It was the dream-house of a man who had power and money enough to make dreams come true. Livadia Palace stands today almost exactly as he ordered it, with all its modern conveniences of elevators and hot and cold running water, built of white limestone in the fashionable Italian-Renaissance style of its day. It was all put up in a record time of 15 months, with every one of its 116 rooms offering superb views of garden or forest, half-mile-high cliffs just to the north or the endless blue of the Black Sea just to the south or the leafy streets and elegant villas of the fashionable seaside resort of Yalta two miles to the east.. ""We don't find words to express our joy and pleasure we have in such a house," he wrote to his mother, "built exactly as we wished."
He was Nicholas the Second, Tsar of all the Russias, a gentle kindly uninteresting man, passionately devoted to his wife and his five lovely children, and this was a place of sun and quiet, protected by a majestic mountain range from the arctic winds that roamed the rest of Russia at will, a place where he could listen to the fountains plashng among the exotic plants in his immense gardens, walk in the woods with his family, climb mountains with them, play tennis with them, read Sir Walter Scott to them at night, worship in his garishly ornate chapel, play billiards on his English billiard table, give dinners for a hundred and twenty guests in his dining room, take photos with one of the first Kodaks put on the market of his family at play, and forget all the tiresome responsibilities of ruling the second-largest empire in the world,. It was all made ready for him in the happy year of 1911, when his country was enjoying a first-class economic boom, just three years before he was to watch it slip into the disastrous folly of World War I, and seven years before he and his wife and all the five children were to be murdered by soldiers of the Revolution in the cellar of a house a thousand dreary miles away from his palace of Livadia.
The palace and its grounds have been studiously and handsomely restored, and hundreds of people come daily to look at the family photos on the walls, and the charming watercolors of the garden done in their schoolroom by the little princesses Olga and Tatiana, and the Tsar's library and his billiard table, and many of them kneel to pray in his chapel, for the Russian Orthodox Church has begun the process of declaring him a Saint.
But of course for most of the visitors Nicholas II and his family form only a tangential object of curiosity. They come to Livadia because it was for eight days in February of 1945 the meeting-place of three men who occupied the center of all the attention and all the hopes of humanity, it was a spot of sunlight shining through the black warclouds which had covered the earth for four and half years.
They were the Big Three, and their pictures appeared in every newspaper and newsreel in the world, and later in all the history books - bulldog Winston Churchill with his cigar, wan dying Franklin Roosevelt making heroic efforts to flash his great old gladhand smile, Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin with his sly Caucasian-bandit grin, the man who had come closest to losing everything and could now bask in the enjoyment of more loot and more power than had ever been dreamed of by all the previous tsars of Russia put together -- all three beaming with friendship and contentment as they studied the map of the world in the dining room or relaxed outside under the mild Crimean sun in the Italian courtyard.
Attending this Crimean conference -- which the world inaccurately but implacably insists on calling it the Yalta conference -- required a long and potentially hazardous journey for the two leaders of the democratic world. .Roosevelt had first had to take a 4000-mile voyage by Navy cruiser to Malta in the middle of the Mediterranean for a meeting with Churchill, who had flown down from London (one of the British planes carrying part of his staff crashed on the way, killing most of the people of board). After briefly reviewing the world"s military and diplomatic state, the two leaders flew off with some seven hundred attendants -- diplomats, military staff, technicians, typists, doctors, plus a sightseer or two like Churchill's daughter - in 25 four-engined planes on a 1400-mile course which swerved well out of the way of any possible interference by enemy planes, over the eastern Mediterranean and Turkey and the Black Sea to land at Saki airfield in the Crimea, then taking an eight-hour automobile ride, with concerts by military bands and picnic tables laden with champagne vodka caviar and sturgeon along the way, over winding mountain roads to the palaces that had been prepared for them.
