Letter From Crimea: the Long Way Home From Krasnodar

This is the twenty-third and final installment in a series about a journey, by train and bicycle, across Russia to Crimea shortly before the war began.

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The covid-testing band wagon (during a spike in the pandemic) at the Krasnodar International Airport in southern Russia. Inside there were only a few medical personnel, most of whom were drinking coffee or reading a magazine. No one was getting tested. Photo: Matthew Stevenson.

My night train from Simferopol arrived in Krasnodar in mid-morning, by which time it was sunny and hot—typical for a city that bakes in summer. It was in the middle of the night when we crossed over the new Kerch railway bridge. I didn’t wake up, as I had when entering Crimea, to stare out the window at the corridors of barbed wire along the twin spans of the twelve-mile bridges and its approaches—the portrait of a train line as Berlin’s Checkpoint Charlie.

A year later, I do think a lot about whether bombing the new bridge is to Ukraine’s advantage in the war against Russia (recently Kyiv sent saboteurs into its girders).

The Kerch Bridge Sound and Light Show

Part of the reason why a more serious attempt hasn’t been made is probably the fact that the railway and highway bridges are heavily defended and fortified. Both cost billions of dollars. That said, hitting a bridge that is more than ten miles long cannot be militarily difficult, given that Ukraine had the weaponry on the Black Sea to take out the flag ship of the Russian navy.

Strategically, bringing down the two bridges is a no-brainer for the Ukrainian military, as it would isolate Crimea from Russia, reducing freight traffic to ships and whatever can be brought in from the north coast of the Azov Sea (through the ruins of Mariupol).

Politically, too, if you are Ukraine, the idea of removing the bridge that links Russia and Crimea, and provides a platform for additional attacks against Odessa and southern Ukraine, is also an easy decision. That it hasn’t been attempted with ballistic missiles suggests that perhaps Russia has threatened a doomsday reprisal for its destruction, which in the current war is one of the few weapons that has worked well for the Russia military (which feels more like a collective terror organization than an army).

On the other hand, to destroy two bridges that might someday bring prosperity to a land—Crimea—that now lives on the edge of poverty strikes me as an exercise in nihilism, even if the original Putin purpose of the bridges was to open an additional military front against an independent Ukraine.

Thinking about the choice reminded me of the last lines in Darkness at Noon, which I read for the first time when I got home from Russia. The last words in the book describe the inevitable execution of the political prisoner, Rubashov: “A second shattering blow hit him on the ear. Then all was still. The sea rushed on. A wave gently lifted him up. It came from afar and traveled serenely onward, a shrug of infinity.” In the current war Ukraine is experiencing its own “shrug of infinity”.

Krasnodar: On the Banks of the Kuban River

Krasnodar is one of the principal cities in southern Russia, leading to the North Caucasus. I went there because it had a direct flight to Belgrade, where I can find connections to western Europe. Otherwise, I would have had to fly or take the train back to Moscow, and by that point I was tiring of Russian travels.

The Krasnodar-Glavny railway station is massive, with a wedding cake red star its main spire, and then, on both wings, expansive modern additions, which give it the look of an insurance office grafted onto a Stalinist moorish castle.

In the parking lot in front of the station, I reassembled my folded bicycle and attached my saddle bags, and then set off for my hotel, which was ten miles to the east, opposite the international airport. My flight was the following morning at 3 a.m., and I didn’t want to risk biking there in the darkness or having to rouse a sleepy desk clerk to summon a taxi.

Before finding a bike path to the airport, I made a loop through the Krasnodar downtown, which on a summer Sunday was thronged with shoppers and strollers.

A lot of the main streets had pedestrian malls and bike paths, so it was easy to move around safely. Other than some historic buildings downtown most of the city spreads out in the broad basin of the Kuban River—more like sprawling Tulsa, Oklahoma than downtown Boston.

Not in the World Cup

On my way out of town to the airport, I detoured slightly to the north to see the modernistic park and football stadium, which by rights should have hosted a World Cup match in 2018, when Russia had the tournament.

Krasnodar loves football, and the new stadium opened in 2016, with the expectation that it would get a few World Cup matches. Instead President Vladimir Putin sent the games in southern Russia to Rostov and Sochi (where at Putin’s direction Russia had dumped money to host the winter 2014 Olympics), and left Krasnodar out in the cold, despite its world class stadium and surrounding park made up of concentric circles of tree-lined walkways and cupolas. It looked like sci-fi special effects or one of those Dubai housing projects that gets built in the sea.

