retour article original
It has been a long time since I have written about the current, near and not so near past concerning our humble little valley on north side and the peninsula in general. The last two years have been what could be described as tumultuous at times, other times, the vast majority, serene and peaceful.
I will not go in to the events in Kiev beyond saying the events were watched daily by much of the populace and as the coup d’etat approached fruition the observations were accompanied by growing trepidation. Trust, me, there was and is no love lost in this town or this peninsula for President Yanukovich and his hordes of minions and hangers on, they were arrogant to a fault and rapacious thieves the likes of which few have seen. Previous governments in Kiev were very slightly better, the difference best described as the difference between getting run over by a Volga and run over by a Kamaz.
The events following the coup d’etat in Kiev directly led to the separation of Sevastopol and Krimea from Ukraine. In the 20 months since the peninsula and this city have had their share of troubles from Kiev, not the least of which being the cessation of water supply to the peninsula last mid summer. Water was supplied for the majority of Krimea via a shallow canal constructed in Soviet times to control the spring floods of the Dnepr River as the snow and ice melted. The canal was eventually lengthened to go to Krim to supply water for agriculture and by default to the many towns and villages in central and north Krim, an additional extension of the canal going down to Kerch on the east coast.
As a result of the plentiful water supply rice farms were built in north Krimea during Soviet times in addition to extensive agricultural enterprises. Most of these farms big and small were still in operation when the crisis began and the citizens continued on with their farming. Kiev guaranteed the supply of water to Krim in return for substantial payments.
In late summer 2014 right sector (I will not capitalize them, they are beneath contempt) barricaded the canal some many kilometers north of the Krimea border. This sand bag barricade stopped the water to Krim for a few days until a summer storm dumped substantial rain in the area of the barricade and the runoff removed the blockage. Within days the barricade was rebuilt and reinforced with concrete. Water from the canal was totally stopped. Since the barricade was well north of the Krim border numerous farms in Kherson Oblast bordering Krimea were also deprived of water. Farms and smallholdings in Krimea and Kherson Oblast had their crops destroyed and villages and towns lost their main supply of water.
In Krimea the new government aggressively addressed the problem. The Army and Opolchensya brought water in trucks to any who needed it. Within days wells were being bored in most of the affected settlements and extensive surveys were done to locate underground water reserves. These surveys were successful and by late fall all citizens of Krimea had water in plentitude. However, in the opinion of substantial portions of the populace the government had failed them in that the penchant for the junta in Kiev to not honor any agreement or contract they made was common knowledge. The failure was doubly so because the government in Simferopol and other cities and towns was often advised by the citizenry of the distinct possibility of the junta cutting the canal, these advices falling on deaf ears. -Sevastopol is unique, a reservoir built in Soviet times in the north foothills of the mountains along the south coast was large enough to supply Sevastopol with few other sources. The only problem was the size of the water tubes feeding the city, they being barely adequate for twenty years ago let alone today with the population growth. The Russian Army as an FTX (Field Training Exercise) constructed an additional and large water feed from the reservoir to the city and to Inkerman at the foot of the harbor. From Inkerman the water transport went to the north side of harbor and to amongst other areas our little valley.
The water quality is another subject. The entire water infrastructure, and indeed all the city infrastructure and physical plant, is antiquated. When the city was rebuilt after the war there was substantial planning of the infrastructure, that being in the Soviet manner. Gas feeds are generally above ground except for the major feeds. Telephone lines are buried, often running down the middle of the streets. Water lines are also buried, minimum one meter below ground level. We do not get the proverbial Russian Winter in this berg but it can get cold. Go 20 kilometers north or east of us and the winters are substantially worse.
As an aside, to this day I can take you to small villages, and one not so small, that do not have a community water system beyond private wells and one communal well in the tiny center of the village, these settlements being but a few minutes drive from our house.
Krimea and Sevastopol were treated as a backwater, a poor southern province of little import beyond a pleasant place to holiday in summer and an area to be looted to the very ground and beyond. Not a kopek was spent on infrastructure since the fall of SSSR beyond what was needed to keep the water, gas, electric, sewer and transportation systems functional within reason.
