Letter From Crimea: the Bridge

The station in Novocherkassk, in southern Russia, from which there is a direct train to Crimea. Photo: Matthew Stevenson.

This is the eleventh in a series about a journey, by train and bicycle, across Russia to Crimea shortly before the war began.

The overnight train from Novocherkassk to Crimea left just before 6 p.m. I had an early dinner at my guest house and set off on the bicycle for the station, which, while in no way busy, was still in a state of confusion. The electronic departure board was not working, and the dispatcher announcing the trains kept changing the platform for my train, as if calling a Square Dance.

Twice I had to drag my bike and bags up the staircases and over the tracks until I finally came back to the original platform. When the long string of Pullmans (well, the Russian equivalent) pulled into the station, I was at the wrong end of the platform, which meant another sprint while pushing the bicycle to get to my sleeping car.

For whatever reason, this train to Crimea did not have any first class cars, so I was bundled into second, and had to climb a small ladder to an upper bunk—a bit like that opening scene in Moby Dick when the man of God at the Seamen’s Chapel ascends to the pulpit. Nor did my train have a dining car, which meant that I had make do with the hobo food sack that I was carrying.

I divided the ride between my berth—as if reading in a coffin—and the vestibule, looking out the window as we passed through Rostov-on-Don and meandered in the summer half light toward Crimea.

Putin’s New Crimean Railway Bridge

After the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014—either as a result of an armed coup or the spontaneous rising of Crimean citizens (the latter if you ask Russia)—Moscow made the decision to link southern Russian to Crimea with two long bridges spanning the Kerch Strait that separates the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea.

Before leaving home, I had read that the bridge was almost 20 kilometers long and had two spans (one for cars and trucks, the other for trains) and that it was the longest in Europe.

Without these bridges, Russia (before the war) had no land connection between Crimea and its mainland—as the northern Crimean border only abuts Ukraine.

Nothing official has ever been released, but it is estimated that the bridges cost Russia some $3.7 billion. They opened for car traffic in 2018, and then for trains in 2019-20.

A Bridge of Sighs

Ironically, as they were tools of the invasion, the idea for such bridges dated to a time prior to the Russian attack. In 2010 the Ukraine and Russian governments signed a protocol to connect eastern Crimea to southern Russia using various routes.

In 2013, when the pro-Russian government in Kiev suspended pending agreements between Ukraine and the European Union, the plans for the bridges between Ukraine and Russia became a priority, at least for those favoring greater ties between Crimea and Russia. But as tensions rose between Ukraine and Russia, the plans for the bridges became one more sticking point in diplomatic relations between the two countries.

The day after Russia annexed Crimea in March 2014, President Vladimir Putin announced his unilateral plans to construct the bridges, which Ukraine and the outside world took to mean that Russia would never negotiate its claim over Crimea or compensate Ukraine for the seizure of its land.

When my train finally crossed over the bridge into Crimea, I knew that war was inevitable between Russia and Ukraine, as it felt as though we were rolling along the Berlin Wall

The Kerch Strait

By my reckoning with the timetable, I estimated that the night train would make the bridge crossing around 7 a.m. Just to be sure that I would not miss anything, I set the alarm on my phone for 5:30 a.m. As the sun was rising in southern Russia I ate a breakfast of bread, cheese, and yogurt from my shopping bag, and then took up my post at a window in the corridor.

It reminded me of a ferry trip I took after college from Athens to Istanbul; on that journey at first light we passed through the Dardanelles, another strait of destiny.

As the sun rose on this day, the landscape outside of my train window reminded me of Scotland. There were few towns or cities, and the barren headlands as we approached the sea seemed a mix of heather and gorse. I suppose I was also reminded of Scotland as the wind was howling, and rain was slanting against the train.

All the track that we were on seemed new. As the train approached the sea, it stopped at what felt like a ghost station—a large modern structure built of concrete that had no passengers (only soldiers and railway workers) on platforms that otherwise could have accommodated commuters from a small city.

It made me nervous when the train stopped at what felt like a border crossing, and soldiers began boarding the train. I had been assured that my visa included travel to Crimea (at least in the eyes of the Russians), but I also have traveled enough in the East to know that many governments are run by checkpoints. But for now no one was checking passports.

