Exactly twenty years ago this week I was on a holiday in Yalta, the seaside resort on the Crimean Peninsula. At the time, where we were was still the Soviet Union. Yalta was an amazing place. It was full of history, from Chekhov’s house to the place where the Treaty was signed in 1944. It was a favourite holiday destination for Soviet officials, but also for groups of workers or professionals. We were particularly fortunate because, while we were there, another holiday group consisted of a symphony orchestra from a provincial part of Russia, and on most evenings on the promenade along the Black Sea shore, the orchestra played a free concert, which on every occasion was of astounding quality.
Our fellow holiday makers, where they were not Russian or Soviets, tended to be from Eastern Europe (as it then was). The largest group we encountered was from East Germany, and it consisted mainly of younger professionals from Berlin who were amongst the budding entrepreneurs as the grip of old-style communism was weakening. They were particularly entrepreneurial when it came to getting their hands on Crimean champagne (or sparkling wine); I could never work out where they got it from, but they were keen to share it. It was a very sweet variety of champagne, and produced terrible hangovers.
The hotel we stayed in arranged public lectures for its guests every evening. The one I remember most clearly was delivered by a Moscow-based professor of history, also there on vacation. He gave us his assessment of the opening up of the Soviet Union at that time, of Mikhail Gorbachev and of perestroika. But he also showed that his heart was still in the old Brezhnev era.
I am reminded of all this in the context of the news right now. Yalta is in Ukraine, not Russia, and so after the Soviet Union’s break-up the largely Russian population were left isolated from their compatriots. With Russia’s recent flexing of muscles, the issue of where Yalta should be politically is again being raised. I don’t believe that anyone should much miss the Soviet Union, but on the other hand, I suspect that Yalta would not be quite as fascinating to me now as it was back then. But I hope its future will be peaceful and secure.