Traveling to Crimea
After Volgograd, I planned to go to Crimea. I’d taken a plane flight to the capital of Crimea, Simferopol, in 2015. But due to safety concerns (getting shot down by the Ukrainian military), no civilian airplanes are flying to Crimea as of this writing, late September, 2022.
So, with the help of Kira, who could pay online for a ticket in advance, I took a train. It’s a sleeper train, with the train cars designed to have upper and lower bunks, about 20 inches wide, and less than 6 feet long. The lower bunk is a lot more convenient. Getting to the upper bunk takes either good yoga flexibility or some other athletic skill, but I got the hang of it soon enough.
Very few people outside the big cities speak English. Fortunately, my smartphone has a translation app, so that I could generally get across what I need, and likewise, Russians could communicate with me.
At one point, I was walking down to the restroom between cars, when several people, presumably friends and families greeted me. My usual response to that is
“Ya ochyen plokha govorit pa Russki”. ”I speak Russian really badly.”
They then said some other stuff, and I heard the word ‘Strana’. So I figured they were asking me what country I’m from. My thick English accent should have given that away, but I took the advice of the Prajna Paramitta Sutra, from my Buddhist training. Maintain a friendly mind, a mind of kindness.
Nowadays, it’s a given that there is animosity of Americans towards Russia. This is called Russophobia. Like hydrophobia, it is a rabid illness that cannot be reasoned with. If that statement angers you, that only proves the point.
When I go to another country, I ALWAYS recognize that I am a guest in that country, and treat people with respect and friendliness, even what we talk about in Buddhism as “Lovingkindness”.
You’d be amazed at how this attitude can help in just about any situation.
So when I heard the word, ‘Strana’, or Country, I said in my extremely poor Russian, “Ya Amerikanski no ya lyublyu Rossiya” –I am an American but I love Russia.
That brought a smile to everyone’s face. One girl about 13 years old tried her broken English with me, and between her poor English and my smartphone translator, I told her how I was going to visit friends, both Russian and American, in Sevastopol.
The next day, as we were about to arrive, she gave me this little 3×3 inch present:
Now, think back a little bit, to my earlier post about the Friendship of the Peoples Fountain. Could the Soviet Union really have been THAT BAD? Is Russia REALLY guilty as charged? These people, like many I met in Russia, were quite kind and friendly.
Point being, please stop demonizing Russia and Russians. By assuming the worst, people in the West are only projecting their own dark psyches. This is also why the media and the government constantly pummel us with anti Russian, anti Soviet and anti ‘Everybody but us is inferior’ propaganda. The same goes for China, Iran, Cuba, Venezuela and any other country on the hit list.
So whenever you hear some story that just ‘proves’ the latest evil act, think back to all the times we were told about other countries’ offenses, Gulf of Tonkin, Weapons of Mass Destruction, Libya distributing Viagra, Russia stole the election, Nicaragua threatening to invade Texas, etc etc. –these are a few that are provably false, even ridiculous. Don’t believe any of it if it comes from the government or mass media. Chances are, it’s either a gross distortion or flat out lies.
Arriving in Crimea
I got into Simferopol from my 20+ hour train ride about 2 pm. But I still had to get to Sevastopol. In 2015, I had to go from the airport to the bus station. But as luck would have it, right across the track from the arriving train in Simferopol, I was told that the train to Sevastopol was just a few yards away.
So I trundled my bag and carried my backpack across the tracks. Within about 15 minutes, the train to Sevastopol arrived. It only cost about $2.50 for the two hour ride. Very cheap, comfortable and convenient.
