Where the hell is Crimea?
I like to explain it as: Crimea is the peninsula that dangles off the bottom of Ukraine. Take a look at a map of Crimea here. It dips quite nicely into the lovely Black Sea, across which, if you squint your eyes, you imagine you can see Turkey.
Crimea is an autonomous republic of Ukraine. This didn't really mean much to me. There are certain other things that define its difference to Ukraine more pointedly, to me, anyway...
Firstly, the Crimean Peninsula was historically occupied by Greeks, Genoans and Crimean Tatars, to name a few. As a result, there are some amazing ruins and architectural sights around the place.
The Crimean Tatars took over rule of Crimea from the Mongols (yes, Genghis's troupe really did get this far!) and ruled for around 300 years. They are a turkic speaking people, and indeed the name Crimea is derived from a turkic word, qimirm (imagine the 'i's without dots).
After Crimea was annexed by the Russian Empire under Catherine the Great, Crimean Tatars were persecuted and so fled the region, mostly to Turkey. Those who stayed were deported en masse by Stalin after World War II: on 18 May 1944, all the Crimean Tatars in Crimea were sent to other regions in the Soviet Union - mostly Uzbekistan. The area was resettled by Russians.
It was only in the late 1990s the Ukrainian Government started issuing Ukrainian passports to the Crimean Tatars to allow them to return to their traditional homeland. Crimean Tatars have a distinct language, culture (there is even a 'Crimea' TV channel, which plays talent shows etc), cuisine (although influenced heavily by Uzbek and Turkish) and religion (Crimean Tatars are mostly Muslim).
The second reason Crimea feels so totally different is because of it's long history as part of Russia. Catherine the Great annexed Crimea for the Russian Empire in the 18th century.
Crimea was where the Russian Empire's, then the Soviet's, navy fleet was moored. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia negotiated a long term lease of the mooring areas in Sevastopol from the Ukrainian government. There are lots and lots and lots of military people walking around town, and Russian flags all over the place.
Because of this, and a myriad of other reasons, I'm sure, Crimea feels totally Russian.
So, for me, learning Russian in a town where all the signs are Ukrainian, Crimea felt like a lingo utopia (is that a lootopia?). Little things started to fall into place - I learned how everyday places like Produkti and Rinok are spelt, I could understand some of the signs, and I didn't get confused by the occasional person answering me back in Ukie.
My visit to Crimea took me to a number of different places:
- Sevastopol. Was a closed city until 1996 or thereabouts (so if you have an old Atlas, you'll be looking and looking for it). Very beautiful city. Where the Russian Black Sea Fleet is moored
- Khersones. About 5 kms from Sevastopol. A 1,500 acre site containing ruins of the Greek colony of Chersones, which was founded in the 6th century BC
- Bakhchisarai. Where the family who ruled Crimea lived. I think. Amazingly cute little palace there, as well as an Orthodox cave monastery, and some troglodyte caves
- Balaklava, where the British Army fought the Russian Army during the Crimean War. (Yes, that's what balaclavas are named after...) Where the valley of the Charge of the Light Brigade is located
- Alupka. A lovely sea-side village with a park and a Khan's palace
- Yalta. Former Soviet resort town, which the guide books claim is a but yukky, but I thought it was nice. So there you go.