Black Sea of Concrete
The fertile Ukraine – Hitler dreamt of it but it fell prey to Stalin. It was him and the likes who planted this land. They did what they could. They are long gone but the fertile land of Ukraine continues to yield its crop – subsequent lumps of concrete. Its surface is covered with cracks and rust-colored patches but it is still firmly set in the ground. It is like a prick of conscience in the fable-like landscape of the Black Sea. It reminds that changes happen only slowly. It resembles Ukraine which is very keen to change but somehow it fails to. As if the concrete not only filled an external but also internal space. Only a few years passed from the Orange Revolution and people have already lost their hope that it would succeed, that they may be better off. They are confused and tired of political chaos. They were not better off in the past. It is true. But there was an order. And now their lot has not improved and there is no order either. – Let Eastern Ukraine along with Crimea return to Russia, and the Western part of the country join the European Union – says Alexandr sipping his beer. He is twenty five and has plenty of time to drink beer even though he officially
works in a hotel in Alushta. Once the whole Soviet Union would rest in Black Sea resorts. Soviet vacationers left behind Soviet architecture, mentality and sentiment. In Crimea few people speak
Ukrainian. The very fact that it has been recognized as an official language of Ukraine is considered by many locals as a presidential whim. But not a dangerous one if they talk about it…in Russian.
The first thing which strikes the eye is concrete. Miles of grey blocks taking on various shapes and configurations on the verge of the sea. The massive Soviet heritage is not a match for the delightful landscape which surrounds this place. Patches of industrial zones and scrap yards almost pouring into the sea look more like a background for a new series of paintings by Hieronymus Bosch. Nature pressed up against the wal-
lattempts to defend itself destroying inadequate human-made structures.
So far – a draw. Both what is human – and God-made is equally destroyed.
The coast has already been renovated and cleaned as a living room before a visit of some guests. These guests is a new breed of tourists - wealthy men - so they should get a sumptuous treatment. Sevastopol, a city – hero, welcomes with impressive, clean house. At least in the center. On the other side of the bay – as usual. A ferry for 3 hryvnyas cruises on a mild wave as if bowing to the 9-storey socialist-time blocks of flats. They were built on an old tsar’s stronghold, the ruins of which start right after metal garages. Old mixes with new and garbage mountains connect
the two. The fortifications which used to protect Sevastopol from invaders in the old times serve now
as a dump. However, the view is unique. On one side the center of Sevastopol shining with white,
on the other – an open sea with slowly cruising tankers in the distance. Goats graze on the grassy part.
— When he sails out a child is borne in the meantime, then he goes out to sea again and when he comes back the child starts speaking — Tatiana Karetnikova, a sailor’s wife
My name is Alex. I do what most of the residents of my city do. I sell souvenirs. Alex recites his text as a schoolboy asked by a teacher. He is nineteen and claims that he is a history student. – In my leisure time I fence. It is a little expensive hobby but quite popular across the world – he adds suddenly. After each question he engages in a monologue fifteen minutes long. This is how he wants to fill time. It is an off season and one needs to fill plenty of empty time. – It is an ancient city. Streets are slightly dirty but it is a dust of history – concludes on a serious note. On a promenade imitations of ancient architecture sit next to a rusty cloakroom for bathers. The only place open at this early hour
where one can have breakfast is a snack bar at a bus terminal. This is where contemporary life takes place. Asked if one
can get some cream a shop assistant replies with a disarming smile – There is none. A crisis. At the tables sit regular
customers: bus and marshrutka drivers eat scrambled eggs. They do not seem to be too much concerned with the crisis.
— I can’t live without sea anymore. — Sasha, fisherman
The southern coast of Crimea is a paradise – says Vladimir who lives in an industrial city of Dniprodzerzhynsk situated in the eastern Ukraine. – If I were to choose I would like to live in Alushta – he adds. Alushta is really a paradise. A Soviet version, that is. And more accurately how a paradise could look like if somebody wanted to finish the job. A huge concrete skeleton towers over a small resort. An unfinished hotel – a giant situated on the mountainside with an impressive view of the sea. To get from this behemoth to a beach you go through a decrepit and strangely structured labyrinth made of reinforced concrete. A true paradise for local drug addicts with a multitude of nooks and corners. Then you just cut through a road, jump over a rusting fence and get to the beach. Beautiful and rocky one. Paradisal – sort of. The feeling of calmness is stirred only by a concrete breakwater which is 2.5 meters high and resembles a fence for dangerous animals in a zoo. Everything is colorful here. And more precisely two-colored – blue and yellow, national colors of Ukraine in different shades and variations. A paradise for an artist seeking an inspiration in abstraction. Fishermen cottages, ice cream stands or summer datchas resembling bunkers. Fancifulness of concrete slabs’ arrangements as if borrowed from constructive sculptures. The installation goes on and on for miles. People live there in high season. Slightly closer to the center grey concrete slabs thrown in disarray. Another paradise, this one for anglers, because the breakwater cuts several dozen meters into the water. A regular murmur of the sea hovers over it. Despite all this cacophony and mismatch you can feel calm at the shore. Irrational calm. Apparently not the place itself matters but the purpose for which people come here. They want to spend
a few moments with nature. All attempts by humans to tame the sea coast are grotesque and inadequate. Even the ugliness takes on a fascinating dimension. At the same time you feel longing for things that have gone away.
