Sunday, 20 June 2010
SEVASTOPOL, Ukraine — Glory, tragedy and an army of ghosts haunt this great naval base that commands the Crimea and surrounding Black Sea.
I had been invited by Britain’s 8th Hussars to commemorate the 150th anniversary of their unit’s participation in the fabled Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava. Alas, a serious injury prevented me from going to Crimea, a place I had studied and dreamed about since boyhood.
As I sailed Sevastopol’s magnificent natural harbour, I was gripped by the drama of the place.
In 1854, a British, French, Turkish and Sardinian force attacked Crimea to stop the expanding Russian Empire from gobbling up the dying Ottoman Empire.
The Crimean War was a nightmare for the soldiers involved. Disease killed four times more than combat, provoking a refined lady named Florence Nightingale to open Britain’s first field hospital at Balaclava.
Sevastopol was besieged for 349 days. Its bastions and redoubts were brilliantly defended by Russian soldiers and sailors. Combat was brutal. The British hogged most of the military glory, but the French really won the siege.
In September, 1855, French Zouave elite infantry in baggy red pants, blue vests and tasseled hats finally stormed the great Malakoff Redoubt, breaking Russian defenses.
Near the British supply base at Balaclava, Lord Cardigan’s Light Brigade misunderstood its orders and charged to its doom against Russian guns.
Nearby, in a now forgotten action, Gen. Scarlett’s Heavy Brigade staged a brilliant charge against massed Russian cavalry.
Pictures painted by the great Victorian artist, Lady Butler — Charge of the Heavy Brigade, and the famous Thin Red Line of Highlanders defending Balaclava — hang in my home.
Most of Sevastopol was destroyed by British-French bombardment. Eight decades later, in 1941, Germany attacked Crimea. The ablest German general, Erich von Manstein, led his 11th Army into Crimea and besieged Sevastopol, defended by 236,000 Soviet sailors and soldiers.
The Germans used enormous siege guns against the port’s fortifications, including “Thor,” a monster 800-mm railroad gun, and a 615-mm mortar, “Schwerer Gustav.” Both had been secretly built to crush France’s Maginot Line forts.
Sevastopol held out for nine months of ferocious fighting in which almost all the Soviet defenders died or became prisoners. I explored the ruins of the Maxim Gorky 305-mm battery which fought to its last round, then was blown up. Photos of its valiant defenders hang on its concrete walls.
On May 9, 1944, the 2nd Soviet Guards Army recaptured Crimea and Sevastopol. Ninety-eight percent of the city lay in ruins. Soviet leader Stalin proclaimed Sevastopol a “Hero City of the Soviet Union,” along with Leningrad and Stalingrad, and ordered it rebuilt to its former neo-classical beauty.
Sevastopol was just back in the news. Ending a rancorous dispute with Moscow, Ukraine’s new government renewed Russia’s lease on the Black Sea Fleet’s Sevastopol base until 2042 in exchange for $40 billion worth of deeply discounted natural gas. Ukraine had previously been unable to pay its national heating bills, facing a Russian shut-off in winter.
I observed morning formation aboard one of the sleek Russian destroyers, bristling with anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles. Watching the sailors raise their fleet’s historic battle standard, the blue Cross of St. Andrew, seemed a fitting tribute to Sevastopol’s suffering.
Ukraine is doing surprisingly well. The new government of Viktor Yanukovich says Ukraine will not join NATO but rather maintain close relations with Russia. All the empty sound and fury of the former pro-western Orange government is unlamented by many Ukrainians who crave political peace. So far, Ukrainians and Russians seem to be getting along.
Warm, sunny Sevastopol and Odessa are becoming Ukraine’s Riviera. The scenic little port of Balaclava, with its former Soviet underground submarine base that housed nuclear weapons, is thronged by pleasure boats and yachts.
Sevastopol has belonged to Ukraine since the 1954. But its soil is soaked deep by Russian blood, and in spirit, Russian it will always remain.