenade offers beer and ice cream and plastic cafés, string quartets in track suits playing Brahms, an old guy in a sailor’s cap karaoke-ing to Kalinka, families taking the air, booths offering excursions to Livadia and Alupka and Bakhchisarai, and photo ops galore: cardboard fat ladies with a space to put your head; Harley Davidsons with appropriate leather rig; red velvet thrones with glitzy crinolines apparently conceived on the theme of Barbie meets the Tsar.
Amazingly, the promenade is still named the Lenin Embankment, and a statue of the great man still presides. He cuts a fine, if melancholy, figure on his pedestal in his best revolutionary greatcoat, with the mountains behind him, McDonalds next to him, and someone singing Oh Susanna, oh don’t you cry for me, I come from Alabama with a banjo on my knee. There are a few foreign tourists: Germans sampling the local beer, and Americans doing mini-bungee-jumping on the promenade. As resorts go, Yalta is pretty low end, but it’s trying hard to modernize, and every restaurant in town has multiple television screens playing an endless diet of inane clips and music videos. Seventy years of communism seem to have given Ukrainian citizens an appetite for beautiful people in unlikely clothes behaving in non-socialist ways in glossy settings. Sit there for an hour, and your brain drains away completely. Electronic opium for the masses?
On Wednesday, we set off in a marshrutka (collective taxi) for Livadia, the site of the February 1945 Yalta conference. Sadly, it is closed today for the May 9 holiday. Poor planning. We explore the site and the grounds, and decline a photo op with wax effigies of the Big Three sitting on a sofa. It’s a gorgeous day: bright and hot and spring-like. We take another marshrutka out to Alupka to see the Vorontsov Palace where Churchill stayed during the Conference, but it looks much too Scottish for Crimea, so we continue on along the road and take the cable car up Ai Petri. It’s a terrifying ride, right up the sheer face of the mountain. “Nothing guarantees that the cable car is revised periodically,” says Lonely Planet, “but it nevertheless seems in better shape than most public transport.” Oh yes? You can see right down through the floorboards to the slopes below. During the ride we encounter our first French-speaker of the trip, who was born in Belgium and lives in Sevastopol. He cracks jokes in Ukrainian and French the whole way up and makes everyone laugh, though the laughter is a shade nervous – especially when the cable car grinds to a halt halfway up the mountain. The summit, when we finally get there, offers nothing but a lot of scrubby Tatar tourist shops with Oriental-style divans selling sheepskins and chai.
On Thursday we take an ekskursia to Bakhchisarai, the palace of the Tatar khans of Crimea. We buy the trip from a kiosk on the promenade, and the kindly elderly man who sells us the tickets is so worried about our ability to locate the bus that he calls our hotel before breakfast to make sure we’re on track. Pushkin wrote a poem about the fountain of Bakhchisarai that evokes silver dust and distant lands and a pale star. It takes two hours to get there, down along the south-west coast to Sevastopol and back up north to Bakhchisarai. There’s a shorter road through the mountains, but apparently it’s too dangerous by bus. The trip includes a trek up to a sixth-century cave settlement in the mountains, lunch in an alleged caravanserai, and the visit to the palace, which is disappointing. It is not in good repair, and far less elaborate than the mosques and madrassahs we saw in Uzbekistan. The fountain that inspired Pushkin has run dry. Getting there and back has taken up a whole day, which could perhaps have been better spent. There’s a lot to see in Yalta.
On our last day, we take the bus to Chekhov’s house, which is where he wrote The Cherry Orchard. He designed the house and garden himself, and spent much of his last five years here. The house is still as it was when he left Yalta in 1904. An earnest lady shows us around and explains every last postcard. Her voluble Russian is too much for me, and my husband doesn’t understand a word, but she is so bent on sharing Chekhov with us that we smile and nod and attempt to live up to her cultural expectations. The house is delightful, and I purloin the garden for Nina, the heroine of Compassion, to remember her lost love Andrei, exiled in London, and ponder her future without him.
Finally, we head for the beach, which is not great. Gravel on the promenade side, pebbles on the Massandra side. There are a few brave bathers, but the water is cold. All around us everyone is painting and sanding and sawing and hammering to get all the cafes and restaurants and lounger stands ready for the summer season. We lie on the pebbles and soak up the sun.
Eight years later, Yalta is Russian again. I don’t know who goes there now.