Host Bob Edwards:
This holiday season, some travelers will head to warmer climates, while others will flock to ski-lodges in the mountains. But for resort towns that have neither sun nor snow right now, this is the “dead season.” Such is the fate of Yalta, on the Crimean coast of the Black Sea. But reporter Julia Barton recently found that despite a lack of tourists, Yalta refuses to give up hope.
Yalta is wedged on a tiny piece of land between a mountain chain and the sea. Still, a lot has happened in this small place. Here in 1945, Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin signed a treaty that would change the fate of the world. And nearly ten years ago, just up the coast from Yalta, Mikhail Gorbachev was held prisoner in a failed coup attempt that led to the fall of the Soviet Union.
Not that you get much of a sense of history from strolling down Yalta’s boardwalk on a cold autumn night.
A couple of Russian tourists in black leather jackets amuse themselves by singing karaoke versions of raspy prison ballads. Gone are the crowds of Soviet workers who packed Yalta’s state-run health resorts and restaurants, even in the off season. Now there’s almost no one in the video arcades, the discos, or on Yalta’s famous “rope-road,” a ski-lift ride up the mountainside. Still, rope-road attendant Grigory Ivanovich is stoic about all the changes.
“We’re still working,” he says. “Not as always, but still working.” For Grigory Ivanovich and others here, that means year-round employment, although there’s only money to be made between May and September.
“If the sun shines,” he says, “then that’s a good day.”
But others here welcome the off-season. Alya and Olya are waitresses at a 24-hour bar on the empty boardwalk. They while away their 12-hour shifts by—what else?—singing karaoke.
“Honestly, now we just relax,” they say. “We sing and drink and talk. During the high season, we can’t sit down for a minute.”
Olya is from the inland city of Simferopol, and Alya is from the coal-mining region of Donbass. Neither of those places has anything like Yalta’s spectacular views, cliff-side palaces and ships that come and go. Yalta is a world apart, and it seems that’s always been its role.
Towering mountains sever the city from the rest of Ukraine and Russia and all the troubles there. At night, away from the karaoke bars, there’s only the sound of the Black Sea hitting a rocky shore.
“So it must have sounded when there was no Yalta,” wrote Anton Chekhov more than a hundred years ago. “So it sounds now, and it will sound as indifferently and monotonously when we are all no more.”
But Chekhov, who was dying of tuberculosis in Yalta, found hope in this landscape, a sense that something better was still to come. And despite all the difficulties, an odd sense of optimism seems to propel Yalta now.
Not far from a statue of Lenin that still presides over Yalta’s boardwalk, there stands a plastic replica of the famous casket of King Tut. As carnival music blares around you, this King Tut promises to tell your fortune for only a dollar. The offer still stands even when it’s pouring down rain and the mummy is wrapped in plastic, with his attendant huddled in a pup tent beside him.
A middle-aged woman in a hooded sweat-shirt emerges from the tent as we approach. She lights up a cigarette. Her name is Natasha.
“I have no desire to sit in the rain, but I need my salary,” she says. Natasha makes 30 dollars a month. It’s the last hour of her 12-hour shift, and we’re her first customers.
Natasha unwraps King Tut from the wet plastic, which immediately gives her a shock.
In his chest, the mummy has a computer screen, which has gone haywire from the rain. Beneath the screen is a hole.
STICK YOUR HAND IN, the mummy commands. In a few seconds, a fortune comes out of a printer hidden in his knees.
The fortune is full of meaningless figures: four stars for health; nine stars for love and finance. We ask Natasha if she’s ever consulted King Tut. Every day, she says.
“He says everything will be fine.”