Out of Crimea: Gloom grips spa where elite met

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YALTA - An icy day in February is not the cheeriest time for any holiday resort, whether in the Crimea or on the Cote d'Azur. The stony beaches of Yalta are now deep in slushy snow; puddles along Lenin Embankment have turned to ice and magnificent mountain roads to this pre-eminent Tsarist and later Soviet summer sanctuary belong more to Siberia than the seaside. There is not a hint of the sun that so seduced Alexander II and produced the Livadia Palace, the glistening white summer residence to which, in another cold February 49 years ago, Stalin invited Churchill and Roosevelt to seal the partition of Europe.

Yalta's off-season melancholy goes beyond the weather. It has been spared the bloodshed that blights its competitors on the other side of the Black Sea in Abkhazia, where the sanatoria at Gagra, Pitsunda and Sukhumi now billet trigger-happy thugs or famished refugees instead of Moscow fat cats. Yalta awaits a different kind of barbarian. Preparing for their arrival are men such as Anatole Popenko, former chief doctor and now managing director of the Nizhnaya Oreanda sanatorium, designated by Stalin in 1948 as the best place for revolutionary R&R.

Nizhnaya Oreanda, down a narrow, winding lane on the outskirts of town, was where the Moscow elite as well as Erich Honecker and other satraps secured by Stalin at the 1945 Yalta Conference would get mud massages, knock back Massandra wine and cavort on the beach, secure behind a spiked perimeter fence and pampered by a 60-strong medical staff from the Fourth Main Directorate, socialism's all-purpose and very exclusive service agency.

'We were the best,' boasts Dr Popenko, who has spent the last 20 years at the sanitorium and recently rented it from the Crimean State Property Fund to run as a business. Brezhnev meant not stagnation but a golden age. 'We could concentrate on what we were good at. We did not go in for trade. It was all covered by the state budget. We did not look for clients or money. Everything was provided.'

Now nothing is provided and Dr Popenko has to drum up business by placing ads in Global Management. Foreign businessmen pay hard currency and tend not to carry firearms, an unfortunate habit of many of the Russians who can afford the dollars 100 (or nearly 4m Ukrainian karbovancsi) a night. Prospective guests, he says, are screened. 'We don't want the mafia. We prefer people we know. If we don't know them, we find out from our own sources. We have a very serious security service.'

Today's guests have another drawback. They are a lot less sick than Brezhnev and his cronies. 'They don't come here for treatment, they come for entertainment. The ministers were a lot older. They needed treatment.' In the end the basic criterion is simple: 'We want rich people'.

As with most other prizes of socialist privileges, Nizhnaya Oreanda suffers from execrable taste. Every window is draped in lace, every mock antique chair upholstered in brown or green velveteen, every panelled corridor laid with the same scuffed red carpet. The motif is always mock classical; each building is fitted with a set of columns, arches and Grecian urns in stone. The theme continues into the garden and down on to the beach with pillared gazebos and, on a cliff overlooking the grounds, another set of concrete columns.

A limousine used to collect guests from the airport at Simferopol, drive them to Yalta and then, at the end of their stay, deposit them back on the plane to Moscow. 'We would wish them a safe journey and tell them we looked forward to seeing them again next year.' The last time the ritual took place was 1991. The summer - and so much more besides - ended with the putsch in Moscow. Some guests, such as Mr Honecker, had already stopped coming. But 1991 was the year the gravy train stopped for good. Mikhail Gorbachev spent the coup locked in his own dacha down the road from Yalta at Foros. Three years on, the building is still empty.

Dr Popenko's problem is not that his old clients are out of power. 'Most are still around in Moscow, but they don't like paying. It's too expensive.'

With the Fourth Directorate out of business and Crimea in a separate country - Ukraine - big shots prefer to go to cheaper resorts in Russia where the state still pays. Instead of five flights a day from the Crimea to Moscow there is just one. The train that used to take 21 hours now takes twice as long and stops for hours at the Russia-Ukraine border for customs.