Annexation of Crimea divides artist colony founded on tolerance

Summer regulars in Koktebel have learned to avoid the subject of the Ukrainian conflict


In Soviet times, when favoured artists received a government stipend to summer on Crimea’s southern coast a metal billboard by the beach read in bold letters: “Be quiet! Writers are working!” This season it is the artists making most of the noise. Drawn here for generations by Koktebel’s particular light and kinetic landscapes, the artistic community has recently split into two feuding factions. Neighbour has turned on neighbour, old rituals have been abandoned and some regulars have avoided the place.

“It’s tense,” said Sergey Tsigal, sporting a white beard and a gold earring, shushing his naked three-year-old grandson as the boy gambolled around their lush garden with a grey Irish wolfhound named Dunya. The problem started with Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in March. President Vladimir Putin unleashed the Russian military to end Ukrainian sovereignty and organised a hasty referendum in which the overwhelming majority of Crimean residents chose to join Russia.

The artists have been arguing ever since whether the moral thing to do this summer was to stay away, since coming was interpreted by many as tacit acceptance of a forced annexation. Although reflective of current events, the clash is rooted in the history of Koktebel. Max Voloshin, a merry, skinny-dipping poet and painter who espoused tolerance, founded the creative oasis about 100 years ago. If not exactly free of Soviet strictures, Koktebel provided an escape to someplace more open, out of time.

Two camps

It was seen as less wealthy but more spirited than Yalta down the coast, where the czar and Soviet rulers once played. But this summer the world did not retreat: “People split into two camps, pro-Russian Crimea and anti-Russian Crimea,” said Natasha Arendt, whose family members are bickering. “Some people were very excited, and some were disappointed, and they became enemies where once they were friends.”

The skirmishing began long before summer, spilling across the pages of Facebook, where many seasonal residents stay connected. The Kremlin- inspired slogan for taking Crimea was “Krim nash!” (“Crimea is ours!”). When some artists advocating a boycott discovered that others were planning to come anyway, they began hurling sharp comments such as “Krim vash!” or (“Crimea is yours!”) and “Just go to your Crimea!”

A former friend of Marietta Tsigal, an actress, told her on Facebook: “If you go there you support Putin.” She tried not to engage.

Her father, Sergey, had no such qualms. “I say the referendum was illegal,” said Tsigal, who advertises his sympathy in subtle ways. He runs errands around town in a yellow T-shirt and sky blue shorts, the colours of the Ukrainian flag.

“I share the opinion of the whole world that does not support it. I want to be part of the civilised world.”

Coast, steppe and mountains

One ally, Elena Fokina, a painter brought here as an infant in 1962, became a permanent resident six years ago. She and her husband, a gallery owner, extolled the interplay between the coast, steppe and mountains surrounding Koktebel.

“When you look out the window to paint the landscape, you think the painting is never quite finished,” Fokina said. “Every time you look, the landscape seems different.”

She, too, regrets the annexation. “I feel shame,” she said.

But Fokina does not bring it up when she drops by places such as Turkiya, the small local gallery owned by Natalya Turkiya, who holds court out front.

“Russia saved Crimea!” Turkiya said bluntly, noting that she holds the majority opinion in Koktebel, not least because most annexation opponents stayed away. Down the road, Igor Sheptovetsky, a nuclear physicist who retired here early and opened a small hotel, concurred.

“What happened in Crimea is a miracle,” he said. “Without Russia, the same violence happening in eastern Ukraine might have happened here.”

One regular guest, an American professor who has vacationed in Koktebel every summer for 24 years, looked sheepish as he disagreed.

“It’s a little bit embarrassing being here,” he said, declining to use his name. “What happened is an international outrage and it is like participating.”

Summer regulars say they have learned to avoid the topic.

“People have lost their minds!” Tsigal said. “Everyone says: ‘Thank God Putin saved us from those fascists. They would have killed us all.’”

But she does not want to justify coming to the place she most considers home, nor does she want to lose friends over the issue. When dinner-party conversations veer toward politics, she said, she steers them away. Turkiya now talks about anything but politics with Tsigal.

Tsigal has not found it easy. He likes to speak his mind. One neighbour, Dmitry Kiselev, is a Kremlin ideologue and television host who regularly pillories Ukraine and noted recently on the air that Russia possessed the nuclear means to annihilate the United States. The European Union decided that his aggression warranted putting him under sanctions.

‘It’s just not the same pleasure’

Tsigal used to sample his neighbour’s home-made wine every summer. No longer. “I know we would start arguing from the first glass,” he said. “It’s just not the same pleasure.”

Another summer ritual, the Koktebel Jazz Festival, used to draw a raft of international musicians every September. This year, the organisers decided to move it to Odessa, in Ukraine. Kiselev then started a competing event called the Koktebel Jazz Party, noting that he had helped start the original. “Life goes on,” he wrote on the website for the festival, which has yet to announce many acts. A core of summer regulars decided to put aside their differences to preserve at least one tradition – a four-hour art exhibition held every May and September on the expansive white outer walls of Sheptovetsky’s hotel. Given this year’s acrimony he feared a boycott; but many regulars contributed.

Long-time residents find the local civil war particularly distressing because it clashes with the open-minded spirit of Voloshin, who transformed Koktebel from a deserted hamlet populated mostly by asthmatics and Bulgarian refugees into a thriving artist’s colony.

“He did not divide people into groups, and believed anything created by human endeavour was worthy of respect,” said Svetlana Kleps, a guide at the Voloshin Museum, once the founder’s home and studio.

Summer tradition

Voloshin settled here in 1917, hiding people from both sides during the revolution and civil war. Afterwards his mother started a summer tradition of inviting artists, reaching a record 600 visitors in 1927. Voloshin died in 1932 but his widow kept the place alive for decades by donating the expansive beachfront property to the state-run Writers’ Union. It eventually grew to 20 buildings that could accommodate 350 artists. The stipends did not always go to the best artists but to those admired by the Soviet state, Tsigal said. He remembers as a boy seeing a woman on the beach with an Order of Lenin medal pinned to her bathrobe.

The generations descended from Voloshin’s friends were horrified by the changes wrought after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. During 23 years of Ukrainian rule an expansive park, a vineyard and a public tennis court disappeared under new construction. The once-serene beach is now a honky-tonk strip of bars and souvenir shops.

There is one positive aspect of the annexation that almost all the old-timers seem to agree on. With the tourist industry in collapse, this summer reminds them of how quiet the town used to be, the spirit of a mythical place partly restored amid the rancour.

“In the 1950s there were few people here,” Tsigal said, “which is why I like this summer so much.”

– (New York Times service)

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