Out of Crimea: Basking in the Soviet sunset's glow

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The Independent Online
YALTA - The Western stereotype of a Russian body - Ivan the stevedore and his bulbous wife in a string-bikini - may linger in the capitals of the G7 nations, but it evaporated for me this week when I spent a little time on the sunny beaches of Crimea.

Most of the Russian holidaymakers at this Ukrainian resort were stunning figures by any standards. Some wore fashionable swimsuits - some covering maybe 5 per cent of their thin, golden bodies; a few might as well not have been worn at all. With a spring in their step, these vacationers of the crumbled Soviet empire carried bright, new accessories that would fit in easily at Club Meds in the Caribbean. And as a rule, their off-the- beach wear made some of us, especially me, look shabby and unkempt.

Quicker than anyone could have believed possible, the magnificent Crimean coast is beginning to take on the look of its geographical peers - the Aegean, the French Riviera, the Algarve. Once the haven for loyal Communist workers in need of a seaside vacation, the Black Sea peninsula is turning into the holiday headquarters for the new Russian business class, its clientele discarding the stern ways of the past and taking on the new easy culture of a Western resort.

At the resort's largest family hotel - a great concrete structure with 1,000 rooms, an Olympic pool, and its own beach accessible only by elevator - elegant bodies parade on the seafront walkway looking happy and fit, far healthier than the picture of Russia seen on Western TV screens.

This army of svelte sunbathers is not kept thin from lack of food. Three meals, full of fried breads and fish salads and sausages and sour cream, are part of the Russian package tour. Fruit - water melons, plums, cherries, raspberries - was cheap and plentiful, homegrown on small farm plots in the nearby hills. A few restaurants on the waterfront are charging what for Russians or Ukrainians are astronomical prices, but it is still hard to get a seat.

Statistics about where these people come from and who they are, are not yet available. Too much is unknown about how the new Commonwealth of Independent States is developing. But, according to my 1982 Soviet guide, alluringly entitled, Recreational Geography of the USSR, the composition of holidaymakers in the Crimea is: workers 20 per cent, office workers 30 per cent, engineering and technical workers 23 per cent, teachers 10.3 per cent, students 9.1 per cent, pensioners and housewives 4 per cent and agricultural workers 0.4 per cent. Could this still be so?

Most are under 40, the book says, and 59 per cent are women. That would still seem about right.

Of the tens of thousands who come, not just from Russia, but from all over the former Soviet Union, many go to the so-called sanatoriums, large hotels set up by Lenin in a 1920 decree entitled On Utilising the Crimea for Treatment of Working People. Some of the earlier sanatoriums have white limestone facades with columns and neatly kept gardens in which peacocks strut; in Soviet imitation of colonial and imperialist cultures. The northern backdrop is of massive limestone cliffs, and to the south stretches the Black Sea, which seemed to me as clean as the White Sea at Archangel is dirty.

These sanatoriums still operate, but there are fewer 'official' guests this year. And the crowds have thinned as the prices have risen.

But there are some Communist legacies - reminders that the Soviet era ended less than a year ago. The man who was in charge of raising and lowering the chain that allowed a car to enter the hotel clearly believed that Leonid Brezhnev was still in charge and his tiny car-park fiefdom still unchallenged. Each time we drove in, the chain would remain up until we got outside the car and started walking towards his little house, at which point he would begrudgingly lower the chain. He was reminding us that he was a little boss man.

Yet another alluvium of the past is the hotel schedule. Woe to those who want to eat, swim or walk on the beach out of officially designated hours. The pool at our hotel opened at 8am and closed at 7pm. Anyone found half way down the outside lane struggling to reach the finish line at 7.05pm, as I was one summer evening, is certain to be barked at by someone who looks and behaves like an old Communist stooge. 'I'm trying as best I can,' I puffed from mid-pool. 'I can see how you're trying,' the pool supervisor replied sarcastically. Then she gave a hand sign that must have meant, in earlier times, get out of the pool or your next vacation will be in Siberia.