The roads were, and are, a patchwork quilt of small repairs done only as needed and the rule of thumb was and is the repairs are done only if someone of importance is discomfited by a particular street or road. On the other hand it is quite hilarious to see hectares of palatial mansions built on former vineyard lands (illegal in both Ukraine and Russia) with the required number of S Klasse and other luxurious transport sitting outside and inside the compounds and the streets are rutted dirt that become quagmires during the first drops of rain. The old saw of "money don’t buy you class" apparently holds true in this humble city as it does everywhere.
The city electric supply system was, under Ukraine, a nightmare. Nothing was renovated for over 20 years and in fact little was "modernized" since the system was rebuilt in the late 1940’s, the philosophy being "it still works, why spend money on it ?" Going in to a substation, which I have done, was like taking a tour of an electrical museum, exposed electromechanical relays and switches carrying 480 volts, fabric wrapped wiring, generally aluminum, crumbling concrete walls, floors and ceilings that dripped water in heavy rains, in essence a disaster waiting to happen. Electric service could be relied upon to cease at random intervals, the norm was two or three times a week, reason unknown, but it was often enough and long enough that one of the first purchases I made when we started to build the house was a diesel generator.
With the change of landlord the city electrical grid was the first, and so far only, infrastructure system to be renovated after a fashion. Sevastopol does have a fair sized electrical power generating plant located on harbor near Inkerman. It is coal powered although plans are to switch to natural gas power. I do not know when this change of fuel will happen and it is possible it will never happen, for a reason.
Many of the small substations were renovated and modernized including the tiny one feeding our valley not a block away, located in an obscure corner of the park. This alone stopped most of the outages in our valley. There was also an attempt to at least make some order of the jumble of feed wires coming to and from the stations, must of which would give an electrical engineer a heart attack at the sight of them. By summer of 2014 the random power outages were generally a thing of the past. If there was to be a power cutoff announcements were made on radio and TV as to where, when and the projected time frame of the cutoff.
Work was commenced in early April on a substantial modernization and expansion of one of the main power feeds to the eastern and northern parts of the city including Inkerman. In essence the facility was totally rebuilt in record time and six massive turboelectric generators were installed. To this day I have not seen the generators in operation including yesterday, 23 November 2015, during the power emergency in this city and region.
In late May of this year work commenced on a new power generating facility south of Inkerman. This plant will be large enough to feed not only the city with projected growth for the next twenty years but also the entire Sevastopol Region. I would predict another year before the plant is completed.
Water. Don’t drink it. The vast majority of the systems and just about all of the main feed systems are 60 and more years old and made of steel pipe of various sizes. I have yet to comprehend why water pipes with constant use can produce the prodigious quantities of rust they do but it is a fact. Toss in that the water is hard enough to drive nails in to and one can understand the problems.
I have an industrial primary filter for our water feed. Supposedly the filter, made in Germany, is good for 5000 cubic meters of water before replacement is needed. I replace the filter every three months in winter and two months in summer. We use a yearly average of 20 cubic meters of water a month and this includes the irrigation system functioning for grass growing season.
We have a five stage membrane filter system for the kitchen, the system has a reservoir tank holding 5 liters of filtered water under pressure. All cooking and drinking water comes from this system and even our dogs drink water only from this system.
The water supply system under the previous landlord was unreliable to be kind. As with the electric service system I have been to the local water supply substation and the standing joke there was Lenin helped in the construction of the facility. Their budget for repairs and maintenance was a pittance, to be blunt there was no budget. Any repairs needed anywhere in the system north of the harbor had to be approved by the central office after reams of paperwork were submitted and the process could be lengthy, ergo repairs were often temporary and jury rigged at best. Problem areas stayed as problem areas for years, one such problem not far from our house was open for the last three years of the previous regime, in other words the two manual valves that were worn out were not replaced and the hole dug to service them was left open for easy access. This hole was in the middle of the crumbling sidewalk, 1.5 meters deep and the "barricade" around this open 3 meter wide hole was made of bits and pieces of scrap wood and tree branches. I am not joking.
