Letter From Crimea: Yalta, the McCarthy Era and Trump

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


Workers’ Paradise: The seafront in Yalta, Crimea. The town of Livadia, where the 1945 conference was held, is about three miles to the west along the Black Sea. Photo: Matthew Stevenson.

As there is no train from Sevastopol to Yalta (bookends of the hundred years’ war between Russia and the West), I had to take the bus, which the schedule shows is about a two-hour journey along the escarpment of the Crimean Black Sea coast. I had no trouble finding the bus station in Yalta, as I had passed it going to the Malakoff, but buying a ticket was a two-step affair. I had to buy tickets for my ride and another for my bicycle from two separate vendors.

As I was early to the scrum, I got the front seat, which on the twisting coastal road high above the water gave me spectacular views. Then the bus cut slightly inland, which meant I didn’t see the palaces in Koreiz—not far from Yalta— where Josef Stalin and Winston Churchill stayed during the February 1945 conference.

Because his health was failing—one reason the Americans achieved so little—Franklin Roosevelt was put up in Livadia Palace, where the conference also took place; the hope was to minimize his movement around Crimea, although to cater to Stalin’s paranoia—he feared he would be deposed if he went abroad—FDR did have to travel thousands of miles to get there.

It would not surprise me if at the end of the current Ukraine war, Putin tries to convene a peace conference again in Yalta, so that he might channel his inner Stalin and perhaps snatch Poland from the western Allies.

Yalta’s Gridlock

Outside Yalta, my bus came to a stop in a long line of traffic (think of one in front of a rock concert), so that after about thirty minutes I and many other passengers got off and headed on our own power into Yalta.

I was luckier than most as I could simply unfold my bicycle and strike off in the direction of my hotel—the only drawback being that Yalta has as many hills as San Francisco and bike riding there is an endless climb.

Not wanting to stay in a socialist sanatorium by the water, I had picked a hotel that was close to the house where Anton Chekhov lived at the end of his life. He died in 1904 at age 44, but his sister was still living in the modernist house in 1945, and the daughter of Averell Harriman (the US ambassador to Russia) called on her to find out how it had been to survive in Crimea during World War II, when the Germans were the occupying power.

I also thought I was picking a hotel that might respond well to my bicycle, but in the end my self-described “charming inn” turned out to be more of a down-market hostel (although I had my own room and shower) that was run by a dragon lady. In quick order, she told me that I could not bring inside my shoes, bicycle, or saddle bags—all of which were required to remain in the garden.

Then she informed me that the hotel had no water or food “because of the emergency”. It was my first clue, other than the long traffic jam, that things were amiss in Yalta.

Mud Sliding Away

It turned out that the three previous days of pouring rains had unleashed mudslides from the surrounding hills (think of a canyon in the Los Angeles suburbs), and now the town water was cut off and mud was everywhere in the city streets. I went to the nearby Chekhov house and there heard the same story, and that the literary museum was closed.

To get into Yalta all I had to do was glide down several hills, but when I biked along the main street what I discovered was half a tourist town (there were milling holiday crowds everywhere) and half a disaster zone (the rivers were torrents and mud was caked on many sidewalks and streets).

Since I had been dreaming about visiting Yalta since the 1970s, you might think that I would have a good idea of what it would look like. In my mind I pictured a charming seaside Mediterranean resort, with palaces and hotels along the seafront, and maybe some cafés overlooking the clear water.

Instead I found myself biking through the accommodations of a five-year plan, with rows of Soviet-era apartment blocks and casinos scattered along the shore, and a concrete esplanade where the only “emergency” rations on sale were ice cream.

A Workers’ Paradise

In my handlebar bag, I had brought along my bathing suit, hoping to find a beach for a swim, but I found myself riding down a large industrial-strength wharf along which some sailboats and tankers were tied up.

It would not have mattered anyway, as the mudslides had turned the waters of the Black Sea into something that resembled the River Ganges as it makes it way through Allahabad.

