Why do so many Crimean names seem Greek (Feodosia, Yevpatoria, Foros)? Why is there a place called Balaklava and what does it have to do with the ski mask? Why are there Tatars in Crimea? I eventually learned cursory and incomplete answers to all these questions!
On Monday afternoon I arrived into Crimea’s capital, Simferopol. As a tourist, there’s not much to see in Simferopol, but luckily I had a task to accomplish– I needed to buy a Crimean SIM card. I could have used my regular Russian SIM, but the roaming charges were outrageous. The first place I went sold SIM cards, but not to holders of “foreign” passports– they only sold to holders of Russian, Ukrainian, DNR (Donetsk People’s Republic) and LNR (Lugansk People’s Republic) passports. DNR and LNR are the so-called “breakaway” Russian regions in Ukraine that have been issuing their own passports since residents of those areas can’t get into Ukraine proper to renew their Ukrainian passports. I think a much under-reported aspect of this whole conflict is how difficult it has been for regular people to accomplish simple bureaucratic business due to paperwork complications.
Anyway, the first place sent me to a second place, which sent me to a third place, and later a fourth. Part of my struggle was that speaking Russian did me little good– tech store names are weird non-words, just like in English, and I could never quite figure out the name of the stores they were sending me to. This trek took me out of the center of town, across a semi-abandoned traffic circle. Part of the circle was occupied by closed-down Soviet-era kiosks like “Soyuzpechat”– the state-run newspaper stand– and the rest was filled with booths selling cheap costume jewelry, sunglasses, and shawerma, the ubiquitous middle-eastern meat snack. The farther through the empty traffic circle I got, the fewer Slavic faces I saw and the more Kyrgyz, Uzbek, and Tadjik. I even saw a few women in headscarves. And I felt uncomfortable. There was no good reason for this– it’s just another indication of how much I’ve internalized so much of the anti-migrant sentiment here. On the up side, I thought, maybe this is the exactly correct area to find a store that sells SIM cards to foreigners! But no. One more store sent me in the entirely different direction.
After about three hours of walking, I wound up at a store about twenty yards from my hotel where, for about $3, a friendly woman sold me a card that gave me all the Internet and phone I could possibly need for my week’s stay in Crimea. I was officially a wired person again.
Tired from my tech hike and flight, I spent the night in, getting ready for my next day’s excursion. I had a lot to learn about Crimean geography.
The next day I would travel from Simferopol, in the middle of the peninsula, to Sevastopol, on the coast, stopping in Bakhchisaray.
In the morning I was met by a woman I’ll call Svetlana. She and her husband, we’ll call him Ivan, immediately pointed to a mural of Vladimir Putin and told me how overjoyed they are to be a part of Russia again. “My mother on her deathbed said to me, ‘I may not see the day Crimea is Russia again, but I hope you will!” explained Svetlana. “Ivan here was officially awarded for his work in protecting Crimea from the terrorists bombing pipelines in the north, ” Svetlana said proudly, “but we’re not supposed to talk about it. Authorities are worried it might provoke a bad reaction from Ukraine or Ukrainian sympathizers.” Over the course of my tours, Svetlana told me many supposedly “secret” pieces of information. For this reason I have used a pseudonym for her and Ivan, just in case, you know.
We began our drive along bumpy roads through green fields of young wheat while Svetlana told me about herself. She was born in Sevastopol and had grown up there, where her father was a chef in, variously, a children’s camp and a fancy restaurant. Her mother was a meteorologist. Three of her grandparents perished in the Nazi bombing of Sevastopol. The only grandparent that survived, her maternal grandma, worked for SMERSH, the wartime counter-intelligence agency. Ivan is not a native of Crimea, but served in Sevastopol in the military. He and Svetlana have been married forever and have two grown sons, both of whom now live in Moscow. Ivan’s grandfather was killed in the Soviet assault on Berlin.
But all this WWII stuff comes late in the story of Crimea. It is a land that hosted a dizzying number of ancient civilizations I can’t keep them straight. The first group we talked about was the Tatars, because they are still around and relevant today. The Tatars of Crimea are from a different branch of ‘Tatars’ than the Tatars living along the Volga on Russia’s mainland, but they are both Turkic and Muslim. All of the Tatars originated somewhere over near Mongolia, but the Crimean Tatars seem to have formed their nation in the 13th Century. Their capital was in Bakhchisaray. There is a palace you can tour, but it was closed the day we went. Instead, we drank Tatar coffee in a weird café that has a tree growing through it.
Right after Crimea was liberated from the Nazis, Stalin ordered all the Crimean Tatars deported from Crimea to various locations around the Soviet Union, mostly Uzbekistan. They weren’t allowed to return until the mid-1980s. So, as you can imagine, there are some grievances among the Crimean Tatar population.
The big attraction that was open in Bakhchisaray was the Karaite settlement located on the top of a gigantic plateau that overlooks the modern city. I don’t know about you, but I had never heard of the Karaites. And I’m hard-pressed to explain to you who they are because exactly who they are is a matter of great scientific dispute. The problem is that they are at least sort of Jewish, but because of both anti-Semitism in the Russian Empire and, later, the Holocaust, The Karaites have often denied being Jews. Furthermore, they revere both Jesus and Mohammed. So my absolutely non-professional and relatively uninformed view is that they are a little of everything. Their settlement here appears to date from the 14th century. So we walked around and looked at the ruins. But, honestly, the most impressive thing for me was the sun and the gorgeous scenery. I just can’t keep early Crimean history straight– there are so many peoples moving through the area I couldn’t really latch on to the storyline.
There’s also an Orthodox monastery, from maybe the 18th century or so, and it’s built into the mountain in a cave. The Soviets closed the monastery and eventually housed psychiatric patients there. After the fall of the Soviet Union it apparently came under the auspices of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, who did some restoration work. Since Crimea’s return to Russia, construction of a modern monastery has begun. But, although Svetlana kept telling me over and over that relations with the Crimean Tatars are good even after Crimea became part of Russia again, she explained that there is some sort of dispute with the Tatars over the boundaries of the modern monastery. So the monastery built a wall.
From the top of the plateau you can really take in all the beauty of Crimea’s interior.
Those fields below are filled with peach trees. According to Svetlana, Crimean peaches are huge (her gestures indicated something the size of a grapefruit) and so juicy that people eat them with spoons. Unfortunately, this kind of peach isn’t available outside of Crimea because the skins burst so easily. My only opportunity to taste this delicacy will be to return to Crimea late in the summer someday.
Svetlana and Ivan dropped me to my hotel in Sevastopol. My first night there was in the comparatively fancy Best Western– I switched to cheaper digs later. But, oh, the view from my window that evening!
More on Sevastopol in the next post.