Letter From Crimea: Tolstoy and Putin in Sevastopol


Part of the Russian Black Sea Naval Base at Sevastopol, the prize of the 1853-56 Crimean War and the same prize in the fighting in 2022. Photo: Matthew Stevenson.

To return from Balaclava to Sevastopol, I took a succession of local buses, each of which meandered through the suburbs until one, miraculously, stopped in front of the Art Hotel.

By that point the sun was out, and I decided to unfold my bicycle and ride to Chersonesus, Greek ruins on the shore of the harbor west of downtown. I wanted to visit the site, as the cultural war between Russia and Ukraine over the management of the ruins explains a lot about the actual fighting between the two countries.

The Uses and Misuses of Chersonesus

I locked the bike near the site entrance and followed a wooden boardwalk that weaved among the ruins, which are on a promontory that overlooks the harbor. In some histories, Chersonesus is called Russia’s Troy; in others, Ukraine’s Pompeii.

According to a leaflet I was carrying, the Russians first excavated the site in 1827, although before that the city belonged to Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Khazars, Kiev, Genovese, the Mongol Golden Horde, and finally the Ottomans, who destroyed it.

A timeline of its ownership might well be useful evidence should President Vladimir Putin ever stand trial in The Hague for using violence to enforce the claim that Crimea has always been Russian.

Nevertheless, Putin has done his best since the Crimean annexation in 2014 to use the history of the Greek city to make the point that both Crimea (not to mention all of Ukraine) and Chersonesus are embedded in Russia’s cultural history (yet another reason to rewrite the past with cruise missiles).

Putin’s Greek Mythology

On his victory laps around occupied Crimea, Putin has visited Chersonesus several times (once with his poodle Silvio Berlusconi on his leash), always to emphasize—with more than sound-and-light shows—the claim that the Kievan Rus’ leader Vladimir the Great (of all people) was baptized there in the 10th century, cementing the fusion of Crimea, Kiev and Moscow as one entity at the center of the eastern orthodox Christian church.

Just before the war, Putin moved to place the Greek ruins under Russian federal control. Among the overseers of the site he named assorted nationalists whose only interest in Chersonesus is to link it to Russia’s glorious past (from the time of Catherine the Great).

One paper of Putin’s agitation propaganda reads, in part: “Widespread public representation of Chersonesus as a national, sacral centre of Russia will make it possible to form in the international information field a clear and unequivocal understanding of the fundamental significance of Crimea as the historical baptismal font and inalienable part of the Russian state.”

Already there is a Cathedral of Saint Vladimir on the grounds of Chersonesus. Now Putin has proposed expanding the museum there, to put up additional story boards about its importance to Russian history.

These proposals prompted a lawsuit by a former (Ukrainian) conservator-restorer at the site, who believes that the Russians are destroying “the spirit of Chersonesus” for war propaganda purposes.

Nominally Chersonesus is a UNESCO-protected site, but in recent years and months especially the UN agency has had no influence on the plans for its future.

Hitler, when he was running Germany, similarly wanted his storm troopers to take possession of what was called “the landscape of memory.”

The Inevitable Flat Tire

I lingered among the ruins—I find something soothing about seaside Corinthian columns, even those being held hostage to Russian imperialism. But then on leaving the site, I discovered that my bicycle had a flat tire.

I could have changed it there on the sidewalk but instead I dragged it to a nearby bus station and went back to the hotel, where my dinner entertainment involved a patch kit and wobbly hand pump.

The next day was sunny and not too hot, and immediately after breakfast I was off on the bicycle to see everything that the day before had been obscured in the mist and rain.

Sevastopol’s Warm-Water Port

Like Sydney Harbor, Sevastopol has a series of inlets and bays off its main harbor that are now not just home to the Russian Black Sea fleet, but also to a host of dry dock companies and warehouses, all of which give the town its seafaring accents.

Ostensibly, one of the key reasons that Russia seized and annexed Crimea in 2014 was to re-establish its naval base in Sevastopol, and thus project power, not just into the Black Sea, but through the Straits and into the Mediterranean.

Apparently President Vladimir Putin did not consider his assumptions of great power status fulfilled if his Black Sea fleet had to set sail from ports such as Novorossiysk, Sochi, or perhaps Rostov.

But I am a loss to understand why the Western Allies in 1855 thought that taking Sevastopol would put an end to Russia’s Mediterranean and Balkan ambitions, any more than I can fathom why in 2022 Vladimir Putin thinks that having Russian warships at anchor in Sevastopol will do anything to raise the standard of living among his citizens.

Tolstoy’s Bastion Number 4

On my bicycle I started at Bastion Number 4, not far from my hotel, as that’s where there is a now a diorama museum of the siege lines. A ticket agent—for some reason on duty—said that the redoubt museum was closed for renovations, but she sold me a laminated guide that shows the landscape of siege lines stripped bare, and many cannons on both sides firing into the rubble.

It was on April 3, 1855 that the young Lieutenant Leo Tolstoy reported for duty at the 4th bastion. He would fight for four days, and then have eight days off. In his Sebastopol Sketches he writes:

Whenever anyone states that he has been in the 4th bastion, he says it with a peculiar pride and satisfaction; if a man says, ‘I’m going to the 4th bastion’, you are sure to notice that his voice and manner seem slightly agitated or too studiedly indifferent; when one man wishes to poke fun at another, he will say, ‘They ought to put you in the 4th bastion’; whenever the men meet a stretcher party and ask, ‘Where’s he from?’, the answer most usually heard is: ‘The 4th bastion.’ There exist two entirely different attitudes towards this fearsome bastion: those who have never visited it are convinced that it is a certain deathtrap, while those like the tow-haired warrant officer who actually live on it tend to discuss it in terms of whether the terrain there is dry or muddy and whether the dugouts are tolerably warm or freezing cold.

