Sochi Snow Job

Caucasus Mountains outside of Sochi. The outdoor Olympic events will be held in these mountains

Caucasus Mountains outside of Sochi. The outdoor Olympic events will be held in these mountains

This past summer our ship had a port of call in Sochi, Russia, site of next month’s 2014 Winter Olympics. Disembarking, the first thing I noticed about Sochi was…palm trees. And the warm, humid weather, despite an overcast sky.

I did a quick fact check on Sochi.  Per Wikipedia, Sochi is “one of the very few places in Russia with a subtropical climate, with warm to hot summers and mild winters.”  Sochi obviously isn’t called the “Russian Riviera” because of its snowfall.

Okaaay. So, with “mild winters,” where’s the snow? Is there any? I mean, I grew up in tropical and sub-tropical climes, and snow…well…the closest we got to snow was ice cream, which melted pretty damn fast in that weather. “Mild” winters to me just don’t conjure up visions of snowflakes and Frosty the Snowman.

Reading on, I found that Sochi is, in euphemistic terms, “a domestic destination,” meaning this largest of Russia’s summer resorts, with its 4 million visitors every year entices – overwhelmingly – native Russians. Wikitravel notes, “only three percent of this visitors’ crowd are international travelers.” The website continues to paint a rather unattractive picture of Sochi as a travel destination, noting that the city is “somewhat lacking in appropriate international infrastructure and having the same language barrier most regional centers of Russia do.” Sochi is also referred to as a “one lane town.”

That the city has a poor infrastructure was readily admitted by our guide. Not that we needed verbal confirmation. Taking in our surroundings as we crawled through downtown Sochi’s jam-packed traffic in our mini-van, I noticed a lot of residential buildings going up, streets clogged with construction equipment and debris – as well as mired vehicles with angry drivers. I did not see any stadium-like structures, nary a one in sight. Some of us started nudging others, raising eyebrows and shoulders in question. The guide prattled on about Sochi’s tourist sites, its growth, its modern shops, casinos. Everything except the Olympics just six months away.

Not to be deterred, some of us, after exchanging whispered astonishments, girded our loins and asked our guide, oh so casually, “So how’s it going, preparing for the Olympics? Does Sochi actually get snow?”

The guide admitted that the construction of the Olympic villages and sports facilities was behind schedule, and that the train line to the ski resort in the mountains, about 30 miles away, was nowhere near completion. Gesturing at the unfinished buildings and vehicular gridlock we’d sat in for several minutes, she said, “All this is for the Olympics,” and noted that a lot would have to be “cleaned up” before the Olympics began in six months. Her next words left us agape: “But they’re already making snow. There will be plenty of snow by February.”

What? The site of the Winter Olympics has to manufacture snow? Doesn’t look promising, boys and girls.

So Why Sochi?

So just how did Sochi get picked as the site of the Winter Olympics? In two previous attempts at grabbing the crown, Sochi had been turned down by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) specifically because of its lack of infrastructure. This time around, the IOC Evaluation Committee didn’t seem to have an issue with that deficiency when they visited this humid, subtropical capital.

Jean-Claude Killy, France’s 1968 gold medalist in skiing and member of the IOC Evaluation Committee admitted, after the 2007 site visit, “It’s probably the most challenging Olympics ever, as far as what has to be built to deliver these Olympic Games. We have a lot of work to do together.”

The answer to “Why Sochi?” is probably a combination of politics and pressure from Russian President Vladimir Putin. An ardent skier, Putin may not be a capitalist with a capital “C” but he certainly knows how to capitalize on his goals while applying political muscle and wealthy connections. (More on his “connections” later.)

