“We are here to help each other through this thing, whatever it is” – Kurt Vonnegut
NOOSA – This memoir extracted from my 2011 scribblings, ‘Private Notes for Understanding Friends’ , covers places of contemporary interest such as Yalta, Sevastopol and Odessa, names from wars past which leap at us from headlines present.
These reminiscences of a cruise that circled the Black Sea take on a special flavour for me today as we mark the sinking by Ukrainian missiles of the cruiser Moskva, the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet which ventured out of her home port of Sevastopol and came to grief.
Moskva (Moscow), which now graces the bed of the Sea, sustained catastrophic damage after being struck by Ukrainian-made Neptune missiles, never previously used in combat and fired with deadly accuracy from coastal defence forces.
Russia’s unlikely explanation is that the damage was caused by a fire on board after and that Moskva sank while being towed in a storm. A Putin lie of course. He also says the entire crew of 700 escaped, which I don't believe. A national humiliation.
On to my story. We had boarded Nautica at Piraeus, the ancient Greek seaport, whereupon the ship’s administration found it necessary to circulate an ‘Important Notice’ prior to our landfalls in Ukraine and Russia.
It stated that the ship's owners wanted to “make sure we set your expectations correctly” and the expectation-lowering statements included these guidelines [my explanatory comments are in brackets]:
“Accents can be strong … a polite mention to speak slower works wonders” [perhaps, with respect to our US cousins, this should read “slower and louder”]
“The guides’ attitude may appear offhand due to inexperience in dealing with guests from the West” [or prior experience in dealing with Americans, perhaps]
“Venues will not be grand (but) the local people are sharing the best they have to offer” [poor sad bastards]
“Buses will not always be the most comfortable or have the strongest air conditioning but we guarantee they will be best available” [ma’am, those oxen are not delaying us, they’re hauling us]
“Facilities may not be up to western standards … please carry with you hygiene items such as tissue paper” [or learn the Mohammedan method of toilet kwiktaim]
“We all travel to see the world and experience the culture and marvels of foreign lands, sometimes this requires patience and understanding” [no sir, overseas is not the US in fancy dress]
Saturday 2 July. My headline for this section of my diary, ‘Cruisin’, schmoozin’, boozin’ & bruisin’, is just cheap News Ltd pretence that bears little if any relationship to the following content; but I like it because it conspires to sound smart-arsed, which is so Murdochy.
It is why, in real life, I prefer The Guardian (of London), brought to me each morning on crisp A3 sheets by my shipboard butler, who chases it up if it’s downloaded late from the satellite and always presents it to me formally on a tray.
They’re going to have to drag me kicking and screaming with bleeding fingernails off this ship….
To my untrained eye, Türkiye Cumhuriyeti Gemisi (Turkish Republic Ship) 1600 looks like a small ocean liner and Professor Google informs me it’s a transport for troops and heavy armour.
What would I know of matters military: I would have been in the first conscription call-up in 1963 but missed going to Vietnam because I was in New Guinea. Another story.
As we finish breakfast just before eight at our preferred location on the aft deck, a colour party of ratings on TNV 1600’s foredeck, who have until now been lolling about gossiping and smoking, suddenly grab their weapons and form a single row facing us.
The officer arrives, replete with dangling sword, followed by a large Turkish flag arrives borne on a cushion. It is tied, unleashed and hoisted, puffing out nicely in a steady breeze. A naval moment.
Strolling along Trabzon’s colourful, crowded central pedestrian mall mid-afternoon, I’m surprised to find myself in a state of what I will term existential confusion, which is not entirely due to the heat or absorption of beverages.
Who am I? Where am I? What am I here for? And why are these people milling around me? Do they want something?
They might, but they seem to want for little. In this fragrant place on this perfect afternoon, the entire world has coalesced into a cheerful pluralism of sect, ethnicity, place and time, and it is shopping like crazy.
This morning, however, on a long walk beyond the boundaries of the business district, passing over two high bridges with dry reclaimed riverbeds beneath them, we reach as far as the perfect green turf of the Trabzon football stadium, and the hospital with an attached medical school where students on break exchange cigarettes.
