Russians flock to their 'little bit of paradise' in Crimea — and back its annexation

The World
Tourists on the beach in Yalta, a Crimean resort.
Tourists take in the summer weather on the beach in Yalta, a Crimean resort.

Lucy Ash

The Crimean peninsula on the Black Sea has earned itself a nickname over the years: The "Communist Côte d'Azur." But this year, the Russian government is trying to convince its citizens that a beach vacatiom in Crimea isn't just a welcome diversion — it's their patriotic duty.

Russia annexed Crimea early this year, helping fuel the tensions between Ukraine and Russia that have led to the downing of a Malaysian airliner and open combat in eastern Ukraine. Because of the unrest, Ukrainians and Europeans are largely staying away from Crimea this year. But Russians are heeding their country's call.

"I spoke to a lot of Russians who said that they'd come specially this year because the Crimea had come back into the Russian fold," says the BBC's Lucy Ash, who talked to tourists and locals in Yalta, one of Crimea's busiest resorts. "They were very proud of that."  She's there working on a new documentary called "Crimea: Paradise Regained."

The diamond-shaped peninsula that hangs off southern Ukraine was first conquered by Russia under Catherine the Great. "Catherine's lover and favorite general Grigory Potemkin conquered it, and he wrote to her 'Russia needs its own little bit of paradise,'" Ash explains, "and it remains a holiday paradise — and has been so for decades and decades during the Soviet period and, before that, at the time of the tsars."

As a result, she says, "people have very happy memories of being there from all over different parts of the Russian Federation, especially people in the most inhospitable zones where snow covers the land for most of the year. They dream of that two-week vacation. It's what keeps them going."

Ash says there's a widespread feeling that Crimea naturally belongs to Russia, and tourists there seem to agree. "Russian blood flows through Crimea, and has done for centuries," says Natasha, a teacher from St. Petersburg who Ash interviewed. "This place is linked to our memories of childhood and youth. It's the place many of us first fell in love. It makes us nostalgic. So you see, getting Crimea back is not about territory — more about regaining somewhere very close to our hearts."

While most of the tourists this summer in Yalta are Russians, Ash says she occasionally came across Ukrainian locals: "As I was walking along the promenade in Yalta I came across quite an unexpected sight, which was a Ukrainian man wearing one of those traditional peasant blouses with embroidery and singing in Ukrainian." Given the pro-Russian sentiment in Crimea at the moment, the man's appearance was "quite audacious," Ash says.

"There are T-shirts on sale with a picture of Putin holding a cocktail saying 'Welcome to Crimea,' so there's a great atmosphere of Russian triumphalism," she says. "To see this Ukrainian was a great surprise. The Ukrainian busker said, "I think the annexation is very bad. The Russians occupied the Crimea. Sometime in the past they sort of gave it to us and then they took it back. They say it was a gift. But if you gave someone a gift, you shouldn't take it back.'"

Ash says the slump in international and Ukrainian tourists coming to Yalta contrasts sharply with last year’s tourist season. Then, a cover article in National Geographic magazine promoted the region as one of the best beach getaways in the world. Now the beaches are hardly crowded, even as Russian airlines have added plenty of cheap flights to promote travel to Crimea.

Another disruption from the ongoing fighting in eastern Ukraine was the cancellation of the KaZantip Festival. The "hedonistic love fest that featured beautiful young people in skimpy bikinis" has gone on in Yalta for 20 years and attracts thousands of young Russian ravers and top electro-dance DJs from all over Europe. But this year, the festival's website reads: “Bombing for peace is like raping for love. We can’t celebrate love and happiness while our brothers and sisters, no matter if Russians, Ukrainians, or whatever nationality, get killed."