In reality, the Caucasus Mountain range, looming on the horizon northeast of Sochi, does get a fair amount of winter snow.  Krasnaya Polyana, the mountain region at 7,600 feet where the outdoor events will be staged, has had basic skiing facilities for nearly 10 years. And per skiers who’ve made the trek to this formerly isolated and under-developed ski area, Krasnaya Polyana has some of the best skiing in Europe. However, infrastructure remains the bugaboo in this wintry tale. Krasnaya is about 30 miles away from the city of Sochi on the coast. The two are connected only by a single roadway that is quite obviously not able to handle the Olympian sized traffic that will descend on it. Not to worry, the Russians are building hundreds of miles of new roads and rails, including a high-speed train to connect Sochi and Krasnaya. Let’s just hope it all gets finished in time to be of use.

And then there is the cost. Certainly Putin was willing to shell out the rubles for the honor of hosting the Winter Olympics, but the price tag has exceeded all expectations. Russia’s initial estimate of the cost of preparing the Sochi area for the games was $12 billion. At the time the IOC awarded Russia the honor of the Winter Olympics, Krasnaya Polyana had only four ski lifts. To build this “resort” up to Olympic standards for all the skiing, ski jumping, snowboarding, luge and other events has so far cost $2.6 billion. The road from Adler, the site of the coastal Olympic Village, to the mountain Olympic Village at Krasnaya Polyana cost about $8.7 billion, once you add up the costs for the roads, railways, bridges and tunnels necessary to transport people and equipment to and fro. The “Ice Palace,” as our guide called it, at Adler, about 15 miles south of cental Sochi, cost a mere $302.9 million to build – what a bargain – and will house the “indoor” winter sports, mostly skating. All told, the Russians thus far have poured over $51 billion into preparing Sochi and the surrounding areas for these Olympics, making it the most expensive Olympics to date. By contrast, the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada, cost $7 billion, and the over-the-top Summer Olympics in Beijing in ’08 cost a whopping $40 billion.

Looking south of central Sochi to Adler, where the indoor Olympic events will take place

Looking south of central Sochi to Adler, where the indoor Olympic events will take place

Unfortunately, the story of the making of the 2014 Winter Olympics doesn’t end with questions of sufficient snow and infrastructure. A major player in these political and construction games has been the so-called Russian Mafia, some very bad boys in the organized crime fraternity. The path to Sochi is littered with bodies, as different crime bosses have bumped off rivals for a share of the Olympic pie. And, of course, there are the kickbacks and graft, with not a few of Putin’s inner circle receiving lucrative contracts. According to an article in February’s Vanity Fair, the Sochi Internal Affairs department has been busily investigating “numerous” charges of criminal complaints having to do with kickbacks, graft and even stolen Olympic funds. Unsurprisingly, not one of these cases has made it to court. <yawn>

What was the IOC thinking?

But wait! There’s more! Remember those two suicide terrorist bombings recently in Volvograd that killed 34 people? Just the tip of the iceberg, folks. Volvograd, formerly Stalingrad, is directly northeast of Sochi as the crow flies – right on the other side of the Caucasus Mountains. And in between are some pretty nasty Islamic insurgent groups who have trumpeted their goal of “disrupting” the Winter Olympics. Three hundred miles to the southeast of Sochi, the province of Dagestan “shootings of police and other officials have become a daily occurrence in the region.” And in between lies Georgia, whose post-Soviet relations with Russia have been rather militant for years.

So it’s no surprise that the U.S. State Department has issued one of its dire travel warnings, stating, that the “terminally unsafe areas of the country include Sochi and border areas near other Russian provinces.” “Terminally unsafe”? You’ve got to be kidding that we’re sending our best athletes there.

But, as Vanity Fair points out, “Russians do security well, and they do it all the way.” Ah. “Russian security.” (Not so fond memories of the Cold War inevitably spring to mind.) Part of the “security” plan is to close the borders with one of Russia’s more explosive neighbors, Georgia, to the east. The duma (Russia’s national legislative body) is expected to pass severe anti-terrorism legislation before the games open. Additionally, a tight security net will be set up around greater Sochi – which is 1300 sq. miles in size and extends 90 miles along the Black Sea coast, and drones will be patrolling the skies above. It will be interesting to see if the heightened level of “security” in the Olympic villages will quell the usual tsunami of athlete hook-ups which are as endemic to the games as medals.