At this moment I feel I’m inhabiting a picture book Turkey of men with toothbrush moustaches who sit around smoking, gossiping, playing backgammon and drinking coffee; of women who, when they’re seen, are either working in shops or buying their cheap goods; where the aroma of exotic spices blends with fumes from poorly maintained cars and thick coffee; and every taxi paying tribute to Allah through a stark sign in its rear window.
But now, here, in the afternoon heat, I’ve been whisked to another place some centuries hence. You will be pleased to know that our descendants are, by and large, happy. From central casting there is one beggar. There is a cacophony of sound to match the conglomerate of colour and creed and appearance.
Women in heavy veils and heavier burqas have daughters who look like they’re from Double Bay. Pleasant-faced women with light, colourful headscarfs look like they’re from Vogue. The men shining shoes on the footpath look like their last job was running BHP Billiton.
There is every imaginable shop and a few you never thought of – the hookah vendor; the nothing but halva provider; the any-olive-you-desire-in-any-quantity-you-want supplier – “would you like a barrel, sir?”
The Turkish language shares roots with Finnish and Hungarian and while, like us, they write in a Roman script, it is a test (unlike when you are in, say, France and Germany) to discern words.
Street signs are few because, presumably, everyone is supposed to know where they are. The people are kind and helpful: pull out a map and someone will – without commercial agenda - defy the language barrier to point out where you are and guess where you wish to go.
A most likeable place, Trabzon. If this is our polyglot, polymorphous, poly-everything future, I find it irresistible.
Sunday 3 July. Today I pee in Stalin’s dacha. Murderous Uncle Joe had five identical dachas throughout the USSR, so my micturition could, more precisely, be said to be delivered courtesy of his Black Sea dacha up in the hills behind Sochi.
While you may have a perception of a dacha as being like a New Zealand batch or an Australian weekender, this one – known as Green Grove (such an old sentimentalist, Stalin) is a compound - green roofs, green walls, green plumbing, green all – comprising four two-storey buildings on each side of a modestly-sized courtyard.
Let me expatiate on Sochi. Before Stalin it was just a village on the Black Sea. But in the 1930s Stalin decided that, because of its summer sub-tropicality, sulphurous springs and his own severe arthritis, it would make the perfect place for a workers’ holiday paradise.
Build a few sanatoria (owned by Department of Railways, Office of Greater Productivity, Section for Literary Correctness etc) where the proletariat can bathe in spas, secure inner body cleansing and otherwise dry out from a Vodka diet, have the propaganda film crew shoot them on sandy beaches (shoot them on film, I hasten to add), and show the resultant celluloid to the world as another example of the glory of workers under Stalinism.
(Reality check: our 60-something guide Olga said the only place she danced as a young woman was in the youth camps when Westerners were visiting.)
Soon the petty bourgeoisie of doctors, lawyers and university professors discovered the lifestyle benefits of Sochi. Whereupon, Stalin became deeply concerned.
So he purged all of them, built Green Grove in 1937 and, after World War II (the devil’s pact with the Nazis having broken down), he turned the whole town (his dacha exempted) into one giant military hospital.
There was, however, a slight problem - malaria.
And here is the Aussie connection. To rid the swamps and ponds of the dreaded plasmodium, the Russians imported 12,000 eucalyptus trees from Godzone and these successfully sucked the water from the earth and removed the breeding grounds in true blue Aussie fashion.
Once again, the world has many reasons to be grateful to our fine country and its great initiatives such as the invention of the gum tree (considered a pest in Uruguay because of their propensity to keel over in a storm).
Thereafter, especially following Stalin’s last visit in 1950 (he died in 1953), Sochi fell back into a long torpor from which it has only just awoken, for reasons I will come to.
In the early morning the Sochi pilot boat makes three unsuccessful attempts to get alongside Nautica with sufficient poise to enable the pilot to leap on board. There’s a bit of a swell running but, objectively, the early morning sea is calm. (After a week at sea, I know the difference between calm and stay-near-a-toilet.)
Aboard the pilot boat, the main man, by definition a seaman of skill, clings to the bow rail and reacts with exasperation to the skipper’s ungainly efforts at coming alongside, waving a hand at him (cleverly using the other to grip the handrail).