I had also thought Vladimir Putin’s $1.4 billion summer dacha was near Yalta, but it turned out that his hundred-room Italianate palace (of NBA-star size and gaudiness) was built on 17 square kilometers near Novorossiysk in the seaside town of Gelendzhik.

One report states: “The floor plans reveal staggering opulence, including a casino, theatre, pool, and a hookah lounge with a pole-dancing stage.” So clearly more than a wet bar and kegerator for his spy friends.

Big Three Ghosts at Livadia Palace

Livadia Palace is only several miles south of Yalta’s utopian paradise, but as I sized up the situation—in which the army was dispensing water from parked trucks in downtown Yalta and the police had blocked off a number of streets—I decided my best chance to get there would be in a taxi or on a bus. Otherwise, I would be riding up and down a number of daunting hills, into what I was sure would be dead ends.

The buses, however, were not running because of the storms, and while I did see a few taxis, they were not responding to a tourist standing beside a folded bicycle, waving his arms in the muddy street.

In the end, I figured I had no choice but to ride. I set off up what felt like a mountain, which was made worse by summer humidity and now a burning sun that had poked through the clouds.

I stopped a few times for water (bottled, not army) and to check my direction. In the end, after about an hour of riding through a convoluted residential suburb, I descended a hillside toward the water and started to pick up signs for Livadia Palace, which is set on a low bluff above the shoreline.

Near the palace is a small village and tourist strip of restaurants, souvenir shops, and hotels, all of which seemed to be doing a brisk business. I soon figured out why: the palace itself was closed “because of the emergency,” and everyone who would have been touring the former summer residence of Tsar Nicholas II was buying drinks and Italian ice cream on the main street.

At least the grounds of the palace were open, and a kindly guard standing in front of the palace said it was fine for me to ride my bike on the park sidewalks.

I peaked into some of the palace windows, and then on the west side, I found an oversized bronze monument of the Big Three—Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin—seated in chairs suitable for giants, arranged as they were in February 1945.

An endless stream of Russian families, out for the day in the park, were stopping in front of the sculpture and posing their children on the bronze knees of the Big Three, as if they were the Santa Clauses of happier days in the western alliance.

The Iron Curtain Descends

Of all the World War II conferences—there were many among the allies involving the heads of state or government—none became more controversial or notorious than Yalta, as shortly after the feel-good session on the shores of the Black Sea the so-called Iron Curtain fell on the aspirations of numerous countries in Eastern Europe.

Britain, which went to war to restore Polish independence, came away from the conference with the understanding that Poland would have “free and fair” elections to establish its postwar government. Instead, Stalin did as he pleased in Poland—where his troops were on the ground—and shortly after the war it became yet another Soviet satellite, as did Bulgaria, Romania, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany. (In Greece there was a civil war.)

In the postwar United States, Yalta became a byword for American diplomatic innocence, if not a sellout, the location where the ailing American president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, gave away the Western store to Stalin and the Soviet Union, which in much of Europe simply replaced the Nazi Reich with its own local brand of dictatorship.

McCarthyism and MAGA Gets Their Starts in Yalta

Yalta also played well in the storyboards of the Republican resurgence after the Democratic age of Roosevelt, when it became an article of faith that at Yalta the Russians had planted moles and bugs in the American delegation, enabling Stalin to read the marked cards in Roosevelt’s hands.

From those shibboleths came the McCarthy era, in which it was alleged that everyone in the State Department from George Marshall on down were Communist dupes or agents, ready to sell out the country for a few bottles of vodka.

Descended from Senator Joseph McCarthy is the MAGA chant about Hillary Clinton— “lock her up”—the implication being that hers was yet another Democratic State Department that sold out America.

In the recent Case of Purloined Documents, however, it turns out that the smoking guns of high treason are more likely to be found in what we will learn about the forty-eight empty Top Secret folders stashed away in Donald Trump’s desk drawers.

Next: More on 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.