I was on holiday in Yalta a few years ago, trying to write a script about the last Whites fleeing Soviet Russia for a film that would never be made by the feature film director I would never become (I was still at film school at the time). It was the second half of September, the end of the tourist season, and I could afford to rent a large apartment in the old part of Yalta among lazy 19th-century mansions sunk in liana. It was a writer’s fantasy but I wasn’t getting much done and spent most of the time exploring the peninsula.
On the shingle beaches near Yalta, large families of factory workers eat sausage in the sun, wearing the same Soviet swimsuits which go up to the midriff, telling the same jokes from the same films from 1986: summer in the Crimea is the closest you can get to being back in the USSR. It’s always been somewhere to play out various versions of ideal summers. KaZantip, one of the largest beach parties in Europe, takes place along the coast from Yalta. Not far is the fishing village of Koktebel, the writers’ colony where Moscow bohemians keep their summer houses. In the hills above Yalta is Chekhov’s country house. The house itself is austere, with white-washed walls and simple wooden chairs; but the garden is a wild, teeming paradise, with northern conifers next to tall red blazing tropical flowers and cactuses hiding behind rhodendrons.
I took the bus to Hurzuf, the old Tatar town where Russian impressionists and modernists went for the light and the foreignness that their French counterparts found in Provence and the Maghreb (before the Tatars were forcibly deported by Stalin). On the way we passed Artek, an elite summer camp open only to the most precocious and children of the nomenklatura. The name was Soviet shorthand for happiness. When children arrived they would find a letter on their bunk from the previous visitor saying how magical their time at Artek had been and how they wished the best for the new arrival. Artek was far more liberal than the rest of the USSR: the children watched semi-dissident films and sang Beatles songs. The food was better than many Soviet children had ever known. The activities were all carefully designed by psychologists, the children’s ideological and emotional journey calculated down to the hour. ‘It was a huge laboratory to create the ideal Soviet child,’ one of the instructors at Artek told me when I interviewed him, years later, for a film about the camp. ‘Children were meant to carry this vision of perfection to the outside world.’ Most alumni remember Artek as the happiest time of their lives. Others could sense something was not quite right: ‘It felt like a sect; like I was in the TV series Тhe Prisoner,’ I was told by someone who went from the UK with his socialist parents in the 1980s.
From my bus, Artek looked run down: it was still a children’s summer camp but privatised. At Hurzuf the little lanes were full of holiday makers; Russian pop music was blasting out of empty restaurants. Valery Balayan, a friend from Moscow who has a house in Crimea, picked me up and we drove into the hills to a (quiet) Tatar place for lunch. ‘In summer all the different groups here unite to make money from the tourists,’ Balayan said. ‘There’s an unspoken agreement that all fights have to happen over winter so as not to scare visitors away. In winter the tension comes out. Tatars who want their land back and are prepared to fight for it. Russians who moved here after the war and are conviced they are genuine “Crimeans”. Local gangsters. Gangsters from Donetsk. And now there are Cossacks saying they’re indigenous: the other day my son came from school and he had a certificate saying he had passed “cossack courses”. And of course there’s the Russian fleet.’
Balayan is one of Russia’s most award-laden documentary makers but he’s openly critical of the Kremlin and his TV work is sporadic. He puts all his money into his house and land in Crimea. The peninsula retains its hold on the imagination as a potential utopia, or at least an island of ‘what ifs’. Vasily Aksenov’s 1981 novel, The Island of Crimea, imagined the Whites had hung onto Crimea in 1920 and it became a Cold War Hong Kong. Sergei Solovyov’s great perestroika film Assa is set in a corrupt, snowed-in Yalta in the winter of the USSR: it ends with the sudden appearance of Viktor Tsoi in an empty hotel restaurant performing the era’s anthem, ‘We Want Changes’.
More recently in Boris Khlebnikov’s 2003 film Koktebel, which announced the new Russian wave of cinema (a wave that is always rising without ever cresting), a loser father and his son hitch and scrounge their way down to Crimea from Moscow. The son believes he has the magical ability to see the world from the point of view of a gliding bird and that heaven is down there, in Koktebel.
In Serhiy Zhadan’s short story ‘A Sailor’s Passport’, two young hoodlums, Bodi and Vital, mug a sleeping, drunk businessman on a bench in Kharkiv and head down to Crimea to live the high life. They buy crisps and take selfies in front of Lenin’s statue. They sit on the beach and listen to the melodies on a stolen mobile phone. They win $20 by playing chess with local pensioners and ask a woman to buy them beer. She takes them home, gets them drunk on vodka and port, tells them about her dead sailor husband and Bodi loses his virginity. They meet friendly drug dealers, visit sects, help underground entrepreneurs make illegal instant coffee in cement mixers and are filled with the sense that in front of them is a ‘whole life to wander through loud, warm Crimean towns, sleep in motels, make money on illegal business, seduce sad older women who will teach you such sweet things, cross seas and alight in far-off ports’. When the cops catch up with them, Bodi flees through an old people’s home and takes shelter in a cinema full of pensioners watching an old Soviet movie. The cops soon catch up but Bodi pleads with them to let him watch the film through to the end. The police agree and they all sit there together, watching the film:
and through the voices of the heroes on screen they could hear the sound of the sea, as if the camera wasn’t showing the most important thing, as if something else was happening out of shot and you could only guess at what dangers lay ahead for the film’s heroes, that were they to relax for even the briefest moment they would be attacked by monsters who had always lived right nearby, spirits and demons, sharks and octopuses, sprightly, happy and carefree, the acid colours of Asian junk food.