With an invasion, manufactured pro-Russia protest photos, and the grainy shots of armies marching against each other, it’s becoming very hard to reconcile Crimea, the strategically important piece of southern Ukraine’s rocky shore real estate on the media, with the Crimea of my childhood memories. We spent several summers in Crimea when I was growing up, on the sea by Ayu Dag, Bear Mountain.
There were as many legends as people about how the giant bear became a mountain of rock and stone. Almost everyone agreed that it happened many years ago, when the beautiful young girl who the bear was in love with had fled his grasp with a young man from beyond the sea. The bear saw them making their way across the water and, not being able to imagine a life without the girl, he knelt down along the shore, and began drinking the sea to stop them. He drank so much that he awoke the great and powerful sea god, who rose from the dark depths and turned the bear into stone to stop him from emptying out the whole sea. As the bear lay frozen, he pleaded with the sea god not to take the girl away from him. The girl and the young man pleaded as well, professing their undying love for each other. And the sea god, who didn’t see much difference between humans and bears, and couldn’t decide whose pleas to listen to, turned the girl and the young man into stones as well. And so they remained over the centuries – the bear mountain and the two atolls just off the coast in the Black Sea, weathering and growing green with moss and trees, together.
Not far from Ayu Dag, stood the castle on the cliff at Swallow’s Nest – where thousands of swallows flew out of the rock and circled us as we trekked up to visit what was now a museum where I saw my first giant Aivazovsky paintings of the sea. The legends of Swallow’s nest spoke of the time long ago, when the goddess of the morning came to the shore every day to watch the sunrise. The god of the sea fell in love with the beautiful goddess, and wanted to take her to his underwater palace. But the goddess couldn’t live without the rays of the morning sun and she refused his love. The sea god grew furious, and dark storms with enormous waves rocked the sea, sinking boats, killing fisherman, and crashing against the rocky shore. He coerced the god of winds to cover the entire sky with thick clouds, to stop the sun from appearing in the morning. The goddess waited and waited for the sunrise which never came, and eventually fell into an uneasy sleep. The sea god saw his chance and raced up on a huge wave to capture the goddess. But as he picked her up into his arms, her diamond crown slipped from her head, breaking into a million pieces, chipping pieces of land and sky, forming the sharp cliffs, cutting through the clouds and sparkling brilliantly against the freed sun. The goddess woke up and escaped from the arms of the sea god onto the highest of the newly formed cliffs, and called on a flock of swallows to shield her from the spurned sea god. And so the loyal swallows remained on the cliff, guarding the goddess and greeting the sunrise with her.
Legends were so deeply ingrained with the land, they didn’t need to be told to be felt. I distinctly remember, almost 25 years later, standing on a wind-swept plain over the sea, on the way to visit an ancient castle that changed hands so many times between the Greeks, Goths, Turks, Mongols, Russians, and Ukrainians that its true origins were lost. The grass has been polished flat against the ground by the powerful winds, and large round rocks rose through. I wondered alone through the plain, climbing the rocks, rubbing blades of grass between my fingers, forgetting to breathe as the wind was so strong, it made it hard to inhale or feel human at all. It was a prehistoric feeling, powerful and freeing, timeless yet acutely aware of all the centuries the plain had been there, of all the visitors that crossed it, pausing in the winds.
There were modern legends as well. On the other side of the mountain lay the mythical Soviet communist camp for gifted children, Artek. Soviet kids spoke about it in hushed, awed voices – it was supposed to be the most amazing place on earth, somewhere in between Disneyland and vacationing on the Moon. Only a certain number of kids, the best and the brightest from all the 15 Soviet Republics were chosen to go there in the summer. Hidden between the mountain, deep forest, and the sea, it was impossible to peek at its fabled beauty from afar, and we pictured unimaginable riches – all the books you can read, all new and glossy; a little colorful row boat for every kid; shiny new bikes to ride whenever one wanted; a petting zoo where each kid was responsible for taking care of their own special animal. I found myself wistfully looking at the mountain, trying to picture what the kids on the other side in Artek were doing at that moment, what special journeys they were embarking on as young communists, destined, as prophesied by all the Soviet science fiction I overdosed on, to fly spaceships to distant planets and bring messages of peace and knowledge to the universe.
Superstitions, culturally acceptable remnants of ancient legends, overpowered the Communist agenda to prize logic and reason above all else. Somehow they found a way to coexist, even compliment scientific knowledge in popular wisdom. Looking back, I think it was the power of the land – it was impossible not to become possessed by its pagan magic. One ritual I took quite seriously as a child was leaving a coin of gratitude in the water of a place I wanted to return to. We threw coins into the seas and fountains of Crimea every year – every year, except the last summer we spent there. We were running late for a bus and my mom pulled me away from the path to the beach, taking a shortcut through the village. That fall, my parents told me we were moving to America. I cried for days, so hard that uncles and grandparents were called on to console me. I cried because I believed it was my fault for never throwing the coin into the sea.