A crescent of twinkling lights and the blown-out mouth of a comic book style submarine cave are the last I see of Balaklava before we fly off the side of the road.
We’re in Crimea, a little semi-island to the south of Ukraine and the east of Russia. Most Americans my age would know this region for that photo of Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill at the Yalta summit we all studied in our history classes.
But in addition to WWII battlefields, Crimea is home to some serious Cold War history, including hidden caches of nuclear warheads (that submarine cave was rumored to house some of them). If you’re old enough to remember Soviet missiles trained at your town, they may have been stored here.
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I’m seeking Soviet nostalgia, and not JUST because I’m a nerd, but also because young people in Ukraine are as fascinated by a USSR brand of 60s kitsch as their American counterparts are with Madmen-era everything.
I assumed, before coming to Ukraine, that I would be alone in seeking out memories of Soviet times – that young people here would be eager to distance themselves from the grim historic landscape of their parents. But I was wrong. One of the first restaurants I was taken to in Kiev was a chain called “Victory” –a sort of Ukrainian Johnny Rockets, complete with Soviet propaganda posters and hammer and sickle embellishments.
Then there’s the Soviet era car show I stumbled on in a gritty mining city in Eastern Ukraine (Ladas, Volgas, and more Ladas and Volgas) and the regular refrain I hear from 20-somethings that back then “life was simpler,” or “there was more community,” or “family counted for more,” or “things were more equal.”
So when I heard about Denis Siraev, a film and TV consultant by day (Crimea is a popular location for movies including the recent Christian Slater joint Soldier of Fortune) and collector of WWII and Cold War era memorabilia by night, I knew I had to meet him.
In addition to old gas masks, a Soviet-era hand-cranked gramophone (complete with nationalist records) and red flags galore, Siraev has a near fleet of Soviet-era vehicles.
He pulled up in the still-hot early evening and shouted “Russky Jeep!” as I climbed into a beat-up, army green truck and we turned toward the hills above Balaklava (turns out the scary ski masks were named after the town, when, during WWII, English ladies knitted them for troops stranded here over the winter).
In addition to offering up a grittier, less romantic view of the Cold War than younger people here, Siraev’s gruff irreverence was more in line with my stereotypes of devil-may-care, hard-living Ukrainians.
At 35, Siraev, and his air of playful danger (something I became closely acquainted with later in the evening), is a product of the anarchic post-Communist 90s he came of age in. A stark contrast to the cautious and gentle 20-somethings I’ve met who suggest local yoga studios and are all trying to quit smoking.
Our first stop was a rusty garage, where Siraev showed me an evil looking black car from the 1950s. He told me it was known as “The Black Horse,” used by secret police to collect dissidents in the night.
He invited me to climb inside.
Past the looming dash and the big retro steering wheel I saw the outlines of Siraev, my colleague Jessica, and our translator Arthur through a smeared windshield. Their hands moved but their voices were muffled.
I rubbed the worn upholstery underneath me and thought of all the people who sat right here. My skin crawled with the cold fear they must have felt. I imagined their families peeking out of apartment windows onto the beetle black top of this shiny car and I wondered how many of them made it home again.
Siraev’s tour continued, past two bullet-pocked bunkers and ended at a hilltop outlook named “The Barrel of Death” (for all the dead soldiers thrown off of it during WWII). But as I stood on top of it, looking down at the tidy hidden bay of Balaklava and lights blinking on in the rising night, all I could think of was the back seat of that car.
“There’s danger in the most beautiful things,” said Siraev before we piled back into the jeep to head down the mountain.
Then he said “hold onto your things,” and “don’t jump out.”
I knew something was wrong when we didn’t make the first right turn. There was the scrubby grass in the headlights. Someone yelled “oh no!” and I heard the creak of a door coming open. My stomach leapt into my throat and I saw that crescent of the city’s lights rise in the distance.
It sounded like were smashing down the hill but it felt like gravity was struggling to pull us up off the ground–like one of those cartoons where everything is thrown in the air in slow motion. I braced for pain.
But then Siraev shouted in triumph as the jeep pulled to a stop just short of the next crest of a hill. He barked that he was impressed with our courage (he says he’s had other foreigners jump out) and helped me down onto shaky legs.
We slapped each other on the shoulders and bent over breathing hard. My knee was busted and blood rolled down my shin and I was so happy to be alive I didn’t stop laughing for hours.
Generation Putin: stories exploring politics and everyday life for Millennials in the former Soviet Union, is produced by the Common Language Project and comes from the Public Radio Exchange, with financial support from the Open Society Foundation.