I didn’t mind my meandering Sunday morning bike ride out to my hotel, although as the morning wore on it got hotter. When the bicycle path ended, I switched to back roads and wandered through residential neighborhoods of single story houses, one of the first middle class developments I had seen in my Russian travels.

To navigate east, all I had to do what look up in the sky at landing or departing aircraft, and that told me roughly where the airport was located.

Airport Hotel: Pre-boarding Jitters

The hotel was the closest that I could find to the airport, but was still across a major highway from the departure hall. Something tells me I was the only guest in the hotel that night, as all the restaurants and bars were closed, and any time I came or went through the lobby the front desk was deserted.

After lunch, I decided to deal with something that I had been dreading—to find out whether I needed a PCR test to board my night flight for Belgrade and Switzerland.

At that point in the pandemic crisis, Switzerland only required that I show proof of vaccination, but I knew well that Russia had it own arcane rules, which filled me with some unease.

Biking to the airport in the blistering sun, I searched for the airport testing center, which turned out to be a parked bus with a few nurses in white coats drinking coffee in some of the seats at the back.

When I poked my head into the bus and asked if I needed a test to board the plane, they scoffed, and went back to their cigarettes and magazines.

As no one was on the bus getting tested for any flights, I figured I would have to make do with my Swiss vaccination card, which is all that should have mattered. Then I set off to collect cardboard from a supermarket, so that I could line my bicycle travel bag with some cushioning on the flight.

The End of Tsarist Russia

To pass the summer afternoon in Krasnodar—sadly my budget airport hotel did not have a swimming pool—I settled into a roadside café with a copy of Dominic Lieven’s The End of Tsarist Russia: The March to World War I and Revolution, in part because I read books on the end of the Russian monarchy as cautionary tales for what might well be in store for Putin’s kleptocracy.

The author is a descendant of a tsarist admiral in the Russian navy, and his book is long and detailed on the subject of what went wrong for the tsars between the 1878 Treaty of Berlin and the 1917 Russian Revolution, which devoured the last of the Romanov dynasty. Lieven’s thesis is this:

The attempt to deter Germany before 1914 resulted in defeat, revolution, civil war, and the Bolshevik dictatorship. The deal struck with Hitler in 1939 ended by leaving Russia in a position more vulnerable than at any time since 1811. But the fact that Russia’s leaders adopted opposite strategies before 1914 and in 1939, which nevertheless in both cases led to disaster, is an indication that the choice was a difficult one and the stakes were immensely high. A key element in this huge tragedy for the Russian people was that by removing Russia from the victorious coalition in World War I, revolution and defeat in 1917–18 made a second conflict much more likely.

In the context of Ukraine he adds:

In 1945, Stalin did annex Galicia and incorporated it into the Soviet Ukrainian republic, thereby enormously increasing the potential threat of Ukrainian nationalism to the Russian state. [Pre-war Russian politician Pyotr Nikolayevich] Durnovo’s prediction turned out to be true: without Galicia, it is very possible that Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus would have survived the demise of communism in some version of an east Slavic federation.

I am sure after the current war ends and Putin’s one-man government is no more, it will be easy to look back at the war in Ukraine and state that the outcome—another collapse of imperial Russia or the resurgimiento of the Soviet Union and further erosion of the West?—should have been clear to anyone with an eye on Russia. But at the moment, with the war still in doubt, it’s much harder to predict the result, other than yet another destruction of Ukraine, a theme that ran through the previous world wars. Were I to contribute a paragraph in a book entitled The Decline of Putin’s Russia (to be published in 2025?), it might read:

With no mandate other than the assent of a corporate aristocracy on the Kremlin payroll, the Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a violent if clumsy military attack on Ukraine, in the hope that it would divide Western Europe and enable Russia to push its western border into the Baltic states and eastern Europe (Moldova). Instead the attacks revealed only that Russian corruption had largely fed itself on padded military budgets (to pay for all those dachas along the Black Sea), and in the end a weaker but more motivated Ukrainian army pushed Russia out of Ukraine, which in turn fractured Russia’s imperial reach in Central Asia and the Caucasus, themselves legacies of nineteenth century imperialism. Putin himself was reported to have “died while in office,” which is what happened to many previous czars when their armies came apart on the frontier.

Brother, Can You Spare a PCR?

At about 1 a.m. I wheeled my bicycle into the Krasnodar departure hall, and in no time I had my bicycle in its bag, to which I added a swirl of shrink wrapping from those machines you often see in airports, which made for a more protected package.

