John Simpson: Crimea’s charms uncovered

3 May 2016 | Comments Off on John Simpson: Crimea’s charms uncovered
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Crimea may be mired in negative press, but for John Simpson this controversial place is thoroughly worth the trip: Crimea is full of pleasant little towns with whitewashed 19th-century Russian buildings, and in places like Balaclava and Sevastopol you feel you’re just about to bump into Anton Chekhov.

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BY JOHN SIMPSON

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There are moments in international affairs when the clouds part, and the sun illumines an area which has been murky for years. They have recently parted over the magical peninsula of Crimea; and my advice is, take advantage of it.

That engaging old crook Nikita Khrushchev was born in Russia, near the Ukrainian border, and as the boss of the Soviet Union, he handed over Crimea, which had been part of Russia since 1783, to the Soviet government of Ukraine as a present. This didn’t matter much while it was just another part of the USSR, but when the big split came in 1991 and Ukraine and Russia went their separate ways, Ukraine hung on to Crimea. It wasn’t until 2014 that Russia took it back.

Now you can fly there only via Russia. Because of international sanctions against Moscow, no cruise ships stop there any more, and there’s no legal access from anywhere else. As a journalist, I need special permission to go to Crimea, but tourists can do it easily. It’s thoroughly worth the trip.

 

Crimea is full of pleasant little towns with whitewashed 19th-century Russian buildings, and in places like Balaclava and Sevastopol you feel you’re just about to bump into Anton Chekhov , looking for the lady with the little dog. In the Livadia Palace at Yalta , the chairs where Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin argued in 1945 are still exactly as they were. Upstairs, the bedrooms of Tsar Nicholas II  are untouched; even the Tsarina’s hairbrush is still on the dressing table.

 

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But for Brits in particular there’s another draw: the Crimean War battlefields. For most of the 20th century, it was extremely difficult to reach Crimea. Sevastopol was a top-secret nuclear submarine base, and even Russians needed special permission to visit. Many historians tried and failed, which is why, when you read books about, say, the Charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava, it’s difficult to understand exactly what happened on the ground.

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There’s a famous pictures, taken by the pioneering war photographer Roger Fenton , of a rocky valley whose floor is littered with cannonballs after the Charge. That has given thousands of us, over the years, the idea that the battle of Balaclava was fought out over rough, mountainous territory. Tennyson’s line about the “Valley of Death” reinforces this idea, though of course he only read about the charge in the newspaper. True, there’s a famous engraving by a war artist of the battle as it really was, on an open agricultural plain near the sea; but photographs, even from the 1850s, seem more reliable than drawings, somehow.

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8th Hussars soldiers preparing a meal at the Cookhouse in the field during the Crimean War, 1855. (Photo by Roger Fenton/Getty Images)

8th Hussars soldiers preparing a meal at the Cookhouse in the field during the Crimean War, 1855. (Photo by Roger Fenton/Getty Images)

You get a magnificent panorama of the battlefield of Balaclava from a monument on Causeway Heights. When it happened, there was only one smallish vineyard in the valley, but now most of the area is given over to vines and a cavalry battle would be impossible. You can understand why the perennially unlucky Lord Raglan could see clearly that the Russians were trying to haul some British guns away and wanted the Light Brigade to stop them, while the awful Lord Cardigan and his equally appalling brother-in-law Lord Lucan couldn’t see anything of the sort and assumed that Raglan was ordering them to charge at the massed Russian artillery. A bugle sounded the charge – and on YouTube you can hear a recording of it from 1890, just as it sounded on October 25 1854; heart-stirring, despite the hisses and crackles.

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At home I have a little wooden block on which are displayed a couple of broken British clay pipes and several Russian, British and French bullets. I bought it from a junk shop in Sevastopol, and the objects were found on the battlefield at Balaclava. Presumably the soldiers had a quick smoke while they dodged the bullets. What you don’t hear much about, certainly from British history books, is that everyone on all sides felt so depressed after watching the British light cavalrymen being mown down that they just packed up and called it a day. We think the battle was a draw; the Russians said it was a victory.

Go there if you can, while you can; the Russians plan to base long-range bombers there and could easily block the whole peninsula again. There are various pleasant hotels in Balaclava, Sevastopol and the capital Simferapol, and some stunning harbourside fish restaurants. The locals are so amazed to find tourists that they’re charming. Why not download the trumpet call from YouTube and play it there for the first time in 161 years as you plod across the pleasant battlefield?

Just don’t wait too long…