And then, there’s the whole troubling issue of Russia’s very strong anti-gay sentiments – and laws. With plans on to have a “gay pride” parade on opening day of the Winter Olympics, it will be interesting to see Sochi’s — and Putin’s – reaction. Putin couldn’t do much about President Obama purposefully sending openly gay Olympic “ambassadors” to the games, but having a bunch of lawless, godless homosexuals marching the streets of Sochi and garnering world-wide attention may be a bit more than the diminutive Russian dictator – Oh! Sorry! – “president” will tolerate.

The Tourist Side of Sochi (Yes, there is one. Sort of.)

Sochi Art Museum.

Sochi Art Museum.

Our guide took us on two long walks through Sochi, much to our delight as we were sick of sitting in traffic gridlock. In central, downtown Sochi stands the Art Museum, constructed in the late 1930’s in a neo-classical style. We didn’t enter the museum, just strolled through the gardens, admiring scattered sculptures. Michael decided to have a conversation with one of them.

Michael can and will talk to anyone. Or thing.

Michael can and will talk to anyone. Or thing.

The other walk was in Riviera Park, with beautiful tree-lined paths and walks. Many of the bushes were flowering, and the scene was quite peaceful after the traffic jams. At least until a Sochi babushka went after some of our group.

According to Michael, he and another guy in our group were trailing at the rear when a young woman and an old woman, walking together, passed us by. The old woman, as she passed and heard English being spoken, whipped around and marched at them, screaming in Russian and waving her fist. The younger woman, probably her granddaughter, quickly grabbed the older one and pulled her away, still grumbling. An interesting display of undying Cold War sentiment!

Stalin's dacha

Stalin’s dacha

Stalin’s Dacha

Josef Stalin’s favorite summer resort was Sochi, so it’s no surprise that he had a dacha in the hills overlooking the resort. Painted green for camouflage on the treed hillside, the house would never win even a booby prize for either aesthetic or architectural design; I’ve seen more appealing boot camps.  But it’s what Stalin called his home away from home. The interior was dimly lit, with heavy, blocky furniture, floor-to-ceiling drapes, and exuded a repressive feeling. However, the interior furnishings are just as they were in Stalin’s day, and include a wax figure of Stalin, seated at his desk. Interestingly, he kept a narrow, single bed by his desk in his office; perhaps he needed frequent cat naps. And I just couldn’t resist sneaking into the bathroom and snapping a photo of old Josef’s “throne.”

Stalin (wax figure) at his desk

Stalin (wax figure) at his desk

Stalin's "throne"

Stalin’s “throne”

Surprisingly, the house is used today as both a restaurant and guesthouse. People actually pay as much as 300 euros to spend the night in one of the guest bedrooms. That pronouncement from our guide received a few strange looks for sure. The dacha lacked any remote shreds of ambience.

Let the Games Begin

So, bottom line on Sochi: as a tourist destination, it didn’t do much for me. Maybe freezing Muscovites find the town delightful, but I’ll take a pass on returning. As for the Winter Olympics, I can only hope that the Russians are better at security than construction, for the sake of all the athletes, spectators and citizens of Sochi. No one wants another Munich. On the other hand, with bombings and shootings an everyday occurrence in the surrounding area, the odds of having at least one or two terrorism attempts seem high.

And as for snow? From what I’ve read, sufficient snow shouldn’t be a problem up in the mountains. But just in case, Putin’s got 700,000 tons of it stockpiled and ready to be dumped on the slopes. What I can’t figure out is how they’d apply it.


Note: The opinions expressed in this blog are my own. I did considerable research on Sochi and the upcoming Winter Olympics. If you wish to see the major sources, see below. The first four articles are really worth reading.

Vanity Fair, “Putin’s Run for Gold.”February 2014.