Less impressed, however, were the airport agents assigned to print out my boarding passes. I produced my complete file for travel to Switzerland—a Swiss passport and a vaccination certificate. Plus I had printed the travel requirements for Switzerland in Russian, just so there would be no misunderstanding. But there was; the agent said I needed a PCR test to get into Switzerland, a requirement that had been dropped a month before.

I was ordered—in that Russian way—to stand to one side with my luggage, and I watched as other passengers, few of whom had my two vaccinations, filed through to security and the boarding lounge.

At this point I figured if I needed to get a PCR test and wait for the result (at least a week), I would be better off flying to Moscow and getting home from there. At least there I would find more than a testing bus in an airport parking lot.

Finally a more senior airline clerk came over and reviewed my czarist petition, to which I had added all sorts of extraneous, but official looking, papers that I was carrying for such an emergency. I had old PCR tests (in French) and other web pages (in German) about Swiss requirements. In the end the agent tired of my haggling and gave me a boarding pass, no doubt figuring that I was Switzerland’s problem.

After that little ruckus, in a long night and day of travel, not one more person ever looked at any of my vaccination letters of transit, as happened so often during pandemic travels. (No matter what the problem in the world—terrorism, illness, you name it—the enforcement mechanism is usually found at an airport check-in desk.) To be fair to the Krasnodar airport staff, during the pandemic I had worse treatment in New York and London, as no one ever knew the rules.

John le Carré Remembers the Russian Empire

My flight from Krasnodar flew directly on a line over Crimea, Simferopol, Bakhchysarai, the Black Sea, and finally what were called Danubian Principalities, where the 1853 Crimean War began when Russian marched against the Ottoman Empire.

I would like to say I got one last look at all the places that had lured me to the East, but the fact of the matter was that the sun was just beginning to rise and allI could see below my window was morning mist, not the clear outlines of the lands that have prompted so much unhappiness throughout history.

By that point in my reading, I had given up on Lieven’s The End of Tsarist Russia and the many Crimean Wars, and I was content to read a John Le Carré novel on my Kindle, in this instance Our Game, which is set in the Caucasus, to the east of Krasnodar.

I find Le Carré’s novels to be easy reading (not that they lack for substance), and when I am in Russia (always with an uneasy feeling), I appreciate his soft humor (“I’m surprised they let him in. Here you are. Never trust a man with a lot of addresses…”) and his shades of grey when unpacking East-West relations (“After the Cold War it got worse. On both sides of the Atlantic. More corrupt, inward, conformist, intolerant, isolationist, smug. Less equitable…”).

In Our Game le Carré has one of his protagonists crossing a border or a checkpoint with an old Russian hand, who to pass the time is waxing on about Russia’s near endless decline and fall. He might well have been Vladimir Putin at some cabinet meeting of lackeys or perhaps a commentator on Fox News who has seen the future and believes that it works. Describing an approach to a checkpoint even more primitive than my Krasnodar Airport departure lounge, le Carré writes:

He was excited: ‘And when the great Soviet Empire fell on its white arse, you know what they did, my friends and relations? They comforted me! They told me don’t worry! “This Yeltsin, he’s a good fellow, you’ll see. Now that we haven’t got Communism, Yeltsin will give us justice.’” He drank again, whispering some insult at himself as he did so. ‘You know what? I’d told them the same stupid story when Khrushchev came to power! How many times can you be that kind of idiot? …. The Soviet Empire not even dead in its grave, and the Russian Empire already climbing out. “Our precious Ukraine, gone! Our precious Transcaucasia, gone! Our beloved Baltics, gone! Look, look, the virus is moving south! Our Georgia, going! Nagorno Karabakh, going! Armenia, Azerbaijan, going! Chechenia, gone! The whole Caucasus, going! Our gateway to the Middle East, going! Our route to the Indian Ocean, going! Our naked southern flank exposed to Turkey! Everybody raping Mother Russia!”’ The bus slowed down. ‘Pretend you’re asleep. Put your head forward, close your eyes. Show them your nice fur hat.’

Out over the Black Sea—having spent the previous night on the train, and then another restless day and night on the bicycle and queueing for my flight—I had no trouble pushing my head forward and closing my eyes. All I was lacking was a fur hat.

Next: This is the last in the series. Earlier installments can be found here.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, and The Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent book, about traveling in France and the Franco-Prussian wars, is entitled Biking with Bismarck.