When I got to Sevastopol, I had instructions to call the manager of the hostel I planned to stay at. But I checked on my map and saw that it was only a couple of miles, and after being cooped up on the train, I needed the exercise. So I just kept trundling along, and finally reached what looked like the right intersection towards the hotel. There were a couple of policemen there, and I asked directions. Sure enough it was pretty close. But what struck me was this:
A Profile of Lenin, the first leader of the Soviet Union, whose mausoleum I’d visited in Moscow. While it’s true that there are mixed feelings about the USSR, there is still a lot of nostagia for Soviet times. The fact that streets are still named after Lenin in Sevastopol, and monuments like this indicate that a lot of people still view the Soviet Union favorably. Later on in my visit, I would get a first hand testimonial to that.
Funny Time at Funny Dolphin
The name of the Hostel I stayed at was Funny Dolphin. It was here that I’d stayed in 2015. Maybe because of travel and exhaustion, I got sick on the second day. I felt feverish, but my hostess, Manita got a doctor to examine me. It had to be a house call, since the clinics were closed on Sunday, so I paid the $50 and got some medicine. I got better in 2-3 days, although I still felt pretty tired.
But not so tired that I couldn’t walk around. Mohammed, the hostel manager, is from Egypt, but found himself in Russia and stayed. He told me about a local market, rather than a supermarket. Local markets abound I guess throughout the world. There are several of them right here in Chiang Mai. They are, basically, bazaars, with numerous small independent businesses. I like those.
So off I went, it was about a 30 minute walk, using my Google Maps app, I got to the Central Market.
This Shop’s name, as you might guess is Crocodile. It’s kind of a variety store, selling bags, umbrellas, some clothing, etc.
A small food market had these locally baked breads, both white and dark
The dried fish shop had this selection of dried fish, cavier, which is abundant and not too expensive in Russia. I remembered this kind of fish from my Bar Mitzvah days as a young Jewish kid in Boston. Jewish food is heavily influenced by Eastern European and Russian food. So this touched my nostalgia nerve. Eating this with dark Russian bread seems to have brought out ancestral memories.
Russia is a huge country with a lot of wild areas. So it’s not too surprising that game foods are available. Here are canned Bear, Deer, Duck and Moose Meat. I didn’t get any of these. But later on, did bring back some wild caught salmon.
As I was recovering, Mohammed told me that I had to move my room because some college kids were coming as long term renters. So Funny Dolphin told me that this was what they had to offer.
At the same price I was paying for a not so great room in the first place.
Plus, the whole garden project, which was a big reason to come back to Sevastopol was falling through. Manita told me that the neighbors were ‘lazy’.
Regis Tremblay, my American friend who lives in nearby Yalta, has a partner, Tatyana, who is well connected. She has friends who could do the work of restoring what is an abandoned garden going back 30 years. A few neglected grape vines, and lots of weeds to deal with. But apparently, a permit would be needed to work on public land, and the question of who would maintain it suggested that my idealism was doomed from the start. Mohammed said as much.
My ‘bargain room’ cost about $25, a 30 year old 6×9 foot room with cobwebs and a military cot for a bed. Nice knowing you, Funny Dolphin, but I’m outta here.
A Very Odd Turn of Events Turns into an Interesting Side Adventure
I just couldn’t believe that there were no decent places to stay at a bargain price. So I went online and looked for some nearby hotels on booking websites. I found one such site, and it advertised a place called Ekotel. I paid for three days in advance (a mistake I soon found out). So I said my goodbyes to Funny Dolphin, got a cab and headed off the Ekotel.
The poor driver had a hard time finding the place. It wasn’t on a main street, but off of a small alley barely visible from the main road. It then turned into a dirt road and eventually, according the online map, we’d arrived. There was a large solid metal gate, so it sure didn’t look like a hotel. However, after a few minutes a guy appeared. He looked at me sternly and asked for my passport. Remember that I’m in Russia, and few people speak English, while I speak only a few words of Russian.
I handed him my passport and told him through my language translation app that I’d paid to stay there. He said, “We only allow Russian citizens to stay here”. Well, what about my payment in advance? That was between me and the booking company. So I pay to stay at this guy’s hotel, I show up, and now I can’t stay. And what about my money? My problem. He called the booking company (he claimed ) and he said that they said, they’d refund my money back to my payment card.