Roosevelt was lodged in the Livadia Palace, which as a gesture to his infirmity was also the site of all the meetings between the three leaders. Churchill was put up ten miles away at the Vorontsov palace -- which was also used as a meeting place for the foreign ministers to whom problems were shunted when the big boys could not come to any conclusion -- in the town of Alushta. Here an extravagant Russian nobleman had hired an extravagant English architect in the 1830's to build a home in a wild hodge-podge of styles --it was a gothic castle facing the jagged cliffs to the north and a Moorish palace with a giant inscription over its front door proclaiming that there is no God but God facing the sea to the south, its monumental staircase guarded by six stone lions of which one bears a singular facial resemblance to Winston Churchill.
Everything had been brought down from Moscow to make a suitably brilliant and luxurious setting for what was clearly meant to be the greatest of all Summit conferences. The servants, the silver, the glassware, the vodka, the carpets and hangings, "the gilt furniture," as Churchill's physician Lord Moran put it, "the lashings of caviar, the grand air of luxury, nothing left out but cleanliness." American DDT took care of the bedbugs which gnawed the Prime Minister"s feet on the first night, and no complaint however minor was left unattended to. Britain's Air Chief Marshal Portal remarked casually one evening that there was no lemon peel in his cocktail, and the very next morning a potted lemon tree was brought into the hall of the Vorontsov Palace.
Churchill once said that they couldn't have found a worse place for a conference than Yalta if they had spend ten years looking for it. But he had to make the best of it. It was the only place in Russia both warm enough in February and undamaged enough by the war to be suitable. And the conference had to be in Russia, partly because Stalin's doctors warned him against long journeys, (he is said to have a heart attack on the way back from the previous Big Three meeting in Teheran fifteen months earlier) but mostly because Russia was where the action was. Stalin was personally directing the great Russian offensive which had driven to within forty miles of Berlin. And though there were now 2 million American and English troops on the European continent, the Russian front remained, as it had been for three and half years, what the western front in France had been in the last world war, the decisive theater of war, the place where as Churchill once told the House of Commons, the guts were torn out of the Germany Army. In the two decisive years beginning with Hitler's invasion of Russia, ninety-four percent of German army casualties were on the Russian front, against six percent in what the American Secretary of War called "pinpricks" delivered by the British and Americans in North Africa, the Balkans, Italy and the skies over Europe. Even when they invaded Europe in force in 1944, they were playing second fiddle: in the two months in which they won their greatest victory, the battle of Normandy, when they could count 530,000 German casualties, the Russians on their front could count 700,000.
As they sat down for their first joint session in the dining room of the Livadia Palace at 5 pm on Sunday February 4, the three leaders were at the zenith of their power and glory. They were the Big Three, the arbiters of the universe, and they might be pardoned if they felt a certain thrill of pride as they considered what they had done and what they might yet do. They were old men (they were all over sixty!) who had spent their lives clambering up what Disraeli called the greased pole of politics (in Stalin's case there was much blood mixed with the grease) who had seen this war begin with sudden catastrophic defeats for their nations -- the wiping out of the French army in the spring1940, the wiping out of half the Russian army in the summer and fall of 1941, Pearl Harbor and Manila in December 1941 -- but who had rallied their nations, fought back through grievous disappointments and terrible losses, to turn the tide. They had chased their great enemy Adolf Hitler, who only yesterday had seemed invincible, back to his lair, to cower in a cellar in Berlin while their armies closed in relentlessly across the smoking ruins of Germany.
They had managed to hold together what Churchill called a Grand Alliance of totally dissimilar and fundamentally hostile partners , they had moved millions of men, thousands of ships, tens of thousands of airplanes over more immense distances than any previous war in the history of mankind had known. They had faced down all the dangers of untrustworthy allies, opposition and envy at home, bitter losses and disappointments on the battlefields.. They had all made mistakes, sometimes catastrophic mistakes -- the casualties resulting from Stalin's panicky order not to retreat an inch when the Germans attacked in the summer of 1941 were numbered in the millions. But unlike Hitler, who lost his head when he began losing battles, they had learned from their mistakes. There has been no end of historians, generals, television commentators and others who have pointed out that the war could have been won much faster if these historians, generals and commentators had been in charge. The fact remains that it was these three men who did the job, and people who insist that no single individual has any influence at all on the course of history should consider what things would be like today if the Big Three had all been killed by bomb or assassin's bullet in 1941, and the Allies had been led through world War II by their seconds-in-command, Henry A. Wallace, Clement Attlee and Vyacheslav M. Molotov.
