Sevastopol: past memories, future hopes
by Mihail Loginov
September, 7th 2011
In the past Soviet citizens would flock to Crimea for their summer holidays. In 1954 Khrushchev handed it over to Ukraine; in 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed and Crimea suddenly became ‘abroad,’ a tricky situation for the Russian Black Sea Fleet. Feelings ran high, but have calmed down recently, though memories of the past continue to be hugely important, says Mikhail Loginov.
Crimea as Churchill’s family vault
“At the Yalta Conference Churchill asked Stalin to make him a present of Crimea. Stalin’s reply was ‘I will, if you can guess where my middle finger is.’ Churchill didn’t know that Stalin had a withered arm and couldn’t bend all his fingers…”
On the ride from Simferopol Airport to Sevastopol taxi driver Sergei tells every passenger the story of Britain’s attempts to wrest Crimea from the USSR. He doesn’t reduce his speed when demonstrating the clenched fist gesture that Stalin is supposed to have shown Churchill. He drives quickly and safely, is polite to passengers, helping them put baggage into the car and take it out. His firm doesn’t have meters, but Sergei always agrees a price in advance and without a tip. He’s not a professional taxi driver, but a former sailor in Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.
But why did Churchill want Crimea? Sergei has an explanation for that.
“We shall be passing Balaklava. It was here, in the Valley of Death, that the Russians destroyed the English Light Brigade during the Crimean War. Many English nobles died, including Churchill’s great grandfather.”
So Churchill was interested in Crimea as a family vault? Sergei doesn’t bother with the logic of his words. He is more interested in looking for confirmation that England has always been interested in Crimea, and that Churchill had personal reasons for this.
We pass the Golden Beam vineyards in the valley where the famous battle took place. The walls of a roadside restaurant are decorated with drawings: British cavalry holding huge flags – a red cross on a white background – fall, decimated by the Russian artillery’s grapeshot.
Our taxi driver Sergei, so full of historical legends, and the restaurant decorated with battle scenes are typical of Sevastopol. The city lives by its past. It remembers, it tells the stories to its guests and it defends the past, often selflessly and aggressively. “Defend Sevastopol!” said Admiral Kornilov, fatally wounded by an English cannonball. These words are remembered in Sevastopol, but there’s no war now, so the fight is for the memories of past battles, shown on posters with admirals from the Crimean War, generals from WWII and the 1905 revolutionary Peter Schmidt. “We have a right to our past” is written under the portraits.
The Stalingrad Ambassador
But man cannot live by memories of the past alone. Stanislav, a captain II rank, has been luckier than Sergei. He used to work in one of the analytical divisions of the Black Sea Fleet HQ. He was made redundant, but managed to get a job in the Volgograd Region representative office. “Now I’m ambassador for the hero-city Stalingrad in the hero-city Sevastopol,” he says.
The fact that Russian cities have the stewardship of the Black Sea Fleet (BSF) ships and the city itself is one of the factors contributing to its prosperity. Ex Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov is more popular here today than he is in the capital, because Moscow funds paid for the construction of several large apartment blocks for the officers of the BSF, whereas it was the government of Ukraine that had to find the money to build accommodation for the officers of the Ukrainian Navy.
The level of support is less now, because Moscow and Kiev have agreed on “cheaper gas in return for the lease of the base until 2042.” “The less controversy there is over the BSF, the less often Russia remembers about us,” sighs Stanislav. “If only Georgia would build a new fleet and attack Abkhazia, we could destroy that fleet.”
But Sevastopol too has its local wars.
“We sank it in the middle of the bay”
Every Sunday Sevastopol sees a procession of people carrying banners and marching through its central streets. They carry the state flag of Russia, the (St) Andrew Flag, the Russian Navy Flag and the so-called Imperial Flag (dating from the time of Alexander II). They lower the flags when they approach the monument to Empress Catherine II [the Great], who founded Sevastopol, the monuments to war heroes and the memorial plaques. The people carrying the banners call this ceremony the Sevastopol Ritual.
Alexei regularly takes part. He is a student and he tells us that the Ritual takes place winter and summer. Sometimes there are only 7 people taking part, at other times more than 30. Passers-by greet the Ritual with shouts and drivers hoot their horns.
