The Velvet Season of Yalta

WE arrived at Moscow airport toward midnight in late September, on a tour rerouted from Kiev to Yalta. It was an important moment in history - glasnost had begun - but an ominous one, too. It was the year of Chernobyl. What lay ahead?When traveling, we always survey our fellow tourists uneasily. Will we avoid one another or exist peacefully together for over two weeks? There were six of us, a thrifty couple who had never come to Russia before and already wished they had stayed at home ("Why did you bring me here? Never again!"), two retired bachelors, an irritable furrier, and an old commercial traveler, who kept repeating, "A great people, a patient people." "What do you know about them?" demanded the furrier scathingly. "I have traveled all over Russia." Hostility bristled between them. We flew off early to Simferopol where an affable giant of a man, Evgeny, met us with his minibus. He poured out a flood of information as he drove southward. "Over there's a memorial to one-eyed General Kutuzov. Tolstoy writes about him. He beat Napoleon when he invaded Russia - Hitler tried the same game. They should have known better. Down there, Chaliapin sang duets with the nightingales. He sang with them in Chekov's garden, too. Anton Chekov! The best of them all! You must visit his home in Yalta." We came to Crimea in the velvet season of autumn. A tender blue light lay on the mountains, veiled the black cypresses, the bronze and gold of the chestnut trees and the calm sea. Our hotel was shaped like a boat, overflowing with Russians from all the republics, along with Finns, Estonians, Poles, Hungarians, Czechs, escaping from the stress and drabness of daily life. In our room friendly pigeons roosted on the balcony, cooing in welcome. Our days took on their special rhythm. In the morning we swam from the pebbled shore along with hundreds of tiny, harmless jelly fish. The beach swarmed with tourists, lolling on little wooden boards. They were all eager for talk now that it seemed possible to speak more freely. "So you're from Scotland? How's life there? Here things are better - they have to be. We try to be patient, we keep hoping." The sun shone unceasingly, the sea was warm, hopes were high. Every day there were excursions. We went to the Swallows' Nest, a tower like a little turreted castle high above the Black Sea. A young man sang to his balalaika as we sailed along. Seven merry-faced dolphins came too, bounding beside us as if enjoying the music. Other trips took us to the foothills of the Crimea, to Bakhchisarai, to state farms, and to Artek, a pioneer camp for scouts, with friendly boys who tried out their English: "Hullo, very fine, fantastic, good-bye!" In the museum near this camp were tributes to the Soviet hero, Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space. At the door to the museum stood an icy white marble statue of Lenin's wife. What would it have been like to be married to Vladimir Ilyich, especially in the last two years during his illness, with Stalin prowling around him like a tiger sniffing out its prey? The next day we went from Lenin's wife to Stalin himself, into the palace of Livadia, where the wartime Yalta Conference was held. We almost imagined the sound of Stalin's shining boots ringing through the palace. We found the furrier there, gazing thoughtfully at the photos of the three men of destiny, Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill. Stalin, with what the poet Mandelstam called his cockroach whiskers and his smile, was more tigerish than ever. "He got the better of those two," muttered the furrier. "They had no idea of the monster they were dealing with." "When he has an execution it is a special treat," Mandelstam wrote of him and then paid dearly for his words. We shivered. Despite the hope for a better world that the conference room had seen, we felt a sudden chill there and were reminded of the pitfalls of politics, Mandelstam, and the countless victims of the great purges. One of the delights of Yalta was the daily paseo from the hotel, past the cruise liners lying in port, on toward Oreanda, following the path taken by Chekov's character, Anna Sergeevna, the lady with the little dog. We crossed bridges where women sold roses and carnations that filled the air with perfume. Holidaymakers strolled along carrying bouquets, eating ice cream - pushing out of mind the dark cloud of Chernobyl. In the open market, high pyramids of melons, peaches, and pears splashed color. Wasps rose in a cloud around jars of golden honey. "Nothing stings in the velvet season!" called a black-eyed Georgian, flicking at them nonchalantly. Time was running out, only three days were left. "Have you visited Chekov's house yet?" the giant Evgeny kept asking us. "We're leaving the best to the last," we said. Chekov built his home on the outskirts of Yalta, hoping to find a cure for his fragile health. There was no shiver there as in Livadia, only the happy sense of a kindly presence - that of one of the best-loved of Russian writers, doctor, and storyteller. We saw his school report, photos of the family in Tagenrog, his medical instruments, a laurel wreath presented by the Moscow Arts Theater, and a photo of his sister, Masha, and actress-wife, Olga. His portrait looked down on us, that bearded face, the kindly smile. It was impossible not to be moved by the man, his work, and his tragically brief life. We sat out in the garden under the high trees planted by Chekov himself and turned over in memory those characters he created who have become like familiar friends - Uncle Vanya, Dr. Astrov, the three sisters, Varshinin, Lopakhin. Chekov sat often on this same bench, and perhaps here he listened to Chaliapin singing to those nightingales. By seeking something like the peace of Chekov's garden, we had the most wonderful of all our many encounters. In the cool of the evening we went to sit beside the fountain in the hotel garden. The only sound was the chirping of birds, the far-off call of jays, and the quiet splashing of water. All at once a little girl came dancing along, followed by a couple we took to be her grandparents. We spoke to them. They had just arrived on holiday, escaping from the autumn mists and winter snows of Leningrad. W e sensed in them kindred spirits. We discussed the books that we had read in Scotland and that were only now appearing in Russia - Bulgakov's "Heart of a Dog," "The Master and Margarita," Solzhenitsyn, Pasternak, the poets Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva. "From sensing future executions, from the howl of stormy events, I ran to the Black Sea nymphs," said the grandfather, quoting Mandelstam and adding, "No Black Sea nymphs could save him - he died of hunger and despair in the gulag." Every now and then we would look over at the child, dancing around the fountain or absorbed in a private game. "There is our future," they said. "There is the 21st century." She represented hope, freedom from fear, and the pursuit of happiness. "It will take a long time, but it will come," they said. "We have had the taste of freedom on our lips." The sun dipped, the birds fell silent, the fountain was turned off. Soon a golden full moon would rise over the Black Sea. We had had three evenings with them at the fountain, talking as if we had known one another for years. "Meet us next autumn in St. Petersburg," they said. "It's a promise," we replied. Our homeward flight took us to Leningrad. No velvet season there; mist curled low on the canals, frost was in the air. The furrier pulled down the flaps of his fur hat we had watched him buy in Yalta sunshine. The thrifty couple gave sighs of relief. "Never again! But at least the tea was good," they added grudgingly. ll be back," said the old traveler. "A wonderful people, a patient people." For once the furrier did not contradict him. As we drove to the airport, a long skein of geese flew across the gray sky like an omen of return, of a promise to keep. Our last encounter in Yalta marked the beginning of a yearly visit to the loveliest of cities, finding each time hope still deferred but courage and fortitude high. The taste of freedom has been on their lips.

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