Yalta: Czars, Lenin and McDonald’s

Livadia Palace, summer villa of the Czars and site of the Yalta Conference, 1945

Livadia Palace, summer villa of the Czars and site of the Yalta Conference, 1945

The Yalta Conference of 1945: The Western Betrayal

Bring up “Yalta” to anyone 50 years or older and they’ll most likely respond, “World War Two Conference, attended by the Big Three, Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin.” Those with a bent towards history will clarify, “Roosevelt and Churchill gave half of Europe to Stalin and the USSR, and got diddly squat in exchange.”

True, and, more sadly, also true. Hence the disparaging alternative title for the conference, “The Western Betrayal,” a justifiable accusation from those countries who were “allocated” by FDR and Churchill to Soviet “protection” without a say in their disposition themselves. Now for the brief (I promise) background encapsulation:

Yalta, the playground first of Russia’s royalty and then later the Soviet elite, was indeed the host city in February, 1945 to the last Allied conference of WWII attended by an obviously ailing U.S. President Roosevelt, along with Britain’s Winston Churchill and USSR’s Josef Stalin. Two months later, FDR was dead, and the European theater of WWII was grinding to a close, with most of Eastern Europe gripped in lock-down mode by the Soviets, much to the dismay of several countries who had hoped for independence following the war. Once the terms of the Yalta Conference implemented at war’s end, much of Eastern Europe became satellite states of the USSR, Germany became a split nation with its former capital, Berlin, quartered among the British, Americans, French and Soviets, and Stalin reneged on almost all he’d agreed to at Yalta in terms of democratic elections and other civil liberties. And thus, the Cold War was on. Let’s hear it for the boys!

I wouldn’t be able to adhere to my promise of a synopsis if I gave much further detail, but for readers who are wondering how this happened, here’s the short version.

The Big Three: Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin pose at Yalta. Source

Each of the Big Three naturally had his own agenda. Stalin wanted all the territory he could grab, and didn’t mind dishing bold-faced lies to get it. The British wanted to retain their empire, as well as ensure that countries previously swallowed by the Nazis, primarily Poland, would have democratic elections. While FDR also supported the ideal of democratic elections in occupied territories, his chief goals were to obtain assurances from Stalin that the USSR would support the war in the Pacific, and, post-war, participate in the nascent United Nations.

The results:

  • The Soviets had always intended to enter the Pacific war in order to protect their regional interests there, so a concession there was no biggie. Stalin agreed to join the U.N. but only after FDR – war-weary and dying – acquiesced to a secret agreement whereby the USSR retained a permanent seat on the Security Council – and that any single veto could block Council actions, thus near-crippling the Council from effective actions.
  • The British lost their empire anyway, in a post-war wave of colonial rebellions for independence. And, Poland and the other Soviet satellites who’d been tossed to the USSR didn’t crawl out from under Soviet dominance for decades to come.
  • FDR’s legacy remains tarnished for his trust in Stalin’s promises, despite Churchill’s warnings. As for the Pacific war, the Allies were winning anyway, and the Soviets’ subsequent contributions were negligible. And the U.N. is STILL stuck with recalcitrant Russians wielding their veto power more than any other member of the Security Council, usually against the U.S. and Britain.

Now for the touristy part….

Highest peaks of the Crimean Mountains  overlooking Yalta

Highest peaks of the Crimean Mountains
overlooking Yalta

Yalta, exquisitely poised between the Crimean Mountains and the Black Sea, enjoyed its heyday through much of the 19th and 20th centuries, when first Russian royalty, upper crust, and literati, then the Soviet elite, vacationed in this seaside resort. After the Soviet Union disassembled in the early 90’s and Eastern Europeans had more freedom to travel, Yalta’s popularity fell precipitously and its economy faltered. However, in recent years the city has enticed a new generation of Eastern European clientele, as well as become a regular on the cruise circuit. The latter is how, this past summer, we had a day’s port of call in Yalta. Among other sights, our tour focused on two palaces that both played major roles in history and in the Yalta Conference in particular.