The skipper tries again, and again. On his fourth attempt the vessel heads for Nautica not in a neat glide but at a water-churning 45⁰ angle, hitting the ship with a resounding thud that resonates the length of the hull.
The pilot seizes the opportunity to clamber aboard our ship and, back in the harbour master’s cottage in Sochi, an agitated post mortem is probably still going on.
Why is Stalin’s dacha green? Why does Stalin hate deep water? Why is Stalin’s couch bullet proof? Why does Stalin sleep in a different room every night? Why does Stalin have Boris try his food first? Why is Stalin surrounded by three concentric rings of NKVD?
The short answer, as I’m sure you’ve already guessed, is fear of assassination. It’s not just paranoia, Stalin really has plenty of people who want to kill him.
And the green? Well, it’s camouflage. You cannot see this compound 50 metres away so embedded is it within its surroundings.
Today’s Sochi, host city for the 2014 Winter Olympics, is going through a transformation from slum to citadel.
In the days when I consulted to BHP’s steelworks in Port Kembla, whenever a senior executive from Melbourne head office was due to visit, the warehouses, workshops, lines and blast furnaces would be spruced up, red carpet laid along the VIP trail.
Where there was an unsightly mess that for good practical reasons had to remain an unsightly mess, screens of three-ply would be erected around it. Sochi reminds me of these fraudulent antics.
Behind the recent and developing veneer (which tomorrow, Monday, Obama and Putin will experience, because they are about to visit) lies a dilapidation and a poverty that represents the truth of 80% of Russia.
The truth about Russia today is that you are free. You are free to be poor.
The bureaucracy (in most respects unchanged from the bad old days except the word ‘Communist’ has disappeared) still has a heavy, clammy, sour-faced hand on too many aspects of life.
The most apparent impact of this on the visitor is the sheer bloody difficulty of getting into the country – it is the most frustrating and cumbersome to access of any European nation.
But, as we found on an earlier visit to St Petersburg a couple of years back, the Russian people, while free to be poor, are at present free to express their views.
When our bus runs into a police checkpoint and a burly officer waves us to stop, guide Olga observes loudly: “They have to show they’re the most important people in the world; he’s just showing off his new uniform.”
At lunch later, in our favourite eyrie on the aft deck of Nautica, Ingrid and I compare notes with a German couple whose table we’ve joined.
The man asks, somewhat sneakily, “How are you coping with the Americans?” We look at each other around the table for a moment, and laugh.
Get me some day to compare current Russian and American culture and governance. Be not surprised when I say that, despite the old Bolsheviks, theirs is moving forward as fast as our ally’s is regressing.
Monday 4 July. The mountains soar 1,500 metres and are so sheer, dark and close they’re difficult to get clear in the head. Yalta is a spectacularly pretty place and a centre for vacationers. The petite harbour behind the breakwater is just big enough to accommodate Nautica.
Our guide, Maria Telnova, who I arranged from Australia, insists softly she is Crimean not Ukrainian. The Crimea, given to Ukraine by Stalin as a gift, has now asserted its autonomy, has its own president and parliament - and insists on speaking Russian not Ukrainian.
Maria is 30 - recently married, dark eyed and intense, she’ll have a child next year she says – and has a husband who earns good money working for a global IT company, the equivalent of $50,000 a year.
Maria will soon buy a car to avoid having to pay a driver when she conducts tours, and she conveys every indication that, in a place where life is tough and you must be tough to succeed, she has the durability required
A 20 minute drive from the dock along a narrow winding coast road brings us to Livadia Palace, the location of the Yalta Conference of March 1945 and that famous photo of Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt, who has a blanket covering his legs.
Now I can say I have been in the room and seen the famous round table where the fate of post-World War II Europe was determined.
On the ground floor are areas prominent in that conference – the grand reception room where the Big 3 and the leaders of ‘free Europe’ met, the waiting room used as Roosevelt’s bedroom (he being so frail was dead two months later) and scores of contemporaneous photos of what was one of the defining meetings of the last century.