Now was the time for their last hurrah. Their war was thundering toward an early end, and the world was waiting for them not only to wrap it up victoriously but to find the formulas for a new and lasting peace.
The men of Yalta, whatever else thy were, were realists and they knew that they were not going to do any such thing in eight days. If they needed someone to counsel patience, they had only to look at the plaster statue which still stands at one end of the dining room, a statue of Penelope ordered by Nicholas II which still stands at one end of the dining room, Penelope who in Greek legend had to sit weaving patiently and repetitiously for twenty years till her husband Odysseus came back to chase away the wicked suitors and save his kingdom.
Big as they were, the Big Three (who, as the British diplomat Alexander Cadogan noted sadly, were now really the Big Two and a Half, since Churchill's Britain had no longer the populationand the resources to keep up with the pace of a world war) could neither rewrite the past nor foresee, let alone control, the future. They knew that the boundaries of the world were being changed by the armies of the world, eastern Europe was in the grip of the Red Army and western Europe of the western allies, and in summit diplomacy as in the Old West, possession has always been nine points of the law. The only European boundary line they specifically changed at Yalta was the one between Poland and the Soviet Union. Under pressure from Roosevelt, Stalin agreed to give the Poles a tiny sliver of the land he had grabbed from them in 1939 by moving this line five or so kilometers to the east.
The Russians and the Western powers had two totally contradictory and incompatible ideas of the world, and there was no underlying confidence or trust between them. The western powers could not forget or forgive that the Soviet Union had sat out the war for two years from 1939 to 1941 while Hitler was chewing them up, the Soviets could not forget or forgive the three years from 1941 to 1944, when the Anglo-Americans methodically marshaled and trained their invasion armies in comparative comfort while the Russians did all the fighting.
Apart from crushing the Nazi menace which had almost undone them all, there was precious little that they could agree on at Yalta. But they had no choice: they had to make an agreement. For -- as the many critics who have denounced them ever since tend to forget -- there was a war on, a war they had come close to losing and which, though they were on the verge of winning it, was not yet won.
Only six weeks before the conference opened, the supposedly shattered German army had stunned the western allies with a powerful offensive in the Ardennes -- the "Battle of the Bulge" -- which until it petered out in a couple of weeks caused panic at headquarters and loud appeals for a Russian offensive in the east to take off the pressure. A few weeks after the Conference an offensive of similar size held up the Russian advance through Hungary and Austria for a couple of weeks. Day and night bombing had not yet wiped out German war industry, and Germany had an ominous technical lead of at least several months -- which in a total war could be equivalent of light-years -- over the allies in weapons of the future like jet aircraft, rockets, and silent submarines.
Until the last shot was fired, the Big Three were very much in the position of the members of the continental Congress to whom Benjamin Franklin said in 1776 that they had to hang together or hang separately. If they had started to squabble among themselves, they would be repeating the folly of Hitler who assumed after his sensational victorias in the summer of1941 that the Russian bear was dead and wasted irreplaceable time spinning out plans (one of which was to annex the Crimea, get rid of all its inhabitants and replace them with brawny brown-shirted Germans) to carve up its skin.
The military staffs at the conference estimated that it would take from five to twelve more months of fighting to stamp out the last Nazi resistance. It turned out to take only three -- three months in which American Lend-Lease kept pouring millions of dollars worth of tanks and trucks and fuel and food into Russia because without them the Red Army could only advance at the pace of a foot soldier and a million German soldiers might be freed to face the Americans on the Rhine. And the Red army kept swelling the rivers of blood it had been shedding since June 22 1941 -- some eight or nine million dead or missing, little less than the combined size of the American and British armed forces in Europe and Asia and on the seven seas..
