New East Digital Archive

Paradise lost: photographer Slava Mogutin looks beyond politics to a happier time in Crimea

The happiest memories of my Soviet upbringing are associated with Crimea. Just like many other families from all over the former USSR, my family used to go there for summer vacations on the Black Sea. Since I grew up in Siberia, where summers were too short and the rivers too cold, the Crimean peninsula’s subtropical climate seemed like the ultimate paradise. Indeed, back in those days Crimea was commonly known as the “Soviet Paradise” — a popular resort for the communist apparatchiks and ordinary citizens alike.

In the summer of 2004, years after my exile from Russia, I returned to Crimea to document its transformation and retrace my happy childhood memories. I was invited to be a part of the cultural festival, organised by the famed writer Viktor Erofeyev. He was building a lavish vacation house there and had invited his friends to celebrate the occasion. The festival took place in Koktebel, which has a rich cultural heritage, thanks to Maximilian Voloshin, a Ukrainian-born Russian poet who was an important figure in the Symbolist movement. He fell in love with Koktebel and settled there right before the Bolshevik Revolution. Voloshin was a colourful character in Russian bohemian circles; a mystic, a nudist and freemason, he turned his house into a literary salon where he hosted and entertained many distinguished guests, including Marina Tsvetayeva, Osip Mandelshtam, and Andrey Bely. So it was quite appropriate that Erofeyev’s festival took place at Voloshin’s house-museum.

It was here, in Koktebel, that my family and I used to spend our summer vacations. Since then, things have changed quite a bit, and this former jewel of the Soviet empire became a hostage of a dirty political battle between Russia, the EU and the US. During my last visit, I witnessed the signs of decay and deterioration everywhere: the crumbling Soviet monuments next to kiosks filled with tacky souvenirs and rundown diners and restaurants with swarms of drunk Russians enjoying blasting trashy Europop. What hasn’t changed are the unique picturesque landscape of this place and the beautiful Black Sea, which remain the main tourist attractions of Crimea.

The highlight of my trip was a visit to a nudist colony in the nearby Fox Bay (Lisia Bukhta), where I took pictures of the Rasta kids living on the beach and enjoying what seemed to be a post-Soviet utopian commune where clothing was optional and everyone was at peace both with nature and each other. Sharing joints and drinking wine with these kids made me think of an ideal world with no ideology, politics, guns or cops — a world where love is the only currency. Now the future of Crimea is in these kids’ hands, and the world is watching events unfolding there, hoping for a peaceful solution to the crisis. Let the people of Crimea decide their own future.

13 March 2014
Image and text Slava Mogutin