Since the change of administration things are better. Gone are the weekly hours or even days long water service outages. Problem areas have been addressed and there are now no open holes scattered around and any repair works done are properly barricaded. The local substation is still antique and the basic quality of water has not changed, witness my primary filter still being changed every two months.
Repairs done to the system that require digging in the road are still done the old way, generally by hand. When repairs are completed on a lucky occasion the hole is backfilled with soil over the water pipe and then filled with crushed stone. The norm is the hole is filled with the dirt from the excavation and nothing more is done. Administration seems to see no problem with this practice.
The natural gas supply system is the only utility that seems to have worked well in the old times. The physical plant is, as normal, antique but in over a decade I don’t remember ever having an outage. Gas feeds to apartment houses and single houses is generally above ground. The fitting and installation of the service pipes is done by hand, meaning angles and bends in the pipes, from a 15 cm main feed pipe to the small pipes going in to your actual domicile are made by hand, the tubes heated and bent as needed for the smaller sized, larger sizes any deviation from straight pipe is hand fabricated on the spot. The only departure from this practice is the various valves installed in the main pipes. Here the valves, collars and seals are manufactured and welded in to the standard service pipes.
Under the old administration obtaining new utility service for your private house was interesting. Nothing was done in this city under the Ukes without a bribe. Period. By law the fee for instance for a new electric service was 10 griven, a little over a dollar back then. You could obtain service for that small fee but by the time you got it your grandchildren would be finishing their university doctorate thesis.
For new service in a timely manner there is first a "project" to be written, of course by the relative utility administration. Then came the various surveys with related fees. When work finally commenced after you paid for the "project" and "surveys" additional fees were demanded by the work crew and their supervisor. In general one would pay between $500 and $1000 for each utility installation. Not much, you say ? The average pay in Ukraine for a worker was, and is to this day, fifty to a hundred dollars a week, a master craftsman earning the one hundred, the actual workers often making less than the fifty. Of course everything was solved with a couple hundred, preferably in dollars, put in someone’s outstretched hand.
This endemic corruption was top to bottom in every government entity, bar none. Police, utility, business licenses and inspections, various registrations for vehicles, machinery, personal registrations, any time you had interaction with any government agency no matter what it was, a bribe was expected and would be paid unless you wanted a lot of problems.
Did I ever pay a bribe ? Yes, once, to get electric service to our newly purchase shell of a house so our workers could start. $50 got service the next day. Since that day, and trust me my teeth were grinding as we handed the fifty to the bribe taker, I have never paid a bribe. Ukrainians have an inborn fear of foreigners and I very quickly learned to use that fear and refused to pay any extra "fees" for anything. This refusal was generally written off as "the crazy foreigner" syndrome, but it worked and no needed permit or service to our house was delayed in the least.
Today the corruption is a thing of the past, on the surface. I have no doubts the corruption is still there, I’ve seen it often enough, but it is no longer so blatant and open and our experiences with officialdom after the change of flag have been good. Understand that with the change after the referendum every scrap of paper we had needed to be changed to the new administration. House documents and title, utility accounts, insurance, internal passports and for me permanent residency permit, car and truck titles and registrations, driving licenses, bank accounts, you name it, every scrap needed attention right down to the dog pedigrees.
While it was an inconvenience to do so and in some instances time consuming, all in all the changes were relatively painless and done efficiently. As an aside the actual workers in most of the administrations were the same people we have dealt with in past years. As a test my wife during the process of one document change that I don’t even remember what it was quietly asked the girl if something could be done to expedite the process, the old code word for "how much do you want". The lass actually got a frightened look on her face and instantly declined any thoughts of such a thing, saying it would lead to her instant termination of employment and possibly criminal charges. My wife gently patted her on the hand and told her not to worry, the question was just a test. When we left the office I asked my lass if she had noticed the high ceiling, she said no, I told her there were surveillance cameras in the ceiling. Like most people she sees only what is between the top of her little noggin and waist level.
Life is no bed of roses here. The initial euphoria is still there to an extent but life goes on, people do not change nor do politicians plus we have been flooded with carpetbaggers thundering down to the new Promised Land, all intent on getting their piece of the pie before the provincials wake up.