Now the Big Three went to work trying to reconcile their irreconcilable differences, or at least paper them over the way diplomats have done since the beginning of diplomacy, trying to make deals and compromises when they could and trying to outwit their opponents by beguiling talk. They talked and talked, hundreds of thousands of words of talk, in a generally relaxed atmosphere. They toasted each other, they flattered each other, and though they might make barbed references to past grievances and betrayals, they never raised their voices, as was to occur later that year that year in the Potsdam Conference when President Truman made a proposal for international supervision of the Danube River, which was almost entirely under Russian control, and Stalin, breaking into the English language for the first time any one's memory, said very firmly, "NO. I SAY NO."
They were not above using what Churchill liked to call terminological inexactitudes on one another. Roosevelt at Teheran, knowing that invocations of morality would get nowhere with Stalin, had told him that there were seven million Polish-American voters who might throw him out of office if he didn't stand up for the interests of their mother country. When he brought them up again at Yalta, Stalin replied that of the seven million Poles in America only seven thousand voted, "and he made his statement," says an admiring historian, "with particular emphasis, certain that he was right." Both statements represented exaggerations, in different directions, of several hundred percent. Later at Yalta, when Roosevelt asked if some members of the Polish government which Stalin had set up in Lublin could not be asked to put in an appearance at Yalta to explain their needs and their plans, Stalin -- who loved to call factory managers at three in the morning to find out if they were doing their job right -- said it was a very good idea, but unfortunately they had left Lublin and he didn't have their phone numbers.
They might work out compromises and make minor concessions on minor matters such as whether to let the French share in the occupation of Germany (OK, said Stalin, as long as the French share comes out of the American and British zones). Or how many votes the Soviet Union would have in the general Assembly of the United Nations which was scheduled o meet soon in New York (Stalin wanted fifteen, but he settled for three.) But on all the major issues -- what kinds of governments would take over in all the countries liberated from the immense territories liberated from the yoke of Nazi Germany, what would become of Germany itself - - they simply postponed making decisions, they shunted them aside to their foreign ministers or other bodies which never got any further with them than they did. They agreed that the Germans should pay reparations for all the misery and destruction they had caused, but they could not agree on how much. In practice, each of the victors took as much away from vanquished Germany as they felt like. The Russians carted off something like four hundred and fifty factories complete with all their machinery and equipment. The Americans got a better deal when they made off with Wernher von Braun and his team of rocket scientists who would help give the U. S. an insurmountable lead in the race into the technological future. In the end they all decided to heed the common sense advice Churchill had given at Yalta, "If you want a horse to pull your wagon you must give it some hay," and they all set to work furiously rebuilding German industry.
They agreed that Poland should get a chunk of eastern Germany to make up for losing their eastern provinces which had been assigned to the Soviet Union at the Teheran conference fifteen months before Yalta. But they could not agree on how much territory. Stalin solved the problem unilaterally by giving the Poles about a third of the occupation zone in Germany which had been assigned to him by agreement in the fall of 1944.
. Stalin had, while talking with British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden three years previously in Moscow, explained pithily what he thought of the decisions of international conferences. "Declarations -- that is like algebra; treaties or agreements -- that is practical arithmetic. We prefer arithmetic to algebra."
He, however, had no qualms about putting his signature, along with Roosevelt's and Churchill's, to the nine agreements and one declaration which were triumphantly issued on the last day of the Yalta Conference, all of them representing a triumph of algebra, full of x's and y's that could stand for anything any of the signatories wanted them to. They promised the world that, once the evils of Nazism and Fascism had ben totally wiped out, they would help the liberated peoples in "the earliest possible establishment through free election of governments responsive to the will of the people," and would go on "to build in cooperation with other peace-loving nations a world order under law, dedicated to peace, security, freedom and the general well-being of all mankind." A separate document pledged that Poland would hold "free and unfettered elections as soon as possible on the basis of universal suffrage and secret ballot."