Later he says whimsically: “I failed to become a general in the army, but I became one in literature.”

The best description of the 1853-56 Crimean War comes from Tolstoy, who wrote:

Hundreds of fresh, bloody corpses — the bodies of men who two hours earlier had been filled with all manner of hopes and desires, from the lofty to the trivial — lay with stiffened limbs on the floor of the dew-covered, flowering valley which separated the bastion from the trench, and on the smooth flagstones of the Mortuary Chapel in Sebastopol; hundreds of men, with curses and prayers on their parched lips, tossed and groaned, some among the corpses in the flowering valley, others on stretchers, on camp beds, or on the bloody floorboards of the dressing station; yet, just as on earlier days, the summer lightning flashed above the Sapun-gora, the glimmering stars grew pale, the white mist drifted in off the dark, thundering sea, the vermilion dawn flared in the east, long purple cloudlets trailed across the light blue horizon, and again, as on earlier days, promising joy, love and happiness to the whole of the quickening world, the sun’s mighty, resplendent orb arose from the waves.

The rough draft of the war scenes in Tolstoy’s War and Peace came from Sebastopol. He ends the sketches with this well-known sentence: “No, the hero of my story, whom I love with all my heart and soul, whom I have attempted to portray in all his beauty and who has always been, is now and will always be supremely magnificent, is truth.”

A White Russian Escape

Some trial and error went into my ride from Bastion Number 4 back to the Malakoff redoubt, as the only direct road leaves from downtown Sevastopol. In between the bastion and the Malakoff, there was a deep ravine in which more than once I got lost. Nor did I love biking up the opposite hillside.

On the way to the Malakoff redoubt, I searched for the naval hospital where in 1920 my friend’s father, Oleg Shamshin, was born during the final days of the civil war between the White Army and the Bolsheviks. Later, the family took the Greek name Sampsidis, as Oleg’s father was engaged in anti-Soviet operations and wanted to protect his relatives left behind in Russia. I could not ride into the naval base and inspect each building, but later I got a general impression of where the clinic was located by reading online archives.

Oleg’s parents were White Russians. In 1920, with the Russian civil war going badly for the Whites, they left the Crimea with General Wrangel’s fleet and sailed to Constantinople. Oleg grew up in Germany, where he lived through the Nazis’ rise to power. Not drafted as he had been born in Russia, he managed to get his engineering degree in Berlin during the war. Amidst the upheaval in postwar Europe, he moved to France in 1947. Eventually, he emigrated to Canada and then to the United States, where I went to school with his daughter. Recently I read parts of his autobiography, which begins:

I lived in Germany (Berlin) from 1927 till 1947…. Born in Russia, in 1920, my father was in the White Russian Army, fighting against the Bolsheviks during the Civil War 1917-1920. My family fled in November 1920, on a ship to Constantinople (Istanbul), Turkey, and became the first boat people of the twentieth century. We were refugees, and lived for five years in Turkey and for two years on a ship. Life was difficult with many hardships. My father’s uncle had been a very wealthy man in Russia. He escaped during the Civil War in 1919. In 1926 he was living in Berlin, Germany, and fortunately, he was able to help us come to Berlin. By sea and railroad we travelled and arrived in Berlin in October 1927. We stayed with my father’s uncle for a few months before finding our own apartment. At that time there were about 40,000 Russian refugees in Berlin.

Oleg’s story speaks for many who were caught up in the Russian Civil War and ended up in Sevastopol, looking for a path to new lives.

Never-Ending Wars

Back on the Malakoff, but this time in summer sunshine, I could see much that I had missed the day before in the rain. I stood on the ramparts and looked out toward Inkerman, a series of rolling hills capped here and there with apartment blocks, the redoubts of the modern age.

When the French stormed and took the Malakoff in September 1855, in effect the Crimean War ended, although there was additional fighting in the autumn. A peace treaty was not signed until 1856, by which time all combatants had had it with the war and the miserable conditions in Crimea. In The Crimean War, Alan Palmer remarks:

By the summer of 1855, however, there was widespread disillusionment. The war never became a crusade against either Orthodoxy or Autocracy; it produced no striking feat of arms, no flashes of strategic vision; and there was an influential group at [the French] court who favoured an early end to the conflict in the hope of winning the new Tsar’s patronage for French commercial ventures. The capture of the Malakoff and the fall of Sebastopol were therefore welcomed as a sign that peace was close at hand. French national honour was satisfied, for, after forty years, military glory was once more uplifting the imperial eagles.

Like most peace treaties, the one ending the Crimean War resolved few issues from the war just fought and set the stage for many more issues that would lead to future wars. The Ottoman Empire did avoid collapse, the Russians were kept from seizing the straits and Constantinople, and the Black Sea was declared neutral. But Austro-Hungary, which had not committed any troops to the fighting (on either side), came away with its control over the Danube intact, and the war did nothing to reduce global tensions in the Balkans, which remained a cauldron of conflicting interests between the British, Germans, Russians, Austrians, and Ottomans—all of which led to World War I.

As Woodham-Smith writes toward the conclusion of her book: “The alliance of England and France remained an uneasy one; and the problem of the Holy Places, which the war had supposedly been fought to settle, was not even mentioned in the treaty, which, in any case, fourteen years later the Czar repudiated.”

It’s worth keeping in mind, in our current times, that even if Russia, Ukraine, and related powers can conclude an uneasy peace, there’s little guarantee that it will resolve any of the issues that brought them into war.

In my reading of history, wars are fought for reasons other than those stated in their declarations; and at best peace treaties sow causes for future conflict.

Next: Yalta and its 1945 conference. 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.