There have been drastic changes in businesses and business practice. Businesses were given a one year grace period to bring themselves up to Russian standards. There are two entities on the peninsula, Republic of Krimea, capitol being Simferopol, and The Federal City of Sevastopol, the third federal city in Russia, the other two being Mockba and St. Petersburg. Sevastopol is part of Russia and as such the laws and regulations of Russia are in force for the city and Sevastopol Region. Republic of Krimea is part of Russian Federation and technically has some leeway on law and regulations but de facto Krimea follows Russian law and is in effect a part of Russia. The grace period ended officially on 01 May 2015. In the month preceding that date many businesses were visited by the various inspectors basically as a courtesy inspection to help point them in the direction needed to comply with Russia Law. Most reacted favorably to this courtesy, some not.
The after effect of the referendum last year was some stores and businesses closed down, a few immediately and more when it was understood that the change of flag was permanent and a new sheriff was in town who conducted government in a different manner.
A week after the expiration of the grace period the real inspections began. Many food products sold in shops, kiosks and supermarkets did not meet Russian health regulations. This does not mean the food was not safe, it simply did not meet the current laws and/or have Russian health department approval on the packaging.
Three fair sized supermarkets were chosen for the first inspections. The inspections were ruthless as all three stores had the courtesy inspection a month before and had done nothing. In times past some money placed in an outstretched hand was sufficient to solve any problems and avoid an inspection. Not now, and in fact one store manager was arrested for attempting to bribe a public official during the inspections.
Entire aisles in the stores were taped off and the offending goods were ordered removed instantly, under supervision of Department of Health workers. The goods were placed on pallets in the store storage rooms after the storage rooms were inspected and offending goods quarantined.
I do not know what happened to the withdrawn food and merchandise in the stores but within an hour stores and kiosks all over the city were removing non approved food and merchandise from their shelves. Magically within a week all the stores and kiosks had shelves bulging with new and approved food and merchandise. Prices stayed the same, under orders from The Government. The inspections continued and do to this day, although not in the volume of the first week.
Food prices for staples, bread, basic milk, buckwheat and such are government controlled. The price of petrol and diesel fuel is also set by the government. Prices for basic and not so basic foods and goods are substantially lower than in EU and US.
We actually have genuine butchers in this city, one who we have given custom to for 10 years. We generally go to him every two weeks but he will call us if he gets some unusually prime beef in. We also buy the scraps and bones for our dogs to supplement their usual diet of good quality dog food one day and buckwheat porridge with meat scraps the next. The scraps are 80 rubles a kilo, about 35 cents a pound. Filet mignon is 360 rubles a kilo, roasting beef and rib steaks 260 rubles a kilo. We taught him how to make real hamburger, not the 30 % beef and 70 % pork mixture that is normally sold here as "hamburger". That goes for 260 rubles a kilo also. Chicken he has along with very good pork, priced accordingly in comparison to beef.
All his meat is fresh cut while you wait and his little shop is spotless. He had viewed the process in early last year with some trepidation, reason being his wife is Tatar. In the end all worked out well for both -him and her, she having opened a small café very close to his shop. Gone are the "health inspectors" arriving once a month and taking 5 kilos of prime meat for "testing and health analysis".
Krimea is a bread basket, it seems that half the peninsula is covered with farms and smallholdings ranging from huge commercial operations to a babushka with her little garden. Spring, summer and fall the outlying villages have the babushki setting up their little tables at road side and selling fruits and vegetables at excellent prices. Since none of them use chemicals, they can’t afford them, the products are fresh and pure.
Greenhouses and hothouses abound around Bachti Sarai and Simferopol, almost all belonging to Tatari. They work year ‘round so we have fresh fruits and vegetables all year. Prices are quite reasonable and again, chemicals are not used. Tatari also raise fine beef. The best all beef sausage ever is in the Tatar Market in Bachti Sarai. We go there every few weeks and my charming bride loads up, not only with sausage but with thread and material for her embroidering.
Life in general in this city is staid and quiet. We are cursed with the Summer Plague, otherwise known as tourists. We despise them with a passion, ignore them and don’t go near the beaches in season. A pox on the lot of them.
