Posts Tagged ‘Crimea’

Tartar, Goodbye!

Tartar, Goodbye!

December 8, 2010  |  Comments Off

Yesterday, my wife’s father died. He was a Tartar. Stubborn, wily, and independent, he refused the medical assistance that would keep him alive but deprive him of his dignity. The last time we were in a restaurant together I asked him what he would like to drink, and he replied, “A bottle of vodka.” More than a decade earlier, shortly after meeting his daughter, I was informed that if I ever mistreated her, he would kill me. I never doubted this word of advice.

The original Tatars inhabited the Gobi desert and in the 13th century they were driven westwards by the advancing army of the grandson of Genghis Khan. In a series of bloody wars the hoard defeated the Kyivan state and the other main principalities of Vladimir-Moscow-Suzdal (which would later be called “Russia”). The Mongols banished free speech, conducted censuses of citizens five hundred years before they became widespread in Western Europe, and implemented a strict process of conscription and tax collection. It was a foretaste of the strong central government that has come to typify Russia until today.

Though it is barely recognized in Western Europe, the Mongol hoards were stopped in their tracks in Ukraine, and the flowering arts and cultures, that characterise the Western European lifestyle and which we take for granted, were spared debasement.

A Tartar stronghold was established in Crimea and between the 15th-18th centuries they were responsible for a process the Tartars called, ‘harvesting the steppe.’ After Africa, the second greatest source of slaves was from the lands that now constitute Ukraine. Some scholars estimate that more than three million people, predominantly Ukrainians, but also Russians, Belarusians, and Poles, were enslaved and the majority were exported via Kefe, the modern day town of Feodosiya.

During World War II the Crimean Tartars incurred the full extent of Stalin’s wrath. On the pretext that some Tartars had collaborated with the German forces, in May 1944, a month-long operation began to relocate the entire Tartar population. More than thirty-two thousand members of the police and security forces went from house to house and demanded the occupants leave within five minutes. They were taken to rail junctions and crammed into rail carriages to begin their eastward journey. Thousands died of suffocation or starvation during the journey and perhaps 40 percent of the survivors died in the first two years of resettlement, mostly woman and children.

My wife’s father was the child of a Tartar who survived Stalin’s wrath.

We shall bury him tomorrow according to tradition: wrapped in a carpet, in the seated position, facing eastwards. RIP.

A Sevastopol Bride for a Russian Suitor

A Sevastopol Bride for a Russian Suitor

May 25, 2010  |  Comments Off

Now that the tear gas has dispersed, the rotting eggs and urine have been cleaned from the Ukrainian Duma (yes, Russian TV showed footage purportedly from the Ukrainian Duma of a man urinating) I want to review the agreement to allow the Russians to continue to use the Sevastopol base. The 11-year engagement ended with marriage but not all the guests agreed the bride had chosen wisely.

Much has been written about the deal in the Ukrainian and Russian press, in particular. Was it a “sell-out” or an expediency that with hindsight will mark President Yanukovych as a shrewd politician?

Protagonists of the “sell-out” view, argue that the agreement is a violation of the Constitution and, no matter what its merits—if there any—it is plain wrong. It defers any possibility of Ukraine joining NATO until 2042. And even if this outcome was always Yanukovych’s intention, why did he do it so quickly after his election? Surely a President known for his pro-Russian viewpoint would have sought to normalise the relationship with Russia and, over time, punitive levies on goods such as gas would have been dropped as a matter of course. Probably without having to give up the family silver; after all, there are precious few pieces left.

Furthermore, critics argue, the Russians can pick on the most minor Ukrainian infringement—a missed payment would not surprise most observers—to renege on the deal, whereas ousting the Russian incumbents in Crimea will be nigh on impossible.

Or, perhaps, they speculate, Yanukovych sees himself as a good son of his upbringing righting Nikita Khrushchev’s “wrong.” In 1955, Khrushchev ceded Crimea from Russia to Ukraine as a “gift” for which he was later denied a state funeral, and suffered the indignity of not being buried in the Kremlin wall.

