Published: April 2011


Crimea Sevastopol Singing

A Jewel in Two Crowns

Russia’s paradise lost belongs to Ukraine—and that’s where the trouble begins.

By Cathy Newman
Photographs by Gerd Ludwig

The past is never past in Sevastopol. It waves from flagpoles and drapes the parade stand on patriotic holidays. It finds sanctuary in war monuments and is posted on signs: Lenin Square, Heroes of Stalingrad Street, Cinema Moscow. It even simmers in a pot of borscht.

Take Galina Onischenko's version of the eastern European staple. "This is Russian borscht," she said, setting down a porcelain bowl of "green" or summer borscht with its dill-flecked mosaic of beets, carrots, and potatoes. "No lard with garlic like they put in Ukrainian borscht."

Galina, a 70-year-old grandmother with a cumulous cloud of white hair and stern, cornflower blue eyes, had returned to her fifth-floor walk-up from marching down Lenin Street waving a Soviet Navy flag in support of her beloved Black Sea Fleet. "Sevastopol is a Russian city, and we will never put up with the fact that Ukraine is in charge," she said.

Though Galina would protest, borscht, according to Russian food historian V. V. Pokhlebkin, is originally Ukrainian. Though Galina protests, Sevastopol, a city in Crimea, is Ukrainian too.

The Crimean Peninsula is a diamond suspended from the south coast of Ukraine by the thin chain of the Perekop Isthmus, embraced by the Black Sea, on the same latitude as the south of France. Warm, lovely, lush, with a voluptuously curved coast of sparkling cliffs, it was a jewel of the Russian Empire, the retreat of Romanov tsars, and the playground of Politburo fat cats. Officially known as the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, it has its own parliament and capital, Simferopol, but takes its orders from Kiev.

Physically, politically, Crimea is Ukraine; mentally and emotionally, it identifies with Russia and provides, a journalist wrote, "a unique opportunity for Ukrainians to feel like strangers on their own territory." Crimea speaks to the persistence of memory—how the past lingers and subverts.

In 1954 Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev, First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, signed Crimea over to Ukraine as a gesture of goodwill. Galina was 14 at the time.

"Illegal," she said, when asked about the hand­over. "There was no referendum. No announcement. It just happened."

What was Khrushchev thinking?

"He wasn't," she snapped. "Khrushchev had roaches in his head."

Crimea was a lovely present, but the box was empty. Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union anyway. "My parents discussed the transfer, but we weren't concerned," Galina said. Moscow was still in charge. No one could have ever imagined the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, when Crimea would be pulled out of the orbit of Russian rule along with an independent Ukraine.

Do you miss the Soviet Union? I asked Galina, as she reminisced about the stability of life under the Soviets. Prices were artificially low. "You could get a kilo of sugar for 78 kopeks," she said. "Butter, only 60! Now, I don't even buy it." Education and medical care were free. As for a vacation: "I could go to a resort"—now completely out of the question on her monthly pension of $130.

"Yes, we have a longing for the Soviet Union," she said. "But it cannot come back, no matter how much we wish. We can only toskavat."

Toskavat, verb, to long for. Toska, noun, a longing, darker than nostalgia, verging on depression. Russian culture is embedded in a matrix of toska. When in Three Sisters, by Anton Chekhov (who owned a dacha in Crimea), Irina wistfully says, "Oh, to go to Moscow, to Moscow!" that is toska. If Sevastopol, where 70 percent of the population is ethnic Russian, could talk, I imagine it too saying, To Moscow, to Moscow. In a 2009 poll by the Razumkov Centre, a top Ukrainian think tank, nearly a third of the Crimean respondents said they wanted their region to secede from Ukraine and become part of Russia.

In some ways it still is. But not just Russia. Crimea is practically a throwback to the old Soviet Union: the Early Concrete Bunker style of architecture, the rusting hulks of Russian warships in the harbor, the hammer-and-sickle medallions on the iron gates of Primorsky Park. It's also attitude. Brusque, rigid, humorless: the worst kind of Soviet hangover. You can take Crimea out of the Soviet Union; to pry the Soviet Union out of Crimea is something else. When I asked Yelena Nikolayevna Bazhenova, director of a Sevastopol-based tour company, why Crimea with its lovely seaside didn't attract more tourists, she hesitated. "We are not accustomed to greeting people with a smile," she finally said.

Crimea also sounds Russian. Ukrainian may be the official language, but Russian is the lingua franca, even in city hall. Of 60 secondary schools in Sevastopol, only one holds classes completely in Ukrainian.

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