With the soldiers on board, we approached the Kerch Strait at slow speed. On either side of the tracks, tall fences, capped with razor wire, ran along the line, as though this was a prison train, as perhaps it was.

On Tuzla Island

To navigate the strait, the bridges make use of what is called Tuzla Island, lying in the strait between Crimea and Russia. It’s a rocky, narrow island that spared the bridge construction companies from having to span the entire stretch of water with pylons sunk in the seabed.

For the most part the rail bridge runs close to the surface of the water, as if it was part of a medieval fortification built to deny Ukrainian shipping access to the Sea of Azov (and its ports there, such as Mariupol).

Only under one arched span is there clearance for any ocean-going vessels (think of military vessels such as a NATO aircraft carrier), but even then it struck me as a low bridge, designed, again, to cut off Ukraine from the sea.

In theory, the Kerch Bridge was built to facilitate trade and travel between Russia and its newly-acquired territory of Crimea, but what I saw from my sleeping car looked like a military rampart disguised as a rail link. There was something sinister about the barbed wire looped around the fence tops, as if Crimea was a concentration camp.

The Train to Simferopol

On the Crimean side of the bridge, there were none of the fortifications that marked the Russian side. Once we were across the bridge and pulled into Kerch (the first Crimean city), it was apparent to me that Crimea (whether it is Russian or Ukrainian) is something of a lost or forgotten province.

Much of the farmland along the tracks was fallow, and the stations outside of Kerch—a rundown city, at least on the edges—all looked like stops along an abandoned line.

The road link between Kerch and Simferopol, Crimea’s capital, runs directly to the west, and gets one there in a few hours. But the main train line detours north toward Dzhankoy to avoid the mountains, and it takes most of the morning to cross the peninsula.

I didn’t mind the circumnavigation of Crimea. I would see more. Besides, it was pouring rain, not exactly what I thought I would find in Crimea in June, and that put a damper on my bicycle dreams.

It was on this stretch of the journey that I wondered whether Crimea, given its depressed economy and lack of opportunities, might well be a poisoned chalice for whichever country—Russia or Ukraine—has to pay its required subsidies.

Hello, Lenine

There was a marked sense of Ostaglie about the train line between Kerch and Dzhankoy, as if Stalin himself had named some of the towns and stations. We stopped in Lenine, Kirovske, and Sovetskyi, all of which looked like footnotes of a five-year plan, although at each stop there were a few parked Ladas that had showed up to collect passengers (some carrying boxes wrapped with string) off the Moscow express.

Only when the train spent about 30 minutes in Dzhankoy did I figure out that the last stop for this train would be Sevastopol, not Simferopol.

When I bought my ticket, I had understood that the train would only go as far as the capital, and then I had spent weeks brainstorming how I might get to Bakhchysarai, the Tatar city about twenty miles to the south of Simferopol. Biking there was an option, but on maps and YouTube the main road had looked to be thick with trucks and traffic.

Many Crimean Wars

I thought too that I might detour to Yevpatoriya, a resort city with classical Greek (and Jewish) roots that is on the coast.

South of Yevpatoriya along the Black Sea are the beaches where, in the 1854 Crimean War, British and French troops came ashore on their way to the Alma River, the siege of Sevastopol, and the Charge of the Light Brigade outside Balaklava.

Near to those beaches is the airport at Saky where in 1945 Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill landed to attend the Yalta Conference. (It then took them about eight hours to drive to Yalta over potholed roads, giving the conference participants a long look at the war damage that came with three years of fighting and German occupation of Crimea.)

Part of the problem with biking from Yevpatoriya to the Alma is that I would have been riding near to the Russian military installation at Novofedorivka, where I assumed Putin was marshaling his forces to invade Ukraine.

I didn’t relish getting stopped at some roadblock and having to explain that my real interest was the first Crimean War (what the British would have called my “despatch case” was crammed with articles from the 1850s by the London Times correspondent William Russell, thought to have been the first war reporter for his coverage in Crimea).

Now, with rain coming down sideways, I was loathe to leave the comfort of my train compartment, and so I was happy when the conductor said that I could stay on board until the train reached Bakhchysarai, which is famous for the Khan’s Palace and as the capital of the Tatars in Crimea (those that Stalin deported in 1944 to Central Asia, from this land of constant tears).

Next: The Tatar city of Bakhchysarai. Earlier installments can be found here.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.