Update 4: 20th August 2015

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Since the last update I’ve been humbled by people’s generosity, and appalled by tragedies on a grand scale. But first, what could be more stylish than The Nutcracker at Odessa’s glittering Opera House – my first ever ballet, complete with pancake tutus!

Opera House      Opera House

The Nutracker      The Nutcracker

Then it was on to the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, and from there north to Chernobyl, still a scene of inconceivable devastation almost 30 years after Reactor No. 4 blew up. (Click any photo to enlarge.)

Chernobyl reactor      Geiger counter

At virtually no notice, 53,000 people were evacuated. They never returned. Although safe for a day visit, the 30-kilometre exclusion zone won’t be fit for human habitation for another 20,000 years.

Chernobyl nursery      Chernobyl nursery

A tragedy of a different kind is being played out in Ukraine’s far east, where Russian separatists are in a life-and-death struggle with government forces supported by armed mercenaries.

Donbass map      Evgenij Urchenko

In Dnipro (then called Dnipropetrovsk or ‘Petrovsky’s city on the Dnieper’) I met Evgenij Urchenko (above right), just back from visiting his wife and baby daughter across the front line. His eyes welled with tears as he told me about the booms and thuds of the shelling, “some far away, a few horribly close”.

On the same day a friend called Dima told me of his harrowing 15-month tour of the separatist-controlled area as a government mercenary. Here he is below, then and now.

Dima Sidorenko      Dima Sidorenko

Dnipropetrovsk friends      Roma Nazarchuk

As we were chatting, another of my new-found friends, Roma Nazarchuk (above right), burst out angrily, “Why did our government give Crimea to Russia on a plate? They didn’t even fire a single shot!” I’d heard this story several times already, spoken with varying degrees of bafflement and fury. It seemed time to go to Crimea and find out.

Uspensky Monastery      Chufut-Kale

The peninsula of Crimea is slightly bigger than Wales. Its backbone of craggy limestone hills was home to 300,000 Tatars, until Stalin deported them to Central Asia in the 1940s. In 1954 Mr Krushchev presented it to Ukraine, and in 2014 Mr Putin took it back again.

Uspensky monk      Tatar woman

Submarine dock      Nuclear warhead

During the Cold War, the Soviets carved a vast nuclear bunker into a hillside at Balaklava. Today it’s a popular tourist attraction. You can stroll through miles of cold corridors, marvel at the cavernous submarine dock, and inspect a genuine nuclear warhead (disarmed, I think).

Tatar man      Ukrainian woman

It’s been fascinating to hear people’s different views on Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Many are enthusiastic, but for Ukrainians and returning Tatars the situation is more complicated. They can’t get Russian passports, and some families have been tragically split up.

'Edaya Muratova      'Edaya Muratova

Edaye Muratova, a Tatar who runs a stall in Yalta’s central market, told me “We’re Ukrainian. Always have been, always will be. We don’t like being part of Russia.”

Yalta waterfront      Yalta street

Swallow's Nest      Russian warship

But for better or worse, Crimea is now firmly under Russian control. The carefree Muscovites enjoying Yalta’s sights may seem the same as ever, but that’s because in nearby Sevastopol the Black Sea Fleet is on standby.

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31st May 201525th June 201522nd July 201514th September 20158th October 2015

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