Side view of Livadia Palace

Side view of Livadia Palace

Livadia Palace

The present palace, built in the Neo-Renaissance style in the early 20th century by the ill-fated Russian czar, Nicholas II, served as the meeting grounds for the Big Three during the Yalta Conference. An earlier palace of sorts had been a royal residence since the 1860’s. Currently the palace serves as a museum, with the ground floor dedicated to displays featuring the Conference, and the upper floor to the former royal residents, the czars of Imperial Russia.

The White Hall, where mostly the staffs of the Big Three met to hash out the terms of the treaties.

The White Hall, where mostly the staffs of the Big Three met to hash out the terms of the treaties.

The White Hall, we were told, was where the staffs of the Big Three lined up at the table to knock out the terms of agreement for the conference. The Big Three themselves – Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin – actually met most often in a smaller, more intimate setting to try and resolve their differences, usually with just one principal aide each in attendance. The resultant treaties were actually signed by the three leaders in yet a third room, the “English Billiards Room.”

Big Three Meeting Room

Big Three Meeting Room

The English Billiards Room where the Big Three signed the treaties

The English Billiards Room where the Big Three signed the treaties

As every place we went to in Yalta that day, the Lividia Palace was packed solid with tourists. So much so, in fact, that we were given only a few seconds in each room, barely enough time to walk in and around the room once, then back out the door. Interestingly, the upstairs sections displaying pictures and artifacts of the murdered family of Russia’s last Czar, Nicholas II, were far more crowded than the downstairs exhibits on the Yalta Conference. This didn’t come as a huge surprise as I recognized that the majority of tour groups were comprised of Russians or East Europeans. (In last year’s tours of St. Petersburg, I’d been amazed how many Russians openly revered the murdered Czar Nicholas II and his family.)

The last czar of Russia, Nicholas II and wife, Alexandra, son, Alexei. According to many historians, Alexei’s hemophilia – and the lengths the Czarina would go to “cure” her son’s disease – was the tipping point on a mountain of grievances that led to the 1917 revolution and the domination of communism in Russia. Subsequently, the czar, Alexandra and all five of their children were murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918.

The last czar of Russia, Nicholas II and wife, Alexandra, and their son, Alexei. According to many historians, Alexei’s hemophilia – and the lengths the Czarina would go to “cure” her son’s disease – was the tipping point on a mountain of grievances that led to the 1917 revolution and the domination of communism. Subsequently, the czar, Alexandra and all five of their children were murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918.

Livadia Palace also served as Roosevelt’s residence during his stay in Yalta, as he was fairly wheelchair-bound at this point. Stalin stayed in his “dacha,” Massandra Palace, and Churchill made his headquarters at the magnificent Vorontsov  Palace.

Vorontsov Palace

File:Vornontsov Palace001.jpg

Entrance to Vorontsov Palace. Source

Hand’s down, Vorontsov’s Palace, about 25 min. from Yalta, is one of the greatest mish-mashes of architectural style I’ve ever seen – and I spent a childhood being dragged to palatial structures from Cambodia to England. But, somehow, this fairy-tale castle pulls its varied styles and layers into an intriguing, downright beautiful palace. (Reminds me a little of Scarlet O’Hara turning draperies into a velvet gown. Who’d of thunk it?)

Count Mikhail Vorontsov, son of Catherine the Great’s ambassador to England, was raised and educated in the best English traditions, consequently becoming an anglophile of the highest order. Vorontsov also happened to be one of the wealthiest men in Russia. He hired architects to design and build him an English castle outside of Yalta as a summer residence.

Built between 1828 and 1848, the castle’s main entrance is in the Baronial/Renaissance Revival style. Then you notice the rest of the castle to the right of the courtyard entrance, a (sort of) neo-Gothic structure with minarets on its corners. That’s when you begin to wonder what was really in your juice that morning.