Taras Saves the Day
In the meantime, he called a friend of his. Taras, who speaks passable English explained to me that Ekotel’s owner said that “Russian law doesn’t allow foreigners to stay at some hotels”. That turned out to be a lie. But anyway, Taras gave me an offer I couldn’t refuse. He’d drive me to another place which cost an extra $16 bucks for the three days. I was not in a position to negotiate, had no idea where he was taking me, but hey, $16 is a reasonable price to pay to get out of there.
Plus, Taras, is kind of an independent entrepreneur. A travel guide, rental agent, website owner, etc.
And he seemed friendly, a big tall Russian guy…he looked like I could trust him. So off we went to the new place. But it wasn’t really a hotel, since there was no sign. Just an apartment building.
Turns out it was pretty new, only a couple of years old. So nice and clean. The room had two double beds, private bath (unlike Funny Dolphin) a nice big communal kitchen, and walking distance from a big supermarket. So it was working out OK.
The next thing was, that I was waiting for my friend Regis Tremblay, who lives in Yalta, to come meet me in Sevastopol. I could hire Taras as a guide for about $65 a day. So I booked a tour with him.
A Miraculous Coincident with a Train Ticket
But the first thing I wanted to do was to change my return train ticket back to Moscow. I thought I’d need time to implement the garden but since that fell through, I wanted to go back to Moscow to meet an American friend of mine who works for the Russian TV station RT. He’d promised me a day to meet. And even a dinner at ‘the best North Korean restaurant’ in Moscow. Cool. But I’d already booked a visit with a couchsurfer couple and wanted to meet them. So I needed an extra day or two in Moscow.
I explained this to Taras, so our first stop was the train station to return my ticket for September 6th, and rebook for September 4th. When we got to the ticket office, the ticket agent said, “Sorry, absolutely no tickets availabe”.
At that point, a woman at the back of the line rushed forward. “I have two tickets to Moscow for September 4th and want to return them.
Since you can’t just buy a ticket from another person, she had to return her tickets, at which point her place would be freed and I could get my September 4th train. So, the whole series of events from Funny Dolphin to Ekotel was fortuitous after all. I showed up with some guy (Taras) who I had not known at the ticket office at the exact time a lady needed to return her tickets. What are the chances of that happening?
But what about my refund of my first ticket? Well, since my friend Kira had bought that ticket, the train company could only refund the money to her card. I never thought I’d see my $125 again, but after about two weeks, and after Kira had returned to Thailand, she got the refund and was able to transfer the money to me. All good.
Now on to the tour. The first place we went to, I hadn’t known about, the Sevastopol Panorama. This is a museum similar to the Stalingrad Panorama, a large circular building with a 360 degree painting of a famous battle, the defense of Sevastopol during the Crimean War.
One still photo showing soldiers of the various armies as well as fortifications in the foreground
As I have written in my blog post from my 2015 trip to Crimea, this territory has been fought over for centuries. Catherine the Great incorporated Crimea into Russia in 1783, so as to have a warm water seaport and military base on the Black Sea. Then, the British, French and the Ottoman Empire, now Turkey, invaded Crimea in 1853. A hundred years later, the Soviet Premier Khrushchev, a Ukrainian, made an adminstrative transfer from the Russian Soviet Republic to the Ukrainian Soviet Republe. That was a big mistake, since the 90% majority Russian speaking population voted against it.
Roots of the Crimean Conflict with Ukraine
I found out on my first trip, that the Kiev government had disregarded a previous referendum for Ukraine to return to Russia, after the Soviet Union disbanded. Worse, the Ukrainian nationalist government discriminated against the Russian population from the very beginning. So when the US sponsored coup in 2014 put actual ideological white supremacist Ukrainian Nazis in charge, threatening the Russian speaking population, they hastily convened a referendum in March 2014, and Russia accepted Crimea back.
