Normally, when an international crisis breaks out, Uncle Sam calls me. This time, however, with the Ukraine situation just begging for the catchy title I’ve been saving for decades, I called him and lobbied for the job.
I got some hemming, but no hawing, and I knew I was in. I packed quickly and still had time to scrape a little rust off my Russian at a Met matinee of Prince Igor (boy, did Borodin steal a shitload from Kismet.)
The next morning, I landed in Odessa, hoping to get to Sevastopol. I managed to wangle a berth on a Carnival Line cruise doing the Black Sea. My plans seemed scuttled when they announced they were canceling their Sevastopol stop, but, never at a loss and never without my emergency cosmetic kit, I colored myself a sickly bluish-white and, at the height of dinner, collapsed next to the fruit salad.
It worked like a charm and, faster than you could shout NOROVIRUS!! the captain did a u-turn into Sevastopol harbor, slammed on the brakes, and we were besieged by local health officials.
I took advantage of the chaos to slip down the gangplank, disguised as a bedpan, and made it into town. Here’s a taste of the situation:
Florists are completely sold out. The regional FTD rep explains that the locals are hedging their bets by putting flowers into every gun-barrel they encounter. Roses are preferred, but even yesterday’s baby’s breath is acceptable.
Tours of the Russian naval base are cancelled. A handwritten sign reads: To protect our patriotic sailors against nefarious Western plotting, the base is closed until further notice. The word Western appears to have been hastily scribbled over the word I-m-p-(letter indistinct)-r-i-(letter indistinct)-l-i-s-t.
Tramping the city streets, I hear clanging noises. I follow the sound and, in a large square, come upon a group of self-desribed Technical College blacksmithing students, beating plowshares into swords.
In another part of town, armed, helmeted men, who identify themselves as Department of Public Works employees, are meticulously cleaning defaced Yanukovych posters.
The Bolshoi has just arrived in town. I go to see Swan Lake, which is reasonably well done. The Black Swan, appropriately, carries a Kalashnnikov, but the White Swan’s army boots just don’t work.
Walking along the shore, I encounter hundreds of swimmers in wet-suits, goggles, snorkels, and fins emerging from the water. An official explains, Just the local Polar Bear Club, before he hurries me away.
In the market, I buy a Russian nesting doll. When I open it, inside is a business-suited-Putin; inside him, Yeltsin; inside Yeltsin, Brezhnev; and then, Stalin, who looks stern, but pleased.
The situation is calm but mildly unsettling. Russia claims that armed individuals patrolling the streets (including the blacksmiths with swords that still have cow-shit on them) are simply local militia, called out to restore order. Restore what order? It’s a bloody love-fest (report has it that there isn’t a virgin left on the peninsula).
And, if the claim is true, why has the Loyal and Independent Republic of Crimea granted them immediate citizenship? Perhaps more fundamental, what is this Loyal and Independent Republic of Crimea and who’s behind it? And where does Stalin figure in all this?
With so many questions still to pursue, I’ll need more time, and more spending money (flowers are a useful door-opener, but the price has skyrocketed). Make sure payment is in rubles.