Rusting hulks in the land that Russia forgot - World - News - The Independent

Rusting hulks in the land that Russia forgot

CRIMEAN DAYS: Ukraine's rulers insist they back democracy. But most are old Communists

As our elderly Tupolev swept in over the Crimean vineyards to land at Belbek military airport, it passed the sleek carcasses of a once vast air force. There were dozens of fighters glittering silver in the late afternoon sun, all but a few of their cockpits masked by tarpaulins and their engine cowlings shrouded in canvas.

These squadrons once flew for the mighty Red Air Force and now, in theory, they belonged to the Ukrainians. But Ukraine, bankrupt and desperate, cannot afford the toys of the Communist era.

Along the fringes of the lost Russian empire, few places can illustrate the ironies of its disintegration as clearly as the Crimea, proclaimed to be part of Russia for all time by Catherine the Great in 1783. Now, in spite of its mainly ethnic Russian population, it is part of the independent Ukraine and the noises of separatism seem quieted.

Ukraine's rulers insist that they favour free markets and democracy. But most of them are old Communists - men like the Prime Minister, former KGB operative Yevhen Marchuk, and the President, Leonid Kuchma, who built his career running the world's largest missile factory.

President Kuchma had kindly sent his personal Tupolev to collect Malcolm Rifkind from the sad spires of Kiev and to waft him to the Crimean pleasure domes to which the ex-Communist elite still repair for their summer breaks. The British Foreign Secretary, moved by this hospitable gesture, had cheerfully boarded the antique aircraft, with its 1960s synthetic fabric furniture and its luxurious forward compartment, replete with sofas and writing tables. One wondered which Communist grandees had surveyed their realms from its windows during the years the young Rifkind was polishing his Cold War rhetoric.

Politics in the Ukraine seems to be the art of the changeable. Mr Rifkind had already heard cheering words from the former KGB man turned Prime Minister and devotee of capitalist "reform".

"We much appreciated Mr Michael Heseltine's advice on restructuring our coal industry," confided Mr Marchuk. He seemed as pleased about Mr Heseltine and the free market as he had once been about Mr Brezhnev and clapping dissidents in Kiev's gloomy jails. If Mr Rifkind drew any witty conclusions from these compliments, alas, he did not share them.

While Communist Party rule has gone, its trappings of protocol survive like an old sturgeon in aspic: the ridiculous banquets, the arrogant motorcades, the goonish bodyguards, all proceeding through a ruined landscape of poverty and destitution.

From Belbek airport, the cars climbed up spiralling roads above Sevastopol. Once it was a closed port, but its secrets now lie bare to Western eyes. The Black Sea fleet, its 833 vessels unequally divided between Russia and Ukraine, lurks among its inlets and bays. But the most conspicuous impression was one of decrepitude and decay: rusting, half-submerged hulks, a warship's semi-sunken bows protruding from the shallows.

"Sevastopol: Hero City" announced an official sign. It referred to the siege of 1941, when the place held out for months against Field Marshal Von Rundstedt's Army Group South. But the road soon unwound through battlefields more resonant to a British ear: Balaclava, Inkerman and the Alma.

History, in the Crimea, is all around. Yet none of it offers much scope for optimism, whether in the mountains above the Kuchma dacha; at the abandoned palace of the Tatar Khans at Bakhchiserai, where Pushkin scattered roses in the fountain; or down the coast, where a small sign proclaimed the next resort on this glorious littoral: Yalta.

Perhaps it should have read: Diplomats Beware.

News
Paper trail: the wedding photograph found in the rubble after 9/11 – it took Elizabeth Keefe 13 years to find the people in it
newsWho are the people in this photo? It took Elizabeth Stringer Keefe 13 years to find out
Arts and Entertainment
Evil eye: Douglas Adams in 'mad genius' pose
booksNew biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Sport
FootballFull debuts don't come much more stylish than those on show here
News
i100
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
Kim Kardashian drawn backlash over her sexy swimsuit selfie, called 'disgusting' and 'nasty'
fashionCritics say magazine only pays attention to fashion trends among rich, white women
Arts and Entertainment
TVShows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Arts and Entertainment
Hit the roof: hot-tub cinema east London
architectureFrom pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
Travel
travel
News
The ecological reconstruction of Ikrandraco avatar is shown in this illustration courtesy of Chuang Zhao. Scientists on September 11, 2014 announced the discovery of fossils in China of a type of flying reptile called a pterosaur that lived 120 millions years ago and so closely resembled those creatures from the 2009 film, Avatar that they named it after them.
SCIENCE
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Matisse: The Cut-Outs exhibition attracted 562,000 visitors to the Tate Modern from April to September
art
Life and Style
Models walk the runway at the Tom Ford show during London Fashion Week Spring Summer 2015
fashionLondon Fashion Week 2014
News
Kenny G
news
News
peopleThe black actress has claimed police mistook her for a prostitute when she kissed her white husband
Life and Style
techIndian model comes with cricket scores baked in
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Energy Markets Analyst

£400000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Energy Markets An...

Junior Web Analyst – West Sussex – Up to £35k DOE

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Plus excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions...

Nursery Manager

£22000 - £23000 per annum: Randstad Education Bristol: We are currently recrui...

Web Analyst – Permanent – Up to £40k - London

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: We are currently r...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week