When I went there in 2015, I could see the obvious neglect, decrepit city busses 30 years old then, and now replaced with new busses, new construction and a general overall feeling of increased prosperity and well being.
The Crimean War has sometimes been called World War Zero, because Turks, British, Sardinians, French attacked Russian positions in Crimea.
My Valuable Guide, Taras. He got me out of some tough spots. Here we are in front of the Panorama
Here is an interview I did with him. It’s 13 minutes long and is a ‘must listen’
Leo Tolstoy, the famous author of the epic novel War and Peace, was an officer during the Crimean War, in his younger days.
The Tolstoy Library
Following our visit to the Sevastopol Panorama, Taras and I were walking around the central district of Sevastopol. In 2015, I had visited a library with a big picture of Leo Tolstoy. It was there that the librarian at that time had shown me books in English, with quotes from Mark Twain. I learned to my astonishment, that in the 19th Century, US Russia relations were excellent.
Both Mark Twain and the composer, Tschaikovsky extolled the friendship of the two countries. Twain had travelled to Russia, and had a good relationship with the Tsar, the ruler of Russia. And the Tsar had sent ships to protect US ports from the British and French, who favored the slaveholder South during the US Civil War.
Isn’t that weird? During our civil war, Russia sent ships to prevent attacks against our country. During Russia’s civil war after their Revolution in 1917, we invaded Russia. As they say, no good deed goes unpunished.
The original sign from 2015 was missing, so it was a little difficult to identify the building, but Taras and I found it. It is going through a renovation, hence no sign. Here is how it looked in 2015.
While we had no luck finding those books referred to above, my requests to meet the head librarian met with success, and we had a wonderful conversation with Marina. As a special treat, she took Taras and me on a personal guided tour of the library, and showed us a special room, where private invitation events, such as piano or musical recitals are held, or things like literary readings.
Taras was shocked that I was able to ‘score’ such a tour, since he’s been a tour guide for years and lived in Sevastopol his whole life. He didn’t even know about the chamber.
Marina and I at the Grand Piano in the Tolstoy Library private event room.
The Tolstoy Library Salon. Evidently it is open only to small groups for special events.
Marina and I had a discussion about current tensions between the US and Russia, and I told her that I had come as a ‘citizen diplomat’ At the height of tensions during the 1980’s citizens from both countries made trips to each others’ countries. That pressure by civil society, with groups such as Sharon Tennison’s Center For Citizen Intitiatives and SANE, The Committee for a SANE Nuclear Policy, that the USA and USSR negotiated the crucial Intermediate Range Nuclear Treaty, or INF, which eliminated a whole class of nuclear weapons from Europe in 1987. In 2019, President Trump, who has been excoriated as a “Putin Puppet”, broke the treaty!
Please explain how Trump could be a ‘puppet’ when his action seriously threatened Russia.
With nuclear capable launch systems within 10 minutes of Mosow, that put us right back into the same situation as the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.
Taras told me that I was the ONLY USA person he knew who had come to Sevastopol in eight years! This is due to the deliberate “Second Iron Curtain” that the US has erected in recent years, in order to poison the discourse and relations between the two nuclear superpowers. Not Sane, if you ask me.
The Bomb Shelter
Next, Taras took me to a new museum that I had not known about in 2015. Probably it was created after my first trip. I know the small square where it’s located, but apparently it just opened recently. It is quite unobtrusive, just a door in the side of a hill, leading to the street where the Funny Dolphin Hostel is located. After you go through the museum door and pay a fee of about $8, you see the actual bomb shelter door, seen below.
A 15 inch thick steel door – the entrance to the bomb shelter.
During the original Cold War, both countries were—rightly so—afraid of getting wiped off the map in a nuclear holocaust. In the US, people built bomb shelters in their back yard, and kids were given instructions on how to protect oneself if a nuclear attack occurred at school, or on the street. The operative instructional video was “Duck and Cover”. Here is an original ‘training film’. As if any of those instructions would help at all.