Those who err towards the view that it might prove to be a shrewd move invariably want to see an improving relationship between Russia and Ukraine. The Russians would never have left the Sevastopol base freely in 2017, they argue, so conflict has been avoided. They point out that a reason behind the Russia-Georgian war in late 2008 may have been to gain access to Sukhumi, the Black Sea capital of the disputed territory of Abkhazia in Georgia. Though Sukhumi is a far less ideal port than Sevastopol, it is clear that a resurgent Russia will have limited credibility without a Black Sea port to call its own. And they were determined to control at least one port. So, conflict on Ukrainian soil has been averted and lives have been spared.

Furthermore, the “shrewdies” argue, there’s the immediate economic benefit of the deal. Currently the Ukrainian Government subsidizes the cost of gas to her people and that adds to the budget deficit. The bold agreement—whereby the contractual gas price is reduced by 30% and Gazprom stops paying export duties to the Russian government, thereby putting the burden on the Russian budget—helps fill a substantial hole in Ukraine’s budget. It also looks good to people, like the IMF, who need to be humoured if they are to be encouraged to plough even more money into Ukraine.

So, there are supporters of both points of view. And whilst many people will see the issue as a difference of opinion between the pro-Russian Ukrainians of eastern and southern Ukraine versus the rest, I would caution against such a simplistic view. I’m left thinking, has anyone bothered to ask the Crimean Tartars what they think? And taking the idea further, whose was the bride of Sevastopol to give away?

Touring Crimea

Touring Crimea

February 17, 2010  |  Comments Off

Making the Chapter: 

Touring Crimea is first and foremost a celebration of a region.  Its rich and tumultuous history spans millennia, from the legend of Jason and the Argonauts and their heroic quest for the Golden Fleece to the controversial decision to allow the Russian Black Sea Fleet to maintain a navel base in Sevastopol. Using the resort town of Simeiz as a base, I offer a packed itinerary that takes in both the coast and the interior. Travelling westwards I visit the ancient city of Chersonesos, and then on to Sevastopol, the site of so much devastation during the Crimean War and during World War II.  Inland, I visit the palace of Bakhchiserai and the “Fountain of Tears,” immortalised by Pushkin’s poem, and then head skywards to rugged mountains and sacred caves. Trekking eastwards places of interest jostle shoulder to shoulder: Livadia, Yalta, Nikita Botanical Gardens, the Massandra winery, and further a field the champagne cellars of Novy Svet and the breathtaking scenery of Karadag.


Wine making in Crimea is thousands of years old, as proved by the wine remnants that have been found in Greek amphora from Chersonesos. By the middle of the seventeenth century, the Cossacks of Tsimlanskoe (nowadays, the label name of one of Ukraine’s cheap sweet sparkling champagne wines) had mastered the manufacture of sparkling wines as evidenced by Pushkin’s reference in Eugene Onegin. Though this significantly predates the efforts of the French monk Dom Perignon, the first documented sparkling wine production in Ukraine was recorded in Sudak in 1799. Soon after, all along the Crimean coast, rich merchants and aristocracy were producing sparkling wines.

The Crimean War temporarily halted progress by destroying vines, wineries, and precious research notes, but after the war Golitsyn took up the challenge of improving wine quality. He experimented with hundreds of grape varieties before selecting the Pinot Franc, Pinot Gris, Aligote, and Chardonnay grapes for his champagne, which are more climate tolerant than those preferred by French vintners.

Golitsyn constructed wine cellars that extend deep into the Koba-Kaya mountain in Novy Svet, one of Crimea’s most idyllic towns, The winery still produces eleven types of champagne and is open to the public, though even on a summer’s day you’d be advised to carry a sweater with you if you wish to linger in the cellars where the temperature is a constant 11° Celsius.