By Corey Sandler
As Abraham Lincoln said in a message to the U.S. Congress in the days leading up to the Emancipation Proclamation, “We cannot escape history.”
It is interesting to view his words from 1862, in the early days of the Civil War, through the prism of today.
Lincoln continued, “We…will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation.”
Ukraine is a place of great culture and beauty and a complex and tumultuous history.
This blog is about travel, not politics. But it is impossible for me to think of Ukraine as it is today without hearing the echoes of inescapable history. We’ve been to Ukraine several times–in its wobbly final years under a corrupt, puppet government and then just after the Maidan Revolution in 2014 as a ghost war erupted in its eastern provinces at the same time as the country renewed efforts toward establishing a European-oriented democracy.
Ukraine—the Borderlands—has an ancient and complex story, almost always a pawn in games played by others.
Like much of the Black Sea region, its ports were home to important Greek settlements and then Roman castrum and eventually the Eastern Roman Empire or Byzantine Empire.
In the Middle Ages came nomadic tribes like the Petchenegs and the Cumans or Polovtsy. Then came the Golden Horde, a confederation of Mongol and Turkic tribes, and then the Tatars. And Old Great Bulgaria in the 7th century.
By the 14th century, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was the largest state in Europe, occupying parts of what are now Russia, Belarus, Poland, and Ukraine.
Next came the Ottomans, about 1529; they held onto parts of Ukraine until that empire fell in the Russo-Turkish War of 1792.
It was then part of or allied with Russia, except for several years of World War II when Ukraine was occupied and besieged by Germany.
Today, depending on the disputed borderline of the moment, Ukraine is the largest country wholly in Europe, just ahead of France.
(Russia—the biggest country on the planet—and Turkey cover more territory, but each stands with one foot in Europe and the other in Asia.)
On the southern coast of Crimea, Yalta is probably best known—by those who remember history—as the site of the 1945 conference which redrew the borderlines of postwar Eastern Europe as World War II neared its end, setting into place the borders that would foster the Cold War.
The Yalta Conference brought together the “Big Three Powers”: the Soviet Union, the United States, and the United Kingdom. Joseph Stalin, Franklin Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill met at Livadia Palace.
Sevastopol, also in Crimea, was and once again is a home base for the Russian Black Sea Fleet, which made it a military target in many wars.
West of Sevastopol are the ruins of the ancient Greek port of Chersonesus Taurica, founded in the 5th century BC. The tourist bureau, if one still exists, would have you call Chersonesus the “Ukrainian Pompeii” or the “Russian Troy.”
Odessa: The Pearl of the Black Sea
Located on the mainland of Europe, not on the Crimean Peninsula that dangles below it, Odessa is a handsome cosmopolitan city.
Like Saint Petersburg in Russia, Odessa was heavily influenced by Mediterranean culture and architecture: grand Art Nouveau, Renaissance, and Classicist designs.
The great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin lived in Odessa in internal exile between 1823 and 1824. He wrote that Odessa was a city where “the air is filled with all Europe, French is spoken, and there are European papers and magazines to read.”
Another architectural treasure in Odessa is Vorontsov’s Palace, completed in 1830 for Prince Mikhail Semyonovich Vorontsov.
The design was by the Sardinian architect Francesco Boffo; Vorontsov was so pleased with Boffo’s work that he engaged him to design a grand flight of stairs down to the sea.
Looking down the stairs toward the port you see only the landings, and the steps are invisible; looking up you see only steps.
In 1905, Odessa was the site of an event that would be celebrated by rising revolutionaries.
It was here that the crew of the Russian battleship Potemkin rose up in mutiny against their Czarist officers, merging with a workers’ uprising.
That mutiny became part of the symbology of the Soviet Union mostly because of Sergei Eisenstein’s great silent film from 1925, “The Battleship Potemkin.”
The film included a scene where hundreds of Odessan citizens were murdered on the great stone staircase, the Primorsky Steps, or as they are now known, the Potemkin Steps.
Eisenstein made the film as revolutionary propaganda, but the techniques of cinematography he employed are still the building blocks of motion pictures.
In the film, the Czar’s soldiers in their white summer tunics march down a seemingly endless flight of steps like a war machine, firing volleys into a crowd.
A separate detachment of mounted Cossacks charges the crowd at the bottom of the stairs.
And its most famous scene: a mother pushing an infant in a baby carriage is shot and falls to the ground, releasing her grip on the carriage which bounces and rolls down the steps amidst the fleeing crowd.
It remains one of the most famous and compelling scenes in motion picture history.
Anytime you see a set of stairs and a baby carriage in a movie, a director is nodding in the direction of Odessa and Sergei Eisenstein. And in doing so, reminding us of the horrors of war.
All photos by Corey Sandler, all rights reserved.