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

Source

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.

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