Alexei takes part in other, more interesting, events too. On 5 July 2008 he was in the stand-off on Grafsky Embankment, when sailors from the Ukrainian Navy set up a memorial plaque in honour of the raising of Ukrainian flag on ships of the BSF 90 years before. Pro-Russian activists considered this an act of treachery: they organised a large demonstration, which broke through the ranks of Ukrainian Marines and tore the plaque off the wall.
“We took it to one of the regular launches which was going north, and dropped it overboard in the middle of the bay,” says Alexei with pride.
And there it lies to this day. 7 people were put on trial, but Alexei managed to avoid arrest and a trial.
“A year later,” he continues, “we lowered a wreath with the words ‘Rest in Peace’ into the water at the place where we had sunk the plaque. A year later again Yushchenko came for Ukrainian Navy Day. When he arrived at Grafsky Embankment, we unfurled an enormous Russian flag (held by 10 people) on a hill across the bay. Yushchenko and his retinue weren’t looking at the ships, they were looking at us. We stood there for a quarter of an hour, then we were warned that the police would soon be along, so we rolled up the flag and left.”
Alexei’s words demonstrate that police officers and their superiors are fairly tolerant in their dealings with Russian patriots. Arrests are infrequent, except in the case of controversial events like the battle of 5 July 2008.
While Yushchenko was in power there were many protest demonstrations and they were very violent. Then the “Orange President” was replaced by Yanukovych and the aggression decreased. Ukrainian campaigners no longer come to Sevastopol to fight with Russian patriots. On Sundays Alexei marches in the Ritual, then drinks beer with other activists and they reminisce about recent battles.
Life on the beach
Pavel is the same age as Alexei, but not interested in politics. During the tourist season he sells beer on the Uchkuyevka beach, then earns a bit extra as a porter at the market. “I don’t care how long the Fleet is here. I want global warming to make the tourist season last all year round,” he says.
Uchkuyevka is a typical Crimean beach: a sandy strip about 50m wide full of holidaymakers. Further on there’s a promenade with lots of cafés and little shops. Beer on tap can be bought quite cheaply right at the edge of the surf or you can watch the sun go down in a café higher up, lying on cushions like a Turkish sultan.
In Sevastopol itself and nearby there are dozens more beaches, both tame and wilder, and the street vendors are as brazen, as they are in other parts of Crimea. There are lots of houses in Sevastopol, so renting a cheap flat is no problem.
Tourists coming to Sevastopol are often from the east of Ukraine – Donetsk, Zaporozhye, Kharkov – and the south of Russia. Russians come because the restaurants, shops and markets are relatively cheap, and people in the city speak Russian. The fact that you have to pay in Ukrainian hrivnas together with the Ukrainian names creates the slight illusion of abroad.
“You’ve come in your hordes, but don’t go”
Anna Petrovna works in a scientific institute which is poorly funded from Kiev, but pays a salary that is equivalent to her husband’s pension from the Navy. On Sundays she and her husband take their granddaughter to the beach. Anna Petrovna doesn’t like the fact that the former naval base has turned into a resort, like Yalta or Yevpatoria. There are so many tourists in the summer that the buses and the beach are full and it’s difficult to squeeze in. “If only they wouldn’t come on Sundays too,” she sighs.
Her neighbour Yelena doesn’t agree. From June to mid-September she lets her flat and goes to live with her mother. She is sure that Sevastopol wouldn’t survive without the tourists. And it’s true – industry is under-developed and the fleets (Black Sea and Ukrainian) bring in less and less because Moscow and Kiev are economising. The Ukrainian company Avlita, which owns the harbour in Dock Bay, has a plan to develop Ukraine’s deepest water port and a coal terminal. All the local inhabitants are protesting about the clouds of coal dust that will settle on the streets and the beaches. Better the tourists.
On the last Sunday in July Russia celebrates Navy Day and this is Sevastopol’s chief day of festivities. All day and evening the Primorsky Boulevard and the city’s embankments are full of tourists and locals. Tickets for the evening fireworks are sold as far away as Simferopol and Yalta and the bay is full of launches crowded with spectators. The sky over the bay is lit up and Russia’s decorated warships look like part of the pyrotechnical entertainment.
But holidays come to an end and Sevastopol returns to its ordinary life: looking after 2 fleets and the tourists, remembering the achievements of the past and prepared to fight for it.
About the author
Mihail Loginov is a journalist and novelist based in St. Petersburg. He is the author of the recently published bestselling political thriller “Battle for Kremlin”.