Friday, June 15, 2012

Yalta on my mind

One of the palaces along the coast of Yalta

About eight years ago, I sailed on the maiden voyage of the luxury cruise line Silversea from Istanbul to the Ukraine. As it was their very first time to drop anchor in the ports of the Black Sea, every stop was unknown territory; so the excitement of experiencing exotic new destinations was clearly palpable among both crew and passengers.

 I’m an avid reader of 19th century Russian history. My biggest vice when visiting old book shops in London is picking up out-of-print or small edition copies of books about life in 19th century Russia or in Russia in the early 20th century -- just before the world changed forever via World War I.


One of the prized items in my "collection" is a very small edition print (I think it was published privately) of Anna Vyrubova, the closest lady-in-waiting to Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, the last Empress of Russia, detailing the private life of the Russian Imperial Family before the revolution of 1917.

So this particular trip was very significant because Yalta and that strip of the Black Sea coast was once the favored vacation haven of Russian czars and their relatives, and of the aristocracy that hovered around them.

Communism came in 1917 and sort of went, and much of the evidence of Russia’s glorious Imperial past was violently swept away in the process. However, around Yalta, you can still see remnants of some of the old villas that were once the venues of glamorous parties and non-stop merrymaking just as Russia’s Imperial system was self-destructing. Scroll down to read more...


Ironically, one of the best preserved of Yalta’s many palaces is Livadia Palace, which is the most prominent of all the palaces in the Ukraine because it was the summer home of the last Russian Imperial family. This grand structure, designed by an Italian architect with lots of inputs from Empress Alexandra, is also perhaps one of the palaces in the Ukraine that has seen more sorrow than happiness on its estate.

It was here -- not in the current white stucco Livadia Palace but in a wooden palace on the same grounds -- that Czar Alexander II, father of the last Emperor Nicholas II, died in a pretty horrific way after suffering for days. Czar Alexander II was a traditional and conservative ruler, but a strong one; and it is unfortunate that he was felled by illness at his prime, as his son was thrust prematurely into a position he was unprepared for, and he was too weak and inexperienced to hold his empire together.

Running an empire was a truly burdensome business for a czar, not to mention such a lonely position. Meaning well, Czar Alexander II sought to shield his eldest son and heir, Nicholas II, from the problems of the state for as long as possible.

So Nicholas II led a carefree existence as a young man, and he even managed a love affair with Mathilde Kschessinka, the most prominent prima ballerina of those days -- a woman he loved but knew he could never marry because she was not royalty.

This was all well and good. Unfortunately, when his father died prematurely, the country was thrust into his hands -- and this began the slow destruction of a mighty Imperial empire. One of the most poignant scenes related to this happened in Livadia Palace, in fact. After his father died, Nicholas II ran to his cousin and brother-in-law Sandro, sobbing and worrying about would become of Russia under his helm.


Later on, Nicholas II and his wife Alexandra spent some heartbreaking days here worrying over their son Alexis who suffered from hemophilia. Fortunately, they also spent many happy summers here, as they loved Yalta and Livadia was their favorite palace.

I walked slowly through Livadia, imagining the Russian Imperial Family at work and play. The ground floor has been largely reworked into a modern venue that is better known to many historians as the site of the Yalta Conference of 1945, that brought Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin together for a groundbreaking meeting to discuss post-war Europe.

But, for me, the attraction of Livadia was its status as the summer home of the Imperial Family – their refuge from the strict life of protocol they so hated about St. Petersburg society. On the second floor, the palace is kept largely intact; and it was fascinating to see the actual desk where Nicholas II worked on and various personal memorabilia. There were also framed family photographs on the walls, and I scanned these intently for some clues on their lives.


Yalta was a destination come true for me. I still remember how I woke up early on the morning of our arrival in Yalta, just as the ship was sailing towards the Ukraine. These days, Ukraine is more open to tourists and so many airlines and ships now take passengers to its lovely cities, including to Kiev and to Odessa. But as recently as eight years ago, it was very much an unknown country just starting to open up to foreign visitors.

Yalta was a terribly sleepy port city in those days, and the early morning fog we encountered as we neared made it seem even more so. However, what met us upon landing – we were probably the first tourists to arrive by cruise ship in a very long time – was nothing less than colorful.


By mid-morning, the skies had cleared and the main street of Yalta had filled up with stalls for a weekend market. Everyone had come out to enjoy the fine weather, dressed in their best – and, by Asian standards, rather revealing – summer clothes.

There were flower and fruit vendors, and stalls selling handcrafted goods. Little cafes with brightly colored tablecloths had sprouted in the downtown neighborhoods. Even the St. Alexander Nevsky Orthodox Cathedral was a delight to behold in shades of sky blue and gold, resembling a child’s fantasy birthday cake.

And by the colonnade of an old villa, a group of Ukrainian dancers happened to be performing, dressed in beautiful costumes and dancing to the tunes on a bandura, the traditional plucked-string musical instrument. Onlookers clapped, children swayed along, and everyone looked so happy that you would never have guessed that once upon time there was sadness in Yalta.


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