Alupka Palace, Ukraine


Influenced by a revival of Islamic architecture sweeping England, Vorontsov decreed that the second half of his castle be designed with distinctive Islamic influences – hence the minarets, Moorish arches, and multi-cupped fountains, along with some neo-Gothic thrown in. However, the interior furnishings are definitely 19th c. baronial English, complete with billiards room, spittoons, and chintz-covered furniture. The terraced gardens outside, descending alongside series of staircases down the cliff towards the Black Sea, are definitely Italian Renaissance in design, a conclusion confirmed by the fierce, life-sized Medici lions flanking the terraces.

Rear facade with Moorish arch

Rear facade with Moorish arch

Moorish Fountain

Moorish Fountain

Side garden, one of several along descending terraces

Side garden, one of several along descending terraces, with Crimean Mountain in the distance.

One of the several Medici lions flanking the tiers of steps leading from the rear facade down the cliff overlooking the Black Sea

One of the several Medici lions flanking the tiers of steps leading from the rear facade down the cliff overlooking the Black Sea

The castle’s features and architecture were truly fascinating, and contrary to my original reaction, I found that the composite of architectural styles intriguingly beautiful.  (But I’m convinced it wasn’t I who’d had far too much Disney juice, but Vorontsov!)

Swallow’s Nest

The most over-rated part of our tour (and probably in Yalta) was the stop at an overlook of the Swallow’s Nest. This miniature wedding cake ornament of a castle, built by a wealthy German magnate in 1912 for his mistress, literally hangs off the edge of the cliff over the Black Sea. From our viewpoint we could see mobs of people swarming the small castle, which is barely big enough to house a restaurant. But the overlook is the closest we got, and that was close enough. The small terrace was awash with tourists, all vying for their photo-op-with-THE-view. After fighting the crowds and standing in line for our 15 seconds of fame, our small group headed poste haste for the minibus, grateful to be out of the melee.

Swallow's Nest

Swallow’s Nest

What We Missed

Unfortunately, due to the crowds and distances between the sights we saw, there were a few “must-see” tourist stops that we were unable to visit before making it back to the ship. One that I’d most wanted to see was the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral; its onion spires were spied as we crawled along one of the mountainous, over-crowded roads, but that was it. Another was Chekov’s House, and a third Massandra Palace, which Stalin had turned into his personal dacha when vacationing in Yalta.

A Final Image of Yalta

Down by the waterfront is a lovely promenade overlooking the mostly pebbled “beaches” of Yalta. Of great curiosity in one of the squares on the waterfront is a statue of Lenin – no surprise here, as Yalta – as the rest of Crimea –remains primarily pro-Russian. But what is interesting is what Lenin is facing…a large and thrivingly busy McDonald’s, complete with golden arch, kiddie playground, and a roof top eating terrace. Many tourists have dubbed this contradictory sight as “East meets West,” but I prefer the moniker of “Communism versus Capitalism.” I’m not a fan of McDonald’s or its “food” <gag>, but this juxtaposition of Lenin versus Mickie D.’s is just too amusing not to have a good chortle over — at the old comrade’s expense.

I’m just glad we didn’t have to eat there.

Lenin Plaza in Yalta: Lenin, in left upper corner, stares right at the symbol of American capitalism and globalism: McDonald’s. Source.

Sevastopol: Battleground of the Black Sea

The next time you’re playing parlor games and you want to stump everyone with a doozy of “Name this city!” ask this: What city can claim all of the following:

  • The Charge of the Light Brigade
  • Besieged during the Crimean War by a multi-national force led by the British, the entire Russian fleet at this port had to be scuttled to avoid falling into its enemies’ clutches
  • A secret, Soviet underground submarine base during the Cold War
  • The “other” major WWII siege of a Soviet city by the German army (hint: it’s not Stalingrad)

And if a BIG clue is required before the rotten eggs fly at you, here it is:

  • This city’s harbors and bays on the Black Sea have a unique, military role as naval bases for two different countries: Ukraine and Russia.

Obviously, the title of this posting is the giveaway: Sevastopol is, of course, the answer. But I bet no one in a given parlor game of “Name this city!” would know even one of the above historical events. (Unless a stray Ukrainian was in the midst.)