Duck and Cover Video. More like, “Bend over and kiss your ass goodbye”.
The video starts of with a hint at who it’s directed to. “Dumb Dumb, diddle Dumb Dumb”. You have to be dumb to believe what they’re about to tell you.
Referring to the old saying, ‘Even paranoids have enemies’, here are some images from the museum, actual declassified CIA documents on targets for atom bombs.
Military Targets on the Crimean Peninsula. Central Intelligenc Agency—CIA- Top Secret
A list of approved targets for nuclear strikes.
Not your usual museum exhibit, in a Russian museum, no less! But to be fair, I’m sure that the USSR and modern Russia have similar lists.
“Can’t we all get along?”—spoken by African American Rodney King after being beaten half to death by LA cops.
What the hallway and office of a massive bomb shelter looks like
I guess this was an office. Notice a big probably encrypted typewriter for sending messages. Plus, in the foreground, a chess board. Russians are great fans of the game of chess. I guess, while you’re waiting several months or years for the outside world to become less radioactive, you’ve got plenty of time to play chess.
The Bomb Shelter Museum is actually a series of passage ways. Apparently, such places still exist in Russia from the Soviet days. Taras and I made our way through, and eventually got to the exit. We found ourselves on one of Sevastopol’s main streets. And as a reward, there was a variety store where we bought a couple of ice cream bars. Nice end to hours of touring Sevastopol, mostly on foot.
Taras Rescues Me–Again
One day, I decided to go back to the Central Market, which I visited earlier. I used my computer app to find it, and it took a short cut through back streets and even off street walkways to get there. So I did some shopping and then wanted to get back to my room. I checked the app and it gave a new route. I wasn’t sure about it, but, hey, if the computer app says it’s the way back, it must be right.
I walked for a good hour, and when I ‘arrived’ at my building, the building wasn’t there! In fact, the app took me to some other place. So then I started to try to retrace my steps and use the app to find a way back. No luck. I just wasn’t familiar enough with Sevastopol. Plus, what’s worse, my phone was down to just 20% of my battery. Using the app eats up the battery charge quickly.
Well, I was walking along a pretty busy street, so I took a picture of a building “22 Victory-in-Sevastopol Street”. Then I called Taras to get me the hell out of there. No answer. Battery down below 10%. Red warning light. Phone almost dead.
And here I am, it’s getting near sunset, battery almost dead, I have no idea where I am, much less how to get back. Few people speak any English. Would I end up homeless on the street overnight?
To my great relief, Taras called me back, I told him of my plight, sent him a photo of the building. He dropped everything to hire a taxi, and showed up to translate for the taxi driver. And I got back to my room. A big thanks to Taras!
I Finally Meet Regis Tremblay
I’ve known of Regis Tremblay’s work, ever since he came out with his landmark documentary, 30 Seconds to Midnight. This film documents the fact that the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists have been warning against “Midnight”, that is, planetary extinctions, due to either nuclear war or climate breakdown. It starts with an introduction by Helen Caldicott, an Australian physician, who led the movement to stop the threat of nuclear war.
Youtube took down Regis’s channel, removing 500 videos, but fortunately he saved many of them.
You can watch it by copying and pasting this into your browser or search engine. If it doesn’t work on Firefox, try the Brave or Chrome browsers.
Regis and I in front of the gate to the Sevastopol Walkway.
Regis and I finally met after corresponding by email since 2016. Regis came to live in Yalta in 2016, and he tells me that his life has changed immensely for the better. He met a tour guide, Tanya, and they’ve been partners for 5 years. Tanya is a very attractive, capable and determined woman. You want her on your side. When I told her about my problem with Ekotel, the hotel that refused me to stay, she, as a professional tourguide, took me back to the hotel. Unfortunately, the guy who had refused me wasnt’t there. But hopefully, with her contacting the regulators, he’ll learn a lesson.
