My mother, heroic, like all Soviet women, used to take me and my sister on vacation to the Crimea. Well, truth be told, for her it was hardly a vacation. I was, maybe, ten, and my sister – four and a half, when we came there for the first time and made ourselves at home at the apartment of our Feodosia-based distant relatives, who, though, let us in and showed remarkable hospitality. Aunt Nadia, our host, was, I believe, my grandmother’s second cousin and somebody’s aunt, but I am not sure whose.
Mother would get up at six in the morning, run to the market, buy a chicken and some veggies, run back home, make chicken soup, fry some of the chicken parts, boil vegetables, and thus we had lunches for two days: for one we ate the soup and the fried chicken, and for the other, the boiled chicken from the soup. Plus potatoes, this Soviet staple food. I retained a bland Soviet palate for life: unable to tolerate most spices and taste enhancers, prone to choose plain-ish salted potato and bread.
After breakfast mother took us to the beach. At the beach immediately started the drama: one of us, my sister or I, or both, would whine that we want to eat, to drink, or to go to the bathroom. Bathroom was undeniably the most dramatic of all dramas. It was a veritable quest: to find the Minotaur, and then, since complete darkness reigned in the Soviet bathrooms, to find the actual stalls, usually by smell. How our mother survived this kind of vacations, I have no idea.
In the evenings we would walk in the park, eat ice-cream, after having made our poor mother to stand in line for it. We would also go to the movies, where the same French comedy, starring Louis de Funès, played over and over again. The latter was fighting the aliens, dressing up as a nun, and from time to time, singing in the monastery chorus. As a nun Louis de Funès was so funny that we completely forgot about the aliens. Mostly, though, we stayed at home, and I was reading books at the balcony. Thank God, Aunt Nadia, like most Soviet people, had a few shelves of books. Reading was fashionable in the Soviet Union. Mother found for me a perfect read: Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki Expedition: By Raft Across the South Seas, and I sailed with him and his friends to those seas as well. From home I brought with me The Crimean Legends, a collection of rather random stories, legends, tales, and propaganda, especially in relation to “the Soviet Crimea.” I was captured by the more ancient ones, about brave women who defended their castles. As I can see now, those were important role models for me.
A few times we went to the Aivazovsky museum. He was a painter who painted the sea. Through him, I started to love the sea even more, and not only the Feodosia shore. I was not the most healthy child in the world, and I had to spend some time in another Crimean town, Yevpatoria, which was the designated “children’s resort” in the Soviet Union. This means that the whole shore featured one sanatorium after another for disabled children, and on the streets one could see children in wheelchairs, children without limbs, and with all possible kinds of illnesses; this was probably the only town in the country where this was possible: elsewhere, the disabled were usually hidden from the public’s eye, with no disability access to the buildings and sidewalks, and no tolerance in the society. The sanatoriums, or the “health centers,” as they were called, were organized according to the humane principles of the Soviet orphanages, and used advanced strategies, such as hiring sadists for personnel and encouraging bulling among the inmates. My parents endured a lot of hardships trying to secure a place for me at this paradise: they had to bring gifts to appease the bureaucrats.
…Looking back, I understand that, except for these kinds of memories, I have nothing else. I know nothing else about the Crimea except the banal tales of Soviet intelligentsia: we came to stay with relatives for the summer, we swam in the sea, ate ice cream, went to the museums. I am mad at myself for this: why, why do I know so little, why do I understand so little? I am mad at the epoch, too: how could they, all these people who were rewriting history, why? Why all we have left are the stories of a Soviet citizen warmed by the sun?.. Where is the real history? Where are the Crimean Tatars? Why was I not aware then that they are the real masters of this land? Or, maybe, I did sense it on some level. After all, some Ukrainian writers of the past did write about this: Mykhailo Kotsiubynsky, Lesya Ukrayinka… I did walk past the mosque in Yevpatoria. I did love the toponyms: Demerdzhi, Hurzuf, Ayu-Dag,Chatyr-Dag, they sounded like portals into another dimension. But… but the Crimea was a sort of a Kon-Tiki for us, a “resort”, a fairy tale, a piece cut out from the continent. It floated and floated further into the sea, unattached to any country. It was not a part of any timeline or any marked space.
We did not know how to see the Crimea in its overwhelming diversity, how to read all its texts – the ancient, the Greek, the Crimean Tatar, the Ukrainian, the Russian, the Soviet, the post-Soviet… The books about the Crimea did not contain anything about the Tatars, or the Ukrainian writers who did write about them. The books did not mention either the Red Terror or the deportation of 1944.
…I was always fascinated by the history of the Earth in its geological sense, all the periods and eras – Paleozoic, Mesozoic, the movement of the continents, mountains, rivers, this endless converging and diverging, rotation of species, eruptions of volcanos, and emerging of lakes and oceans. There is something very calming about all this. It is a vantage point from which you see your life in a different light. No wonder that Hryhory Chubai, one of our best poets, likes to look at certain civilizational trifles, such as the Communist party of the Soviet Union, from the perspective of the Mesozoic era. After all, the latter lasted for hundreds of millions of years, unlike the former. Similarly, I think about the Tethys ocean, or sea, which in the present we know as the Black Sea. At some point Tethys turned into a lake because the water level dropped; it had no more connection to the world oceans. Later it became a sea again – the Bosporus emerged and reconnected the Tethys to the salt waters. Salt water rushed into the basin of Tethys, and destroyed the fauna and flora of Tethys-the-lake…
I am not sure why I imagine all this. Maybe this is a way to meditate. Maybe it is important to know that our connection to a place, or the earth, or the surface, is not accidental. That this connection is very old. The present is a surface of sorts, too, but it is the depth that can provide answers.
Though I don’t know which questions one should ask to receive these answers.