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Crimea: Russian culture’s idyllic, subversive paradise

  • ‘View of Constantinople and the Bosphorus’ (1856) by Crimea-born Russian artist Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky (1817-1900) sold for £3,233,250 at a 2012 Sotheby’s auction.

  • Alexander Deineka’s apocalyptic 1942 depiction of the Red Army’s defence of Sevastopol against Nazi forces is much parodied.

  • A scene from Boris Khlebnikov and Alexei Popogrebsky's 2003 film 'Koktebel,' about a father and son seeking redemption in Crimea.

  • A scene from Pavel Chukhrai's 2004 hit film 'A Driver for Vera,' the story of the chauffeur working for a Soviet general who has a dacha near Sevastopol.

MOSCOW: Crimea, which Russia wants to make part of its territory in defiance of Ukraine and the West, has long played an inspiring role in Russian culture, with the romantic rocky peninsula associated with iconic Russian novels, films and art works.

To Russian artists, writers and filmmakers, Crimea is a place of fantasy and romance – illicit or otherwise – during long hot summers, trekking through mysterious mountains or simply escaping the drab norms of the Soviet era.

There has long been in Russian culture a wistful yearning for Crimea, which became part of post-Soviet Ukrainian territory after USSR leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred it to the Soviet republic of Ukraine in the 1950s.

Over 80 leading Russian cultural stars signed a letter supporting President Vladimir Putin Wednesday, saying Russia and Crimea have always been united by “our common history and roots, our culture, our fundamental values and our language.”

Writer Anton Chekhov lived much of his last years in the Crimean resort of Yalta in the hope of prolonging his life while knowing he would eventually die of tuberculosis.

In Chekhov’s “Lady with a Lapdog,” the heroine Anna Sergeyevna holidays alone in Yalta away from her boring husband and meets Muscovite Dmitry Gurov who is similarly escaping his wife. After seducing her, he heartlessly crunches a watermelon.

In another memorable scene, the lovers take a carriage to nearby Oreanda and look down at the sea. For Chekhov, the monotonous lapping of the waves is a reminder that the universe will continue and is indifferent to our lives and deaths.

Wealthy Russians queue up to buy the romantic seascapes by Ivan Aivazovsky, born in Feodosia in Crimea. One of his paintings sold for $5.2 million at Sotheby’s in 2012.

One of the strangest Soviet authors, Gorky protégé Alexander Grin, turned away from all the tenets of socialist realism to write about an imagined world, clearly based on Crimea where he lived, first in Feodosia then in Stary Krym.

His novellas – including “Scarlet Sails” and “Running over the Waves” – are about an idealized world of nobility and adventure and beauty, featuring carnivals in winding lanes and sailing ships.

Alexander Deineka’s apocalyptic 1942 depiction of the Red Army’s defense of Sevastopol against Nazi forces is much parodied. Deineka also depicted a gentler version of Crimea, with idyllic scenes of tanned children lounging on the promenade and watching planes in the blue sky.

Soviet culture saw Crimea as a place where people could let their hair down, a less orderly place than resorts like Sochi.

People often went as “wild tourists,” camping or renting private rooms instead of being booked into sanatoriums or hotels by their workplaces.

In the comedy “Three Plus Two,” from 1963, three young men take a Volga car down to camp on the Crimea shore, only to find that their spot has already been bagged by two feisty but pretty girls. Predictable consequences ensue.

The edgier feel of out-of-season Yalta features in one of the most cult films of the 1980s, Sergei Solovyov’s “Assa,” where the two rivals for the affections of the heroine challenge each other to swim far out to sea in dangerously cold water.

Swaggering onto the screen for the first time is charismatic rock star Viktor Tsoi to belt out the song “Changes: I Want Changes” – which went on to become one of the anthems of perestroika.

Post-Soviet film also embraced Crimea, with Boris Khlebnikov and Alexei Popogrebsky’s “Koktebel” from 2003 featuring a father and son trekking to the seaside town in search of some kind of redemption.

A more mainstream hit, Pavel Chukhrai’s “A Driver for Vera” from 2004 told the story of the chauffeur working for a Soviet general who has a dacha near Sevastopol.

In “Chapiteau Show,” a surreal comedy released 2012 by Sergei Loban, the characters save money by renting ultrabasic accommodation.

They leap from rocks and watch a strange circus perched on the cliffs with bizarre Tsoi and Marilyn Monroe lookalikes.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 13, 2014, on page 16.
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Summary

Crimea, which Russia wants to make part of its territory in defiance of Ukraine and the West, has long played an inspiring role in Russian culture, with the romantic rocky peninsula associated with iconic Russian novels, films and art works.

There has long been in Russian culture a wistful yearning for Crimea, which became part of post-Soviet Ukrainian territory after USSR leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred it to the Soviet republic of Ukraine in the 1950s.

Wealthy Russians queue up to buy the romantic seascapes by Ivan Aivazovsky, born in Feodosia in Crimea.

Soviet culture saw Crimea as a place where people could let their hair down, a less orderly place than resorts like Sochi.

In the comedy "Three Plus Two," from 1963, three young men take a Volga car down to camp on the Crimea shore, only to find that their spot has already been bagged by two feisty but pretty girls.


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