Of this last promise Admiral William D. Leahy who was on the American delegation commented to his boss that it was so elastic that the Russians could "stretch it all the way from Yalta to Washington without ever technically breaking it." "I know, Bill - I know it," said Roosevelt. "But that's the best I can do for Poland at this time." Possession was still nine points of the law.
There was in fact one major arithmetical agreement made on the last day of the Yalta Conference, but it turned out to be as illusory as a barrel of x's. In an agreement kept secret for obvious military reasons. Stalin promised to declare war against Japan within three months of the end of the war in Europe. As payment he asked, and got, a promise of the return of territory and commercial privileges which Tsarist Russia had lost in its war with Japan forty years before. This was considered a diplomatic triumph for Roosevelt, who for three years had been under intense pressure from strong voices in the American military and the American press to get the Russians into the war in Asia, in the hope of reducing the million or more American casualties which an attack on the Japanese Islands was expected to involve. Stalin was always happy to keep his word when it suited him: he declared war on Japan three months to the day after the surrender of Germany, one day after the bomb dropped on Hiroshima had made Russian involvement in this particular war not only unnecessary but undesirable from the American point of view. However, there was nothing anybody could do about it, and Stalin quietly occupied all the territory he wanted.
When the Yalta agreements were made public on February 12, 1945, the world was ecstatic. Walter Lippmann, the reigning sage of the American press, wrote that "Not since the unity of the ancient world disrupted has there been so good a prospect of a settled peace."
It did not take the world long to discover that whatever Yalta had done, it had not produced a "settled peace." Barely a week after the conference ended, Stalin would show how he interpreted the algebraic words "free and unfettered elections" when he sent one of his hatchet-men, Andrei Vyshinsky, to Bucharest to present King Michael with a list of the good Communists with whom he was to constitute the democratic government of liberated Rumania, or else. And as it became clear that none of the other problems postponed at Yalta was going to find an amicable settlement, the world opinion of the conference changed drastically. In America a chorus of criticism which would go on for half a century accused Roosevelt of having betrayed freedom by giving eastern Europe away to the communists. In Russia, after Stalin was safely dead, Russian generals wrote books to say that Stalin had betrayed his people at Yalta by calling off an offensive headed for Berlin which was scheduled to begin in early February and might have scooped up all of Germany and its industrial powerhouse before the western Allies had recovered from the shock of the battle of the Bulge.
In the blinding clarity of hindsight, both reactions seem like emotional explosions with little or no connection to the facts. Indeed it might be said that in the eight-hundred year old chronicles of Summit conferences since Richard the Lion Heart made a deal with Saladin in the 12th century, only the 16th-century Field of the Cloth of Gold, where the Kings of England and France showed off their magnificence to each other for several weeks without talking about anything serious, had less effect on the actual course of events than Yalta..
Still, the images remain, and the Yalta conferecen is still generally regarded as marking the end of the hot-war alliance and the beginning of the Cold War.
The great men signed their documents, posed for photographs and departed, to go back to directing the fighting and the jockeying for position in the postwar world. The Crimea in general, and the town of Yalta in particular, could slowly resume its peace-time role of Russian vacationland.
The buildings which had been blown up or vandalized by the Germans were rebuilt, and new Soviet-style housing projects, referred to by their inhabitants as chicken-coops, were put up. Yalta again became a center for sanatoria for tubercular patients, a center for regimented vacations for deserving miners and factory workers, above all a place where the new Tsars, from Stalin to Gorbachev, with their ranking aides and advisers, could come to pass quiet days in palaces like Livadia or in luxurious seaside dachas, and get some temporary relief from the burdens of international crises and a slowly collapsing economy. Khrushchev was vacationing in one of those dachas when he learned he had been booted on to the ash-heap of history by his friends on the Politburo in Moscow. Gorbachev was here in an even more elegant dacha when he was arrested by agents of the hard-line Stalinists who seized power for a few hours in 1991. .