So why bring these several random acts of history into a blog – and what were they? The first answer is: because the more I travel, the more I find history interesting. For the second answer, well, read on.

The Charge of the Light Brigade, Crimean War, 1854

The Crimean War

The Crimean War (1853-6) was a bit more complicated than Florence Nightingale bravely ministering to wounded soldiers on the field of battle. Essentially, the Crimean War was another in a series of internecine squabbles among European nations: the British and French got hot under the collar at Imperial Russia’s growing naval and military strength in and around the Black Sea. Ever since a Russian naval presence had been established in Sevastopol in the late 18th c., their western neighbors feared Russia would seize control of the Bosphorus and Dardanelles and encroach on Europe’s domination of the Mediterranean. Joined by the Ottoman Empire and Sardinia (and with occasional help from purportedly neutral Austria), this coalition lined up its land and naval forces against Imperial Russia. And despite a major disaster called the Charge of the Light Brigade, in which a British cavalry unit suicidally charged a major contingent of the Russian army, ultimately Russia lost the war.

The hills and plains where the Charge of the Light Brigade took place

The hills and plains today where the Charge of the Light Brigade took place in 1854

A major blow to the Russians was the Siege of Sevastopol, 1854-5, where the Allies combined ground and naval forces wrested the city from the Russians after a series of six huge naval bombardments. The Russian Imperial Army retreated inland and thus survived to fight a few more futile battles. However, the czar’s pride, the Black Sea Fleet, was scuttled by the Russians to avoid having the vessels fall into Allied hands. The memorial below commemorates the loss of the warships, and was duly pointed out to us by our tour guide.  While not the last battle in the Crimean War, the fall of Sevastopol did swiftly lead to the cessation of hostilities and a treaty the next year. Ultimately, Tennyson trumpeted the valor of the Brits in his epic poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” while Russia memorialized the siege in the country’s first feature film (1911), The Defence of Sevastopol. (Not having seen the film, I can only wonder why anyone, especially a prideful country like Russia, would celebrate in film one of its greatest strategic defeats.)

Obviously, this synopsis is overly simplistic; there were significant consequences of the war that would influence world events for decades to come.  But there were also non-military achievements as well. The Crimean War was the first to be documented extensively through reporting and photography. New technologies such as railways and the telegraph were used for the first time in a major conflict, and, yes, through the ministrations of nurses such as Nightingale, advances in medical care evolved.

Monument to the scuttled ships of the Russian Navy during the Crimean War

Monument to the scuttled ships of the Russian Navy during the Crimean War

WWII Siege of Sevastopol

Most educated persons of a certain age are familiar with the World War II German siege of Stalingrad, now called Volvograd. However, many people don’t know that Sevastopol was also besieged by the Germans, 1941-2, and, after some back-and-forth battles, this time the Germans won. In the process the Axis powers deployed ground, naval and air forces against the beleaguered city. The Luftwaffe, in particular, bombed the city so heavily that almost all the buildings were leveled.

Again, the goal of the Axis powers was to gain control of Sevastopol for its strategic naval position on the Black Sea. As in the days of the czars, the city’s protected harbors were home to the Soviets’ Black Sea Fleet. The Soviets had also established a major air base in the Crimean peninsula, the better to bombard Romania, one of Germany’s Axis members along with Italy and Japan. Eventually, of course, Germany lost the war and the Soviets regained their strategic Black Sea port.

Entrance to one of main sub tunnels

Entrance to one of main sub tunnels

Cold War Underground Submarine Base

The most interesting part of our tour was walking through the Soviet Union’s former underground submarine base in Balaklava. With a protected harbor opening onto the Black Sea, Balaklava had been a favorite acquisition since the time of the ancient Greeks. From the Middle Ages on, the port town had changed hands from the Byzantines to the Genoese, then the Ottomans, then Russia/Soviet Union, and now Ukraine.