We have 4 theaters in and around City Center. Plays and concerts run the gamut from ultramodern, which are rare, to more traditional events, often having a patriotic bent to them. Spring, summer and fall we have open air concerts put on by the Navy Choir and others in The Dome in City Center Park next to Naxhimova Square. Bolshoi comes every summer and last year’s show was as usual sold out with so many clamoring for tickets that Bolshoi sent the understudies to Naxhimova Square where they did an impromptu performance to the cheers of the not small crowd.
There are also in summer concerts in Haxhimova Square, generally for the younger crowd, read rock, and after historic anniversaries and parades there will be celebrations in the square. The square, by the way, is where our journey back to Russia started February of last year, that is where the first impromptu meetings were held that so annoyed the new junta in Kiev.
The big public event is Victory Day, 09 May. The parade this year was huge and it is estimated that 200000 citizens and visitors attended the event and I believe it. As the parade was forming up at the top of Lenina Street a solid stream of citizens passed us heading down the hill for almost three hours. That’s a LOT of people.
City Center Park is huge, stretching from Naxhimova Square and Ekatarina’s Gate all the way along harbor to Artillery Bay. It is active all year long but especially so in spring, summer and fall. Families bring their children, young couples and older people come to sit and enjoy the ambiance, art sellers and artists set up near Opera House at Artillery Bay to sell their wares.
We often take our blue girl Sophia for a stroll in the park, she is the most calm and gentle of our herd and she loves children and children love her. She hated the shows necessary for her championship and had a healthy aversion to getting in the car. Now she knows she is going to City Center and after having -fun with the children she knows we will go to one of our favorite restaurants, actually a fleet café, for a late lunch. You have to know where this little restaurant is to find it and it is a throwback to old times. It is quite pleasant to see the very old veterans, and the widows, come in for lunch and present their ration books for stamping. Of course today those ration books are long a thing of the past but in this café they are honored. Sophia is known there and we bring her plate, fork, small water bowl and bib for her lunch. She orders the same thing every time she’s there, a bowl of water and a small piece of meat, no spices and cooked well done.
There are many restaurants and cafes all over City Center and in fact throughout the city. Some are good, some not, some are large, some are small. All are spotlessly clean now and in general they are inspected once a month. Prices run from ‘how can you cook for this tiny money’ to huge.
Sevastopol is an old city, founded by the Greeks 2500 years ago. Since those times and to this day the city and the peninsula has been the scene of war and turmoil from time to time. There are several museums and very many monuments throughout the city. Guard Post #1 is in City Center directly across the street from Naxhimova Square. It is here that the Eternal Flame burns at the monument to the struggle of Sevastopol against the Germans during the Great Patriotic War. The post is guarded by teenaged school children in uniform and it is considered quite an honor to be chosen for this duty.
It is tradition that a bride will lay flowers at the monument as it is tradition to lay flowers at the monument to Ekatarina Bolshoi, you know her as Katherine the Great, located just up the street from the Eternal Flame.
Across the harbor from City Center, high on a hill, is St. Nikolas Church. This Church was built in the 1860’s as a monument to the dead from the Krimea War of 1854-1855. It is quite unusual in that it is pyramid shaped, not the traditional Russian style of ornate domes. The dead from the fighting around the city were buried here, the officers in often ornate tombs, the rankers and sarjanti in mass graves marked simply with their regiment number. Church has been fully restored inside to its former glory and is under the protective wing of Russian Navy. On the north side of Church grounds is a large monumental wall honoring the Soviet soldiers who fell in the defense and recapture of Sevastopol and a monument to the dead from the submarine Kursk, many of whom were from Sevastopol or were educated in the Navy school here.
I could continue to write and I could write reams about this city and the surrounding area but I think with this missive one can get a bare idea of what life is like in this city. We have our problems, of that there is no doubt and I know I will not live to see the full potential of this city realized. We have huge work to do here, 30 years of neglect will take 30 years and untold money to address, but we will do it.
Life here is not easy, but then where is life easy in today’s time ? In this small city life is not bad, not bad at all, but life is what you make it. My wife and I have tried to make a little oasis of peace and tranquility in our small valley on north side. I think we have succeeded.