The Crimean Tartars, descendants of the warriors brought from central Asia by Genghis Khan, who formed about thirty percent of the population, had shown insufficient enthusiasm for the Great Patriotic War against the Nazi invaders, in fact many of them had collaborated with the invaders. Shortly after the end of the war, they were all rounded up, every last man woman and child, and flogged into exile in central Asia. (The survivors and their children are drifting back to their abandoned villages today.) The other inhabitants went back to the institutionalized absurdities of social life in a Soviet socialist system where all decisions were made in Moscow and ordinary people had to work out their individual lives with barter and black-marketing and private deals and scrounging and finagling and petty peculations.
"I was ten years old," recalls a witness of those days, "going to a girls school which was up in the hills near the Livadia Palace. One day we saw Stalin being driven up the road. He was a funny-looking little man with red hair and freckles and he stuck his chest out to show off his medals. Of course we all adored him, he was the savior of our country. When his car had taken the next turn, along came some sinister men in black running as hard as they could, and we all assumed they were imperialist spies who were always plotting against the fatherland, and we threw stones at them. Then it turned out they were KGB men who were Stalin's bodyguards. Fortunately, my father who was director of the school..had relatives in the KGB, and the only result was that they moved the school a few miles away."
One consequence for Yalta of having these distinguished visitors was that the road leading to and from the Simferopol airport was turned into one of the few, if not the only, thoroughly modern highway in the Soviet Union, with rosebushes planted all along it to add the sweet smell of success to their journey.
Life has remained reasonably quiet in Yalta since the unscheduled disappearance of the Soviet Union, full of the usual absurdities, anomalies and malfunctioning plumbing of a Socialist society. A typical story concerns another international conference which took place at Alushta a few years ago, a conference of the great names in the field of mathematical physics. As each of the distinguished guests got up to help unlock the secrets of the universe with blackboards on which they could write their equations, it turned out that the chalk which had been ordered by one far-off government bureau was incompatible with the blackboards which had been provided by another, and could no more write on them than it could on plastic shopping bags. When I told this story to a Yalta school teacher, she showed neither surprise nor interest. It happens in our school all the time, she said.
Details like this give a certain sense of the off-center and bizarre to life in the republic of Ukraine, even more so in the Crimea which had for two hundred years been a part of Russia but which in 1954 was handed over to the Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine by Nikita Khrushchev, either to simplify administrative work (the Crimea is attached to Ukraine by a narrow strip of land while it is separated from the mainland of Russia by a narrow strip of water), or, in the version favored by most inhabitants I spoke to, because he was dead drunk. No one paid the slightest attention to this action in 1954, since all orders came from Moscow anyway, but when Ukraine suddenly became an independent republic in 1991 it almost led to a war because the battleships and submarines of the Black sea Fleet were based in the Crimean port of Sebastopol, where they still are, perfectly idle, and draining millions of Russian rubles and Ukrainian hrivny to keep from rusting away. In Yalta, as in most to the Crimea, the population is almost entirely Russian, no one speaks Ukrainian, there are no Ukrainian newspapers in the news-stands, where the most popular items are Russian translations of John Grisham and the Russian editions of Playboy and Cosmopolitan magazines.
Nobody in the throngs of bronzed and healthy-looking people who swarm up and down the promenade at Yalta, which except that the beach itself is stony might pass as a miniature reproduction of Miami Beach, finds anything unusual about this situation, any more than the continued presence of the statue of Lenin which stands staring vacantly out to see. (It would cost too much to replace it, say people when asked.) There is after all a long tradition in this part of the world of living under the control of distant foreigners -- Viking pirates or Tartar Khans or Polish pans or Muscovite Tsars or Bolshevik commissars -- whose decisions and decrees are not necessarily expected to make sense.
