Crimea has long held a special place in culture and imagination

The World

It’s fair to say that Crimea holds an important place in Svetlana Boym’s inagination. Boym's a writer, teacher and artist who spent summers in Crimea growing up. Now she writes about Russian culture and is the author of The Future of Nostalgia, which she describes as a history of the "hypochondria of the heart."

"The most important thing to remember about Crimea," Boym says, "is that Crimea really is a cultural crossroads, and has been a cultural crossroads for centuries. It's a place where east meets west, where Greek, Persian, Judaic, Moslem civilization meet. For instance, if you travel to the Crimea you can see Greek ruins, Italian fortresses, the Palace of the Crimean Khan, Jewish synagogues in the caves, as well as many Soviet era spas."

That helps explain why  Crimea plays a big role in Russian literature, she says, "usually as a place of adventure, an exotic place, a place of escape, a 'dream of world culture,' as Osip Mandelstam put it."

Russian poet Alexander Pushkin's 1823 poem, The Fountain of Bakhchisarai is perhaps the best example of a Crimean inspired work of art. Boym describes Pushkin's poem as "a love triangle that takes place in the harem of the Crimean Tatar Khan, who captures a beautiful slave from Poland named Maria. And another slave women, Zarema, is jealous of her. So we have a cross-cultural encounter that does not end well, but it ends with a beautiful sight, the Fountain of Bakhchisarai that supposedly embodies the tears of this slave girl Maria who dies in the harem. It inspired Pushkin." The poem in turn inspired a Russian ballet with music by Boris Asafyev and choreography by Rostislav Zakharov (see a video, below).

Crimea attracted early 20th century Russian poets including Marina Tsvetaeva and Osip Mandelstam. Boym describes it as “a place where artists and poets imagined other worlds and other forms of cultural co-existence.”

Among many Soviet-era adventure films that were set in Crimea, Boym points to the comic love drama, Kidnapping Caucasian Style  (Russian: Кавказская пленница, или Новые приключения Шурика). She says the Soviet comedy revolved around bride kidnapping, an old tradition that used to exist in the Caucasus. It's a favorite of her parent's generations and familiar to Russian school children. High on Boym's recommended reading list is Anton Chekhov's short story, Lady with Lapdog, (an affair between a Russian banker and the young lady he meets while vacationing in Yalta) which she calls "one of the greatest love stories in Russian literature."

Crimea's landscapes have filled Boym's own imagination ever since she spent summers there. "I immediately imagine Crimean landscapes, the steppes, the mountains and the sea. It really was a place where perhaps I dreamt about leaving Russia and imagined other lands, and it's a place where I made lifelong friendships. So, for me, it's very important to not just to think about ethnic conflicts, although this is a place where Crimean Tatars were deported during Stalin's time, and where the Jewish population disappeared, but I would still like to think about this place as a kind of place of possibility for cultural encounters. And it's important to remember that."