For a state, once powerful with all its concrete, which used to tell you how to live. For something which was clear, transparent and comprehensible. It is now gone. People feel confused and tired of continuous changes. Youths are
tired too – Actually it would be good if Eastern Ukraine rejoined Russia – say Andriej and Sasha carelessly. Both are twenty-something. They play snooker, drink beer from cans. In the old communist times there was no canned beer.
The “Weteran” sanatorium is itself a veteran among sanatoria. Though the building is supposed to be renovated this year as I am assured by a receptionist. Crossing the threshold of the sanatorium is tantamount to turning the clock 50 years back. One can feel here the true breath of the past. Nothing is pretended here. Residents, mainly the veterans of the Great Fatherland War (as the Second World War is called on the territory of the former Soviet Union) indolently play chess in front of the building. Old ladies feed cats wandering in their vicinity. The sanatorium is for them an asylum of an old order. They have a certainty that in this place everything is and will remain just as in the old days. They feel safe here. Many sanatoria in Crimea have been taken over by private owners. They are surrounded by a high wall and available only for people with sufficiently fat wallets. Here equality rules. Everybody is equally worse off. In the evening the retirees are getting ready for a ball. It is then when
the heroes sporting orders on their chests dance as if given a fresh lease of life though only a while ago they were hobbling unsteadily from the stairs leading to the dance
room. For Ivan (83) the most important chapter of his life closed in 1945 when Berlin was captured. He is dancing with Angelina (63) – an old acquaintance from the neigh-
borhood, a retired nurse and a sanatorium’s employee. When they finally captured Berlin they were also dancing with nurses. At least this is how he wants to remember it.
Slawa celebrates his 42nd birthday. He is Russian and is a member of winter swimming enthusiasts’ club. A piece of the sea fenced by a crumbling concrete pier pretends to be a swimming pool. – I wish the winter wasn’t so mild this year – says Slawa – It looks best when everything is frozen and then you can really feel like a walrus. Vodka, sausage, cucumbers and lavash – wheat cake from Transcaucasia baked in stone ovens. A Kazakh with his wife and a Ukrainian rise a toast to their Russian colleague. Slawa feels at home in Crimea. – When the weather is good you can see Russia from here – says Victor from Kazakhstan, he works as a caretaker at the swimming pool. Some time ago Russians wanted to build a bridge which would connect Crimea with Russia but Ukrainians realized soon enough what it might spell. They threatened that they would bomb the bridge and the work was discontinued. Despite bomb threats residents of Crimea treat Russians kindly. In the past it used to be one Soviet state and one nation. For some only
documents changed. – I will show you something – Victor takes me to a room situated next to a locker room and opens the door. The space is filled with old unexploded bombs,
cartridge cases, rusty rifles. In the middle on the floor there is a huge round underwater mine from the Second World War. – No fear. It was disarmed long ago – calms Victor
– A diver I know brings here things he doesn’t hand over to a municipal museum – he adds. It seems that with the mine sitting in the back room Victor feels more at ease.
— I like this profession. It’s romantic. — Seroga, student of Odessa State Marine University
The summer-like sun is burning even though it is mid-December. Silence, calmness and wild dogs. Basking in the sun they idly watch passers-by. It is better not to imagine them when they are hungry and without this sun. – People come in summer with dogs and return without them for unknown reasons – says one of the military museum employees in the town of Gierojevka. The city is officially called Eltigen but still everyone calls it Gierojevka – a heroine. Sixty years ago during a landing on German fortifications a dozen thousand soldiers died here. Just like in Normandy with one difference though - only few heard about Gierojevka and nobody remembers about it. An old combat boat remains of the landing as does a museum
with rusty exposition covered by a thick layer of dust which has not been stirred by visitors for a long
time. Admission is two hryvnya. After the recent economic collapse it is equivalent to about 20 euro cents.
Which cap do you want? A winter one? Or a summer one? With binoculars or without? – asks Yura. He is keen to pose for a picture. The whole Black Sea coast is a border zone. Officially taking pictures is prohibited. Especially in Kerch where Russia is only a stone’s throw away. Enforcing this ban is part of Yura’s responsibility. – I will climb the tower. It will look cool – he shouts. He is 30, lives with his wife and a child in a ghastly borderland development with a great view of the sea. After half an hour of conversation you get a feeling that you are old friends and almost start planning vacations together. Yura stiffens, grins,
liftshis head, boldly stares straight ahead. A scene as if taken from a Soviet film about our
brave boys. The atmosphere cools down a little when I try to make a picture of a decrepit fron-
tier post. – Do not photograph this. You know. It is forbidden – a border zone – he explains.
1 500 km of the Ukrainian Black Sea coast line
Black Sea of Concrete
© Rafał Milach / Sputnik Photos / Altemus 2009
© Rafał Milach 2009
texts edit: Julisz Ćwieluch
translation: Andrzej Rossa & Agnieszka Ziajka-Małecka
© Ania Nałęcka | Tapir Book Design