Like their ancestors, today's inhabitants of Yalta manage to scrape along. They watch with a resigned eye as the Gross National Product, more than 50 percent of which is supplied, according to the latest estimates, by the underground, black-market economy, shrinks a few fractions of a percent every year, along with the population. The Ukraine, with its immense agricultural, mineral and industrial resources, is potentially one of the richest countries in Europe, and when the crop of predatory ex-Soviet officials who are now running it dies off, presumably there will be some kind of improvement. .In the meanwhile the standard resource of disadvantaged people is to dream of a better future (perhaps a computer job in Canada) and meanwhile tell funny stories about their rulers. Did you know that the most prosperous group of working people in the republic is the traffic cops? Indeed you can see them at regular intervals on all the leafy boulevards of Kiev and other cities, opening up the hoods and trunks of cars and holding animated discussions with the drivers over how much cash they can produce to keep from getting a ticket. At the curb meanwhile, the BMW limousines of the Úlite stand in silent pride in front of the No Parking signs.
A member of that Úlite, a candidate for president in the October 1999 elections, was questioned by the press about the 70-million-dollar loan for agricultural equipment which he got from the U. S. Export-Import Bank and which was subsequently paid off with interest by the Ukrainian government: "Show me the dollar I touched," he challenged them. "You know it was credit in commodities. Sure, I could misappropriate a combine, a truck, herbicides.. But how could I steal the money if the Americans did not give even a cent in cash? Really it is funny."...
No one seems to care as they parade along the waterfront holding hands or pushing baby carriages through the deafening blasts of rock 'n roll music, dispensing their small change frugally on balloons, TwirlieWhirlies and hot dogs.
In the handful of elegant 1911-style restaurants with their fine linen and soft music you may see the staff clustered at the entrance listening to rock-and-roll recordings while all the tables are empty except for an occasional German tourist couple or a pair of Moscow mafiosi washing down their dinner with bottles of fine Alushta wines at a total cost of about twenty dollars, roughly two thirds of the average Ukrainian citizen's monthly wage..
You would think that a place like this would be awash in money. Yalta and the whole Crimean south coast has everything that the Italian and French Riviera and the Malaga Coast have in the way of blue sky and gentle climate, beaches, mountains and deep blue sea, ancient ruins and romantic chasms -- everything but the overcrowding and the pollution -- and they have a friendly well-educated hard-working population and the Livadia Palace besides. But practically no foreign tourists come here, because nobody knows what to do with them. The United Nations sent a mission a few years back to teach the local authorities something about the business of luring tourists and keeping them satisfied, but a former member of Mission has told me the task is hopeless. The Ukraine is run by people, he said, who were brought up in a system where private tourists were regarded much as were private businessmen, germs capable of spreading dreadful infections. So they miss no opportunity for making life uncomfortable for both categories today, even in the rare cases where they may genuinely want to encourage them. It will take fifty years for the mentalities to change, he said.
Not necessarily. Sometimes things can happen fast in this part of the world. They are generally calamities, it is true, like Stalin's collectivization of agriculture in the 1930's which killed millions, or the Nazi invasion and occupation of 1942-3 which aimed, said Heinrich Himmler who was Hitler's most powerful subordinate, at exterminating thirty million Slavs and came a good way toward its goal.
But less unpleasant things can happen. It was less than twenty years ago that a Ukrainian nationalist carrying his message to Washington was told by a U, S. Secretary of State that the very idea of an independent Ukraine was as phony as a three-dollar bill. And any one who at that time had predicted that Poland would before the end of the millennium have a democratic government chosen in free and unfettered elections with a secret ballot would have been considered hopelessly naive. Nevertheless, it happened, just as the Big Three at Yalta had said it would, though presumably they would have been as surprised as everybody else by the way it happened.
© 1999 Robert Wernick
An abridged version of this text appeared in Smithsonian Magazine, January 2000