A little over 30 years previously the last Russian tsar, Nicholas II, and his family made their final visit to the palace before their arrest during the Russian revolution and their ultimate sticky end.
As Ingrid says, we know Nicholas was a leader who should have done better by his people but there is still a vast sadness about this story – accentuated by being in the place where they holidayed - especially the shootings of the teenage princesses and the struggling, haemophiliac prince and their disposal in a mass grave.
For some strange reason connected with organisational inertia, all eight Nautica tour buses have been deployed to visit another palace at around the same time, so Livadia was virtually ours.
Is there a smugness so profound as that which follows gaining an advantage over the mob? Smug we feel in Livadia.
When we reach the other palace 10 km away - whatever its name is, Churchill stayed there - crowded to the point of severe punishment by Nautica’s eight buses and at least as many again from other cruise ships, having come and seeing we decided not to conquer.
Trying to surf a dense crowd of sightseers is not so much overwhelming as demeaning. So instead we have a pleasant walk in the grounds, our guide constantly and unsuccessfully trying to sneak us into the palace. Me wishing her ill; I am palaced out.
Tuesday 5 July. This large naval city of about 350,000 people is a marinophile’s wet dream. Pretty well razed during World War II, Sevastopol is now home to the Russian Black Sea Fleet and the Ukrainian Navy and, from where we are berthed amongst grey hulled frigates and other gunboats, we are able to watch the relentless traffic of all manner of vessels up and down harbour.
Our first sight is of a pinnace; ramrod straight sailors forward and aft, boathooks planted on the deck in front of them, ferrying a commodore to work; the forward sailor using his boathook as a long baton to direct the helmsman.
Russian large landing ship 156, Yamal, alongside Nautica is preparing for sea while a destroyer to its starboard pipes a distorted Reveille on the PA system before repeating the first few bars of what I know as Midnight in Moscow to muster the crew for their orders of the day.
Ahead of us a small gunboat moves seaward through the breakwater followed, bizarrely, by a canary yellow gondola. This cavalcade of craft, with often 20 in view at the same time, is to continue for the ten hours we are in port.
There can be no distracting from what is happening on the water – where this constant flow of ferries, floating docks, frigates, destroyers, floating cranes, salvage tugs, patrol boats, petrol boats, coracles, rafts, life vests (and the gondola) is a source of continuing curiosity.
We have a front row view of this frenetic activity from the balcony of our suite. I have to be dragged off for our morning walk.
And so we saunter through a town of wide avenues and grandly austere naval buildings, past scores of military monuments (there are no less than 1,800 in the city precinct).
As Yalta was unmistakably a resort, so this is unambiguously a naval hub. Groups of sailors move rapidly along the streets, the ribbons flopping from the back of their caps, they jump in and out of small buses, busy officers carry petite black attaché cases and scurry back and forth, their serious looks attesting to important business.
This place conveys a sense of purpose. The military are always very good at that.
Wednesday 6 July. With one and a half million people, Odessa is easily the largest city on the Ukraine’s Black Sea coast.
It escaped serious bombing in World War II as the fine stock of elegant early 20th century buildings in the commercial centre attests.
The buildings nearest the port, and our berth at the passenger ship terminal adjacent to the steep ‘heart attack hill’ Potemkin Steps, have been restored but, if you walk three blocks, the dilapidation sets in – testimony to Communism’s carelessness (or should that be ugliness) about material things, especially object of beauty.
Ingrid’s brother, Evan, who collects languages with the same facility I collect wine labels, would have been a decided asset during our three days in the Ukraine with his repertoire of Ukrainian, Russian and Old Russian.
The Ukrainian language is a subject of great controversy here. Linguistically, most of the country has been Russianised, even native Ukrainians, for the most part, are shaky in their own language.
But after the meltdown of the USSR, the new Ukrainian government determined that Ukraine would be the national language. But language cannot be legislated for.
In New Guinea in the late 1960s, the Australian Administration decided that the use of the Pidgin word meri, meaning ‘woman’, was offensive. So it decided to replace it with a new Pidgin word – woman.
Didn’t really take on despite all the expense and propaganda and 40 years on a woman is still a meri. Language can be subversive and governments meddle with it at their own risk.