Looking back from tunnel out to Balaklava Bay

Looking back from tunnel out to Balaklava Bay

Interior, underground tunnel, looking back towards entrance and daylight

Interior, underground tunnel, looking back towards entrance and daylight

In the growing Cold War nuclear build-up arising out of WWII, Stalin directed the construction of an ultra-secret, underground base for Soviet submarines, particularly nuclear ones. The result: an underground port carved out of a mountain on Balaklava Bay between 1957 and 1961. At its completion, the base could hold well over one hundred subs, and was so well fortified it could withstand a nuclear attack. The facility could not be seen from the sea, and the mountain surface was heavily camouflaged to avoid detection by satellite. Our guide told us that the entire area of Balaklava was one of the most secret and security-tight areas of the Soviet Union: townspeople who lived in Balaklava could not speak about the base, even among themselves, and no one was permitted into the area unless they could heavily document the dire necessity for visiting kinfolk in town.

Remains of Genoese Fort overlooking one of the few older buildings to survive bombardment in WWII

Remains of Genoese Fort overlooking one of the few older buildings to survive bombardment in WWII

Photo (in museum) of dolphin trained by Soviet Navy in Cold War to place detonators, cameras, recorders or trackers on naval vessels of all types

Photo (in museum) of dolphin trained by Soviet Navy in Cold War to place detonators, cameras, recorders or trackers on naval vessels of all types.

The base remained active until after the dissolution of the Soviet Union; it closed in 1993. In fact, Russia formally ceded the abandoned base to the Ukraine in 2000; the base is now part of that country’s Naval Museum Complex.

And, yes, the name “balaklava” for the knitted face and head mask favored by commandoes, SWAT teams and ninjas comes from its usage by British soldiers in the Crimean War. The cavalry unit of the Light Brigade was part of the larger Battle of Balakava The origins of the word, however, are Turkish: baliklava,which means “fish nest.”

One of many warships -  Sevastopol is a major naval base for two countries, Ukraine and Russia

One of many warships – Sevastopol is a major naval base for two countries, Ukraine and Russia

Naval Base to Two Countries

In one of those quirks of history, Sevastopol is the home base of the Ukraine Navy…and the Russian Black Sea Fleet. The need for a southern, warm-water port for Russian naval and commercial use was identified early on by Peter the Great and brought to fruition by Catherine the Great in 1783 when she annexed the peninsula to the Russian Empire.


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Post-WWI, parts of western Ukraine went to Poland, and the remainder – except for Crimea – became an independent nation…sort of. Ukraine cast its fate with the new Soviet Union as one of the its founding members, and remained pretty much under the “influence” of the USSR until that country’s dissolution in the early 90’s. Even though the Soviets nominally returned Crimea to Ukraine in the mid-50’s, the Soviet/Russian impact remained strong — as it continued to do so in this southern peninsula for the last 230 years. Ethnic Russians constitute 58% of the population of the peninsula, per the Ukrainian 2001 census, down from a high of 71% in 1959, but still a solid majority of the population. Moreover, a 2003 survey showed that 84.5% of people in the Crimea speak Russian as their first language and a 2005 survey showed 91% of the Crimean population supports designating Russian the official second language of the entire country. In both surveys, Russian ethnicity and language preference were significantly higher than in other parts of Ukraine, far more than those northeastern regions actually bordering on Russia.  (If you’d like to check out these sources, go here, and here.)

Indeed, Ukrainian politics to this day are torn along an east-west axis: the western regions of the country demand greater alliance both politically and economically to the European Union, while the eastern provinces and Crimea want a stronger alliance with Russia. Given the strong Russian ethnic, language and military presence in Crimea, it’s not difficult to understand why 2009 saw several anti-Ukrainian demonstrations in Crimea by ethnic Russians.

One of the lasting symbols of this Russian-leaning sentiment in Crimea is demonstrated by a treaty between the two countries that permits Russia to base its Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol until 2042. Thus, the vision of the Russian “Greats” remains a reality: Russia retains her warm-water port with access to the Black Sea, and thus retains her position of naval access to the world.