Regis and Tanya
The Monument to Sunken Ships
This monument was built in 1905 to commemorate the Siege of Sevastopol by an Anglo French naval force. The Admiral of the Tsar’s navy, Nakhimov, sank ships to block the enemy from bringing their ships into the harbor. His tactic succeeded in saving the city from capture.
We took a boat tour around the harbor, and then took a walk around.
Following our walk along the pier of Sevastopol, Regis, Tanya and I were hungry. Tanya suggested a restaurant which serves food from the country of Georgia, which is south of Russia, on the Black Sea. Incidentally, Georgia had been a part of the Russian Empire, and then the Soviet Union. Joseph Stalin was born in Georgia. When asked his nationality, he said, “I am Russian born in Georgia.”
We had a delicious dinner of chicken, Georgian wine, salad and appetizers. Georgian food is noted for its exceptional spicing, which made it so memorable.
A view of Sevastopol http://travellingdreams.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/Sevastopol-2.jpg
Significance of Sevastopol to Russia
Sevastopol has been a part of first, the Russian Empire, since 1783. After the revolution, the Soviets fought for control of the city and it became part of the Soviet Union. After the outbreak of WWII, the Nazis depended on oil from Romania, which is just across the Black Sea, and Sevastopol was within easy striking distance of those oil fields. And the Soviet airplanes were causing damage to Romania’s oil fields.
That is why Hitler turned his attention to capturing the city. The Battle of Sevastopol was extremely brutal, as was the later Battle of Stalingrad. The garrison in Sevastopol held out agains the Nazi forces for 9 months.
At the end of the siege, there were only 11 undamaged buildings left in Sevastopol. The Luftwaffe sank or deterred most Soviet attempts to evacuate their troops by sea. The German 11th Army suppressed and destroyed the defenders by firing 46,750 tons of artillery ammunition on them during Störfang.
Finally, on 4 July 1942, the remaining Soviet forces surrendered and the Germans seized the port. The Soviet Separate Coastal Army was annihilated, with 118,000 men killed, wounded or captured in the final assault and 200,481 casualties in the siege as a whole for both it and the Soviet Black Sea Fleet.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siege_of_Sevastopol_(1941%E2%80%931942)
What forces the Soviets could evacuate were sent to shore up the defence of Stalingrad, and as the tide turned, they returned to, and recaptured Crimea and Sevastopol on May 12, 1944.
Because of its incredible resistance to the invaders, Sevastopol joined Leningrad and Stalingrad with the honorific title “Hero City”. After WWII, Sevastopol became a major naval base and was in fact closed to visitors until after the Soviet Union disbanded. There was a secret submarine base and nuclear weapons laboratory there, which I visited in 2015.
You can watch a good documentary about the Defense of Sevastopol on the Youtube Channel, Star Media
There is also a movie about the Battle of Sevastopol, which features the story of a real lady sniper, who was befriended by FDR’s wife, Eleanor Roosevelt. It shows how Lyudmilla Pavlichenko meets Eleanor Roosevelt. Later in the movie, she meets the great American folk singer, Woody Guthrie.
This movie is not quite accurate, since Pavlichenko was married and the movie shows several love interests. But the overall story is accurate and quite powerful. Download this while you can, before Youtube takes it down. Or you can see it online with something like Amazon Prime Video.
One aspect of the movie that is especially poignant, is that the story opens in Odessa. Lyudmilla is with her fellow students at Kiev State University. But wait, isn’t Kiev in Ukraine? And isn’t Ukraine a separate country? Well, not then. Most Ukrainians fought bravely with the rest of the Soviet Union.
It was the faction led by Stepan Bandera and other Nazi collaborators who fought on the side of Germany, and committed numerous atrocities, and massacres of Jews, Poles, Russians and Ukrainians.
And it is their descendants, who are calling the shots–literally–since the 2014 Coup in Kiev, and the subsequent war, ongoing since then.